“We decided to stay with four. We talked to the Beatles and they had said that they had had five guys and they liked being four better. We said if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for us.” – Roger McGuinn, in a 2004 interview with Musicangle.
Kronomyth 3.0: FOUR, THE BYRDS. Fifth Dimension is a transitional record, and not everyone likes change. Many critics, it seemed, wanted The Byrds to continue making lush, harmonic folk/rock music and serve as Bob Dylan’s personal confectioners. But the band was still growing individually and collectively. They were dropping acid, listening to John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar and, in the case of Jim McGuinn, seeking personal enlightenment. On top of that, you had the usual musical intrigues, resulting in the departure of their producer, Terry Melcher, and their primary songwriter, Gene Clark. Despite the turbulence, The Byrds reached new heights on the single, “Eight Miles High.” Written and performed with Clark, that song helped usher in the progressive rock movement with its ambitious arrangements, particularly McGuinn’s lead guitar, which literally (if appropriately) defied space and time. Clark’s departure also created an opportunity for David Crosby to discover his cool, contributing the jazzy “I See You” (later covered by Yes on their debut album) and the sweetly succinct “What’s Happening?!?!” The Byrds hadn’t ceased being a folk-rock band. Covers of “Wild Mountain Thyme” and “John Riley” (both featuring questionably tasteful orchestration from new producer Allen Stanton) and a powerful anti-war poem set to music, “I Come And Stand At Every Door,” feature slightly thinner harmonies than the past, but still impress. While hitting some very high highs, Fifth Dimension is an uneven record. “Mr. Spaceman,” the record’s third single, is better suited to The Monkees than The Beatles, their cover of “Hey Joe” feels like the blues on amphetamines and the instrumental “Captain Soul” is an unnecessary trip. While the cool reception of critics didn’t help the record, the real undoing of Fifth Dimension may have been its association with the burgeoning drug culture. Both the title track and “Eight Miles High” were conjectured to be veiled drug references, resulting in the album’s first two singles being banned by some radio stations. (The magic carpet ride album cover probably didn’t help matters.) The closing “2-4-2 Fox Trot,” featuring plane sounds and cockpit recordings, could be a parting shot at Clark, whose fear of flying occasioned his departure, or simply the natural ending to a strange trip.
Kronomyth 1.0: FREE AS A BYRD. Roger McGuinn’s first album is all over the map: blues, jazz, country, folk, rock, and one song performed on the banjo and Moog synthesizer (“Time Cube,” in case you’re curious). The guest list is an impressive one that includes all of the original Byrds, Bob Dylan and Bruce Johnston. And yet, somehow, Roger McGuinn was roundly ignored by fans and FM radio stations alike. It’s too bad, since the album deserves an audience (at least Brian Eno seems to have picked up a copy, to judge by the cover of Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy). The Byrds’ albums were often eclectic affairs, and McGuinn returns to the same haunts on his own: Dylan-inspired folk rock (“I’m So Restless”), airy/jazzy David Crosby songs (“My New Woman”), songs about planes (“Draggin’) and authentic folk songs (“Heave Away”). McGuinn also steals a page from the Byrds-inspired Eagles (“Lost My Drivin’ Wheel”) and prefigures the island feel of “Don’t You Write Her Off” on “M’Linda.” Where the main Byrdman fails on his first album is in creating a clear persona. He takes pains not to try the same trick twice, and the album’s scattershot approach is its undoing. It’s an interesting record, often engaging, but I couldn’t tell you where the man’s loyalties lie after hearing this album: folk, jazz, pop, rock. This can be filed under “too smart for its own good” if you care, with a caveat that it’s too smart to ignore.
This was actually my first adventure in byrding, having netted it for “Don’t You Write Her Off,” then releasing it, then capturing it anew in a used record store. (The great cycle of something, I suppose.) It caused a small stir at the time and contained three wonderful tracks: “Long Long Time,” “Don’t You Write Her Off” and “Surrender To Me.” These songs are representative of what was right about the ‘70s soft rock movement. The rest of the album flirts with disco, adopting the city-slicker-in-cowboy-boots stance of Eagles and others. Honestly, the album begins to fall apart after “Surrender To Me,” though the closing “Bye Bye, Baby” is an awfully pretty ballad. Like the CS&N alliances, the three songwriters came to this project as individuals, choosing to write with outside collaborators rather than each other. Where they meet is in the harmonies, though even here other artists cloud the picture. That the trio couldn’t came up with better material is a bit disappointing, but that they left any kind of keepsake behind is a plus. However, this isn’t The Byrds in their natural setting. The pointless plug from Stephen Peeples on the cover and the staged cover photography scream “Cheese factor nine and scaling.” In fact, I’d rate this as some of the worst album packaging of all time. What’s inside is occasionally very good, especially the opening four cuts, which compare favorably to Bob Welch, Eagles et cetera. Still, the world needed The Byrds, not more songs about groupies, maneating women and soured relationships. At some point in your life, you should hear “Long Long Time,” “Don’t You Write Her Off” and “Surrender To Me.” The rest of this record you can live without.