Graded on a Curve:
The Byrds,
Fifth Dimension

Remembering David Crosby.Ed.

Few bands have produced such blissful music, or music that so well fit the spirit of its time as The Byrds. Theirs was a bright and shining sound, filled with shimmering optimism and jingle-jangle hope, and they made the transition to the psychedelic age as well as anybody. Indeed, their 1966 LP Fifth Dimension is an acid rock landmark, and I listen to it whenever I want to pretend I’m tripping.

Speaking of pretending, let’s play a game of make believe, shall we? The year is 1966, and we’re just removing the plastic shrink-wrap from a virgin copy of Fifth Dimension. Let’s say we’re at my pad. It’s not bad so far as hippie crash pads go. Please don’t touch the lava lamp. I just bought the album, you brought the pot, and that redolent example of fetid man reek over there in the filthy poncho and crud-encrusted beard is the hippie who brought the acid, which is the only reason we invited him to our little listening party in the first place.

Really, no one wants him around. Not with his long staring silences, sudden bouts of insane cackling provoked by nothing going on around him, and rather scary habit of carrying a long and wicked-looking blade in a buckskin sheath. He uses it to kill squirrels, which along with the acorns he stole from the squirrels and purloined packets of McDonald’s ketchup constitute his entire diet. Do you have any idea how quick you have to be to seize and slit the throat of your typically twitchy squirrel? It’s too horrifying to contemplate. He reaches into his pocket and says, “Anybody want some delicious squirrel jerky?”

You and I both shudder and politely refuse, and then we put the LP on. The opening track “FD (Fifth Dimension)” instantly transports us to a higher astral plane where giant birds of phantasmagorical plumage perform dizzying acrobatics above the pulsating crystal abodes of the perfect ones. Or something like that.

We then bliss out to “Wild Mountain Thyme,” with its strings and lovely vocal harmonies before becoming totally transfixed by the utter UFO delirium of “Mr. Spaceman.” It hits us all at once. The aliens have arrived! “Look out the window for flying saucers!” you cry. I do. I don’t spot any UFOs, but I do espy a homeless man in a tinfoil hat digging through a trashcan. I shout, “I see an alien!” We all crowd the open window shouting, “Mr. Spaceman! Won’t you please take us along for a ride?” But all he does is give us the alien finger. We then sit down to listen to “What’s Happening?” which is so much groovy confusion and par for the course for the very groovy and confused David Crosby. As for “I Come and Stand at Every Door,” its slow folky tempo and bummerific lyrics about kids dying at Hiroshima are bad trip fodder for sure.

But before we can slowly sink into the black pit of oozing death vibes along comes “Eight Miles High,” the most far freaking out tune of them all. Those otherworldly harmonies! Those guitars that chime and weave around one another before ascending to the glowing red mountain peaks of planet Fabulon! Our knife-wielding friend leaps off the sofa to do a spastic dance, shrieks, “We’re surrounded by wolverines! Run!” and promptly disappears into the bathroom and locks the door. Which leaves just the two of us to listen to the Byrds’ pepped-up garage rock take on “Hey Joe (Where You Gonna Go)” which features some funky drumming by Michael Clarke and a cool running guitar lead by Jim (aka Roger) McGuinn. From the bathroom we hear our hirsute hippie acid-fried friend call out, “Hey, maaaan. There’s a groovy blue alligator in here and she wants to fuck!”

Let him be, we decide, he’ll get his shit together sooner or later. And a moment later he calls, “My mistake. It was just the shower curtain.” Meanwhile we listen to the funky instrumental “Captain Soul,” which boasts a “Green Onions” kinda vibe and ain’t bad for a bunch of incorrigible white folkies. And just to prove they are a bunch of incorrigible white folkies they follow “Captain Soul” with “John Riley,” which is your typical po-faced lament about a faire lassie who still carries a torch for her true love who’s been lost at sea for eight long years, blah blah blah. As for “2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)” it’s a trip back to the jet age for sure, but it’s an experiment and so far as experiments go it’s not a very successful experiment. But hey, dig that groovy vacuum cleaner! And that spacy guitar sound Steve Miller will go on to use a million times!

We listen to the album again, and then again, and then Dirty Poncho Man comes running out of the bathroom stark naked and waving that very lethal-looking knife in his hand. But “5D (Fifth Dimension)” calms him right down, and he proceeds to weep about the sheer grooviness of it all before running straight back into the bathroom. Only to emerge a few minutes later having sheared his beard, cut his hair, and put on a suit and a tie. Sounding totally in control of himself he says, “I have decided it’s hip to be square, my friends. Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Huey Lewis.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • byrdwatcher

    Great album, but it’s too bad they didn’t use the B-side “Why?” or the outtake “I Know My Rider” – had they been slotted in instead of the weaker tracks, it would be a rock solid, consistent album. (“Captain Soul” is based on the Lee Dorsey classic “Get Out of My Life, Woman” – it’s okay, but I think it should’ve been left on the shelf.)

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