Mr. Tambourine Man

The Byrds

Columbia / Legacy Records, 1965

http://www.thebyrds.com

REVIEW BY: Dan Smith

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/31/2000

I wonder sometimes what it would be like to witness first-hand the defining moments of rock history. To rush to the record store and listen to "Strawberry Fields Forever" for the first time. To see Hendrix play at Monterrey Pop. To see Dylan plug in at Newport in 1966. Or to hear some unknown group out of L.A. cover a Dylan tune and change the course of rock and roll history.

With one memorable, Bach-inspired riff and soaring vocal harmonies, the Byrds shot to the top of the charts with Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" in 1965. It's a truly epic recording. Roger (then known as Jim) McGuinn's chiming electric 12-string blazing over solid instrumental backing (actually supplied by studio musicians as the Byrds were so unfamiliar with playing electric instruments at the time) is the instrumental trademark. The vocals, led by McGuinn and augmented by Gene Clark and David Crosby, linked the beautiful harmonies of the Beatles with Dylan's trippy, brilliant lyrics. And, amazingly, it was a massive hit.

In the mid-60s, before Sgt. Peppers, LPs were often just a vehicle for hit singles. While single tracks would be relentlessly rehearsed and recorded dozens of times, album cuts were more or less slopped together. Mr. Tambourine Man shows signs of breaking out of this formula. While several of the tunes smell heavily of filler, there are some really wonderful moments on this album that Top-40 listeners would have missed.

First among these is "Feel A Whole Lot Better", a Gene Clark original with a pricelss riff and deceptively complex lyrics ("I'll probably feel a whole lot better when you're gone..."...note the uncertainty in that line). Two further dips into the Dylan songbook - covers of the epic "Chimes Of Freedom" and the rather lightweight "All I Really Want To Do" - are also exceptional.

"Chimes" is a loping, expansive work that cycles between gorgeous harmonies and tight instrumental backing. "All I Really Want To Do", while not the most powerful lyric Dylan ever crafted, is an exercise in imaginative arrangment - witness how the Byrds turn one of Dylan's verses into an ascending middle eight before dropping back into the tune proper. Fantastic stuff. But perhaps the most effective track on this album is McGuinn's rearrangement of Pete Seeger's "Bells Of Rhymney" into a strangely ethereal piece drenched in vocal harmonies and 12-string riffs.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The reliance on cover material from Dylan and Seeger, in my view, primarily stems from the fact that the group had been together for such a short time. This is reinforced by the relative weaknesses of the original material and other covers on the record. Examples of the latter include the fun but somewhat derivative cover of "Don't Doubt Yourself, Babe" (by Jackie DeShannon) and the fairly obnoxious British wartime nugget "We'll Meet Again."

The rest of the originals, most of them by often underrated lead singer Gene Clark, are a pronounced step down from the tunes mentioned above. "You Won't Have To Cry" is lightweight 60s pop, as is "I Knew I'd Want You". Although McGuinn's 12-string provides a musical gimmick, very little separates the songwriting here from what a hundred other bands were producing at the time. On the other hand, "It's No Use" has a nice stuttering guitar riff that contrasts well with the chorus, and "Here Without You" has a lovely McCartney-esque melody. So the potential for excellent original material was definitely there, but remained largely untapped until the group's fourth album, Younger Than Yesterday.

The bonus tracks appended to this record by Columbia are fairly unrevealing, and certainly don't come as a great a shock as the excellent extras on the other three "first-stage" Byrd reissues. "She Has A Way" is another lightweight Clark ballad, used as a B-side. The rest of the tunes are alternate versions, including the original single version of "All I Really Want To Do" and a slightly different take of "Feel A Whole Lot Better." However, the excellent remastering and notes definitely give the reissue the edge, even given the fairly pedestrian quality of the bonus cuts.

Mr. Tambourine Man is a very important rock and roll album. But, like Sgt. Peppers' (and this is perhaps a controversy for another day), its importance outweighs, in many ways, its quality. About two-thirds of Mr. Tambourine Man is excellent, and the other third shows a lot of potential, not yet fully realized. So I can't rate this one as highly as the other Byrds reissues I've reviewed on these pages.

One of the interesting things is that, the more I listen to these early Byrds recordings, how my opinions slowly change regarding their quality. Mr. Tambourine Man at first struck me as by far the weakest of the first five albums. However, the more I listen to it, the more I enjoy it. On the other hand, I've found that the charms of Fifth Dimension and Turn! