The Byrds were clearly splitting up.
There was a three-way split in the band, as summer 1967 reached its peak. On one side was David Crosby, who believed himself the real talent in the band. Crosby’s most recent contribution to the band had been the flop single Lady Friend, but he still thought himself the best songwriter of the bunch, and was convinced the other band members were trying to keep his material off the albums because of jealousy. Anyway, he wasn’t entirely sure that there was as much need for people to be in bands as there had been — why couldn’t everyone just hang out, and play on each other’s records, and not let their egos get in the way?
Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and the band’s producer Gary Usher, certainly thought that egos were a problem, but weren’t quite sure that Crosby had seen the beam in his own eye. They were concerned by the lack of success the band had had with their recent singles, and wanted to find some way to have a hit record again, though ideally while expanding the band’s sound. McGuinn and Hillman also thought that Crosby hanging round with Buffalo Springfield and Jefferson Airplane, and giving them ideas, was counterproductive — what did the Byrds get out of it if Crosby sat in with Buffalo Springfield?
The third faction was the most easily disposed-of. Michael Clarke had never been the greatest drummer in the world, having been hired primarily for his Brian Jones-esque looks rather than his drumming ability, but when the band got together in August 1967 to record three new Crosby songs, he was not even playing as well as he was able, at least to Crosby’s ears. In the row that resulted from Crosby patronising Clarke about his abilities, Clarke admitted that he hated the new material, and that he was only in the band for the money. The other members jokingly threatened to replace him with Hal Blaine, and he called their bluff [FOOTNOTE Parts of this argument can be heard as a hidden track on the CD version of The Notorious Byrd Brothers]. While Clarke would remain a band member until after the album was released, most of the drum parts on the record would be played by Blaine or Jim Gordon.
One of the songs they were recording was Crosby’s Triad. Crosby had developed a fascination with the science fiction novel Stranger In A Strange Land, by the right-libertarian author Robert A. Heinlein. After spending most of the 50s writing childrens’ novels and books about how we needed to nuke space-Commies with space-nukes, the late 50s and 60s saw Heinlein instead start to transition into a writer who appealed to the nascent counterculture with its beliefs about free love; themes of his later works (whose heroes were usually either inventors or science fiction writers who agreed with Heinlein about everything) included having sex with gender-swapped clones of oneself, geting one’s *own* gender swapped before going back in time to have sex with oneself (and then going further back to give birth to oneself), going back in time to have sex with one’s mother and become one’s own father, going forward in time to a point where the twelve-year-old girl you fancy is legal…well, you get the idea.
That last mentioned book, 1957’s The Door Into Summer, was the subject of a song on the album the Monkees were recording at the same time as the Byrds were doing their recording, but the novel Crosby based his song on was rather more respected and influential — indeed at least one religion (the Church of All Worlds) is based on the philosophy outlined in the novel, and it’s arguable that its depiction of group marriages has been a huge influence on the modern movement of polyamory.
And it’s the group marriages that influenced Crosby, too. Two years earlier he had tried to write a song about the book as a whole, but the band had rejected it. This time, his song just used a few phrases from the book (“sister lovers”, “water brothers”) in a lyric directed at two women (supposedly two real lovers of Crosby at the time) asking them if the three of them could be in a group relationship — “why can’t we go on as three?”
Unfortunately, while Heinlein’s sexual politics was progressive for the early 1960s, it was extremely dodgy by modern standards, and so is Crosby’s lyric — the protagonist of the song clearly thinks that the only reason the two women he’s talking to might not want to enter into a three-way relationship is because they are hidebound by convention, they’re afraid of what their mothers would say, or that they just weren’t as much of an enlightened soul as the singer. He thinks he’s on another, higher, plane from them, and is talking down to them in a ridiculously patronising way, while trying to persuade them to live out his “two girls for every boy” fantasy in a rather sleazy, desparate, way. If it was meant as a satire of the way “free love” in a patriarchical society can often shore up male privilege and entitlement, it would have been a viciously pointed, biting one — but Crosby was apparently entirely serious. [FOOTNOTE: None of which should be taken as a criticism of polyamory as a way of living or being, just of sleazy men who think that wanting to go to bed with two women at once makes them a pure enlightened being.]
While Hillman and McGuinn worked on the track, neither wanted the song released. There is still debate as to why — Crosby says that the other two were jealous of his talent and wanted to keep his songs off the album, and that they were scared of releasing something so provocative. McGuinn and Hillman both claim that they just didn’t think the song was very good. Crosby eventually gave the song to the Jefferson Airplane, whose version, with Grace Slick on vocals, gender-swapped the protagonist and thus made it rather more palatable than the Byrds’ version.
The band did record three more of Crosby’s songs (with co-writing credit given to McGuinn and Hillman) for the album, but Crosby became incensed when Gary Usher brought in the Goffin/King song Goin’ Back, a song Usher had suggested to another act he produced, Chad & Jeremy, and had brought to the Byrds when they’d rejected it. While McGuinn and Michael Clarke liked the song, and Hillman could take it or leave it, Crosby loathed it, thinking Brill Building pop the antithesis of everything that the hip, cool, rock scene should be doing. He refused to have anything to do with the song, and McGuinn and Hillman recorded it with Jim Gordon.
By October, McGuinn and Hillman had decided it was simply impossible to work with Crosby any further, and drove to his house to tell him. Crosby, in the end, still wanted to be in the band, telling them “we could make great music together”, to which McGuinn apparently replied “Yeah, and we can make great music without you.”
The album that would be Notorious Byrd Brothers was not even half done at this point, and so McGuinn, Hillman, and Usher put together the rest of the album with the help of Wrecking Crew members, country guitarist Clarence White, Usher’s friend Curt Boettcher covering the harmony parts Crosby would have done, and a briefly-returning Gene Clark (who left again after contributing to a couple of tracks, making this the last album to feature all five original Byrds, though never on the same track), along with Moog overdubs courtesy of Paul Beaver (fresh from providing the same service on the Monkees’ latest album). The album cover showed the three remaining members of the band looking out of stable windows, with a horse’s head where Crosby’s would have been.
By the time the album was released, Michael Clarke, too, was out of the band. The Byrds were down to a duo, and David Crosby was looking for new projects…
Composer: David Crosby
Line-up: David Crosby (guitar, vocals), Roger McGuinn (guitar), Chris Hillman (bass), Jim Gordon (drums)
Original release: Never Before, the Byrds, Preflyte LP A21143
Currently available on: Notorious Byrd Brothers Columbia/Legacy CD