Mr. Tambourine Man
Release Date: June 21st, 1965
Words by: Greg Webster
June 21st, 2015
In 1965, American music was becalmed. 'Beatlemania' had hit in ’64, leading to an influx of British bands like The Stones, The Animals and The Zombies. It became known as the 'British Invasion' and it almost overwhelmed American music. Then something happened to turn that around and swing the balance back somewhat. It was The Byrds.
At the heart of The Byrds was the tight, harmonized singing of Jim McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark. Having come out of the American folk scene, they 'found' each other at the Troubadour Club in West Hollywood, and discovering they were kindred spirits, decided to form a band. Massively influenced by The Beatles, they saw the film A Hard Days Night and were inspired to go out and buy new instruments - notably a 12 String Rickenbacker for McGuinn and a Gretsch Tennessean for Clark, though Crosby took it over soon after.
Their debut album Mr Tambourine Man was released on June 21, 1965 and is credited with inspiring a whole new musical genre called ‘folk-rock’. Famously, their producer Terry Melcher didn’t think the band were musically good enough to record in the studio. McGuinn was the only one allowed to play on the “Mr. Tambourine Man” single, including the B-side, "I Knew I’d Want You". Melcher organised session musicians to play on the single--a group that later became known as the Wrecking Crew. By the time they were to record the album, The Byrds had convinced Melcher that they were ready to play themselves."There’s a new thing happening, and it probably started with Bob Dylan. He gave the audience a new vocabulary, a new set of symbols to fit the feelings exploding in and around them. The Byrds take his words and put them in the framework of the beat, and make imperative the meaning of those words."
The "Mr Tambourine Man" single was released on April 12 and rocketed to number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic. When David Crosby first heard Dylan’s version he didn’t think the folky 2/4 style would work especially on radio, so The Byrds changed it to 4/4 added a 'Beatle-beat' and some guitar arpeggios at the beginning. As the opening track on the album, it is not only gorgeous but a watershed in modern music history. The jangly chiming of Mcguinn’s 12 string Rickenbacker, Larry Knetler’s distinctive and melodic bass line, lush harmonies from Clark and Crosby with Mcguinn’s voice high in the mix. At 2:20 minutes, it is the perfect pop song.
It’s followed up by Clark’s “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”, a song that launched numerous covers. The guitar riff has more than a hint of The Searchers' "Needles and Pins". The slightly ambiguous/morose chorus--"I'll probably feel a whole lot better when you’re gone"--adds indecision and emotional depth to the lyric. In fact, the prolific Clark supplies almost half the songs for the album, thus making his romantic pop sensibilities evident for all to hear.
The album contains covers of Pete Seeger and Del Shannon songs as well as three more from Dylan, including the second single "All I Really Want To Do", which opens side two. The final track is a tongue in cheek rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”. Dedicated to Stanley Kubrick, it showed, if nothing else, that The Byrds weren’t taking themselves too seriously, right down to the chorus—“Some sunny day, hey, hey, hey”. The thing that stands out most on this album is the sheer breadth of songs, as well as the jangling compressed guitar and angelic harmony singing.
The Byrds' relationship with Dylan produced some polarized responses. Were they the interpreters of Dylan or the plunderers? Did their massive success convince Dylan to go electric? Without doubt they took the thought driven music of Dylan and made it accessible to a whole new audience. The album’s liner notes capture it best:
"There’s a new thing happening, and it probably started with Bob Dylan. He gave the audience a new vocabulary, a new set of symbols to fit the feelings exploding in and around them. The Byrds take his words and put them in the framework of the beat, and make imperative the meaning of those words. And there’s an unseen drive, a soaring motion to their sound that makes it compelling, almost hypnotic sometimes. And when you listen, hear through the sound to the joy that propels it."
Listening to this album, you can’t help thinking that something very special was happening.