TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 25 May 2011
Was this Roger McGuinn's defining moment? Rightly or wrongly he had always given the impression that he felt he WAS the Byrds and that the others were there merely to assist. Then, part way through the work on this album, David Crosby departed, leaving only McGuinn, Michael Clarke and Chris Hillman. Clarke was not a contributor, Hillman was - quite notably on "Younger than Yesterday", the previous album - but he was easygoing and more likely to defer to McGuinn on creative decisions than Crosby and Gene Clark (who had left earlier). This left McGuinn largely in charge for the first time. Michael Clarke had also gone by the time the album was completed. Gene Clark actually rejoined for a couple of weeks before he left again.
The backdrop to this was an unofficial battle between the big white rock bands of the mid to late 1960's. "Rubber Soul" from the Beatles had started it in late 1965. The Beach Boys then upped the ante in May 1966 with "Pet Sounds", an album, so far in advance of anything the group had ever done before that it knocked out both critics and fellow artists alike. 1966 and 1967 saw further great album releases from the Beatles, the Stones and the Byrds themselves but the Beatles appeared to trump the lot with "Sgt Pepper" in the Summer of `67. McGuinn was left pondering, how did he compete with this monster, and, possibly more importantly, how did he arrest and rectify the public's increasing lack of interest in his group.
He retained producer Gary Usher, who'd done a good job on "Younger Than Yesterday", introducing new colouration such as the trumpet of Hugh Masakela which featured on "So you want to be a Rock'n'Roll Star". Usher was originally a musician himself and had worked with Brian Wilson as both co-writer and co-producer. McGuinn gave him instructions to utilise whoever or whatever was required from the LA session scene. Roger himself opened up his electronic bag of tricks to the fullest extent. We'd heard snippets from this bag earlier on "CTA102" and "Mr Spaceman". To a greater or lesser extent every track on "Notorious" benefits from Roger's electronics. He also made individual tracks fade out and segue into each other to give the impression of a single body of work, which in some respects, it was. He also started with a strong selection of material even after dropping some, but not all, of the contribution from David Crosby.
A starting observation on "Notorious.." is that it was not constructed from a strong existing single plus other tracks as all the previous albums had been, or, at least that was the appearance they gave. It's likely to be because the Byrds were without a strong single at the time. However, in addition, the Beatles, the group that McGuinn was always most conscious of, had for some time, been issuing albums which were not at all singles based; albums which stood in their own right regardless of the singles market. This time it works for the Byrds. The first impression is of a set of well crafted and well performed songs with references mainly between themselves rather than to the outside world.
The only two non-Byrds written numbers on the album were "Goin' Back" and "Wasn't born to follow", both from Gerry Goffin and Carole King who were, perhaps, surprising contributors since they very much represented the pop "establishment". To most people's ears, mine included, "Goin' Back" is one of the best tracks on the album. A very full production with prominent string section, a pedal steel (from Clarence White, a later Byrd) and hints of the "old" folk rock sound in the background. Roger gives us as warm a vocal as you're going to get from the Byrds. This one is a real beaut. The other Goffin, King number gets the full space cowboy treatment; a delicate c&w feel with the addition of electronic phasing. Anyone who's seen the movie "Easy Rider" will remember hearing this in one of more joyful sections, backing Fonda and Hopper riding their Harleys.
Chris Hillman's name crops up in all the Byrds' songs credits apart from "Space Odyssey" which was McGuinn's baby. This started as a folk song (or drone to use today's words) which gets almost beaten into submission by the bleeps and swooshes of all the fancy electronics. The sound is OK in small doses but at near 4 minutes in length, the longest track on the album, it does overstay its welcome.
All the other tracks succeed, some triumphantly. Just to take some of the highlights. "Artificial Energy" the anti-drug lead-off track, is a boisterous, bouncy, affair with full brass section - the Byrds had never sounded like this before. "Get to You" is a light, jazzy, number along with an unusual time signature. It's along the lines of "I See You" from "Fifth Dimension" but without the deliberate discordancies. The jazzy touches appear in several numbers often with other influences. A notable feature is that several songs are treated to multiple effects. An example is "Change is Now" which moves from country to a raga like drone. "Old John Robertson" is a sing-along up-tempo country number which then switches into George Martin territory when a string section comes in. Not sure if this is copying or a post-modern comment but I'm inclined to the former. You rather feel that this multiplicity of treatment shouldn't work but most of the time it does.
McGuinn didn't excise all trace of Dave Crosby on the album. His name crops upon the credits to "Draft Morning", "Dolphins Smile" and "Tribal Gathering" along with those of Hillman and McGuinn. It`s all too likely that all these are Crosby numbers to which the twosome have added bits in order to justify the credits. These all contain entirely predictable hippy sentiments for lyrics but the music, particularly for the first two, is just fine. "Draft Morning", indeed, is one of the standout tracks. The switch from an idyllic folky mood with super-sweet harmonies to sounds associated with armies and conflict is superbly done.
Just like many of the other CD's in this sequence of replicated vinyl, the extra tracks are hardly worth having. However in this instance, the Crosby authored "Triad", is very definitely of interest. Reportedly Crosby's departure from the Byrds was at least in part caused by McGuinn's refusal to have this track on the album. He was wrong. Whilst "Triad" does have highly controversial lyrics (though this was during the permissive late `60`s), musically it is well up to the standard of the other tracks on the album. Still it's good to have it now.
Superficially this album, that is the original release, does appear to be many steps removed from "Mr Tambourine Man", their first album. The distinctive 12 string sound has almost completely disappeared. However "Notorious.." does still place the emphasis on sound as opposed to lyrics which I feel had been a feature of the Byrds from the very start. With Dylan it used to be the words and voice that hit you first. With the Byrds it was the overall sound with voice, or voices, submerged into a seeming multitude of guitars and/or whatever other instruments were used, and multiple instruments was particularly the case on "Notorious..". McGuinn was "the sound man" from the beginning. He had sounds in his head which he had to get out.
Given the acrimonious goings on while this album was being recorded it's surprising that there is such an atmosphere of calm about the end result. That such arguments were taking place can be gathered from the "outro", not present on the original of course, but within the bonus tracks. Roger was evidently well able to block out such disruption from the production process.
Notwithstanding the excellent contributions from Hillman, this was undoubtedly McGuinn's masterpiece, flawed though it was in places. Whilst he would find himself fully in charge from two albums on in the sequence, he would never produce something at this level of consistency ever again. He had the belief, the vision, and the command of detail. At the time he boasted that the Byrds, by which he meant himself, would go on to produce records in the genres of jazz, folk, country and electronics; a double album was mooted. It's all too easy to make fun of Roger nee Jim McGuinn, BUT he was one of the two most important individuals (the other being Bob) in the development of folk rock, bearing in mind the adaptations of "Tambourine Man" and "Turn, Turn, Turn" were almost solely due to him. Also via his blending of John Coltrane plus Indian raga to a folky number from Gene Clark, he produced the revolutionary "Eight Miles High" which was the main kick starter of the psychedelic era. And, along with Chris Hillman, he introduced country rock from as early as the previous album through this one. And this was even before Gram Parsons had joined, and McGuinn had shown the bravery to produce an entire album of country. (There was even a countryish track on the second album but it was a bit half-hearted). Roger McGuinn fully deserves his place in rock history and he's produced a wealth of mighty fine music as well . And don't forget Chris Hillman. A brilliant number 2 man as Gram Parsons also found in the Burrito Brothers.