The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #11, “What’s Happening?!?!”

“What’s Happening?!?!” (2:35)
Written by David Crosby
Produced by Allen Stanton
From “Fifth Dimension,” Columbia Records, July 18, 1966

The Byrds had tipped rock ‘n’ roll on its head in 1965 with their melding of Dylan folk and Lennon-McCartney pop to create folk-rock. But band member, David Crosby, chafed at formulaic categorizations and was eager for the Byrds to explore other musical genres. The story goes that Crosby had asked band leader and tekkie, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, to record a few of his favorite albums at the time on McGuinn’s new fangled cassette tape player/recorder. As the Byrds traveled by bus from city to city as part of Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars” in the Winter of 1965, they collectively listened to John Coltrane’s “Africa/Brass”and “Impressions” LPs as well as albums from Indian sitarist, Ravi Shankar. Mile after mile and hour after hour, the Byrds were inundated with Coltrane’s sax and Shankar’s sitar, which would produce very noticeable results on the band’s next album, “Fifth Dimension,” including song #11 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown.

“What’s Happening?!?!” has the distinction of being the first tune penned solely by Crosby on a Byrds album. Crosby asks existential, counter-culture question after question, followed by a musical “response” from McGuinn, mimicking Shankar’s sitar using his twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar. Nope that is NOT a sitar, folks, however, McGuinn does an incredible imitation. Several other songs on “Fifth Dimension” feature McGuinn’s faux sitar drone as well as elements of Coltrane jazz. “Fifth Dimension” wasn’t the first rock album* to introduce the sitar sound, but it helped in popularizing “raga-rock.” Crosby’s delightful tenor vocal here foreshadows his accomplishments with Crosby, Stills, and Nash three years later.

“What’s Happening?!?! was also released as the B-side of the “Mr. Spaceman” 45-single on September 6, 1966. However, Top 40 AM radio audiences were much more receptive to McGuinn’s forgettable A-side novelty tune than Crosby’s existential ponderings accompanied by ersatz sitar dronings.

Gene Clark’s abrupt departure from the Byrds in March 1966 had opened up opportunities for the ambitious and increasingly confident Crosby, like “What’s Happening?!?!,” but his confrontational personality and his Top 40-ambivalent musical experimentations led to rising tensions within the band, leading to his firing just nineteen months later in October 1967.

Fasten your seat belts, folks, because next week we begin our final approach, reviewing the Top 10 songs in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown! Or do we?

*Trivia: The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” (“Rubber Soul,” 1965) was actually the first rock song to feature a sitar, and, yup, it was none other than David Crosby who initially introduced George Harrison to the sitar.

Personal note: I thought David Crosby and other rock star “prophets” back in the day were pretty cool for challenging the status quo and asking the big existential questions. They could have found the answers to their questions in God’s Word.

11 thoughts on “The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #11, “What’s Happening?!?!”

  1. Thanks for another excellent review. I always enjoy the background. I was never a fan of the sitar sound, especially that of the Beatles. I don’t much care for it in this song, either, however, I am impressed with McGuinn’s musicianship. Looking forward to the Top 10. (Or am I, based on your cryptic comment!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, David! I appreciate your following along with me and your comments!

      What, you didn’t like the Beatles’ “Love You To” and “Within You, Without You”? Raga-rock was pretty short-lived, 1965-1967. Of course George Harrison took it to a different level with his infatuation with Hinduism and Hare Krishna.

      Yes, McGuinn demonstrates a high level of musicianship with his imitation of the sitar. On one of the Top 10 songs coming up, he mimics Coltrane’s saxophone. He was an excellent guitarist, but didn’t get the notoriety because he didn’t play bluesy lead guitar stuff.

      RE: Top 10
      Next week will be a Byrds-focused informational interlude before we delve into the Top 10.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “Within You, Without You” is one of my least-favorite Beatles’ songs, though George made up for it with classics such as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Something.”

        Definitely looking forward to the interlude!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks, David. I’ll grant you that “Within You, Without You” was not a typical rock-pop song. But whenever I played hooky from high school, I would play my two favorite tunes from Sgt. Pepper, “A Day in the Life” and “Within You, Without You.”

        RE: Interlude

        Thanks! There will be some interesting Byrds trivia and news packed into the 800-word post.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I listened to the song first before reading this. This is crazy to think it goes back to 1966. That’s a long time ago lol.
    Crazy to think there’s so much tension with the band and other bands even with success I think many think that failure breed disunity but apparently we are so sinful even success doesn’t mean there’s no disunity

    Liked by 1 person

    1. RE: 1966 a long time ago
      Huh? It seems like just yesterday! Lol.

      I appreciate your good observation. These bands of the 1960s, including the Byrds, propagated peace and love (especially in reaction to the Vietnam War and racism), but the members of the various bands could not get along personally.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As a kid, I identified with the counter-culture movements to a degree, but I could see my parents were dismayed by all of the turbulence. I was convinced the country was on the brink of revolution following the shootings at Kent State in 1970.

        Liked by 1 person

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