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The Byrds “Mr Tambourine Man” (1965)
Mr Tambourine Man/I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better/Spanish Harlem Incident/You Won’t Have To Cry/Here Without You/The Bells Of Rhymney//All I Really Want To Do/I Knew I’d Want You/It’s No Use/Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe/Chimes Of Freedom/We’ll Meet Again
We seem to be asking you to do a lot of time travel on this site of late, but bear with me because it’s important for understanding the impact ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ had at the time it came out. It’s 1965, you’re a teenager or at the very least a music-interested youth and chances are you’re American. You’ve watched the British Invasion take over your shores for a full year now and, frankly, it’s all looking a bit tired. Part of you wants the British Invasion to run forever and the rest of you frankly think it s all starting to look a bit tired. After that sudden adrenalin rush when you realised that the Beatles had already released so many albums before you even knew the name (begged, borrowed or stolen from local record shops and/or relatives so you could keep up to date with everything) and you’d been to see ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ five times things were falling a bit flat reduced to one Beatles LP every six months and two singles if you were lucky. During Christmas 1964 you’d conned your parents into buying ‘Beatles For Sale’, with its tired jaded overworked Beatles front cover and – by Beatles standards – tired, jaded cover versions and weird country-ish originals, which put you off slightly ever asking again and if you stayed around long enough for ‘Help!’ both the film and the soundtrack album seemed a little light on their feet, less the exciting energy rush of old than an attempt by older, wiser, tireder Beatleheads trying to remember how they used to come up with product (at least that’s the general view – see review no 3 for why, with the benefit of 40 years hindsight, we no longer agree to this view). Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Searchers are the first to go from the front ranks of the British Invasion, other like The Roling Stones, The Kinks, The Hollies and The Who won’t be household names for a while yet and even The Beatles have let you down. It’s time for something new.
Or at least some clever spin on what’s already been successful. When The Byrds came out with ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ the single they singlehandedly created a new sound by default, straight down the middle between the exciting rock and roll of the Beatles and the meaningful folk of Bob Dylan, the other big hit of the early 60s. Both factions existed in very different corners back then and yet both sounds were very contemporary. Frankly sticking the two together was genius, with a sound so recognisably new and yet so revolutionary all at the same time it was inevitable it would become a big hit. So much so that soon after this record came out The Beatles started digging Dylan and Dylan turned ‘Judas’ on the folk scene by becoming electric. Folk-rock was, in one neat half-hour long package, inevitable and suddenly everywhere. If you’re American then you’re probably also a teensy bit pleased by this outcome, after a year of hearing how great Great Britain is, to finally have a band of your own to worship and together with those clothes, those sunglasses, that cape and that amazing hair The Byrds simply had to be your new favourite group if you were a suggestive youngster in 1965. When this first record comes out in June 1965 (a couple of weeks before ‘Help!’ the album) the Byrds successfully proved that the single wasn’t just a one-off but that they could successfully meet halfway on everything, making pretty much the world’s first folk-rock album (though Bert Jansch has a claim to that too, he didn’t get as much publicity or convert as many people back in 1965).
However, zooming forward to 2012, it’s often hard to hear what the fuss is all about. We’ve heard the title track a million times now on the radio and old clips shows to the point where what once looked new and daring and the next word in cool just looks like silly and badly mired in time. We’ve also heard so many albums pitching their styles somewhere in between Dylan and the Beatles since this one, many of them doing it better, that we’ve become somewhat blasé to the true power of this record (the other 12 Byrds albums don’t help, although to be fair they end up heading more towards psychedelia, country, pure rock and whatever the hell the rock-classical sound on ‘Byrdmaniax’ is meant to represent). After decades of reading about the back-biting of this band and the sheer amount of power struggles that went on you also get a bit distracted, going ‘ooh this is a McGuinn bit!’ and ‘gosh what a lot of Gene Clark’ rather than seeing the Byrds as a unified honest-to-God all-in-it-together band as they seemed once at the very beginning. By comparison with later Byrds albums there’s also one heck of a lot of filler on ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ the album, with far too many cover versions and some truly unsuitable choices of material (always a problem with The Byrds and their eclectic bunch of influences, even for a band in the 60s) and here in the 21st century you could put a case together that ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ is the most bitty and most disappointing of all Byrds albums, if only because we’ve read so much about this album before buying it that we were expecting something magical and, well, timeless. In the end ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ simply sounds like the archetypal product of the year 1965, rather than the future as it used to sound once.
But there’s a case to be made that an album deserves its place in your record collection simply because of the huge influence it holds over the next sway of records, however badly it ages itself. Let me re-iterate again: in 1965 this was the record to have. Owning it meant you were, gulp, cool (not a word we use very much on this site because, well, we don’t believe in it as a concept very often but if you were young in 1965 then The Byrds were cool, in a way that modern supposedly ‘cool’ bands like The Arctic Monkeys and even Oasis that even your granny quite liked on the quiet never actually were), part of the ‘next great thing’, a thinking man’s band as well as those of a rocker and enjoyer of pop. ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ is the sound of too many childhoods and way too many teenage crushes and romances for me to knock it completely here, so simply remember this: as ever with this site this is me looking from the outside in and trying to make sense of it all (and yearning to be one of the cool kids back in 1965 when being cool didn’t mean hanging out, travelling around in gangs and being rude to people who weren’t as cool as you were).
One of the reasons this album took off the way it did was surely because of the liner notes on the back sleeve. Now that might sound strange to the I-pod and even the CD generation, who might never actually look at the booklet with their purchases at all (the small type doesn’t help much either with The Byrds guiltier of this in their re-issues than most). But back in the 60s people did hang out in record shops to look at records with their friends to look at the backs of vinyl albums and they then read them avidly again when they got home and had to wait for their parents to go out to get access to the stereo. Billy James, the publicist at record label Columbia, excelled himself on this record, making this then-unknown and un-tested band sound like a club you just had to be a part of, painting a romantic picture of how the band met at the Ciro’s Club (we now know that the three main Byrds distrusted each other on sight) and some classic Byrds quotes about their music being part of a new exciting ‘jet age sound’ going ‘kkkkkkrrrrrriiiiiiiisssssssssshhhhhh’ and oh so very different to the ‘aeroplane rrrrrroar of the 1940s’ (nowadays in the 21st century all we’ve got is industrial computerised noise and thudding inhuman mechanical rhythms, so that our modern equivalent is simply an unappetising thuddthuddthudd, not that I’m jealous of the jet age sound era or anything, honest). For an ‘adult’ to ‘get’ these facts enough to put them on the sleeve of a debut album by an unknown group is insight indeed and the fact that James goes on to add ‘there’s a new thing happening...with an unseen drive that makes it compelling, almost hypnotic sometimes’ is enough to make the listener salivate, never mind want to buy the record and could easily pass muster as a marketing technique on any new product in any era. (That said I’m less sure about the quoted lines about the Byrds being ‘orange and green and yellow and near’ – which sounds like a fan with a bad case of synesthesia to me; Tony Barrow’s liner notes for the first few Beatles records are an under-rated part of their success too by the way and we ought to mention them more on this site but I’m running out of records so thought I’d mention it here).
By the way, all is not as it appears, as ever with the Byrds story. We know now thanks to various biographies, interviews and sleeve-notes down the years that the vision for a folk-rock hybrid was manager Jim Dickson’s idea, not the band’s. In fact when he tried to get them to record ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (Dylan didn’t release his version till after the Byrds’ had become a single, incidentally, so it was even more fresh and new back then) the band hated it and sulked, before being forced into recording it if they ever wanted to work again. As it happens the band were still so young and untested that only McGuinn (who’d played back-up on a handful of Bobby Darin recordings, amongst others) was allowed to play on the single (none of the other Byrds had experience of making records by that time – bear this in mind next time you hear the Byrds’ put-down of The Monkees’ ‘So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ for the heinous crime of – shock, horror – only playing on some of their own records; that said they do play on the rest of the album despite what some guide-books will tell you), with the as-yet non singing Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke not even at the session. If you look closely at the Byrds’ history then you’ll also realise that they had very different tastes and backgrounds to the folk-rockers the press had them pegged as (McGuinn loved folk and got into rock because of circumstances – the opposite is true in Crosby’s case; Hillman, meanwhile, was a bluegrass mandolin player when he joined the band as bassists and Michael Clarke? Well, back then he was still hired as the drummer because he had a great haircut, not because he was particularly enamoured of music). In other words, the early Byrds success can be attributed to the abilities of those around The Byrds and whilst they were hardly puppets in the ‘Spice Girls’ bracket (and the Byrds do go on to forge their own destiny, as early as 1966) both Dickson and James should get a long-delayed bow for their part in creating that image that everyone wanted to be a part of come 1965 and in many ways the success of this album is more down to them than the band.
Only Gene Clark fits the criteria of folk-rock hybrid properly and it’s no surprise that his contributions on this record are all the album highlights. There was never another singer-songwriter like Gene Clark, who somehow managed the difficult knack of writing Dylan-ish songs with a beat seemingly overnight and seemingly a year earlier than anyone else, McGuinn and Crosby included (you can hear how quickly he gets to grips with the new ‘style’ his manager wants on the Byrds early recordings released as both ‘Preflyte’ and ‘In The Beginning’). Quite frankly, Gene’s role on this album is astonishing: he’s the de facto vocalist on half the album and the songwriter for much of it too, despite never having a single publishing credit to his name before joining the Byrds (or ‘The Beefeaters’ or ‘The Jetset’ , both early names for the band). He’s also handling learning the cruel business of rejection well, having been booted off rhythm guitar by David Crosby despite at that stage being a better player (when Hillman came along he got booted off bass too). The other’s response to his sudden shining talent was unusually harsh; aghast at the extra money Gene was making from songwriting they pretty much ostracised the singer and have been down-playing his role in the band ever since.
For all that, though, Gene is clearly the star of this album for 21st century ears. Amazingly, this is the first album we’ve covered on this site to feature a ‘proper’ Gene Clark contribution (‘8 Miles High’ being the exception). Frankly, that’s not fair – his talent meant we should have expected one hell of a lot more of him (and indeed, if this site lasts long enough I hope to be looking at his solo career as well as his two Byrds LPs in time) and its strange in hindsight that he wasn’t groomed as the band’s big star at the time, like McGuinn or Crosby. That said, both of those figures were very clear in their desire to be famous – Gene by contrast was an artist’s artist, in music simply for the recognition and inability to do anything else in life far more than he was in it for the fame, money and chicks, in a nutshell everything the band’s managers and hangers-on were prepared to get for him; like Dylan they simply didn’t know how to handle such a shy and complicated figure and even this early on it must have been clear that he had a far less robust temperament than either McGuinn or Crosby.
Biographers famously call the McGuinn-Crosby feud ‘ice versus fire’, with McGuinn’s aloofness meeting Crosby’s fiery temper head-on in power struggles for the band that seemed to be endless (though in fact only lasted three years before Crosby was kicked out of the band), but if so then Gene Clark is the ‘earth’ of the band, offering the real emotion and direction of the band in its early days. It somehow makes sadly perfect sense that Gene spent most of his short time with the band (leaving in early 1966) as the forgotten Byrd, ridiculed by the bigger egos of McGuinn and Crosby (there’s a story that the pair used to try and split Gene up with his girlfriends, simply he could go away and write another moody song to fill up their LPs, which tells you much about their behaviour in this period) and left out of their proper legacy as late as the 1990s (the first Byrds box set ‘Timeless Flight’ is a masterpiece in re-writing history, with only four of Gene’s songs on there – the same amount as even more ‘forgotten’ members John York, Gene Parsons and Skip Battin from much later and poorer-selling Byrds albums). Now many fans rate Gene as a forgotten genius because of the whacking great huge epicness of some of his small handful of solo albums (‘No Other’ is now seen as his greatest masterpiece with ‘White Light’ aka ‘Gene Clark’ lagging slightly behind), but for me it’s his most understated and humblest moments that inspire me the most (the 1970s outtakes album ‘Roadmaster’ or the soon-to-be-released-on-CD-for-the-first-time ‘Two Sides To Every Story’ from 1977). Thankfully most of the song on these first two Byrds albums are humble, excellent story-songs that talk about doomed romances, betrayal and loss, sounding deeper than Beatles lyrics of the day but more comprehensible and identifiable than Dylan. If you know any of Gene Clark’s songs and aren’t a major fan then chances are you’ll know the songs from this album which really struck a chord with the psyche of a generation and all three songs (and two co-writes with McGuinn) are the very best this album has to offer. Whilst the less-than-helpful support from early 20-something bandmates clamouring for the limelight Gene didn’t want seems easy to understand, not least because none of them actually knew Gene that well (The Byrds never were one of those bands who did everything together and had been through hell and high water before finding fame– in fact they were heading in different directions from each other even before this first record was made), it’s still a shame. Gene Clark deserved to be a star and even if he never wanted the attention in life he deserves it now, some 21 years after his death and his solo albums are in desperate need of a proper re-issue and re-appraisal.
There is one thing Clark, Crosby and McGuinn could manage together though and that was sing. Harmonies were still comparatively new in pop music in 1965, with at best only The Everly Brothers and (just about time-wise) The Beach Boys making singing harmony parts in counterpart popular before the Beatles came along. The chance to hear three such very different accents (McGuinn’s Chicago, Crosby’s California and Clark’s Missouri ) working in tandem and sounding this deliberately American was every bit as influential as the folk-rock arrangements this album is praised for. Crosby already sounds like one of the best harmony singers in rock and roll, back when his voice was effortlessly angelic and cute (before the bad boy tendencies gave his vocals a slight edginess) and McGuinn’s unique drawl gave the songs a real energy, but yet again its Gene Clark’s deep grave tones that give these first two Byrds albums their unique edge and gravitas. All future Byrds albums feature breath-taking vocal arrangements somewhere down the line and Hillman will follow Gene Clark’s deeper style so well from fourth album ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ onwards that many fans simply don’t notice the change, but no later Byrds recordings match these first two albums (and contemporary singles) for well-crafted vocal arrangements, lushness and crisp originality. Frankly, the band never spent this much time working together again and that’s a loss to our record collections and their legacy.
