Mr. Tambourine Man: The Byrds take flyte and Dylan and the Beatles take notice

As you know, this blog deals mainly with theological issues, but I do take occasional “non-theology” breaks now and then. Last year, I reviewed all nineteen of director, Elia Kazan’s films. This year, I’m going to focus on the influential rock band, The Byrds. I’ll be writing a monthly review of one of the band’s twelve albums, beginning today with their amazing debut. But be careful, I may slip in a theological point here and there because, well, the Lord is Lord of all. P.S. Future reviews won’t include as much biographical information and will be much, much shorter.

Mr. Tambourine Man
The Byrds
Produced by Terry Melcher, Columbia Records, June 21, 1965

In 1964, folk musicians, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby individually saw the rising tide of Beatlemania and rock and roll and concluded, “the times, they are a changin’.” The trio joined forces at the Troubador Club in Los Angeles, drawn together by their common interest in creating a synthesis of folk and pop rock; in essence, combining Bob Dylan with John Lennon. The group worked on honing their unique sound for the balance of the year at World Pacific Studios under the tutelage of Svengali manager and producer, Jim Dickson. Chris Hillman (bass) and Michael Clarke (drums) were brought in to augment McGuinn on lead guitar and Crosby on rhythm guitar. Vocals were handled by McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby. The Byrds were born. Dickson had some connections to Dylan, which resulted in the group rehearsing his yet-unreleased “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Through the efforts of Dickson and with the help of Miles Davis, the Byrds were offered a contract from Columbia Records.

The Byrds entered Columbia’s Studio A in Hollywood on January 20, 1965 to record “Mr. Tambourine Man” and B-side, “I Knew I’d Want You” (by Gene Clark). Producer Terry Melcher (son of actress, Doris Day) allowed only McGuinn to play on the two tracks, relying on the “Wrecking Crew,” veteran session musicians, to fill out the instrumental backing. The rest of the songs on the “Mr. Tambourine” album were recorded from March 8 to April 22 with the band members playing the instruments.

“Mr. Tambourine Man,” the single, was released on April 12, 1965 and by June had become the #1 charting song in the U.S. Another single, “All I Really Want To Do,” with B-Side, “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” was released on June 14, but only peaked at #40 on the charts. The album was released on June 21 and peaked at #6.

Side One:

  • Mr. Tambourine Man – One of the most influential singles of the 60s; the marriage of folk and pop rock. The famous Wrecking Crew session players backed McGuinn. Rolling Stone voted the Byrds’ single version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” as song #79 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list released in 2004.
  • I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better – Gene Clark makes the best of a romantic breakup. One of his best songs. Selected as #237 on Rolling Stones’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list.
  • Spanish Harlem Incident – Another Bob Dylan tune. Nothing special.
  • You Won’t Have To Cry – Clark’s and McGuinn’s simple, Beatle-ish love song.
  • Here Without You – A great Gene Clark tune.
  • The Bells of Rhymney – The Byrds take a Scottish folk song, made famous by Pete Seeger, and rock it up. Fabulous! George Harrison borrowed the lead guitar riff for his “If I Needed Someone.”

Side Two:

  • All I Really Want To Do – Another Dylan tune. Sonny and Cher heard The Byrds do this one live and beat them to the punch by releasing their popular (#15 on the singles chart) version first.
  • I Knew I’d Want You – Another wonderful Gene Clark love song.
  • It’s No Use – Clark and McGuinn wrote this driving rocker which presages the Byrd’s “Fifth Dimension” album.
  • Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe – The Byrds pay homage to early supporter, Jackie DeShannon.
  • Chimes of Freedom – A Dylan protest song is transformed into a classic Byrds folk-rock tune.
  • We’ll Meet Again – The Byrds end the album with tongue in cheek with this British WWII song that was featured in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” (1964). The Byrds will continue to feature a novelty song at the end of their next several albums.

The following album outtakes were included in the 1996 CD reissue:

  • She Has A Way – A lovely Gene Clark tune. Too bad it didn’t make the original album in place of “We’ll Meet Again.”
  • I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better – Less polished, earlier version. Gene’s vocal is more pronounced.
  • It’s No Use – Earlier, alternate version.
  • You Won’t Have To Cry – Earlier, alternate version.
  • All I Really Want To Do – Single version.
  • You and Me – Funky instrumental credited to McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby.

