This album captures a very special, and generally misunderstood (and forgotten), period of time in the psychedelic 1960’s. The Byrds’ Fifth Dimension is a document of the time when drugs were still new (and soft), every musical idea was exciting and innovative, and changing the world wasn’t an embarassing memory of a failed utopianism, it was apparently really going to happen.
Roger McGuinn and the band had made their name by covering Bob Dylan, playing his songs with pop group sensibilities. Here though, having turned on and connected to a new muse, the Byrds wrote, played, and sang about a new, exciting, concurrently-developing universe. There aren’t many conclusions or answers here per se — 5D is more a collection of signposts pointing down new roads.
Psychedelic music is usually remembered as being a product of 1967, but 1966 saw many of the genre’s true gems. Along with Sunshine Superman by Donovan and Love’s debut album, as well as the Beatles’ Revolver, Fifth Dimension (or 5D) remains one of the greatest (if agonizingly short) artifacts from a time when revolution was real and confidence was soaring.
The Byrds — Fifth Dimension: Track-by-track review
1. “5D (Fifth Dimension)”
The first song, the album’s title track, is also its best. “5D” is about the new universe found within ones own mind. The band’s relaxed, chiming backdrop serves as a vast soft cushion, from which the singer reports his findings as his body lies still and his psyche dances, swoops and falls, free of gravity, through a magnificent void.
The key emotion here is astonishment, which is evident from the opening line: “Oh how is that I could come out to here and be still… floating?” The singer explains he is “relaxed and paying attention”. Casual music fans in 1966 may have passively enjoyed the new ideas, but those who also were turning on and tuning in (specifically, with LSD), like the band itself, understood the lysergic undercurrents buried in the lyrics.
There is nothing negative about this song; it is pure bliss. Neither is there anything self-conscious about it; there was no psychedelic hippie stereotype to react to or live up to yet.
It is, however, self-aware. This song is about realizing there is an entire universe in your head, and the necessity of exploring it. The idea isn’t dated, even today — the notion was abused, musically and otherwise, by the time 1967 was drawing to a close, but this track stands as one of the most soaring, hopeful, stunned, excited communiqués from the front lines.
2. “Wild Mountain Thyme”
The second track on 5D is a cover of an old folk song. The band tries to play it straight, but can’t escape the emotional and philosophical changes they were going through. Thus the recording comes across as yet more slightly detached, ethereal bliss.
When the singers harmonize through the line about “all across the purple heather”, and address the “lassie” of the lyrics, it serves as both an evocation of a great, endless field of flowers, and also of another, unspecified era. This willingness to abandon the present place and time is a notable feature of this album.
3. “Mr. Spaceman”
A peppier, less heavy pop song, “Mr. Spaceman” chugs along with silly, not-altogether-sane lyrics about a spaceman and “flies in my beard”. This song manages to fit into the overall feel of the album by taking the shifting colors and patterns of the psychedelic experience, and putting them into an almost childlike story about being visited by a UFO at night and asking the spaceman for a ride.
And at just over 2:00 in length, it does all this and still finds time for a trademark chiming guitar solo from Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker. Almost a novelty song, this track also endeavors to stand and be counted with the rest of the album’s tracks by virtue of its sheer pleasantness.
4. “I See You”
The dramatic rhythms and melodies of this song, as well as its great tempo changes, provide an exciting backdrop for a truly off-the-wall, proto-psychedelic tone-poem of harmonized singing and impressionistic words. The singers are chasing something they seem to recognize, but can’t quite comprehend or remember:
I see you
Under there, behind your hair, everywhere
I see you
I see you
Turned on eyes can’t tell lies, empathise
I see you
Warm sliding sun through the cave of your hair
Wind washing fields, kind of space living there
I see you
This time, the chiming guitar is always present, sometimes lurking just in the shadows but generally chirping along with its scattered, rapid-fire melodies.
5. “What’s Happening?!?!”
During an apparently similar experience as the first track of the album, this song is much too giggly to take the experience seriously. As one might guess from the title, this track deals almost exclusively with the craziness and inexplicability of chemical euphoria.
I don’t know what’s goin’ on here
I don’t know how it’s supposed to be
The singer’s laughing lyrics (literally) never seem to get a grasp on what or who he’s addressing. He’s not complaining, mind you, he’s just babbling to himself that he’s really, really out of it. And loving it.
I don’t have the vaguest notion whose it is
or what it’s all for…
Talk about a song that asks questions with no answers, this is perhaps the purest example of that. The singer doesn’t even know what questions to ask, or who to ask them of. It doesn’t matter though; the song ends with a long instrumental fade out (well, long for this album). The singer, you feel, is still there, he just isn’t into singing anymore. His mind is too busy…
6. “I Come And Stand At Every Door”
A more somber song, this is another spectacular tone-poem written from the point of view of a dead child, killed in the 1945 Hiroshima blast. He is appealing to the people he meets in the modern (1966) world for peace.
The lyrics tear at your heart, and will give you goosebumps with their simple directness: “I am 7 now, as I was then; when children die, they do not grow.” It’s the same basic sentiment found in Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, wherein he admonishes warmakers for giving people the “fear to bring children into this world.”
The child emphasizes that he isn’t seeking anything for himself; rather, he is only appealing for peace for the future. It’s too late for him, but he can save future generations.
The music is appropriately slow, and the harmonizing beautiful, particularly when the lyrics mention the “children of this world”. A powerful song.
7. “Eight Miles High”
The big hit, and one of the Byrds’ most famous songs.
More serious than “Mr. Spaceman”, but with a similar lyrical feel, “Eight Miles High” is just endlessly catchy, even with the weird, scattershot main guitar riff and solos.
The harmonized vocals at first ascend dramatically and deliberately on each verse, then at the top of the ride start falling, swirling around in a sea of offbeat poetry and short, clipped phrases.
Rain — grey — town…
Known for its sound
The song ostensibly is about flying in an airplane, 8 miles off the ground, but of course the band knew what they were saying with the word “high”. As a groundbreaking song on a groundbreaking album, this track uses a busy, chiming guitar line for its main thrust, and as a clarion call for a new pop sensibility, a better song couldn’t have been chosen from the album.
8. “Hey Joe (Where You Gonna Go)”
A popular song around the Los Angeles area in the mid-60’s, this is the same version recorded by bands like the Leaves and Love: fast and raucous.
Roger McGuinn’s guitar is mixed lower, but is never silent, burbling and clucking underneath the breathless singing. This track also features some of the band’s best work on the album, as it makes the most of its chance to hit the beats and keep the track somewhat grounded despite the frenzied pace.
9. “Captain Soul”
A blues-based instrumental jam, this is pretty much 1966-Byrds-by-numbers, and probably intended to pad out a short album (it didn’t really work; the original album is still only around 30 minutes long).
Basically, this is a showcase for some lead guitar and harmonica interplay. The bass work is the best part of this track. All in all, not bad, but not terribly interesting either.
10. “John Riley”
Another melodramatic reading of an old folk standard.
This track is made great by the vocal harmonizing that propels the music. The folk tale is simple, and appealing: a man sees a “fair young maid” and asks for her hand in marriage. She explains she is waiting for her lover, who left to go to battle 7 years ago. The man suggests he has perhaps been killed, or has found a new love, but the girl won’t relent out of devotion to her lover. The man picks her up and triumphantly kisses her; he is her long-lost lover, returned after 7 years to test her faith and marry her.
(Incidentally, John Riley is also the name of the man who first gave John Lennon and George Harrison LSD, though that’s just a fun coincidence.)
Probably a throwaway number for the Byrds, this song is actually one of my favorites on the album, for the sentiment of the traditional lyric and the ethereal but propulsive minor-chord soundtrack.
11. “2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)”
Ending the album on a somewhat annoying note, this mostly instrumental track features a chanted chorus of “Gonna ride the Lear Jet baby” and distorted radio transmissions between a pilot and a control tower. It is in keeping with the album’s preoccupation with flying and travel, but seems to serve no purpose at all.
Of course, you can’t fault the band for taking chances, and although short, this album maintains an urgent feel throughout all of its tracks, even the short jams. That urgency is obviously more personal than political, and neatly anticipates the for-better-or-worse self-exploration that would take the wider culture by storm in the months and years that followed.
12. “Why” [single version]
The original appears on the Byrds’ next album Younger Than Yesterday, but this is the single version of the upbeat and catchy “Why”. Not exactly vital, but a great example of 1966-era Byrds.
13. “I Know My Rider (I Know You Rider)” [bonus track]
A fun song, fully realized and with a lighter mood than other tracks on the original 5D album.
The vocals consist of blues-based phrases and a call-and-response part at the end of lines, and the music features the inimitable chiming guitars of McGuinn’s Rickenbacker solos. The slightly fuzzy backing track is peppy and fun.
14. “Psychodrama City” [bonus track]
Dramatic chord sequences and lyrics about bizarre situations make this one perhaps the most interesting bonus track on the latter-day release of the album.
Humorous, and with too many syllables packed into each line, the singer addresses such topics as war on TV, meeting a woman at a dance, and a friend who was scared to fly but got on a plane anyway, only to get off.
Each verse ends with the band stopping and harmonizing “Psychodrama City, don’t need none today”. McGuinn plays “Eight Miles High”-style guitar here, flinging his fingers around the fretboard seemingly at random.
15. “Eight Miles High” [RCA Studios version]
A prototype of the famous song, this is a version from a time before the band had all the elements of the song nailed down. Not entirely dissimilar to the well-known, released version, this demo is more interesting to hear the work in progress, rather than as a finished piece.
16. “Why” [RCA Studios version]
Another working demo, interesting as a window into the Byrds’ ability to progress until they got it right.
17. “John Riley” [instrumental version 1]
Here, the band is working through the instrumental backing before concentrating on the words. Actually, it’s not a whole lot like the released version, as the band sounds tentative here, but they are never far from a good idea. This track is pleasant enough, though its inclusion is a little perplexing.
Fifth Dimension by The Byrds
“5D (Fifth Dimension)”
“Wild Mountain Thyme”
“I See You”
“I Come And Stand At Every Door”
“Eight Miles High”
“Hey Joe (Where You Gonna Go)”
“2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)”
“Why” [single version]
“I Know My Rider (I Know You Rider)” [bonus track]
“Psychodrama City” [bonus track]
“Eight Miles High” [RCA Studios version]
“Why” [RCA Studios version]
“John Riley” [instrumental version 1]