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The Byrds- Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)

The Byrds- Mr. Tambourine Man

Recorded - January 20 (title track) - March 8th- April 22, 1965

Released June 21, 1965

Before They Were Byrds

Take the Beatles, Bob Dylan songs, tight harmonies, and the twang of an electric 12-string guitar put it in a blender: what you have is The Byrd's early recordings. The group was flying high in 1965, and the Byrds are often cited as folk-rock pioneers. The group's original lineup began with Roger McGuinn (known as Jim McGuinn until 1967) on vocals and 12-string electric guitar, Gene Clark on vocals and tambourine, and David Crosby on rhythm guitar and vocals. All three were rooted in folk music, each working in the acoustic folk coffeehouse scene. McGuinn was also working as a professional songwriter in New York. In 1964, McGuinn became interested in the Beatles' music and began performing their music acoustically. While playing at the Troubadour Club in West Hollywood, McGuinn met Gene Clark, and the two formed a duo where they played mainly folk covers, Beatles covers, and some originals. Then David Crosby met the pair at Troubadour and began harmonizing with McGuinn and Clark. Crosby is one of the great harmony singers. Honestly, the guy could harmonize with a fart; he is that good. So the duo became a trio, and the three went out as a band known as Jet Set.

Jet Set

Jet Set made a few demos and found a manager, but they mainly remained on the runway. The Drummer, Michael Clarke, was recruited primarily for his good looks; in fact, he really only played congas at this point and not as a professional. He did not even have a drum kit, but he had good hair, which was important. And enough to get him into the group. Management didn't think Clarke was even skilled enough to record, and when the group made a new demo in 1964, session masters bought in to handle the instrumental tracks.

The Byrds

In 1964, the band got an unreleased copy of Bob Dylan's “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and they rearranged the track. It was also around this time when McGuinn bought his signature Rickenbacker electric 12-string, Michael Clarke got a Ludwig drum set, and Gene Clark acquired his Gretsch Tennessean guitar, which Crosby eventually commandeered, leaving Clark to play the tambourine, which I find hysterical. One big issue was that Jet Set was missing a bass player. To fill out the Jet Set crew, they hired Chris Hillman, a country/bluegrass mandolinist to play the bass. So they now have a drummer who is learning to drum, a bassist who is learning on the job, and a guitarist who was handed a tambourine. Then, of all people, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis helped secure a record deal at Columbia Records for the Byrds late in 1964. McGuinn explains, "I never met Miles, but one of the people in his management group knew our producer," McGuinn says. "His daughter had heard about us, and then Miles encouraged the people at Columbia to take a chance on us. He told them that was the music young people were listening to rather than what was on their label. They signed us and gave us a one-song deal.” At that time, they changed their name to the Byrds, purposely misspelling it in the same way the Beatles did. By the way, birds eat hundreds of metric tons of beetles yearly, and while the group didn’t necessarily devour the Beatles, they certainly gave them some competition in 1965.

The Album

On January 20, 1965, the Byrds began recording for Columbia. Their first song was one of their biggest hits, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and the only Byrd trusted to participate on the record was Roger (Jim) McGuinn. The rest of the group was replaced by session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. The label liked the idea of using session players for the rest of the tracks, but the Byrds squawked at the idea, and their small flock was allowed to play on the record, although there is some speculation that session players were bought in to enhance some tracks. The Byrds then swarmed around the Sunset Strip to play regularly at Ciro’s Le Disc Club. Hollywood celebrities like Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, and Sonny and Cher began to attend their shows, and there was a buzz around the Byrds, and the bubblings of the first West Coast wave of the hippie culture began with these long-haired Byrds.

“Mr. Tambourine Man” became a huge hit, reaching number one, and the term “folk rock” began to be used regularly to describe their music. In June of 1965, the Byrds released their much-anticipated debut album, Mr. Tambourine Man. The record reached number six in the U.S. and seven on the U.K. charts. The record contained several Dylan covers, Gene Clark originals, and covers by Pete Seeger, Jackie DeShannon, and Ross Parker. Part of the appeal of the group and the album was their vocals, and at times, McGuinn, Clark, Crosby, and Hillman switched lead vocal duties. People also took the group's dress style, which included flamboyant garb, mop-top haircuts, and McGuinn’s signature granny glasses. On stage, the group, who was likely consistently high on weed, didn't move around much, and their performances seemed more focused on the music. Their heavy usage often made their performances less than perfect, and critics often took notice. Hailed as America's answer to the Beatles, the band went on tour following the release, which included a tour of England, and later in the year, the group recorded their second hit album, Turn! Turn! Turn!

Side 1

(+ means "recommended track" and * means released as a single)

Track 1- “Mr. Tambourine Man” was the hit song that broke the Byrds from their nest and into the hearts of young music fans. This is the first of several Dylan covers on the album. No disrespect to Dylan, but I often contest that some Dylan songs are best represented when performed by other artists, like the Byrds. Dylan included the song on his record Bringing It All Back Home, released in March 1965. The Byrds version was released in April as a single. The recording features only one Byrd’s playing, Roger McGuinn. Wrecking Crew session players Jerry Cole (guitar), Larry Knechtel (electric bass), Leon Russell (electric piano), and Hal Blaine (drums) were brought in to perform on the piece. The Byrd's reworking includes a cool guitar intro and some Beach Boysesque vocal harmonies sung by McGuinn, Crosby, Clark, and Tillman. The group also scaled down Dylan’s lyrics from five verses to only two verses. Dylan’s version was roughly five and a half minutes long, and the Byrds flew in and out quickly with a two-and-a-half-minute version, making theirs more radio-friendly. The song peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the UK Singles Chart, making it the first recording of a Dylan song to reach number one on any pop chart. (*+)

Track 2- “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” is my favorite Byrd song. Gene Clark wrote the piece, and he handles the lead vocals. Clark explained during an interview: "There was a girlfriend I had known at the time when we were playing at Ciro's. It was a weird time in my life because everything was changing so fast, and I knew we were becoming popular. This girl was a funny girl, she was kind of a strange little girl, and she started bothering me a lot. And I just wrote the song, 'I'm gonna feel a whole lot better when you're gone,' and that's all it was, but I wrote it within a few minutes. The piece features include a driving drum and bass groove, fantastic vocal harmonies, and McGuinn’s guitar solo. The word “probably” in the chorus is of interest. It is as if the narrator isn’t quite sure he will feel “a whole lot better when you're gone.” The song was initially released as B side to “All I Really Want To Do.” but did manage to chart at #103 on the Billboard Charts and continued to gain popularity throughout the years. (*+)

Track 3- “Spanish Harlem Incident” is another Dylan tune released on his 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. This song is the second of four Dylan covers on the record. Take notice of the instrument multilayering. The group's harmonies are not quite as crisp on this one, but they are still mostly impressive. The song is just another example of how skilled the Byrds were at reinterpreting Dylan. McGuinn handles the lead vocal on this one, and of course, his electric 12-string adds to the overall vibe.

Track 4- “You Won't Have To Cry” comes from Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn. With lyrics like “You know it makes me sad to see you feel so bad” and “There’s no reason to feel blue because of what he says to you,”- There is no wonder they borrowed lyrics from Dylan. It is clear that the Byrds were attempting to sound like the Beatles on this one. The Byrds did not fly particularly high with this attempt.

Track 5- “Here With You” was written by Gene Clark and dates back to 1964. It’s one of the stronger tracks on the album and foreshadows the group's later move to a more psychedelic sound as they reused the opening on one of their most important hits, “Eight Miles High,” which was released a year later. The vocal harmonies are great, the bass line works perfectly, and the 12-string guitar continues to give the Byrds their unique identity. “Here With You” is a hidden gem, a song that should have been a hit but remained unhatched on the pop markets. (+)

Track 6- “The Bells of Rhymney” comes from Welsch poet Idris Davies and folk legend Pete Seeger. Seeger first released the song in 1958. A 1920s coal mining disaster inspired the work. Once again, the vocal harmonies are the main feature of the track. McGuinn also impresses again with his signature-style guitar solo. The lyrics ask, “Is there hope for the future?”

Side 2

Track 1- “All I Really Want To Do” is the first song from Dylan’s album Another Side of Bob Dylan. The song was written in 1964 and was inspired by his breakup with then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo. The Byrd's version was their second single after “Mr. Tambourine Man,” reaching number 40 in the US. The group’s management rushed out the single when it was revealed that Cher was also about a cover version. Cher’s version reached number 40 in the US. In the UK, things were reversed, with Byrd’s version reaching number 4 and Cher’s number 9. The Byrds completely reinterpreted the piece to make it more Beatlesque. McGuinn sings lead on most of the track, but then songbird David Crosby flies in to sing the middle eight. (*)

Track 2- “I Knew I’d Want You” is another Gene Clark original, and it served as the B-Side to “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The song dates back to Clark’s time with Jet Set. The music sounds somewhat like the Moody Blues hit “Nights In White Satin” at times. The song comes from the same January 1965 session as “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and therefore, the only Byrd playing on the track is McGuinn; the rest were studio musicians, although there is some speculation that Hillman may have played bass, and Crosby may be strumming some guitar. The song is performed as a 6/8 or waltz rhythm, and it is one of the album highlights (+).

Track 3- “It’s No Use” was penned by Clark and McGuinn and showcases an early version of Byrd’s psychedelic rock experimentations. It's a fantastic album cut with a great melody, clever chords, strong guitar work, a formidable groove, and great vocal harmonies. I dig this tune. (+)

Track 4- “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe” is another solid hidden album cut with a country rock element and lots of tambourine! Take notice of the Bo Diddly rhythm that I have talked about frequently in our evaluation of the albums of 1964 and 1965. Special mention should also be given to Chris Hillman’s bass playing on the track and McGuinn’s heavily affected guitar solo. The song was written by American singer and songwriter Jackie DeShannon, who had several hit songs. She is best known as the singer of “What the World Needs Now is Love” and the writer of “Bette Davis Eyes.”

Track 5- “ Chimes Of Freedom” is the fourth Dylan cover on the record. The song was originally featured on Dylan’s Another Side of Bob Dylan. The song was the last track the Byrds recorded for the record. The session was full of conflict. David Crosby refused to sing on the track for some reason. It is believed that he was fighting with producer Jim Dickson. A fight between the two ensued, and Dickson tackled Crosby and sat on his chest until he relented to sing. As a result, he was included on the track, and he sang beautifully. (+)

Track 6- “Well Meet Again” puts a bow on the package of Mr. Tambourine Man with the lyrics “We’ll Meet Again.” The public certainly met the Byrds again as they continued to release records. From the song comes English songwriters Ross Parker and Norman Keen. The song was initially recorded in 1939 by Vera Lynn. The song inspired the 1943 musician film We’ll Meet Again, where Lynn played the lead role. It is an interesting choice for the album.

In Conclusion

Mr. Tambourine Man is a classic and was incredibly impactful in creating a culture for future folk-rock recordings by reinterpreting the music of Dylan and others while also showcasing the songwriting of Gene Clark and Roger (Jim) McGuinn. The Byrds' obvious admiration for the Beatles and the harmonies of the Beach Boys helped create a perfect blend geared toward the taste of many American youths in 1965. Through the unique sounds coming from McGuinn’s 12 String electric guitar and with album cuts like “Here With You” and “It’s No Use,” the Byrds also gave a preview to a move towards later 1960s psychedelic rock. In addition to support from the general public, critics and reviewers also supported the album. The Rolling Stones Album Guide gives it a perfect five-star rating. In 1991, the Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.

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