The SACD version of " The Notorious Byrd Brothers" is the Holy Grail (apologies to all DaVinci Code and Monty Python fans) for anyone who has ever followed the group's rapid rise
and collapse through the annals of rock history. Prior to the release of this masterpiece on January 3, 1968,, Roger McGuinn unveiled his ambitious but never realized vision of the Byrds'
next album. It was supposed to cover the entire range of American music from the old traditional folk chestnuts through rock, jazz, country and electronica. The Byrds had dabbled in each
of these genres to some extent on their previous albums. Originally slated as a double album, the concept fell prey to steadily decreasing chart positions for their singles and internal group dynamics
that promised to bring the Byrds to a premature demise.
When recording sessions were begun in late 1967, the Byrds were a quartet (Gene Clark---one of the founding members---had left during the recording of "5D" the group's 3rd album). By the time the NBB
was completed, they were a duo, wth only McGuinn and Hillman remaining, but ably backed by studio musicians such as Clarence White, Jim Gordon (Derek and the Dominos), Red Rhodes, and others.
David Crosby was fired halfway through the recording sessions, and Mike Clarke simply got fed up with being a Byrd and left for Hawaii. Interestingly, Gene Clark was brought back as a replacement for Crosby,
but unfortunately left after 3 weeks due to his legendary fear of flying.
Somehow, in the midst of all of this chaos, the Byrds managed to put together the most creative, experimental, and cohesive group effort in their entire canon. Clearly this album came the closest to
achieving McGuinn's vision for the Byrds. Where previous albums had a clear Byrds "sound", many of the individual cuts could be regarded as solo efforts. With NBB, they realized a new direction
where a more cohesive sound began to emerge. While clearly "Byrds" sounding, the augmented studio effects and instrumentation took off to a level where individual contributions were submerged into
something greater than the sum of the parts. The Byrds had tapped into something different and the end result clearly reflected the underlying sentiments of lost innocence, a return to simpler times, and
the freedom associated with experimentation. Crosby , McGuinn and Hillman were at the peak of their songwriting abilities, and McGuinn (obviously pushed by Crosby) began to venture further afield with his guitar licks
moving into jazz and highlighted by all types of effects that were unheard of at the time!
The album touches all of the musical genres noted above and then some. Each song...again while "Byrdsy"...packs a surprise. Here are a few highlights: The opening cut, "Artificial Energy," features phased brass and the heavily modulated vocals of Hillman and McGuinn. A stunning decision to open the album with a song about amphetamines given
the fact that the Byrds were mortally wounded (from a pop hits perspective) when radio stations refused to play their classics, "Eight Miles High" and "5D". Note the Beatles reference in the lyrics "...ticket to ri..i...i...de".
The next cut, "GoingBack", remains one of the classic Byrds cuts of all time. The harmonies are exquisite, even more so since Crosby elected to not participate in the recording of this song. He felt that his own compositions
should receive more attention. While there is some truth to that (one can't help but wonder what the album would have sounded like if Crosby compositions such as "ladyfriend", "Triad" (included as a bonus
cut) were recorded and included. Aw hell, why not go for the moon and include "Wooden Ships" and Guinnevere" as well. While we're at it, what if Gene Clark had stayed on as well? He was maturing as a songwriter and some of the songs from his solo masterpiece "White Light" would have been standout cuts on NBB. We'll never know.
The pedal steel part by Red Rhodes is just downright pretty.
Chris Hillman's "Natural Harmony" follows and is a superb piece where McGuinn flexes his jazz chops. "Draft Morning" is a Crosby composition that was extensively re-worked by McGuinn and Hillman. Chris shines with his bass and mandolin work. Firesign Theatre provided the battleground special effects. "Wasn't Born to Follow" drew greater recognition when it was included in the film "Easy Rider". The song segues for the previous cut with some 12-string work and then Clarence White turns it into a country rocker.
The middle part hits you over the head as guitars and vocals introduce the "phase shifter" effect that takes the song out of the country realm and into outer space. Indeed, the Byrds made their statement that they would not be following the
mainstream pop players and were heading toward heights that few would ever reach. "Get to You" begins with a door slamming shut. Its a lovely ballad about flying back to England. The chorus vocals at the end were heavily modulated and difficult to decipher---a source of confusion among
Byrds fans for years over what the lyrics were really saying.
Side 2 begins with "Change is Now". The beginning is the closest to a traditional Byrds song on the album, but it abruptly shifts gear into country mode at the chorus. The break remains one of McGuinn's finest
and features a piercing electronic effect. The bonus alternate version, "Universal Mind Decoder" has the more traditional 12-string sound for a break, but while technically sound, the tone is out of place on the released version.
Chris Hillman contributed "Old John Robertson" based on a real life person he knew while growing up near San Diego. It's a country piece through and through when all of a sudden, a baroque
string section and harpsichord appear. The phase-shifting effect takes this surprise into a different direction entirely. The single version does not include the phase effects on it's release.
Crosby's "Tribal Gathering" is a jazzy piece about a "be-in" held in San Francisco. McGuinn's jarring guitar break is a standout here.
Another Crosby piece "Dolphin's Smile" opens with a bizarre sound (like dolphins?) but is simply McGuinn tapping his fingers on the fretboard of his Rickenbacker---albeit with a ton of echo-type effects applied.
The released album ends with "Space Odyssey" and is about Arthur Clarke's "The Sentinel (written by McGuinn and RJ Hippard in an attempt to have it included in Stanley Kubrick's "2001").
The song's melody is taken from an old sea chantey, "The Handsome Cabin Boy," which appeared on McGuinn's recent "Folk Den Collection". The song is chock-full of all types of special effects including
a Moog Synthesizer and is in keeping with ending a Byrds album on a bizzare note.
The original cuts are all presented in their mono versions. The SACD version brings a crispness to the higher frequencies that are characteristic of the Byrds sound. Gary Usher's production is realized in all its glory with
Mobile Fidelity's decsion to put out this SACD version. The bonus cuts, with the exception of the aforementioned "Triad" are interesting in that they show us earlier versions of songs contrasted with the final version. "Moog Raga" is just weird---an attempt to bring Indian music to the Moog Synthesizer. Glad to have it included and the SACD does make it sound better, but its something that only a die-hard Byrds fan might appreciate.
If you are patient and stay listening when "Universal Mind Decoder" is finished, you will be treated to a promo for the album featuring Gary Usher AND about 15 minutes of some brutal (and profane) studio
chatter during the recording of "Dolphin's Smile". It's no wonder Crosby was fired and Mike Clarke walked. What's amazing is that the album was finished at all. A trivia aside---compare Crosby and McGuinn's
word bantering to some of the dialogue in "Easy Rider". It's been rumored that Hopper and Crosby characters were modeled on Crosby and McGuinn...Peter Fonda was a close ally of the Byrds at that time.
Anyhow, The Notorious Byrd Brothers is .truly the greatest Byrds effort ever and one of the greatest albums in Rock history almost 40 years after it was released.