WELCOME TO AN INTRODUCTION to the first in a series of articles on the released and unreleased recording of the Byrds in 1966. I began this series in July 2013 for my first blog, Neal Umphred Dot Com. As I hadn’t written anything in a while (in years, actually), my authorial chops were rusty. Also, I knew nothing about blogging, so the final pieces that I posted now seem timid and embarrassing.
When I transferred those posts from that blog here to Rather Rare Records, I hadn’t learned all that much and the results of the “new” posts weren’t that much better. So I pulled them from active publication and changed their status to those of drafts, effectively placing them on hold.
I had meant to rethink them and rewrite them into something more representative of my abilities, but never got around to it.
The text between the two horizontal lines below (following the fabulous caricature by Anita Kunz) is both a teaser and a bone to placate those readers who found one of the earlier posts on the internet and clicked on the link and found themselves on a 404 error page.
My apologies for that, and further apologies for this: but this is now my main project and I will complete it in due time, with each of the Byrds’ four released records from 1966 being given the attention they deserve.
THE YEAR 1966 WAS PIVOTAL to rock & roll and pop music: it was the year where the rock and pop musicians—and yes, many of our revered rock artists thought of themselves as pop musicians in the day—began taking themselves seriously as being ‘creative.’ They also began thinking of their music as ‘art’ and of the LP as the medium for that art.
I have long argued that 1966 was the year in which rock-and-roll-music-any-old-way-you-choose-it became Rock-with-a-capital-R music. There had been hints of the shape of things to come in 1965, as many 45s had exhibited an earnest seriousness that few rock or pop records had shown before then.
There were huge leaps forward in the songwriting, musicianship, arrangements, and production in records from the British groups all the way to the West Coast groups, from the depth of Southern soul to the froth Motown’s marriage of rhythm & blues with rock and pop, and even straight-ahead pop music!
Hey Mister Tambourine Man, take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship, and in the jingle-jangle morning, I’ll come following you.
And it wasn’t just the music that was changing: in 1965, many rock musicians had changed their appearance, dropping their ‘show biz’ outfits and adopting more expressive attire. The Beatles received attention simply by not wearing matching suits!
For the corporate media, the BIG issue was hair: boys in bands were growing their hair long! It is difficult to imagine the social and familial tumult this simple action caused in the Western nations: in Britain, Europe, Australia, Canada, and in America. Fathers disowned their sons over a few inches of hair on the back of their collars, for Grommett’s sakes!
In England, long hair was seen to be championed by the Stones, but the real leaders were the Pretty Things (an ironic band name) and those kinky Davies brothers.
But that was nothing compared to what was happening in the San Francisco Bay Area, where virtually everything held sacrosanct by the Ward and June Cleavers of America was being challenged!
But that’s another story.
But in the long run, it was the sounds that were a-changing that matters and things got noticeable heavier in ’65. And no one was heavier than the Byrds.
This full-page advertisement for Eight Miles High appeared in the music business trades like Billboard and Cash Box. How surprised could Columbia have been by the negative feedback to the song’s perceived drug connotations when they were boosting it by asking “How high the Byrds?”
Eight Miles High
In March 1966, Columbia released the Byrds’ fifth single, Eight Miles High / Why, with both trepidation and fanfare. Arguably the most advanced rock/pop record yet, the A-side combined poetic lyrics that were both elusive and allusive with an instrumental tracks that reflected the group’s growing interest in the jazz of John Coltrane and the classical raga of Ravi Shankar.
To many people in the recording and radio industry (station managers, programmers, disc-jockeys, critics, etc.), this combination meant one thing: drugs. And not just the good old drugs of the past (cocaine and marijuana had both been extolled for decades), but a relatively new drug that was the talk of the town at the time: LSD.
Eight Miles High stormed up the charts and then, suddenly (poof!), its momentum came to a halt. A record that many people thought was going to go to top the charts peaked at #12 on Cash Box and then quickly fell of those charts.
To this day, opinion is divided over whether the record was unofficially “banned” within the industry, and unceremoniously pulled from AM radio station playlists around the country.
