Claim:   The Byrds fired David Crosby in the middle of recording an album, then replaced him with a picture of a horse on its cover.


The Notorious Byrd Brothers

In 1967, the Byrds recorded one of the finest records of that landmark year: The Notorious Byrd Brothers, a 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 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 spend long periods of time 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.

Troubles at Monterey

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.)

The Recording Session

Despite the controversies at 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 with its course. The Byrds' most recent single, "Lady Friend," had been composed and sung by Crosby (who had wiped his bandmates' vocal contributions from the track and replaced them with his own), 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 be included on the upcoming album. 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 likely be displacing one of his own songs from the album) and refused to participate in its recording. McGuinn reportedly had had enough of Crosby's antics by that point and kicked him out of the studio, and shortly afterwards McGuinn and Hillman paid him 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 fired (or quit). The album was finally finished, but so were the Byrds, leaving the duo of McGuinn and Hillman to face the prospect of having to hire outside musicians if they hoped to keep the group going.

The Cover Shoot

In the meanwhile, when the 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) were Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, and Michael Clarke. Although Clarke hung around long to participate in the album's cover shoot, Crosby had been fired from the group months earlier; so even though 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 stone house (or stable) in California's Topanga Canyon, 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?

The three Byrds posed on horseback during the Notorious cover photo session with photographer Guy Webster, and afterwards they lined up in the windows of the stone house/stable for a few shots. As Webster explained, the inclusion of a horse in some of those window shots was mere happenstance with no symbolic intent behind it — it was simply a spur-of-the-moment decision he made to provide better compositional balance:
I get asked about this cover shot for The Byrds all the time. This was shot a couple of years after I first worked for them. The picture was done up in [Topanga] Canyon.

The group was going through changes. I got a call to shoot the album cover. They wanted to go out to the country, since their first album cover was shot in a studio.

So I found this abandoned barn with four open windows. There was a horse in the field. I put each one of the guys in the windows. And in the last window I put the horse.

I was mistakenly accused of denigrating David Crosby. It wasn't to replace Crosby, who had been fired; it wasn't to insult anyone. It was just to balance the composition. It was just a space and a horse — and what an image."
Other accounts of that occasion maintains that Michael Clarke's horse had wandered over and poked its head through the remaining window on its own, and Webster thought the happenstance made for an interesting shot. Either way, the finished LP sleeve featured a picture of three Byrds and a horse, and David Crosby was 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." As McGuinn later noted, "If we had intended to do that, we would have turned the horse around."

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 (a famously unreliable interview subject) 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:   18 April 2015


    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.

    Kubernik, Harvey.   Big Shots: Rock Legends and Hollywood Icons: The Photography of Guy Webster.
    Insight Editions, 2014   ISBN 1-608-87240-8.

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