Remembering: The Byrds, “Mr. Tambourine Man”
by Nick DeRiso
A Bob Dylan song reimagined into something like the Beach Boys, and also something like the Beatles — and nothing like folk music — propelled the Byrds to their first No. 1.
Oh, and started the folk-rock movement. Among other things.
It begins with Roger McGuinn’s guitar, sustained and bright, which was then paired alongside a complex harmony where McGuinn and Gene Clark sang in unison. David Crosby, meanwhile, rides just above in a thrilling higher register. With that, “Mr. Tambourine Man” became the opening salvo in a debut recording which could rightly be called both one of rock music’s most interesting and influential.
The Byrds would clear the path (even if their chart dominance, and Gene Clark’s tenure, lasted ever so briefly) for a number of subsequent bands who turned the coffee-house singer-songwriter genre into chart-topping confection — focusing, as they did, on vocal interplay splashed against sunny melodies. “Mr. Tambourine Man” made Dylan a pop star of sorts, and pushed the Beatles to new places during the recording of their folky, mid-tempo “Rubber Soul.” Of course, the Byrds then later upped the ante with forays into psychedelia and country music.
This all started simply enough: The Byrds’ manager, Jim Dickson, was friends with some of Dylan’s confidants, who slipped Dickson an early dub of “Mr Tambourine Man,” featuring Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
“It was in 2/4 time, like a country kind of song,” McGuinn once said. “Ramblin’ Jack was singing high harmony in the background, and it was sort of loose, sort of fun.”
He just wasn’t sure about its Top 40 potential. Producer Terry Melcher insisted, however, that the song be included — and, curiously, also that studio musicians be used behind McGuinn’s ringing Rickenbacker 12-string, rather than the other Byrds.
As much as that must have befuddled McGuinn, Clark and Crosby, it opened up a deeper conversation about what the vocal treatment should sound like — and a new synthesis was born.
“I was shooting for a vocal that was very calculated between John Lennon and Bob Dylan,” McGuinn said. “I was trying to cut some middle ground between those two voices.”
Which is perhaps not all that surprising, since the group (formerly known as the Jet Set) had already decided to appropriate both the instrumentation and a word-play band name from the Beatles.
Meanwhile, Melcher had become enthralled with the Beach Boys‘ “Don’t Worry Baby,” and coaxed a similar backing track from a crack group of aces that included Leon Russell on electric piano, Hal Blaine on drums and Larry Knechtel on bass. (A rock fun fact: Melcher later co-wrote the 1988 No. 1 hit “Kokomo” with Beach Boys singer Mike Love along with John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas.)
There were a number of early arguments over the meaning of this tune, something Dylan didn’t clear up until the release of an extensive liner notes package with the “Biograph” boxed set in 1985.
Seems the real “Mr. Tambourine Man” was Bruce Langhorne, another session musician who appeared on a number of Dylan’s early recordings. On one, producer Tom Wilson asked Langhorne to play a tambourine — and not just any tambourine.
“It was, like, really big,” Dylan said. “It was as big as a wagon wheel. He was playing and this vision of him playing just stuck in my mind.”
Dylan has also been quick to shoot down the long-held belief that there were drug references — “disappearing through the smoke rings in my mind,” for instance — hidden away in the lyrics.
But what can’t be argued was just how wrong McGuinn had been about this song’s potential: It’s the best-selling Bob Dylan composition ever, and only 1965’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” soared higher on the Billboard charts for the Byrds.
“We thought we’d made a great record,” Crosby once said, “but we didn’t have any idea it was going to do what it did. I was really surprised. We were driving along in a black ’56 Ford station wagon when radio station KRLA played ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ three times in a row. We just sat there and drooled.”
Dylan talked about jingle-jangle mornings, but the Byrds made them happen in real life.
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