It’s also worth noting how impressive McGuinn’s guitar sound is throughout this album. Often erroneously praised as inventing the whole jingly-jangly sound of this era (not true, The Searchers had been doing it for two years before this), McGuinn nevertheless takes his playing further than anyone had ever gone, especially on his showcase ‘The Bells of Rhymney’, which is an obvious stepping stone towards psychedelia. In fact let’s take a wider view on that: one of the things this album is often praised for is the sound of the thing. No other album (except successor ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’) features this album’s lively mix of Rickenbacker guitar (filtered through echo chambers to sound huge), pitter-patter drumming and lush harmonies, but with an edge. Both ‘Tambourine Man’ and ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ have a sound unique to them and they manage to elevate even the worst fare here (though sitting through ‘We’ll Meet Again’ is still something of a slog). Usually when bands stumble across ‘their’ sound it happens after years of work and a series of mis-steps gradually working towards a goal (The Small Faces, The Who) – what’s unique about The Byrds was that is seemed to arrive out of the blue. Whilst the heavily Beatlesy early recordings made in 1963-64 and released as ‘Pre-Flyte’ and ‘In The Beginning’ show a real skill in songwriting there’s a chasm between how they sound and how this album sounds. That’s partly down to the band knowing each other better as a group (Michael Clarke famously played on cardboard boxes in the band’s early days because they couldn’t afford a proper drum kit for him), partly because of strong engineering by Columbia’s Dave Hassinger but mainly because something about the folk-rock tag ‘clicks’. If nothing else this album sounds impressively similar throughout, despite a grab-bag of material dating back to the 1930s, and that’s impressive considering we’re still in the days when the major studios still expected rock and roll to be a passing fad about to die at any minute.
Going back to those early recordings, one puzzling thing about this album is what great tracks got left out. ‘She Has A Way’ ‘Boston’ ‘The Reason Why’ ‘For Me Again’ ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Ways Away’ ‘The Only Girl I Adore’ (all Gene Clark songs) ‘You Showed Me’ (Clark-McGuinn) and ‘The Airport Song’ (Crosby’s first composition) are all first-rate songs written before this album and available on ‘Preflyte’ ‘In The Beginning’ or – in the case of the first track – as a bonus track on the latest CD re-issue of the album. Whilst I understand why the band were reluctant to let Clark dominate the writing credits so much, ‘Boston’ would have been more of a surefire success than any of Gene’s songs for the album, a cracking Beatlesy rocker and ‘Tomorrow’ is perhaps the pinnacle of the whole Dylan-meets-Beatles idea, catchy but thoughtful with some words that for my money better Bob Dylan’s often eccentric prose. Crosby’s ‘The Airport Song’ is a gem too, the first inkling of the characteristically bizarre tunings he’ll make famous with CSN and better than anything Crosby will write for the band until at least 1967. ‘You Showed Me’, while not as classic as these three songs, is also a better fir for the album and a better song all round than either of the two McGuinn-Clark songs that made the album ‘You Won’t Have To Cry’ and ‘It’s No Use’. Had the Byrds had more clout within the industry, perhaps by making one of their songs the first single, then this debut album could easily have become the first debut album by a band ever to be made up of all their songs: they certainly had the talent for it and I’d gladly take any of the above list over any of the slightly dull cover versions on this record, yes even the title track.
But that said, would this album have been quite so influential without the rockier updates of not only Dylan but Pete Seeger and Vera Lynn? (whereas by contrast they added folk overtones to rocker and early band supporter Jackie De Shannon). We’re back to where we came in again; if you were a kid in 1965 then this album is the best thing that could ever have happened, but come to it now as a bitten record collector anxious to find out what all the fuss is about and you might be a bit disappointed. Revolutionary in it’s day, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ deserves huge respect for being the first of its kind – but personally I don’t buy the idea that this album is the best of it’s kind too. The album’s simply heading in too many different directions (depending on whether Crosby or Clark and, to a lesser extent for now, Crosby are in control) and plays it safe too many times. Once, though, this album was the future – and it’s not the fault of Mr Tambourine Man that we’ve heard that future done so many times now that this album suddenly sounds like the past. ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ is often rated as one of the very best and most complete debut albums ever made, but if that’s true then its down to Gene’s songwriting and McGuinn’s guitar – at this stage McGuinn simply can’t keep pace and Crosby and Hillman haven’t even written their first song for the band yet. There is still much here to recommend and whether you’re a connoisseur of The Beatles, Dylan or The Byrds themselves then you still need to own this record to hear what else could be done with those influences.
The album starts, sensibly enough, with the title track. I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest Dylan fan in the world and I don’t consider this one of his strongest songs, but the Byrds version somehow manages to turn a quite difficult (even for Dylan) piece of prose into a proper sing-along hit without softening the impact of the words or the strangeness of the song as a whole. Few other pop songs in 1965 got away with lines about ‘trips on magic swirling ships’ where ‘senses have been stripped’ and ‘hands can’t feel to grip’. The words seem wrong for a ‘pop’ song and in fact the whole song structure has to be extended (as it is in many Dylan songs) to make sense for the sheer size and impact of the words. Just take a look at the first verse, where normally you’d expect an AABB rhyming scheme but no – the lines just keep on coming (AAAABCCCCD). Elsewhere the words are mystifyingly odd, seeming to tell the story of rock and roll musicians in words that have never been used to discuss ‘popular’ music before, with the tambourine player turned from a man tapping a bit of animal skin stretched over wood into the most important figure of his own day, with the narrator vowing to follow him to the bitter end. Of course, The Byrds had to ‘clean’ the song up a bit for airplay purposes (have you heard the original?!) and drop four of perhaps the most interesting verses. For the sake of clarity (and to show just how unruly the full version of this song truly is) here they are:
“Though you might hear laughin', spinnin', swingin' madly across the sun,
It's not aimed at anyone, it's just escapin' on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin'.
And if you hear vague traces of skippin' reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it's just a ragged clown behind,
I wouldn't pay it any mind, it's just a shadow you're
Seein' that he's chasing.
Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”
That last line is a particularly interesting one. Gene Clark’s song in particular but many other Byrds lyrics play with the notions of time – hence our allusions to time travel at the start of this review. Like The Byrds’ music, Dylan’s words are obsessed with the exciting ‘now’, the newness all around him that leaves him wanting more and his thought processes only catch up and turn these things into ‘memories’ when the fun exciting times are over. As a result, I’d have liked to have heard more urgency in the backing track (not by the Byrds, remember, barring McGuinn’s guitar) and especially the vocals, where Crosby and Clark sound asleep at times. McGuinn’s lead, though, is one of his finest, drawing all that’s spooky and strange in Dylan’s lyric and delivering them with the right shade of earnestness and mocking humour. In fact, considering that they hated the song and only recorded it after heavy record company pressure, they get this still unreleased song’s exotic and slightly dangerous air spot-on. Personally I’ve heard this song so often that its often stilted air seems to get in the way of its pioneering aspects rather too much, but back in the day a song this different and yet still this catchy must have sounded like it was from another planet and I’m not surprised it was a big hit. It’s also rather better than the other two Dylan tracks on the album, ones which simply seek to simply tidy up Dylan’s often off-putting and deliberately un-musical song structure and vocals on rather generic pop songs rather than adding the exotic and dangerous airon a song that appears, to all intents and purposes, to be about the kind of new electric sound the Byrds have come to represent. By the way that’s Leon Russell playing organ on this track (and the forthcoming ‘I Knew I’d Want You’), long before his solo career and performance at George Harrison’s Bangladesh Benefit Concert.
Better still is ‘Feel A Whole Lot Better’, probably Gene Clark’s most famous moment with The Byrds and a sensible choice as b-side to the ‘Tambourine’ single. Clark’s vocal is delicious, relishing the chance to say goodbye and good riddance to someone whose let him down but it’s the band’s harmonies and McGuinn’s classy guitar work that the listener remembers. For such an early song this is a pivotal one indeed, featuring many of the things people associate most with The Byrds and is easily the best performance on this first album, with even Michael Clarke’s often shaky drums sounding at home on the very Beatlesy 4/4 time drum rolls. As a composition it somehow manages to be an even more halfway house between Dylan and The Beatles than the title track, with a driving tempo and easy-to-follow lyric that nevertheless still digs deeper than most British Invasion songs of the period. The song’s lines about falsehoods and deception aren’t that common in other songs of 1965 and the very fact that the narrator is explaining his actions to his girl at all after she’s obviously wronged him is way ahead of its time (to be fair, the narrator sounds as if he’s talking to himself in places and working out what to say to his girl later but even this is pretty rare by 1965 standards – compare with The Beatles’ comparatively nasty lyric to ‘Run For Your Life’ a full five months after this album’s release). Listen too to the chorus where Gene sings ‘I’ll probably...’ before the title line, a moment of doubt in a song that otherwise sounds certain and determined that really gives it an edge (it helps that gene sings those lines solo and quietly, almost to himself before the rest of the band kick in and drive him onwards). An impressive surge of energy and thoughtfulness all tied together with perhaps the best hookline of any Byrds record, this song should have been an A-side and not just a well-loved b-side.
Alas the cover of Dylan’s ‘Spanish Harlem Incident’ isn’t so impressive. McGuinn either doesn’t understand uncle Bob’s lyrics or doesn’t identify with them as much as other Dylan songs the Byrds tackle over the years and the rather timid arrangement doesn’t add anything to the original except a rather more listenable vocal-line. In fact, in places the Byrds’ harmonies sound dangerously close to ‘square’ 1950s territory, singing in simple thirds for most of the song – something that’ll become a huge no-no as the sixties get into their stride (Crosby sounds especially wooden here). You can hear the original on ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’ and its far from its author’s best song but at least he gets to sing it with some conviction – The Byrds simply sound lost, covering up their confusion with large dollops of jangly Rickenbacker guitar and a rather irritating tambourine part that’s been mixed way too high. In retrospect a curious decision, given that the band could have chosen one of any number of Dylan songs to cover – it doesn’t say much for them or for Dylan himself that the latter actually liked their version of this song and then promptly dropped it from his concert sets the minute the band’s version came out.
‘You Won’t Have To Cry’ is a pretty song by McGuinn and Clark. Whilst the pair have never really spoken about how they worked together for this short period it sounds to me like the main melody of the tune and the whole of the middle eight are Clark’s territory (with a similar stop-start rhythm quality to his other songs on this album), whilst McGuinn contributes the far more catchier lyrics and chorus, which are perhaps the most Beatles-influenced recordings the band ever released in their original lifetime (though some of the earlier, unreleased till the 1980s recordings are more heavily influenced still). The result is a pretty song, rattled off with some nice touches such as McGuinn’s opening slashed guitar chords and the sudden addition of Crosby’s harmonies in the second half of the chorus, but one that only truly comes alive on the middle eight, when Clark’s growl naturally takes over the song on lines about the upset that caused the row rather than the narrator trying to put it right. The lyrics are a touch trite (‘Put your faith in me and girl you will see’) but yet again are ahead of their time in that the narrator openly admits his faults and apologises for them, promising to put things right by song’s end (indeed, it sounds like it belongs to the end of a ‘personal journey’ musical than a pop album from 1965). That said, this song is still not as deep or as original as Clark’s other songs on the album and you wish that McGuinn had kept his distance, letting Clark add more touches of his own to the song.
‘Here Without You’ is a case in point and my candidate for the best song on the album. Clark’s narrator really pulls at the heart-strings on a song of loss where nothing feels forced and the melody-line really does sound like a spurned lover in a depressed frame of mind. Gene Clark never had much luck with his romances his whole life through and that inner torment really comes to life on this gorgeously crafted song where a voyage through the streets where the two lovers used to be happy seems to mock him as he passes through them. This is deep stuff indeed for mid-1965 and the unexpected emphasise on the lines ‘it’s so hard...’ is a masterstroke, underlying just how genuine this song is. Clark’s vocal is terrific too and very much the equal of the song, tugging at the song’s notes rather than skating across them effortlessly as Crosby’s harmony line does (for once there’s no McGuinn vocal on the track) and adding such melancholy you feel the whole song is going to sink like a stone. It doesn’t, thanks to a marvellously uplifting middle eight that surges through the speakers and all but pleads ‘Though I know it won’t last, I’ll see you someday...’ Like the narrator, though, the song simply ends up back in the same cul-de-sac and instead of a happy ending we get the first verse repeated again, a classic bit of songwriting from a man well ahead of the pack. The one element of this song that doesn’t quite make it is Crosby’s vocal – those of you who’ve come to this review from any of my dozens of jaw-dropping how-does-he-do-that? Crosby/Crosby-Nash/CSN/CSNY reviews will wonder how I have the nerve to criticise one of my biggest ever heroes but Crosby in this early period just hasn’t got into the art of singing yet. His work here is beautiful by itself but it’s the wrong part to go with Gene’s depression, sounding too nice and sugar-coated, until the middle eight at least where he plays a tug-of-war with Gene’s vocal. How shocking that both Byrds will be gone just two years on from recording this track...
Side one ends with ‘The Bells Of Rhymney’, a traditional song smartened up by folk legend Pete Seeger and subjected here to perhaps the greatest re-working of any Byrds cover. Apparently The Byrds had only just started playing this song in their set-lists when they recorded this take (unlike most of the rest of this album, some of which went back two years to when the band were the trio ‘The Jetset’), which is impressive given that its another of the strongest band performances here and Clarke’s frenetic but controlled drumming, with its sudden full stops and crashes back into the song, is as good as he ever gets. Most commentators marvel at how The Byrds manage to ‘electrocute’ such a sad and serious song into such an upbeat cover version but, by contrast, its the fact that the Byrds manage to keep the severity and solemnity of the song intact that impresses me most. Despite the bouncy guitar lick and closing chord ripped off The Beatles’ ‘Eight Days A Week’, the mood is terribly doom-laden with McGuinn and Clark’s shared vocal very bass-heavy and the lines about the church-bells tolling for the deaths of innocent Welsh villagers left intact. The best part of the song though is the greatest re-invention, when the band close out the song with a rather nervous sounding ‘ah-ah-ah-ah-ahhhhh’ in a troubled minor key, before answering with a rather more determined and together major key ‘ahhhhhhhhh’, which has the musical effect of sounding like a rainbow coming out after a bad storm. Apparently the Byrds took a lot of time and effort trying to phonetically pronounce the Welsh towns in the song but still got it wrong – I’m no Welsh linguist either but apparently the title is pronounced ‘Rime-ney’ (as in ‘time-say’), not ‘rhim-knee’.
Side two starts with second single and third Dylan cover ‘All I Really Want To Do’. For many years the legend has gone that Sonny and Cher caught the band in concert at their equivalent of The Cavern (Ciro’s nightclub) shortly after ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ became a hit and that the duo copied the whole Byrds arrangement of this song for their own. In fact whilst the two songs came out closely together The Byrds got their first and had peaked the week before Sonny and Cher’s version came out. While better than the duo’s and just about having the edge over Dylan’s original too, this is another case of wrong band wrong song. McGuinn flounders with the lyrics, which suddenly sound too trite and poppy when heard without Dylan’s gruff vocals attached, and the band sound far too sunny for a song that’s really about frustration and last chances for a relationship. McGuinn memorably fluffed the song’s lines on the most often broadcast clip of The Byrds (for TOTP during their visit to Britain) and you sense the band needed longer to do their homework before taping it to begin with. That said, Crosby’s falsetto middle eight (‘I don’t want to take you out...’) is genuinely spine-tingling and the sudden unexpected shift of keys that navigate back to the song’s main riff via some full-throttle band harmonies is genuinely exciting. The trouble is that’s all there is to get excited about – and even Dylan was said to be upset about this recording (Dylan being Dylan he preferred the inferior Sonny and Cher version!) By the way, the alternate take used for the single version has a few subtle differences, as you can hear if you own the latest CD re-issue (I don’t as it happens, so I’m writing from memory here, forgive me if I get it wrong!) most notably the opening ungrammatical line ‘I ain’t looking...’ replaced with the far more English-teacher-pleasing ‘I’m not going to...’ and a slightly faster tempo. The jury’s still out which version is better, though, as it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to the song.
‘I Knew I’d Want To’ is another classy Gene Clark ballad, not quite up to ‘Here Without You’ but still impressively inventive for a song of this vintage. This time Crosby’s harmony piece simply makes the song, offering a melancholy counterpart to Clark’s more straightforward lead and showing more of the jazz tinges common to his later work. Lyrically this song sounds like the earlier ‘hello’ to ‘Here Without You’s ‘goodbye’ with some classy lines about how unique this relationship is (‘I felt so close to you...’) and the never-before-felt feeling coursing through the narrator’s veins that ‘I knew I’d want you...just by looking at you’. There’s also a –for those times – second edgy reference to a ‘trip’ which, like the line on ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ somehow managed to get past the censors (they weren’t so kind with Jefferson Airplane who used the same word on a single in 1966!) With a lyric like that, which never departs from that feeling of love, you’d expect the melody to be more like ‘You Won’t Have To Cry’ but no – what we get is a tour de force of crashing, convulted and angular melody lines that reach for lower and lower notes during the course of the song, as if the narrator is reaching deep into his soul. There’s also a really ominous air, heard in both the solemnity of the vocal arrangement (just contrast the way they sing the Beatley ‘oh yeah-eh’ on the unexpected downbeat during the last note in the song to the joyous way they sang the line earlier on the album) and the slowness of the tempo. In fact if this song has a precursor its The Beatles and particularly John Lennon’s similarly complicated ‘Not A Second Time’ (from ‘With The Beatles’) and ‘oh no not again’ sums the feeling of both tracks up quite well. Even Crosby, never the most supportive of songwriters in his Byrds days, admired this song and the way it managed to stay simple despite some very complicated movements across chords quite rightly so – this is another Gene Clark tour de force and amazingly his third outright classic on this album.
Alas his last song ‘It’s No Use’, co-written with McGuinn again, is not up to that high standard. It’s more abrasive than the other early Byrds songs and is similar in many ways to the band’s earlier song ‘Boston’ (though sacrificing that song’s joy for more weary anger). Musically this song sounds more like The Beatles’ ‘You Can’t Do That’, made up of short staccato stabs and slashed chords, the like of which the band will never attempt again (there are other Beatles references too in the fi-i-ind’ and ‘befo-o-o-res’ that suggest this is an early song made back when the Beatles hadn’t left behind their Merseybeat roots). The slightly jarring pace and the fact that the emphasis is for once on the tune not the words makes it stand out a mile on this album – possibly because there is no actual chorus to this song, just one long verse, delivered in a stop-start manner that makes it sound more like a letter than a song. Refreshing as the change is and as good as the performance overall is, you can’t help feel disappointed that the band are trying so hard to be something they’re not, especially since this all-too-easy-beginner’s-mistake has been avoided successfully across the rest of this album. That said, McGuinn sounds happier on this track than he has in a long time, adding a long string of jangly guitar parts that really notch up the tension and turning in the best of his pre-psychedelic years guitar solos on a seemingly improvised sloppy outburst of feedback and chaotic fury that both Dave Davies and Pete Townshend would have been proud of. Gene Clark, too, sounds committed to the vocal and manages to deliver quite a tongue-twisting lyric with his by now characteristic heartfelt aplomb. Again, only Crosby – mixed rather too high in the mix – rings false.
‘Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe’ is a Jackie De Shannon cover, presumably chosen as a ‘thankyou’ for her supportive efforts in the band’s early days. Jackie probably thought of them as the natural heirs to her close friends The Searchers’ throne and they give her song the same jingly-jangly upbeat rhythmic delivery that band gave her ‘When You Walk In The Room’ song. If so, then The Searchers win the battle of the covers, packing more wallop and energy into their impressively re-arranged riff heavy song than the Byrds manage in this cover, which is turned into a rather percussion-heavy jazz freakout that has an almost Bo Diddley hypnotic feel to the delivery. By the sound of it, this song worked far better live than it does on the record, with the band turning it into a very Searchers-ish extended loud-and-soft jam but alas no live recordings of this first Byrds line-up appear to exist, with all TV appearances of the day mimed. Although recorded at the suggestion of manager Jim Dickson (who’d been impressed with the way De Shannon stuck her neck out to tell everybody how great she though the Byrds were long before they’d made it), apparently this was Michael Clarke’s favourite song of the setlist, giving him the chance to indulge in the r and b that was more to his taste back then (indeed, he sounds mightily close to Charlie Watts on most of this track, with the same jazz licks filtered through a simpler rock and roll tempo).