Apparently, the group had planned to follow their chart-topping hit Eight Miles High with an album of the same name. As that single was deemed a failure of sorts, the album was put aside as the group worked on their next single.
For the Byrds’ sixth single the typesetters for the labels of the singles spelled the song “5 D” with a full space between the number and the letter. To avoid confusion, most writers either eliminate the space (“5D”) or substitute a hyphen (“5-D”).
5D (Fifth Dimension)
The rational move at this point would have been to release a non-controversial single, perhaps another Dylan song. That is the exact opposite of what the five young musicians did: due to either a surplus of courage or an ignorance of hubris, the Byrds followed their “banned drug song” with yet another single that appeared to announce their support of LSD.
In June, Columbia released the new Byrds single, 5D (Fifth Dimension) / Captain Soul. While the flip-side was a disposable soul-based instrumental, the A-side was a gorgeous if slightly ominous ballad reputedly based on an old sea chantey—except Jim McGuinn was not singing about the sea, but about something they called “scientific delirium madness.”
Unlike the previous single, no one thought this as going to be a #1 record: it met with immediate resistance from AM radio programmers, who simply refused to add it to their playlists. I certainly never heard it played on WARM AM-590 in my part of the country. After a mere five weeks on the charts, 5D peaked at #39 on Cash Box and then disappeared.
In terms of keeping the Byrds in the good graces of Columbia and radio station managers, this had not been a good career move.
Still believing in the Byrds, Columbia shipped a 7-inch, 33 rpm, open-end interview record to promote the FIFTH DIMENSION album in July. The record included a sheet with questions that local disc-jockeys who could ask and then play an answer by David Crosby or Jim McGuinn. The record included the black & white picture sleeve above.
Despite the absolute failure of 5D, the Byrds owed Columbia an album. Due to personal friction, the band parted with their producer Terry Melcher, the man who had guided the band through two #1 hits and two best-selling albums. Columbia’s West Coast vice president Allen Stanton stepped in to head the sessions.
The album that followed FIFTH DIMENSION—named after the part of the non-hit single’s title that was in parenthesis—was not met with the warmth and enthusiasm of the previous album, even by diehard fans such as myself. The material was all over the proverbial map, ranging from trite (an adjective no one could level against any of their earlier Columbia sides) to laughable to brilliant.
And the sound that Stanton got was weird, murky, sounding unlike anything that most of us had ever heard before. I want to say it sounded like Stanton didn’t know how to record, but he had already had success producing fine-sounding records for pop artists like the New Christy Minstrels and Doris Day.
In hindsight, the weird sound and feel of the album tends to highlight the overall sense of intelligence and experimentation that is also a part of the album. And there is the fact that this album was one a progenitor of the full-blown psychedelia that would soon follow.
For unknown reasons, Columbia didn’t issue picture sleeves with most of the Byrds singles. Given the money that the group made the company, they could have sprang for spending a fraction of a penny per record to boost sales a bit. But CBS did issue special sleeves in other countries, like this attractive sleeve from West Germany.
Finally, the Byrds caved: in September, they either willingly pulled Mr. Spaceman from their album as a new single, or acquiesced when Columbia did it for them. The track was a charming, if harmless, ditty about nocturnal visitations from strangers whose “saucer-shaped lights put people uptight [and] leave blue-green footprints that glow in the dark.” And, like E.T. in the future, the Byrds hope they get home alright!
Although Mr. Spaceman returned the Byrds to the Top 40 (if barely) and hinted at the countrified direction that their music would take, it was still a step backward for any group looking for respect in the heady field of rock & roll and pop music in 1966, a field that only a few months earlier looked likely to feature the Byrds prominently as leaders.
David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Jim McGuinn, Michael Clarke, and Gene Clark looking cool in 1965 and unlike almost any other pop stars with stature. As a frame of reference, the Beatles were filming Help! at the time and were rather conventional-looking in comparison.
It’s all just a game
The Byrds would continue to make great music and both further the cause of psychedelia and become progenitors of the country-rock genre, but few ever saw them as “leaders” again. Top 40 radio greeted their new singles with only modest enthusiasm, and they never caught on with in a big way in the emerging album market.
As a force to be reckoned with in the pop music field of the ’60s, their heyday had passed …