The Notorious Byrd Brothers is the fifth album by The Byrds and was released on January 15 1968 on Columbia Records
It is arguably the pinnacle of The Byrds’ music : a shimmering, flowing, eclectic collection of songs, all bound into a magnificent cohesive work that incorporated disparate styles while still maintaining a unity of sound. The album is all the more remarkable for having been produced under the most tumultuous of conditions - by the time it was completed, the group that had begun recording it no longer existed
By mid-1967, the Byrds had been operating as a quartet for over a year (original member Gene Clark having departed the group over a year earlier, just after the release of Eight Miles High, for a variety of personal problems): founder and electric twelve-string virtuoso Roger (formerly Jim) McGuinn, rhythm guitarist David Crosby, bassist Chris Hillman, and drummer Michael Clarke. Throughout the year, tensions between Crosby and the rest of the group (primarily McGuinn and Hillman) slowly grew to a climax that eventually ended what was left of the original Byrds
Matters came to a head during the three-day Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967, where the Byrds were one of the acts in a line-up that included musical luminaries of the day such as Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix. During the Byrds’ set, Crosby prefaced the playing of the song ‘He Was a Friend of Mine’ (McGuinn’s tasteful eulogy to John F. Kennedy) by ranting that Kennedy had been shot from several different directions, that witnesses to the assassination had been killed by the conspirators, and that the whole affair had been covered up by the government. The other Byrds were embarrassed because Crosby’s controversial pronouncements seemingly spoke for them all, and because his comments resulted in the exclusion of the Byrds from television and film coverage of the festival. As well, the next day Crosby performed as part of Buffalo Springfield without notifying his fellow Byrds in advance, an act the others viewed as one of open defiance and a betrayal of loyalty
Despite this, the Byrds managed to begin work on The Notorious Byrd Brothers several weeks later. Almost from the beginning, however, David Crosby was disenchanted. The Byrds’ most recent single, ‘Lady Friend’, had been composed and sung by Crosby, but it had failed to sell well or receive much airplay in either the US or the UK, and it seemed doubtful that the track would automatically be included on the upcoming album. Crosby was upset about his bandmates’ lack of support for the track and his other songwriting efforts, including their disapproval of his recent composition, ‘Triad’, a song about a ménage à trois. Crosby’s dissatisfaction boiled over into an infamous in-studio argument with Michael Clarke (captured on tape and made available as part of a hidden bonus track on the CD version of The Notorious Byrd Brothers) which resulted in McGuinn and Hillman picking on the drummer as well. Clarke, whose enthusiasm for being a Byrd had noticeably waned, declared that he didn’t care whether he played or not, and he was replaced with a session drummer for most of the rest of the album. When the Byrds resumed work on the song ‘Goin’ Back’ a couple of months later (with Jim Gordon filling in on drums), Crosby decided that the recording of a sentimental composition about the innocence of childhood (especially one written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King) wasn’t worthy of his talents (particularly as it would be displacing one of his own songs from the album) and refused to participate. McGuinn had reportedly had enough of Crosby’s antics by that point and kicked him out of the studio; shortly afterwards McGuinn and Hillman paid David Crosby a visit at home and informed him that he was no longer a Byrd
Events took some even more surprising turns. As an undaunted McGuinn and Hillman set out to finish the album by themselves (with assistance from a variety of studio musicians), original Byrd Gene Clark rejoined the group as Crosby’s replacement but lasted only three weeks before quitting the Byrds for a second time. Drummer Michael Clarke returned to the fold to play on (and co-write) the final track recorded for the LP, whereupon he too was dismissed by the two remaining Byrds. The album was finally finished, but so were the Byrds, leaving McGuinn and Hillman facing the prospect of having to hire outside musicians if they hoped to keep the group going
You might be wondering by now where this long-winded dissertation on the trials and tribulations of a 1960s pop group is headed. Where’s the interesting part? Well, when The Notorious Byrd Brothers album was finally issued in January 1968, its front cover pictured (from left to right) Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, and Michael Clarke. Even though David Crosby had played and sung on half the album (and co-written three of its eleven songs), his likeness is nowhere to be found on its sleeve. Instead the other three Byrds are shown looking out from the windows of a stable, and in the fourth window, where one might expect to find the visage of David Crosby was . . . a horse. Coincidence, or pointed symbolism courtesy of his alienated band mates?
As Roger McGuinn explained, the inclusion of a horse on the cover was mere coincidence with no symbolic intent behind it. The three Byrds had been riding horses during a photo session scheduled with photographer Guy Webster, and when they returned to the stable and lined up in its windows, drummer Michael Clarke’s horse wandered over and poked its head through the remaining window. With a cigarette in one hand, Clarke held the horse’s reins in his other hand to ensure that his mount stayed within the frame (as can be seen on the photo selected for the album cover), and thus the LP sleeve included three Byrds and a horse. As McGuinn later noted, “If we had intended to do that, we would have turned the horse around”
Crosby, however, was equally insistent that the equine image was no coincidence, exclaiming in a 1980 interview with Byrds biographer Johnny Rogan: “An accident? An accident! . . . Do you believe that? It’s bullshit. You know it is. You know why [McGuinn] did it”
The debate over the horse’s meaning (or lack thereof) continued for several more years. The original five Byrds reformed to record an album (for which David Crosby served as producer) in 1972, and five years later Roger McGuinn mentioned in an interview that, during the recording of that reunion album, “[Crosby] stated as a joke, but I believe he meant it, that he wanted to put everyone on the cover except me and wanted to put a horse in my place”
When informed of Roger McGuinn’s remark some years later, David Crosby denied he had said any such thing, even as a joke: “I didn’t say it. Never. That’s [McGuinn's] style, not mine. That particular ‘joke’ was not funny to me, and I wouldn’t have said that to him. I didn’t, and I wouldn’t have anything to do with it. McGuinn I think was paranoid because he had done it, and I hope he was ashamed of himself”
Some arguments are just too good to ever be settled!