The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I’m pretty sure I first heard “Mr. Tambourine Man” (the Byrds cover, not the original) on the schoolbus in elementary school – there was a busdriver who listened to the classic rock station – but I’m not sure. I love the Byrds, though the enthusiasm is dampened by the heavy reliance on covers throughout their career. In terms of sheer enjoyability, though, it’s hard to beat the combination of chiming guitars and sweet harmonies. And to be honest, they chose their covers well. Not quite the Great American Band I wish they were, but they had a major hand in folk-rock, psychedelia, country-rock, and by extension, power-pop.

What I Think of This Album

This is an album of tremendous beauty. Even if you (wrongly) dismiss the Byrds as mere interpreters, they did it better than anybody else. While I will defend Dylan’s singing anytime and anyplace, his songs are truly elevated by the Byrds’ presentation.

This debut album relies on four Dylan songs – fully ⅓ of the disc – and they are uniformly excellent. The title track, of course, is a classic. Oddly, of the five band members at the time, only Jim McGuinn played on this song (though Gene Clark and David Crosby sang the harmonies); at the insistence of the record company, session musicians (the Wrecking Crew) played behind McGuinn’s 12-string work. It is worth pointing out that when the Byrds recorded the song, it was still just a Dylan demo and had not yet been released in its original form. I defy you to not love this song. The band’s take on “All I Really Want to Do” transforms what was in Dylan’s hands (or, voice) a very unpolished piece into a gleaming gem. “Chimes of Freedom” works in the other direction, with the Byrds’ unbelievably pretty rendition diluting some of the power of the original. Finally, “Spanish Harlem Incident” sounds warm and inviting.

The band also offered a cool take on early feminist songwriter/guitarist/singer Jackie DeShannon’s very good “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe,” with a Bo Diddley beat and a tremeloed guitar. Folk-rock got another shot in the arm via the cover of “The Bells of Rhymney,” though the energetic interpretation is a little at odds with the subject matter; George Harrison was inspired by the riff here and used it on Rubber Soul’s “If I Needed Someone.” Rounding out the covers is the unusual choice of British World War II song “We’ll Meet Again.”

The originals are not to be ignored. Mostly written by Gene Clark, they range from good to outstanding. In particular, “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” is wonderful and wise – this early song already established the Byrds sound, even if the riff was stolen from the Searchers’ version of “Needles and Pins” (coming full circle, that song was first recorded by Jackie DeShannon). Tom Petty covered this on Full Moon Fever. A joint effort by McGuinn and Clark, “You Won’t Have to Cry” owes more than a little to the Beatles, though the harmonies are all Byrds. “Here Without You” is a downcast ballad which again showcases Clark’s promising songwriting talent; this was covered by Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple on their post-dB’s Mavericks collaboration. “I Knew I’d Want You” shuffles along, half-melancholy and half-celebratory, and it’s fine but not something I get excited about. “It’s No Use” is slightly more successful, and at least offers an interesting solo that hints at the sounds the band would explore on “Eight Miles High” later.

My reissue includes six bonus tracks, including the single and alternate versions of some album tracks, an instrumental, and another Clark song, “She Has a Way,” which could have easily gone on the album in place of the weaker “Here Without You.”

The album was produced by Terry Melcher, who was Doris Day’s son.

The Best Thing About This Album

As much as I love “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” I can’t deny the power of “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Release Date

June, 1965

The Cover Art

The fisheye lens shot is a classic. I like how all the information is crammed into the upper quarter of the cover. David Crosby is incredibly annoying, but I approve of his color-coordinated outfit on the left.

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