Rock Albums that Changed the World: Mr. Tambourine Man

In his book 1965, Andrew Grant Jackson asserts that this is the year that everything changes in rock music and I think he’s onto something. The Beatles kick off their brilliant middle period with the release of their first adult-oriented album, Rubber Soul. The Rolling Stones score their first worldwide smash hit with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and many more U.K. bands follow suit as the British Invasion crushes the American market at peak intensity. Signaling a shift from pop to rock, London kids start painting “Clapton Is God” on the walls of the city, so enthralled are they with his guitar playing. While in the States, folk music hero Dylan plugs in his Stratocaster and delivers not one, but two full-scale masterpiece albums in Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, both released in 1965.

And seemingly from out of nowhere, the debut album of an American band called The Byrds will make such a splash that the economic and cultural ripples will be felt for decades, in their music, but also in the effect their huge success would have on the marketplace.

From today’s perspective, understanding the impact The Byrds had on the American market in 1965 requires a good bit of imagination. We are so used to thinking of California as a main hub for American music, but that had yet to be established in the time of The Byrds. Think about it. The prime movers in rock and roll came first out of the American South and Midwest. Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash all came out of Sun Studios in Memphis. Chuck Berry came out of Chess Records in Chicago. Originally, the folk movement, both the artists and management, was firmly rooted, not in California, but in New York City. Where Los Angeles was the center of the film industry, most of the music business was run out of New York City, and moreover, aside from the Beach Boys and the surf rock acts that they directly inspired, California was not the Mecca of youth music that we think of today, at least not until The Byrds took up residence on the Sunset Strip and garnered a recording contract for themselves at CBS Records (whose offices were in New York City, by the way).

And of course, by 1963, the epicenter of rock and roll wasn’t even in America, located an ocean away with The Beatles in the United Kingdom, a lock that only strengthened over the next two years as the rest of the British Invasion sunk its teeth into the American market. When the Beatles landed in America, they only played concerts in New York and Washington D.C., and then flew to Miami to tape a follow-up appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, the first one having been taped in New York City a week earlier.

Meanwhile, way out west in Los Angeles, The Byrds began with the joining of David Crosby, Jim McGuinn, and Gene Clark in a folk outfit they dubbed The Jet Set in early 1964. Born out of a common love of folk music (each had been solo performers on the coffeehouse circuit during the folk revival movement of the early 60s) and a unique vocal blend that became part of their signature, the group’s set alternated between original songs and acoustic takes on Beatles covers, attracting manager-producer Jim Dickson who had an in at World Pacific Studios, the previously famous home of 50s West Coast cool jazz.

After failing to capitalize on the British Invasion craze by cutting a one-off rock and roll single singing with British accents under the English-sounding name, The Beefeaters, (“Please Let Me Love You” failed to chart), The Jet Set retreated to their L.A. studio to hone their own hybrid sound, intentionally bending their folk music toward rock and roll, adding drummer Michael Clarke (mostly for his good looks, Clarke being a dead ringer for Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones). Taking direct cues from The Beatles (the signature McGuinn Rickenbacker electric 12-string guitar was featured all over the A Hard Day’s Night album, as were the Gretsch Tennessean guitar that Crosby used and the Ludwig drums purchased for Michael Clarke), the group of talented singer-songwriters continued to work on their vocal harmonies and songcraft, the sessions for which could be heard originally on the Preflyte album released in 1969 and subsequently on the great sounding, recently released Preflyte Sessions. With the recruitment of one more great musician, mandolin player Chris Hillman as their bass player, the assemblage was complete. Four outstanding singer-songwriters plus a good looking drummer, the group that some would dub “the American Beatles” was ready to take flight.

Now, simultaneous with the unparalleled growth and success of The Fab Four, another genuine phenomenon in music was occurring Stateside in the form of Bob Dylan. Starting out working as a purely folk musician in the mold of Woody Guthrie, by his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), the scruffy songwriter was already revolutionizing the form with lyrics of a depth and sophistication that had not yet been seen in music for young people (remember that the folk revival explosion was music aimed at college kids and younger). The Freewheelin’ album sported no less than three full-fledged masterworks of folk music in three wildly different styles, the simple and timeless “Blowing In the Wind,” the apocalyptic symbolist epic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and the wry breakup song, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”

Dylan followed Freewheelin’ with two more powerhouse acoustic folk albums and in no time, Dylan was being heralded as “the voice of a generation,” a moniker he despised, with all of the fame, stature, and influence of The Beatles. But unlike his British counterparts, he had yet to have a #1 hit, either with one of his own recordings or with one of the countless other artists covering his songs. The closest he came was with Peter, Paul & Mary’s version of Blowin’ In the Wind which peaked at #2 on the Billboard Pop chart. By 1965, the influence and public obsession over Dylan was at a fever pitch but the true commercial potential of Dylan’s dominating presence had yet to be unlocked, a condition about to change in a big way.

Rewinding a bit to August 1964, back at World Pacific Studios, manager Jim Dickson managed to snag an acetate of a new song, “Mr. Tambourine Man” from Dylan’s publisher. Before even Dylan had himself recorded it, McGuinn and the band had applied their rock sensibility to the song, transforming the acoustic folk tune into a pop confection that even Dylan dug (“wow, you can dance to that!” was his comment when he heard it). The original demo heard on the Preflyte Sessions is marred by a military snare part, but the chiming electric 12-string is there as are a rough version of the harmonies.

