Singles Going Steady: "What's Happening?!?!" by The Byrds

"What's Happening?" by The Byrds

In my experience, I've found that relatively few people know that David Crosby was a member of The Byrds.  I can't blame them because, for all intents and purposes, he doesn't appear prominently on any of the band's biggest hits.  He augmented and enhanced their sound, but didn't lead the way like Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn did. But this 1966 song, which was a B-side to the major hit "Mr. Spaceman," is the first song that indicated David Crosby's promise as the wildly hypnotic talent he'd become known for as a member of Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young).

Much of the song's success is owed to the superb guitar stylings of Crosby and Roger McGuinn.  David Crosby is a king at playing "what the hell did you just say to me?" chord changes. You know the chord changes I'm talking about? The ones that just make you gulp. They're like the musical equivalent of jamming a shovel into the ground or slamming a door. They're aggressive, but they're also damn beautiful.  For all the credit Crosby receives for his angelic vocals and genius songwriting, he certainly deserves more recognition for his guitar playing.  He isn't a guy that can solo for hours—at least I don't think he can—but it's his ability to both discover striking chord voicings and make even the oddest dissonances work that make him a force to be reckoned with on the instrument.  

Then, of course, there's Roger McGuinn, whose trademark jangly guitar sound has influenced so many other guitarists that his style could be the subject of entire books. While his playing had always hinted at the otherworldly, on "What's Happening?!?!" his solos are straight-up psychedelic.  

The composition itself isn't amazing.  In fact, if you said it's underdeveloped, I wouldn't disagree.  And it's awkward lyrically, too.  The first line definitely gets you interested—"I don't know who you think you are." Good stuff.  But when he sings "I don't know what's going on here," it sounds like he truly doesn't know where the song is going.  So this isn't an example of Crosby's best work.  But it does show a songwriter with amazing potential and, given that it was released in 1966, "What's Happening?!?!" sounds almost revolutionary.  I guess that's up to one's own interpretation.  But one thing is clear and that is that David Crosby became a superstar in his own right just a few years later.  You'd can't help but think that greatness was cooking in his amazing creative mind for his whole life.  For a talent like David Crosby, it's almost inconceivable to think that he just woke up one day and had it all figured out.  This guy was probably giving himself chills all the time with the ideas he was coming up with, and for all perks he received from being a member of a famous band—the women, the bragging rights and the musical stimulation—he had to have felt enormously frustrated that he wasn't being offered the opportunity to fulfill his own creative desires.

So for David Crosby, having "What's Happening?!?!" included on a Byrds album may have been the best moment in his young life so far.  And since he wasn't known as a lead vocalist before, Byrds fans probably heard this song and Crosby's gorgeous singing and thought something like "What's Happening?" too. 

"What's Happening?!?!" by The Byrds