Fifth Dimension: The Byrds awkwardly break out of the “folk rock” mold

Today, we’ll take a brief break from theological discussions as we revisit our monthly series reviewing all the Byrds’ albums. This time, we’ll take a look back at the group’s transitional third album…

Fifth Dimension
The Byrds
Produced by Allen Stanton, Columbia Records, Released July 18, 1966, Length 29:59

The Byrd’s first two albums, “Mr. Tambourine Man” (June, 1965) and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (December, 1965), pioneered the Los Angeles folk-rock sound and launched the Byrds to unusual success, but the band was not satisfied with resting on its laurels. The Byrd’s principal song-writing member, Gene Clark, freed the band from its “folk-rock” straight jacket with his iconic song, “Eight Miles High,” but abruptly quit the group in March of 1966. When the remaining quartet of Jim (later Roger) McGuinn (lead guitar), David Crosby (rhythm guitar), Chris Hillman (bass guitar), Michael Clarke (drums), and producer, Allen Stanton, entered Columbia’s recording studios in April, 1966, they would explore a variety of new musical styles – jazz rock, Indian raga rock (note the album cover photo with the band resting on an Oriental rug seemingly floating in space), psychedelia, and country rock – mainly at the instigation of Crosby. The resulting album, “Fifth Dimension,” was a diverse collection, confusing to both critics and fans alike who expected more of the same folk-rock genre that was the staple of the previous two albums. The absence of any Bob Dylan songs on this album was another sign the band was anxious to avoid any labels or formulas.

“Fifth Dimension” peaked at #24 on the U.S. charts. With Clark out of the picture, Crosby emerged as a creative force in the band, contributing songs and musical styles which stretched the comfort levels of his bandmates and Top 40 listeners. Clark’s absence also required Hillman to step up and contribute backing vocals for the first time. Due to its lack of cohesiveness and consistency, “Fifth Dimension” is considered by many to be the weakest of the group’s first five albums. With the exception of “Eight Miles High,” side two is definitely overpowered by the much stronger side one. But it was precisely because of their dramatic break from folk-rock to experimentation with new musical forms on “Fifth Dimension” that led to the Byrds’ finest efforts; “Younger Than Yesterday” and “The Notorious Byrd Brothers.”

Side One:

  • 5D (Fifth Dimension) – One of my favorite McGuinn-penned Byrds tunes with a couple of wonderful choral harmonies that build to a nice twelve-string and Hammond B-3 organ ( courtesy of Van Dyke Parks) crescendo. Released as a single and peaked at #44. Listen here.
  • Wild Mountain Thyme – A traditional folk tune that could have easily appeared on the first two albums. Stanton provides some very nice string arrangements which nicely complement McGuinn’s Rickenbacker.
  • Mr. Spaceman – A forgettable novelty song performed in a country style. McGuinn would go on to write several additional songs for the Byrds which contemplated space travel and alien life. Released as a single and peaked at #36.
  • I See You – A driving McGuinn/Crosby rocker with some of the same ragged Rickenbacker work used on “Eight Miles High.”
  • What’s Happening – Crosby steps out with this wonderfully innovative song with McGuinn doing a nice imitation of the sitar on his twelve-string (Crosby had inundated McGuinn with Indian sitar music by Ravi Shankar previous to these sessions). The first Byrds song written solely by Crosby. Listen here.
  • I Come And Stand At Every Door – An anti-war poem put to a traditional folk melody.

Side Two:

  • Eight Miles High – Released as a single on March 14, stalling at #14 on the Billboard chart. Gene Clark’s swan song, with contributions from McGuinn and Crosby. Credited as being the first psychedelic rock song. McGuinn does some trailblazing guitar work patterned after John Coltrane, especially from his song “India” from the “Impressions” album. Banned from many radio stations for its suspected glorification of drugs, “Eight Miles High” is considered by many rock critics to be one of the greatest singles of the 60s. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Eight Miles High” as song #151 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selected “Eight Miles High” for its list of “500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll.” Culture was changing so rapidly during this period that drugs would be openly referenced in rock songs only a year later.
  • Hey Joe – Crosby had previously explored the blues prior to the Byrds with “Jack of Diamonds” and “Brotherhood of the Blues.” The Byrds’ version pales in comparison next to Jimi Hendrix’s classic take. Crosby would later achieve success with a blues-style ballad with “Long Time Gone” on the album, “Crosby, Stills, and Nash.”
  • Captain Soul – The Byrds recorded this soul-inspired instrumental to placate drummer Clarke. Considered a throwaway by most fans. Some sources cite former-Byrd, Gene Clark, playing the harmonica while others credit Michael Clarke.
  • John Riley – Another traditional folk song that could have fit on “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Stanton added strings just as on “Wild Mountain Thyme.” An unremarkable recording.
  • 2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song) – A novelty song with sounds of a Lear jet crew preparing for takeoff mixed with a repetitious melody. Undoubtedly very cool at the time, but it doesn’t hold up at all fifty-two years later.

The Sony Legacy CD reissue includes six tracts not released on the original album:

  • Why – Released as the B-side of “Eight Miles High” with another version of the song included on the following album, “Younger Than Yesterday.” McGuinn gives a nice sitar-mimicking solo.
  • I Know My Rider – An unremarkable arrangement of a traditional blues song.
  • Psychodrama City – Crosby can’t resist a dig at the departed Clark.
  • Eight Miles High – The raw-sounding, December 1965, RCA Studios version. Thankfully, Columbia refused to release this less-polished attempt and insisted the Byrds re-record it.
  • Why – An unpolished version of the song recorded with “Eight Miles High” at RCA in 12/65.
  • John Riley – A jazzed-up instrumental of the John Riley melody.

At a time when 45 singles were still the bread and butter of the recording industry, the banning of “Eight Miles High” from radio play damaged the Byrds’ market appeal tremendously. The band certainly knew they were stirring up controversy by releasing a single with the word, “high,” in the title and lyrics, but evidently enthusiasm overrode business sense. I certainly don’t mean to glorify drug use or the rock and roll lifestyle with this or any of my other reviews of the Byrds’ albums. Four of the five original members struggled later in life with the debilitating effects of heavy substance abuse. If you stick with me, you’ll see that it all leads to a blessed ending for one of the band’s members.

Next month: The Byrds reach their creative peak as they fire on all cylinders.

 

20 thoughts on “Fifth Dimension: The Byrds awkwardly break out of the “folk rock” mold

    1. That makes you ten years younger than me! You’re just a kid! I wasn’t exactly running to the record store at 10 years old, but I had five older sisters who had the radio or phonograph on constantly so 60s rock – for better or worse – was the soundtrack of my child.

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      1. LOL! Yup, you are the “youngster” in the group. I can remember a few things about 1966 like it was last year. We try to hold on to the image of ourselves as the perennial 20-year-old who has gotten just a little stiff in the joints and developed a little paunch, but I finally accepted the fact that I’m an “old guy” when men your age began holding the door for me and calling me “Sir.” So are you going to log into Amazon and order the “Fifth Dimension” CD? LOL! Sorry. Just being silly. There’s definitely a few “spiritual” themes on the album but they’re the natural man’s idea of “spirituality” rather than the Truth of the Word.

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      2. That’s OK. No need to waste your time with 5D since it was a transitional work. The band peaked with their next two albums that I’ll be reviewing in April and May so you can put your Amazon gift cards on ice until then. 🙂

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  1. LOL on “just a kid”! I had an Aunt 10 years older than me so as I was growing up I got to listen to what she did and watch Wendy and Casper the Ghost along with Scooby and the Banana Splits! I remember the garage bands in the early 70’s too!

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  2. This is the only one of your reviews of the first five albums I have some disagreements with–I think the album is a little stronger than you give it credit for. Of the places we disagree, I think “Mr.Spaceman” is catchy and clever with an amusing lyric, and “John Riley” is an excellent folk cover as good as “Wild Mountain Thyme”. Even the songs we agree are weaker, like “Hey Joe”, “Captain Soul”, and “2-4-2 Fox Trot (Lear Jet Song)”, are still somewhat listenable to these ears (btw if you haven’t heard the jazz-psych instrumental version of “Lear Jet Song” on boots, seek it out–it’s superior to the released version). I also think “I Come And Stand At Every Door” is one of their very best recorded moments, whereas you don’t seem to have much to say about it either way. Taken all together, I’d give the album a solid 4 out of 5 stars, as opposed to your 3.5 stars–I suppose that’s actually not that great a difference, but seeing as how I agreed perfectly with your overall ratings for the other albums up through “Notorious”, I just thought I’d add my two cents, LOL. Thanks for the review.

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    1. Hi Michael. Thanks for your good comments! I enjoy listening to Fifth Dimension quite a bit and give the Clark-less quartet credit for shedding the constraints set by the success of the first two albums and laying the groundwork for the excellent YTY and NBB. There’s much interesting experimentation in FD and I never skip over any track. I will seek out the Lear Jet Song instrumental as you suggest.

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      1. Here’s a clip of Byrds outtakes featuring instrumental jam-session versions of “John Riley”, “2-4-2 Fox Trot”, and “Psychodrama City” for you! This includes the version of “Fox Trot” I mentioned in my earlier post. McGuinn’s sound is so crisp, distinct, and decidedly experimental during this period! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXzsrJ-s1js

        Liked by 1 person

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