From the beginning of 1964, American rock music listeners had wondered when a domestic band would rise to the challenge of the “British Invasion” (The Beatles, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, Peter and Gordon, The Yardbirds, The Zombies, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, Herman’s Hermits, etc.). “Mr. Tambourine Man” was the first noteworthy American response to the eighteen-month British domination of the pop charts. Reaction to The Byrds was immediate. Critics labeled the innovative new sound as “folk-rock.” The chiming, jingle-jangle sound of McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker combined with the soaring choir-like harmonies of McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby became The Byrds’ trademarks. Also, the adult-oriented lyrics of The Byrds’ songs were in stark contrast to the teenybopper-themed material from the other rock and roll bands of the day, including the Beatles. At a time when rock albums were usually comprised of a hit single surrounded by weak filler, this album was solid from start to finish. “Mr. Tambourine Man” directly influenced the future work of Dylan and the Beatles and spawned a myriad of imitators. By elevating rock and roll from high schoolers’ malt shops to college dormitories, The Byrds ensured rock music would be the soundtrack of the rising youth counterculture. There are only a handful of rock albums from 1965 that are worth listening to now and “Mr. Tambourine Man” is one of them. Rolling Stone magazine voted “Mr Tambourine Man” #232 on its “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time” list released in 2003.

The Byrds recorded a total of twelve albums from 1965 to 1973 and were often at the forefront of new musical styles including jazz rock, raga rock, psychedelic rock, and country rock. Four of those albums were included in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time” list: “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Younger Than Yesterday” (#124), “The Notorious Byrds Brothers” (#171), and “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (#117). Even the compilation, “The Byrd’s Greatest Hits,” made the list at #178. No other American rock and roll band from the 1960’s approaches that level of recognition. Rolling Stone also selected The Byrds as artist #45 in its “100 Greatest Artists Of All Time” list, released in 2008. In addition, Rolling Stone chose Roger McGuinn as #95 on its 2011 list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time.”

Band members dropped out (or were fired) and were replaced over the years with McGuinn being the only constant. Former Byrds went on to enjoy significant and influential careers as soloists or members of other bands, but the original Byrds will always be remembered for their pioneering accomplishments. The five founding members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 in their first year of eligibility. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame also included three Byrds recordings on its “500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll”: “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Eight Miles High,” and “Hickory Wind.”

Gene Clark (d. 1991) and Michael Clarke (d. 1993) died many years ago, but the remaining founders, McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman, have not reunited in 28 years, even for the band’s 50th anniversary in 2015, because of spiritual reasons. More on that in a future review.

Postscript: In a 1997 interview, Roger McGuinn shared an amazing insight into “Mr. Tambourine Man”:  “Underneath the lyrics to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ regardless of what Dylan meant, I was turning it into a prayer. I was singing to God and I was saying that God was the Tambourine Man and I was saying to him, ‘Hey God, take me for a trip and I’ll follow you.'” After years of living the reckless and hedonistic rock and roll lifestyle, McGuinn accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior in 1977.

10 thoughts on “Mr. Tambourine Man: The Byrds take flyte and Dylan and the Beatles take notice

    1. They were a “scurvy-looking” crew for 1965 with the long hair and turtlenecks. At that time I think the Beatles were still wearing suits and ties when they performed. Although I was only nine-years-old when “Mr. Tambourine Man” was released, I distinctly remember liking it a lot. But I didn’t become a fan of the band until my early high school years and that’s when I made multiple trips to the record store to buy the band’s back catalog.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Going to the record store used to be such a BIG thrill when I was a teen and young adult. There may have been thirty or forty in Greater Rochester at one point. Now, there’s only one that I know of.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Man…I think the closest analogy I can think of is going to a bookstore before the days of Amazon. But I think it sounds more thrilling to go to a Record store though…

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      3. I used to really enjoy flipping through all of the vinyl albums at the record store. It was definitely like an addiction. Yup, I also had a list of favorite book stores, too! We had many in town but now we’re down to a couple of Barnes and Nobles. We have a B&N only a couple of miles from us but I don’t think they can survive much longer. Even though I rarely see anything good in the “Christianity” section, once in awhile a gem shows up. I then usually go to Amazon and buy it cheaper if the library doesn’t have it.

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      4. I don’t spend anywhere near the time I used to at the bookstore either because now I can go to Amazon and see what titles are due to be published later in the year.


  1. To be clear about it — the origin of The Bells of Rhymney song is a poem by the Welsh coal miner/poet Idris Davies. Seeger set the wonderful poem to music. (That he based his music on a Scottish folk song is news to me, I’d assumed it to be original but might be mistaken there). However, whatever the case about that, it began as a poem by the Welshman, I. Davies. It’s a masterful poem, and an inspired musical setting by Seeger, eventually fashioned into a jewel-like masterpiece by the Byrds. Thanks.

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