Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Byrds 1: Mr. Tambourine Man

In hindsight, it was highly improbable that the Byrds would have left such an indelible stamp on rock history. They were basically a bunch of folkies who, after seeing A Hard Day’s Night, realized they could make more money by emulating the sounds of the British Invasion. Jim McGuinn (as he was then known) took a shine to the 12-string Rickenbacker he saw George Harrison playing in the movie, so that was different. David Crosby got himself a 12-string too, but chose to concentrate on rhythm and high harmonies. Gene Clark wrote a bunch of songs but was relegated to tambourine onstage. Chris Hillman, previously a mandolinist, learned the bass quickly enough, and Michael Clarke’s haircut got him in the band as long as he learned his way around a drumkit.
Another marketing angle that would have backfired on anyone else was their access and interpretation of Bob Dylan’s songs. While the Byrds weren’t explicitly responsible for his going electric, their amplified renditions certainly proved that his appeal went far beyond the coffeehouse. As a result, folk-rock was invented.
In addition to the title track—which artfully chopped the song down from its four verses into a simple, catchy chorus-verse-chorus format—Mr. Tambourine Man offers three other Dylan classics previously known in their acoustic renditions on Another Side Of Bob Dylan. “Chimes Of Freedom”, “All I Really Want To Do” and “Spanish Harlem Incident” each gain a little something from the blend of electricity and harmonies.
To prove they were more than a jukebox, half of the album was devoted to the boy-meets-girl-loses-girl songs written by Gene Clark. The most famous is still probably “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”, noticeable from its opening suspended-A strum and its carbon-copy cover by Tom Petty. That said, “Here Without You”, “It’s No Use” and the others prove that he (and the band) were capable of creating commercial pop. Another nod to their folk routes came in their stellar arrangement of Pete Seeger’s “The Bells Of Rhymney”, which itself foreshadowed a later hit. And for another strike for the counterculture, the set closes with a cover of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”, riding the irony of its status as a wartime lament.
If there’s a clunker on the album, it’s “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe”, which they didn’t write but cheerfully recorded as a favor. But thanks to those great singles, the chiming Rickenbacker and those stellar harmonies, Mr. Tambourine Man remains a solid album. When their catalog was revamped in the mid-‘90s, there wasn’t much to add outside a few alternate takes. But Gene Clark’s “She Has A Way” deserved better than to be left in the vault, and to prove that these guys could play (despite the studio musicians used on the single) the updated CD now ends with an instrumental backing track to a song never finished.

The Byrds Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)—
1996 CD reissue: same as 1965, plus 6 extra tracks


  1. you won't have to cry was a sweet little pop song-the world needs more of them today-enjoying your site-do you do video reviews too?
    it might be an idea eg concert vids like van m.s various vids...just a thought

  2. It's certainly a possibility. Thanks for the note!