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Home --> Music --> Hidden Messages --> Equinimity


Claim:   The Byrds replaced a recently-fired David Crosby with a picture of a horse on an album cover.

Status:   False.

Origins:   In 1967, the Byrds recorded one of the finest records of that landmark year: The Notorious Byrd Brothers, a The Notorious Byrd Brothers 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 David 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. Crosby had become an increasingly dominant figure during live performances, announcing all the songs, taking the majority of the lead vocals and steadily influencing the choice of material to be played. The other members were put off by the lackadaisical performances Crosby offered when he was in a bad mood, his frequent pontifications to their audiences, and his tendency to stop playing in the middle of a song and then spend five minutes tuning up on stage. Crosby, for his part, was disillusioned with what he saw as his partners' unprofessionalism, arrogance, and lack of enthusiasm for live performances.

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 prosletyzed about the benefits of LSD and played with an STP sticker prominently displayed on his guitar.
(STP, or Scientifically Treated Petroleum, was a popular motor oil product of the time, and STP stickers could be found on walls, notebooks, skateboards, cars, and surfboards all over the country — however, the initialism also represented "Serenity, Tranquility, and Peace," a nickname for the drug dimethoxyl amphetamine.) Moreover, 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. (Crosby's viewpoint was that being bound to a single group was an archaic way of thinking, and that musicians should be free to collaborate with each other as the mood struck them.)

Despite their controversies of Monterey (and elsewhere), the Byrds managed to begin work on their next album, 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. (The song and its performance were superb, and the LP ultimately suffered for its exclusion.) Crosby was upset about his bandmates' lack of support for "Lady Friend" and his other songwriting efforts, including their disapproval of his recent composition, "Triad," a song about a ménage à trois (later recorded by Jefferson Airplane and issued on their Crown of Creation LP). 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, a professional husband-and-wife songwriting team from New York) 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 looked like this:

The Notorious Byrd Brothers

Pictured (from left to right) are 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 was nowhere to be found on its sleeve. Instead the other three Byrds were 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 happenstance 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."

David 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.

Last updated:   5 June 2005

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  Sources Sources:
    Crosby, David.   Long Time Gone.
    New York: Doubleday, 1988.   ISBN 0-385-24530-0.

    Einarson, John.   Mr. Tambourine Man : The Story of the Byrds' Gene Clark.
    San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2005   ISBN 0-879-30793-5.

    Rogan, Johnny.   The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited: The Sequel.
    London: Rogan House, 1998.   ISBN 0-95295-401-X.