On the strength of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the other World Pacific demos, the band, now renamed The Byrds (intentionally misspelled like their heroes, The Beatles), were signed to CBS Records and were assigned fledgling CBS staff producer, Terry Melcher (who happened to be the son of Doris Day). Melcher deemed McGuinn the only Byrd competent enough to play an instrument on their initial recordings and enlisted the legendary Wrecking Crew session musicians to play on their first single, “Mr. Tambourine Man” backed with the Gene Clark song, “I Knew I’d Want You,” a decision that no one complains about to this day because the results were nothing short of spectacular.

The Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” begins with only McGuinn’s signature electric 12-string figure (his own invention, not in the Dylan recording), which is then joined by octave swoops in the bass coupled with a tambourine figure, then a drum fill and the stacked vocals with a short additional rhythm guitar part playing “chinks” — creating a tiered effect that builds to a climax, the opening statement of the song’s chorus. Pretty powerful stuff — it’s a new form of music unleashed on the world, folk-rock, the blending of the two major streams of popular music exploding in the mid-60s. The single shot to #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and U.K. Singles chart, a bona-fide smash hit, and finally, the arrival of a vital and enthusiastic American response to the dominance of the British Invasion.

And the opening song is anything but a one-off. “Mr. Tambourine Man” clocks in at 2:29 (McGuinn sings only one Dylan’s many verses), and right away we’re into Gene Clark’s spectacular rocker “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” providing a template for power pop as well as any early Beatles or Kinks song. Much ink has been spilled on the influence of The Byrds on Tom Petty — this is the only Byrds cover Petty ever released as a studio recording. Beyond the power of the hooks, the infectious beat, and the tightly composed lyrics, the guitar solo is my vote for the prototype electric 12-string passage in The Byrds’ catalog. A killer opening, look no further for an example of The Byrds vision of folk-rock than tracks 1 and 2 off their debut album.

There are a total of four Dylan covers on the album, each reinventing the song by removing the breathless passion that Dylan brings to his own works and adding a cool steadiness and the Byrds’ own pop sensibility and sonic imprimatur of chiming guitars and their unique harmonized vocals. They even re-composed part of the original melody of “All I Really Want To Do” in order to structure a bridge for the song (one assumes with the writer and publishers’ permission). All four Dylan covers on Mr. Tambourine Man are essential parts of The Byrds’ canon, but I’m particularly moved by “Chimes of Freedom,” possibly because the song itself is one of his very best and McGuinn retains some of the original Dylan passion in his vocal performance. Clocking in at 3:54, it’s a marathon compared to the rest of the album. Hey, it was 1965.

Despite having a unified, cohesive sound, The Byrds do bring an eclecticism to their early albums (I personally think of the first four, with the original members, as a whole though Gene Clark had left the group by Younger Than Yesterday). There’s a humorous rendition of the WWII-era song, “We’ll Meet Again,” which was featured in the biting comedy, Dr. Strangelove of the previous year, but even more significant is the inclusion of Byrds’ electrified version of the folk ballad, “The Bells of Rhymney,” which serves to introduce the English folk genre to the American rock audience. Beyond its significance, the track is just flat-out gorgeous with its bell-like chiming guitars and unique harmony vocals — a moving example of the sonic mission of this seminal American band:

Ever since the seismic event of The Beatles’ 1963 appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, rock bands had been cropping up in every major American city and all through the countryside. By 1965, newly affluent teenagers with money in their pockets were becoming a felt presence in the economy and youth was emerging as a force in the culture. With L.A. being the 2nd largest U.S. city, it may have been inevitable that Hollywood’s Sunset Strip would become a major counter-cultural focal point, so it’s not a surprise that the nightclubs and restaurants, once the haunt of the movie industry glitterati of the 30s and 40s started booking young bands in the mid-60s in an attempt to attract the burgeoning youth market hungry for rock and roll. Starting with cover bands that only played radio hits for dancing, an L.A. rock scene soon developed, The Byrds playing a key role. After their debut album had been recorded for CBS, and while awaiting its release, McGuinn and the band took up residency at Ciro’s on the Sunset Strip, playing their original music and rocked-up Dylan covers to packed crowds. It wasn’t long before bands like Buffalo Springfield, Love, and eventually The Doors had similar residencies along the Sunset Strip, Los Angeles and soon San Francisco became prime breeding grounds for label signings, Laurel Canyon and Topanga became Meccas for songwriters, and a full-blown California rock scene emerged where there once was none.

Folk-rock may have started out in a Frankenstein’s lab with the grafting together of two genres, but The Byrds breathed life into the new form. Their first four albums with the original lineup are uniformly excellent (my favorite is their 3rd, Fifth Dimension) and the best part of their story is that the band’s primary influence, The Beatles were themselves inspired by the folk-rock they heard coming out of California. You can hear the influence of The Byrds explicitly in If I Needed Someone and Nowhere Man, but I think it’s pervasive — at a certain point, it’s hard to separate out which group is influencing the other. Musically, I think it’s safe to say that The Byrds were among the most influential bands of their time and echoes of their jangly folk-rock can be heard across the musical landscape of rock among their contemporaries, but far into the future as well.

That jangly sound that the group that would become The Byrds cooked up in their private lab in World Pacific Studios would be adopted as a basic element in the language of rock, still heard to this day. The breakout success of their first single established a new genre that immediately became dominant and by providing an American response to the British Invasion, The Byrds kicked off a major phenomenon in the economics of music, the California rock scene. The hallmark of the group is fine musicianship and savvy pop sensibilities with an ear toward a new sound, but maybe the most important element of the success of The Byrds was timing, coming together when they did, working out their sound in the luxury of a professional studio, and bursting out with their brilliant single and debut album in 1965, that momentous year when everything changed in rock.

Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels