The Byrds – Fifth Dimension

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1. Their best album.

Even if you don’t believe that (personally, for the longest time, I sided with Mr. Tambourine Man because of its immediacy; Fifth Dimension tends to reveal itself through extended plays), I should think that it’d be harder to argue that Fifth Dimension marks the Byrds at their most original and adventurous. The is best seen in the opening track.

Previously, you would never have heard something so magnificent as the war cry at the 1:13 mark in their discography, let alone lyrics so inspired (they would’ve just taken some Bob Dylan verses and been done with that department). Meanwhile, the song is completed by an outro arranged by Van Dyke Parks, who takes the counterpointing principles outlined by J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and directs it on an electric guitar and organ. In my review of Mr. Tambourine Man, I chastised them for their diffidence – picking “All I Really Want To Do” as a single and backing it with “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” a sign that they were either just playing to the market following the success of their cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and that they weren’t proud of their own material as they were their covers. I can’t use that same criticism here – “Fifth Dimension” was surprisingly and boldly selected as a single (even if it failed to chart very well).

Oh, and by-the-by, this is a track-by-track review of the album. Onwards (or, as these guys would more likely say, upwards), then:

2. ”Wild Mountain Thyme” is pleasant, I’ll give it that, but it’s not much more. The vocal melody is too slight to be noticeable, though the song’s second half, which does away with vocals for the most part, is where the song really shines, taking McGuinn’s Midas touch of turning arpeggios into magic (something you ought to already be familiar with), and adding chamber pop on top of it (something we haven’t heard before by them).

3. Having never been fully convinced by the Byrds as a psychedelic band as I am they were a pop band (not that the two are mutually exclusive), I’m of the opinion that “Mr. Spaceman” is one of the better cuts from Fifth Dimension. If you disagree with that, I’d at least think it’d be hard to argue that this is the cutest cut from the parent album. Lyrically, it’s the pretty indicative of the late 60s (a fascination with the final frontier), but it’s the romantic escapism that draws me in. They’re not scared of the possibility of aliens, the ones that “put people uptight,” seen in the chorused, “Hey, Mr. Spaceman / Won’t you please take me along?” and the hope that “I hope they get home alright.” Instrumentally speaking, it’s the jangly guitars that you ought to know and love from Mr. Tambourine Man with a country-influenced bass that propels the record forward that you’ll get to know (and will maybe love) from Sweetheart of the Rodeo. But they combine the two elements successfully here.

4. ”I See You” is the weakest track on the album’s first side. You have to understand that my criticisms against it stem mostly from the fact that it’s a carbon-copy of “Eight Miles High” (it was written afterwards), and thus, it comes across as an exercise in padding out the album to reach the 30-minute mark (which they missed anyway). Had Gene Clark still been with the band, he would’ve probably given “I See You” better vocals, because they’re woefully lazy and mismatched with the spirited rhythm section of Crosby and Clarke. There are other moments on the album where the vocals could be criticized as lazy, but at least in those cases, the music complemented it.

5. David Crosby’s singing on “What’s Happening?!?!” – in addition to the wonderful use of question marks and exclamation marks in its title – is what draws me to it. Without use of the Byrds’ typical slight vocal harmonies, there’s a genuine loneliness to be found in the singing, made even more tangible by the fact that the guitar doesn’t really “activate” during those parts. But my favorite bit is the humanity too – he’s not just saying “I don’t know, I’m not crying  / Laughing mostly as you can see” – he’s doing it too. Listen to the vocals in the delivery of “I don’t know how it’s supposed to be” (at the 0:42 mark), where he chuckles ever so slightly, as if in a state of drunken euphoria. It’s impressive that this is the first time he sang vocals on a Byrds track.

6. ”I Come and Stand at Every Door” should’ve closed the album. Frankly, this is my favorite track on the album. In their first forays into music, they placed Bob Dylan’s poetry in a pop/rock template, but in doing so, they were often forced to sacrifice the integrity of the former. That isn’t the case here – they do away with vocal harmonies, and the arrangement is so skeletal (a traditional chord progression with barely existent drumming) that the words are forced to take center stage. The lyrics, inspired from a haiku by Nazim Hikmet about children who died in the Holocaust, are genuinely haunting – the revelation that “I’m only seven although I died / In Hiroshima long ago / I’m seven now as I was then / When children die they do not grow,” or the final plea, “All that I ask is that for peace / You fight today, you fight today / So that the children of this world / May live and grow and laugh and play.” The delivery of the words adds to the atmosphere, with the words being sung as if from an actual ghost. It sounds like 4AD based their entire sound off this song (manager Ivo Watts-Russell would command his supergroup, This Mortal Coil, to cover it. It sounds exactlythe same, but with female vocals).

7. But better than what the band was doing with Bob Dylan is what they did with John Coltrane on “Eight Miles High,” which would be their last single to break the top 20 chart in America (peaking at #14), as well as hitting a more-than-respectable #24 on the British chart. McGuinn’s guitar is being manipulated into sounding like anything but (it sounds like a sitar to me), shooting and splattering out notes in Coltrane’s signature sheets of sound style. But while McGuinn might demand and receive a lot of the praise here, the success of “Eight Miles High” is a result of the band acting as a band. The opening measures are all Chris Hillman, who you wouldn’t know existed otherwise. Michael Clarke, who wanted the band to be more rock than folk, realized that such a movement would take more than just words, it would take action too. He’s not just keeping time, he’s dropping snare rolls everywhere that just dare you to try to fuck with them. It’s the only song on the album where Gene Clark has any songwriting credits, who left the band shortly after its completion, and as a result, you ought to expect great vocal harmonies (“Eight…miles…HIGH”).

8. I’ll note here that while the Leaves might’ve gotten credit for submitting the first recording of “Hey Joe,” they were inspired by the Byrds, who had been performed “Hey Joe” live in front of them, and all the Leaves did was nick the riff of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” and throw it on top of it. CapnMarvel notes that this version is “too fast, too frenetic, and makes me think that Joe is off to buy some hot pants rather than to Mexico to cool off after icing his wife,” but frankly, that’s the case with all of the garage rock versions of the song. (Which, in case you didn’t know, there are a lot of. Apparently this was a rite of passage if you wanted to be taken seriously as an American rock band.) At least David Crosby adds some ad-libbing in the song’s last stretch, injecting the song with a melody that’s absent in the Leaves’ version or Love’s version (which, I’ll note here, is basically the Leaves’ version, but with a jangly variation of the main riff, again, from “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”). Furthermore, Michael Clarke, who’s usually just keeping time or else awkwardly trying to find his place on a drummer, is pounding the drums here as if dear life depended on it. The cowbells make their version fun, to say the least, and his snare rolls rush us to its finale like your drunk friend who’s really excited to get to the strip club.

It’s also my second favorite version of the track. Jimi Hendrix, let it be known, is fourth.

9. With “Captain Soul,” the band tries to tap into the blues rock market. Unfortunately, it’s only a sketch of a track – there’s no vocals from a band whose vocals were one of its strongest suits. David Crosby lays down a good enough riff, and Chris Hillman colors in the spaces, but the weakest link is surprisingly Roger McGuinn, whose guitar noodling doesn’t have any direction.

10. For some reason, they sound like they’re in a hurry for their cover of “John Riley.” It’s a shame because the lyrics are the best part of it – the switch from its melancholy beginning to its extremely sweet (and sort of obvious, but sweet nonetheless) conclusion is one that vibes with my inner romantic. But they’re delivered so fast there’s no breathing room for any of the lyrics to actually stick.

11. The band has had some insignificant tunes up until now, but ”2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)” is their first real misfire (a count that’ll grow more and more as their discography went on). True, it’s the band’s most experimental track on the album, with the sounds of planes taking off, voices filtering through an intercom and signals blooping all coming through the right channel. Unfortunately, while the experimentation is commendable, what’s happening on the left channel is so plain. It’s nothing more than a decent riff and a single line, but they’re both repeated for the song’s entire duration. Had they just been brave or bothered enough to make an actual song out of it, it might’ve been one of the most daring songs of their career.

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5 responses to “The Byrds – Fifth Dimension

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  2. Pingback: The Byrds – Younger Than Yesterday | Free City Sounds·

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