“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.