July 18 – When The Byrds Were Flying High

Was the Jupiter in line with Mars this day in 1966? Perhaps so because The Byrds put out their third album, The Fifth Dimension on that day. Among the more obvious ways the record changed the world was apparently making a singing group called the Versatiles want to change their name…enter the 5th Dimension who became that mere weeks after this album debuted.

The Byrds are in some ways reminiscent of the Velvet Underground in that they remain one of the most influential rock bands ever, but really didn’t set the commercial world afire. That said, The Byrds did sell well for a couple of years, and this record came on the heels of their only two #1 songs – “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

They’d formed only two years earlier in L.A. as a folk band, featuring guitarists and singers Roger McGuinn (who at the time was going by “Jim”)and David Crosby, drummer Michael Clarke, bassist Chris Hillman and Gene Clark who was a writer and played various secondary instruments like the harmonica. At first they were very folk-oriented and revered Bob Dylan (“Mr Tambourine Man” was one of several of his songs they covered), but as the ’60s moved forward, they became interested in the sounds of the Beatles and like the Fab Four, of the Far East. The influences of Indian music began to show up on The Fifth Dimension. As did the influences of various drugs they began to enjoy.

The album was a change for them, therefore, in that first, Gene Clark left the band soon after beginning the record (he did get partial writing credits on the hit single off the record), and so Crosby and McGuinn stepped up writing more than before. McGuinn had good qualifications for that – he’d been a staff songwriter at the famous Brill Building before joining the Byrds. It was also the first of their records without a Dylan song on it.

The Columbia album did parallel the changes in Dylan’s sound at the time, as well as the Beatles. Which (much like perhaps the Beatles Rubber Soul) created an album that was a little uneven and a sort of bridge between earlier simpler sounds and more experimental ones which would rule the next few years. So while you got the psychedelic “Eight Miles High” (the first single, and only one to make the American top 20) you also got a remake of the old traditional Celtic folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme” and a cover of Billy Roberts’ “Hey Joe”, later made famous by Jimi Hendrix.

If there was anything resembling a theme, it might be being high…literally and mentally, shall we say. There was “Eight Miles High”, which they at the time said was about flying in a jet. Eight miles was said to be a typical cruising altitude (actually six would be more typical, but they felt “Six Miles High” didn’t sound quite right) although David Crosby admitted in 1980, “of course it’s a drug song.” Some of the actual lyrics were said to be inspired by their British tour of the previous year, where they’d been exposed to some of the Indian raga music, psychedelic substances and people they found rather cold. There was also “2-4-2 Foxtrot”, dedicated to Bill Lear, owner of Lear Jets, and a friend of Roger’s. And let’s not forget, “Mr. Spaceman”, again a song obliquely linked to being high but not entirely missing its stated influence, that being the interest in UFOs and alien life several of them shared.

Kids of the day might’ve thought “Eight Miles High” was “far out” but many felt it too far out. A number of radio stations banned it, which probably led to it only getting to #14 in the U.S. and #24 in the UK. The album itself made the top 30 in both lands but didn’t go as high as the previous couple.

Critics at the time were lukewarm to them. While Hit Parader did consider it their “best” work to date, Disc magazine, quite big at the time, thought they sounded like “tired and disillusioned old men”. Today’s assessments are better, needless to say, although not entirely glowing. For instance, Mojo call it a “breakthrough” they aren’t quite happy with how it “can’t decide what sort of album it is.” The NME retroactively gave it an 8 out of 10 while Entertainment Weekly said it had enough keepers to be worth a listen “time hasn’t enhanced the group’s foray into psychedelia.”

While some would call them the American Beatles, The Byrds trajectory went in the opposite direction. While they hobbled along well into the ’70s with various lineup changes, their hit-making days and ones of being a major radio staple were done by 1967. Their influence however, especially that of McGuinn’s jangly Rickenbacker guitar playing, resonate to this day and had major impacts on the careers of R.E.M., Tom Petty, The Smiths, The Bangles and a host of other greats of the ’80s and ’90s.

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12 thoughts on “July 18 – When The Byrds Were Flying High

  1. Badfinger (Max)

    Gene Clark was more important to them at that time than history remembers. I really like the Byrds…their commercial appeal went down after this but they remained good through the changes like with Sweetheart of the Rodeo through to the late sixties but they were a different sounding band.

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    1. that they were , hence their later influence I guess. I don’t know enough about them to really gauge Clark’s import to them but it seems a common concensus that he really was a much under-rated component of their work.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Badfinger (Max)

        Clark was really important in the songwriting part of those early songs.
        The later Byrds did influence the country rock scene…they were actually better musicians than the first phase of the Byrds but not as commercial.

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  2. I lost interest in the Byrds about the time this disc came out. Eight Miles High was a bit like Hendrix and the group dropped a tab of Purple Haze and jammed in the studio. When Gene Clark left, there was a gap that no one could fill, and that’s about the time that Crosby tuned into a maniac asshole, of which he still is. For a while, they were quite good and left a huge imprint on American rock.

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    1. a big imprint indeed, as you say. Clark seems the common denominator in people’s assessment of when things began to go down for them . Crosby, yep, at least he admits it (now), he was not an easy guy to be around back then . Maybe still isn’t.

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    1. they were before my time, so likewise I primarily know them from the singles, most of which I like. Seems like they put out several very good albums so at some point maybe I’ll get the whole set and fully evaluate them all. I certainly like a lot of the bands they influenced so greatly.

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  3. Lot’s of great tidbits in there that were an education for me like McGuinn writing at Brill and Lear Jet connection! Agree they were and perhaps still are one of the most influential bands ever, despite the line up changes. Without them there is no Folk Rock and the timing of Dylan going “electric” puts them as one of the forebears of the genre.

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  4. From “Fifth Dimension”, essentially, I only know “Mr. Spaceman” and, of course, “Eight Miles High,” which is perhaps my favorite tune by the Byrds. “Wild Mountain Thyme” sounds cool as well, as does “Hey Joe” – I hadn’t known they also covered the tune. Your post gives me a good impetus to explore the record in greater detail. I have a feeling I’m going to find more tunes I dig.

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