The Byrds

Six Degrees of The Byrds’ Fifth Dimension

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 10.05.11 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Fifth Dimension

The Byrds

After Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn!, the Byrds amped up their wingy eclecticism for 1966's inspired 5D, which includes the old ballad "John Riley" and old-sounding "Wild Mountain Thyme," both with admirably tasteful and low-key strings; an early glimmering of country rock (a close encounter with "Mr. Spaceman," where Roger McGuinn takes a convincing fiddle break on Rickenbacker 12-string); David Crosby emoting "Hey Joe"; and cockpit radio chatter and what sounds like a vacuum cleaner on "The Lear Jet Song." It's the sound of a band stretching, discovering its interests - sometimes with a cool demeanor, sometimes over the top. Two songs springboard from splashy '60s modal jazz, "I See You," and the hit "Eight Miles High," with McGuinn's memorably jumbled electric 12-string solo. It's fascinating to hear him play at the limits of his technique, barely hanging in there. ("Almost like a parody of a guitar solo, except that it's real," a smart observer once said.) An earlier, shaggier, supposedly better take also appears on the expanded reissue, but the single's tighter, and the guitar playing more gloriously frantic.

The Twang

Take This Hammer - The Complete RCA Victor Recordings - When The Sun Goes Down Series

Lead Belly

The Byrds' jangly signature was the sound of ex-folky Roger McGuinn's Rickenbacker 12-string, a plugged-in version of the folk axe whose doubled strings, sounding in octaves or unison, gave it a bright ringing sound. Its most famous proponent was Louisiana/Texas ex-con troubadour Huddie Ledbetter, whose big guitar matched his booming voice and imposing reputation. Lead Belly's success in New York clubs and caf�s helped jumpstart the city's folk music scene in the 1940s. His repertoire included repurposed prison songs, folk tunes and tales, kids' games and ballads, sometimes galvanized here by the Golden Gate Quartet's gorgeously wild harmonizing. But like folk-rockers to come, he got flak for mixing traditional fare with jukebox numbers like Count Basie's "Good Morning Blues," given a trendy boogie-woogie beat.

The Drone


John Coltrane

On tour before recording 5D, the Byrds had been listening to Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar and Coltrane's Impressions on the bus. These rockers were jazzists: drummer Mike Clarke was (improbably) said to idolize Coltrane dynamo Elvin Jones, and David Crosby was beginning to write odd-motion chord progressions, as for 5D's "What's Happening?!?!" (working toward Younger than Yesterday's ultra-weirdy "Mind Gardens"). "Eight Miles High"'s opening riff sounds like a spinoff of Coltrane's droney "India," and the saxophonist's '60s way of playing wild solos over few chords was a more general inspiration for the tune's free-form guitar solo and rising/falling minor/major progression. Other bands were listening to Coltrane too: his quartet inspired the modal jam in the middle of the Doors' "Light My Fire," which got edited out of the hit 45.

The Jazz-Rock Feedback Loop

Tomorrow Never Knows

Steve Marcus

In the '60s, rock influenced jazz and vice versa. Whenever jazz musicians play modern pop, someone hails it as an exciting new trend, but even Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald covered the Beatles. Given Coltrane's influence on "Eight Miles High," it figures that a few improvisers would complete the feedback loop by recording jazz versions. Bagpiper Rufus Harley did one. So did soprano saxophonist Steve Marcus, on an album heavy with Beatles and other rock covers; dig Mike Nock's left-field piano on "Mellow Yellow." On "8MH," the frantic-strings quotient is upped by guitarist Larry Coryell and electric harpsichordist Mike Nock. Tomorrow Never Knows is a harbinger of the jazz-rock of the '70s, when the Mahavishnu Orchestra's John McLaughlin showed how to really play fancy electric 12-string.

The Turning Tides

Live At Monterey

The Jimi Hendrix Experience

In the mid '60s, David Crosby featured an obscure tune with a jazzy circle-of-fifths chord sequence, coffeehouse folky Billy Roberts' "Hey Joe." But by the time his fellow Byrds let him record it, the Leaves and Arthur Lee's Love had already scored minor hits with it. The belated 5D version let Crosby raise his freak flag as vocalist, as McGuinn picked scrambling-mice runs behind him. But all previous versions were eclipsed by one recorded a few months later, which became a U.K. hit. Jimi Hendrix said "Hey Joe" got him to the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, for the performance that made his American rep, and helped raise the bar and change the tone for all rock guitarists. His new bluesy fluidity was in, and the Byrds' banjo-derived Rickenbacker jangle fell from favor, until R.E.M. and company brought it back in the 1980s.