The Byrds, “What’s Happening?!?!” from Fifth Dimension (1966): One Track Mind

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Over the last few years, I’ve been pondering that popular adage called Sturgeon’s Law which states, “90 percent of everything is crap.” Sure, it’s kind of funny in a curmudgeonly way, but as a practical approach to life it’s kind of depressing.

Recently, however, I had a revelation. Always eager to coin a phrase, I’ve come up with Skeeter’s Corollary to Sturgeon’s Law: “If 90 percent of everything is crap, then 10 percent of everything is brilliant.” Once again, it’s not really a practical approach to life, but like the original axiom, it’s probably more about one’s attitude at any particular point in time.

Case in point: “What’s Happening?!?!” by the Byrds, from their 1966 album 5th Dimension. I first encountered this song as the B-side to the Byrd’s single “Mr. Spaceman.” I have a very clear memory of seeing this 45 in the store, and being the nerdy pre-teen that I was, I somehow got my mom to impulse buy it for me. Though I’d never even heard of it before, it had a sci-fi title, and was credited to one of those misspelled animal-named bands like the Beatles or the Monkees (which I had heard before), so how could I go wrong?

Turns out “Mr. Spaceman” (credited to someone named J. McGuinn) was some kind of weird country-rock experiment, and my primitive appreciation of any form of country music was limited to TV shows like Glen Campbell’s Goodtime Hour or Hee Haw. Had I known about the concept at the time, I would have placed the Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman” in the “90 percent crap” pile right away. Instead, I dutifully gave the song a couple of more spins on my little portable turntable and made a mental note to never again buy any records on spec – a note I’ve conveniently forgotten many times since.

Considering I didn’t actually pay for the thing, it’s kind of funny but I felt a little ripped off. So, I flipped the Byrds’ disc over to hear the B-side, with some vague hope that it might be better. Instead of a country-pop band singing the praises of UFOs, there was some poor fellow lamenting about how mixed-up and confused he was, his thoughts occasionally punctuated by what sounded like one of those oversized buzzy guitar thingies that East Indian guys would play in exotic movies.

It was kind of spooky really: What was this guy confused about? The songwriting credit here went to one D. Crosby; who was he exactly? There was no album sleeve for reference. Was he even in the band? Where did the sitar players come from? And why did everything seem to be on the verge of just whooshing away into the stratosphere?

Somewhere along the line, I decided that Mr. Crosby was upset because he had been captured by the aliens from the A-side of the single, which just made the song even more terrifying and unnerving. I suppose this also supports the old notion that comics about flying saucers were dangerous to young, impressionable minds. Regardless, the Byrds’ “What’s Happening?!?!” stuck in my head, and I would pull it from its sleeve and give it a spin every so often (and only in the light of day), until the time came when I actually dropped it, taking a chunk out of the edge and running a crack across the groove – rendering it unplayable.

As I grew up, I went onto bigger and better things like, um, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and Grand Funk Railroad, but I always remembered that weird, claustrophobic tune from my childhood.
Much later I wanted to fill in the gaps in my music collection, which included an absence of folk rock, and of course, I eventually found myself a copy of the Byrd’s 5th Dimension. Interestingly, now that I understand the context, “Mr. Spaceman” seems to be a pretty decent attempt to meld country music, pop music, and the contemporary preoccupations of the 1960s with all things technological.

But mostly I was pleased to reacquaint myself with “What’s Happening?!?!,” now known to have been powered by Roger McGuinn’s processed 12-string guitar and penned by David Crosby, who’d later go on to fame with the supergroup Crosby Stills Nash and Young. And though it no longer carries the space abduction connotations for me, the song on some level still remains spooky and claustrophobic – and definitely still in the “10 percent brilliant” pile.

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito spends most of his day keeping the wolves from the door. When he's not occupied with this pastime, he's interested in all things rock and roll -- which may or may not have died back in the late 1950s, the late 1970s, or the early '90s, depending on who you believe. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
JC Mosquito
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