Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Byrds - Fifth Dimension

The Byrds
Fifth Dimension


Released 1966 on Columbia
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 05/05/2004ce


side1
1 5D (Fifth Dimension)
2 Wild Mountain Thyme
3 Mr. Spaceman
4 I See You
5 What's Happening?!?!
6 I Come And Stand At Every Door

side 2
1 Eight Miles High
2 Hey Joe
3 Captain Soul
4 John Riley
5 2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)

The Byrds' 3rd album is certainly inconsistent, and it's really short too (under 29 minutes in length.) But this is perhaps THE pivotal album in the band's career, as their previous records had a semi-prefab "POP GROUP" folky sound (in part courtesy of hired studio musicians) and featured a lot of traditional songs and covers (especially Bob Dylan tunes of course.) On "Fifth Dimension" they are leaving that behind and becoming a full-fledged and forward-thinking "ROCK BAND" whose influence would be as great as any band of their era.

After co-writing and singing on the early 1966 single "Eight Miles High" Gene Clark was out of the group, which was fortunate for David Crosby since he was able to step up and become a major voice in the band. Crosby had only one co-writing credit on their second album (the unremarkable "Wait and See") and none on their first; here there's one tune written solely by Crosby and four more where he's a co-writer. In fact a few tracks here are credited to the entire remaining quartet (McGuinn-Crosby-Hillman-Michael Clark if you're keeping score) which demonstrates a real change in their creative self-determination.

As if this wasn't also signalled by the change from Western-block typeface to groovy colorful paisley for the band's name on the album cover -- or the "magic carpet" the remaining four are standing on (and the paper cups of Kool Aid they are holding which may or may not be of the Electric Acid Test variety.)

The crucial thing is that "Fifth Dimension" is a great GUITAR album - tastefully arranged folk standards are out and gonzo jazz-raga mangling is in. Jim "Raja" McGuinn is heroically trying to reinvent the sound of the electric guitar solo by playing off-the-wall "jazz" licks really feckin' loud on a 12-string Rickenbacher! You won't mistake the sound for the likes of Hendrix or the Who, in fact there is only one other record that jumps to my mind with a similar whiplash-cheapo mangled lead guitar sound, and that one's called "White Light / White Heat" (no foolin' -- I'm sure Lou Reed was a closet Byrdmaniac too, but that's a whole nuther topic.)

So anyway, track by track:

"5D (Fifth Dimension)" has a contribution from Van Dyke Parks somewhere, but I'm not sure what it is. It maintains some of the vibe of the previous folk-rock records, but something about the sideways lope of the chords and McGuinn's mystico-existentialist lyrics signal that "the High Sixties" is HERE NOW, bros & sisses. Drifting along in space or down the rabbit hole or somewhere, "I opened my heart to the whole universe and found it was loving . . . and never hit bottom and keep falling through just relaxed and payin' attention . . . " A minor hit single and an Unsung gem of 1966.

"Wild Mountain Thyme" is a group composition that feels like some old Scotch-Irish Appalachian nature ballad, though with gorgeous 4-part harmony vocals and swirling strings it suggests a kind of psychedelic vision again (especially that line "all along the purple heather . . . ") Dreamy . . .

"Mr. Spaceman" is another single off the record, better known than the title track, and a forerunner to Creedence's "It Came Out Of The Sky" and Spielberg's "Close Encounters." It's a charming mid-sixties pop tune with novelty overtones, but really nothing special. The Monkees probably could have had an even bigger hit with it.

"I See You" is the first taste of bashing full-on psychedelic raga-rock on the album (and one of the first anywhere, really) -- and it's a gasser. For the first time we hear the Byrds "as a band" -- the rhythm section flails while Crosby's jazzy-jangle faces off against McGuinn's Inner Mounting Flame. No cool studio tricks here, the PSYKE is all in the hot playing.

"What's Happening?!?!" is Crosby's first recorded solo composition, and something of a blueprint for the snarky hipster-hippie persona that comes through in his later work. Still, it's a good little tune and McGuinn's making nasty guitar all over it again (he's probably trying to sound like a sitar but the electronic quality makes it sound more like a leaky bagpipe.)

The ballad-like "I Come And Stand At Every Door" ends the first side with images of the Angel of Death outside your house, a nuclear holocaust metaphor of course. The bleak outcome of that what David couldn't understand in the previous tune, I suppose.

Then turn it over to side 2 . . .

"bom bom BOMM, bom BOM bom BOWWW bom bom ---

DADADING, DADADING!

DING-DAGADING-DAGADINGA-DINGDING!!"

. . . that's the titanic intro of the bass & rhythm guitar before the 12-string swoops in channeling John Coltrane channeling Ravi Shankar and we are launched into the maelstrom that is "Eight Miles High"! I should also mention that when the bass hits those first few notes the fucker is so loud and recorded so hot you can hear the snares rattling on Clark's kit. Has there ever been any rocknroll song with a more mighty and majestic opening? Honestly I can't think of any that make my heart beat faster from the first bar the way this one does. Awesome. There's also some verses & choruses about airplanes and alienation. Supposedly it was about Gene Clark being afraid of flying, but "the kids all knew" it was about LSD, either way it's chock full of equal measures of excitement & ennui (which is kinda like acid innit?) Awesome!

Unfortunately that's about where they ran out of ideas and material. Side 2 continues with a cover of "Hey Joe" which is not as good as the Leaves' version, and "Captain Soul" which is an instrumental first released as a B-side (where it should have stayed!)

One final gem is "John Riley", a folk oldie like they would have done on their previous records only here given an urgent arrangement with a string section. It's about lost love, and it sounds sad & spooky and even a little bit frantic.

Then the album ends with "2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)" which is an odd combination of space-age raga-groove with sound effects of jet engines and chattering air traffic controllers over the top, while the band chants "go ride a lear jet baby . . . go ride a lear jet." Their airplane fetish is a bit weird when you consider the whole Gene Clark fear-of-flying thing.

CD REISSUE:

I don't have the CD reissue, but it's got some bonus material and a few of these tracks I am familiar with & can speak to:

"Why?" the original b-side from the "Eight Miles High" single, which is NOT the version heard on "Younger Than Yesterday." This version is more raga-istic and trancey, though I do actually prefer the "YTY" remake mainly cuz it's faster.

"I Know My Rider" which is a tune the Grateful Dead used to play a lot. Traditional old Americana sorta song given the rocked up treatment. Tis OK.

"Psychodrama City" which is a Crosby-penned outtake, and though I'm not sure it would have fit on the "5D" LP it is one hell of a great tune all by itself, with more strange jazzbo chording from Crosby and fidgety raga-noodlin' from McGuinn. Lyrics about general social "crazinesses" reference Gene Clark's fear of flying very explicitly ("me and my friends got on a plane / one of my friends got off again") which may be another reason it was left on the cutting room floor.

(Then there's also some alternate versions of songs from the album which I've not heard.)


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