‘Chimes Of Freedom’ is yet another example of McGuinn taking the lead on a Dylan song and is perhaps the most hippie of all Dylan’s songs, imagining a future full of bright vibrant colours and peace across all barriers as prejudices lift one by one. How odd, then, to learn that this song was recorded on the very last day of the sessions when tensions were tight and the band had a huge fight over the arrangement (leaving manager Dickson to sit on Crosby’s chest and more or less force him to record his harmony vocal). The tensions were worth it: despite being probably the best known Dylan song before the Byrds made this album, they make this song their own far more than the other three, adding in a delightful vocal arrangement and a slower, more structured tempo that suits the day-dreaming feel of the song. The ‘dee-dee-dees’ on the fadeout are a little too insipid and uninspiring to measure up to the song but, apart from that, the Byrds get this track of quite hope and determination spot on, with this song so beloved by fans that they kept in their set-lists longer than any song from this album barring the title track. It was also memorably the only ‘oldies’ song the band played at their Monterey Pop festival set in 1967, their last show with Crosby (Clark had already left) and the fact that this song still sounded the most hippie-like and forward thinking in their set says much for how far ahead of his time Dylan was with this song (although, curiously, Dylan’s always gone on to say how false he felt the flower power era to be).
The album the ends, like all good Byrds albums, with an ‘oddball’ tracks. Unsure which of them to make the ‘Ringo’, they decided their novelty song would instead be a cover version of a song that fans simply wouldn’t expect them to record and that they’d make it the last track on the album to boot. ‘We’ll Meet Again’ has been covered by hundreds of people since war sweetheart Vera Lynn sang it in during the second world war (see Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ review – no 76 - for how strong a pull this song had on the international psyche), but never like this. Sped up slightly, given a simple two-part harmony (by McGuinn and Crosby – Clark must have been out that day) and a jazzed up Rickenbacker accompaniment, this song must have sounded unrecognisable to those who knew the original. As a song I’ve never much rated it either – the idea of meeting again after troubles is hardly original to this song and others have done it better, without such cloying and obvious chords to boot. To this day no one can quite tell whether the band were serious or hated the song as much as me and were laughing at it when they did this (their clipped over-enunciated accents could be either a deliberate attempt to court favour with a previous generation or a bit of mocking fun, as could the very Beatlesy ‘some sunny day-e-yah’). The result is memorable and arguably unique – the only other time a 1960s band had covered a pre-1950s song on an album had been The Beatles with ‘Til There Was You’ and this time around the Byrds actually dare to put their own touches onto proceedings. The sound of two generations (give or take a few years all the young in the 1960s had parents who had lived through the war) colliding has never been louder, especially since this song is cleverly programmed to follow the 1960s youth manifesto ‘The Chimes Of Freedom’ – the sound of the one against the other is profound and strangely moving, as if the band are vowing never to go back to a time when enforced battles, lost loved ones and stiff upper lips were an accepted part of culture; from now on it’s heartfelt sincerity and open feelings all the way. The band will go on to cover folk standard ‘Oh! Susannah!’ as their closing track on the next LP – while just as daft a choice it doesn’t have the same impact as this song, which is still quite politically charged and locked into its time period today; how daring must this have sounded in 1965, just 20 years after the end of the war?!
And that’s the thing with ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. It is daring. It tries things that have never been tried before and was perfectly in tune with it’s times in a way that few albums have been since. In 1965 with rock and roll slightly on the wane it was almost inevitable that the Merseybeat’s other big influence, folk, would show itself and combining the two together was a very important move forward for music. Even if it wasn’t really The Byrds’ idea, they do a good job of sticking religiously to their halfway point between Bob and Beatles for this album and there are several songs here – notably the Gene Clark ones – that deserve to live on as prime examples of the year 1965. Of course there are many others that don’t work either and that’s curious because, had the lesser songs here been junked in favour of the superior songs left behind from the Beefeaters and Jetset days then this could have been the greatest debut album of all time.
Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2018/02/the-byrds-five-landmark-concerts-and.html
'Byrdmaniax' (1971) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/the-byrds-byrdmaniax-1971-album-review.html
'The Byrds' (1973) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/the-byrds-1973.html
Surviving TV Appearances http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/the-byrds-surviving-tv-appearance-1965.html
Unreleased Songs http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/the-byrds-unreleased-songs-1965-72.html
A Guide To Pre-Fame Byrds
Albums Part One (1964-1972) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/the-byrds-sololivecompilation-albums.html
Albums Part Two (1973-1977) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/the-byrds-sololivecompilation-albums.html
Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Three (1978-1991) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/the-byrds-sololivecompilation-albums_9.html
Albums Part Four (1992-2013) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/the-byrds-sololivecompilation-albums_16.html
Essay: Why This Band Were Made For Turn! Turn! Turn!ing https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2018/01/byrds-essay-why-this-band-were-made-for.html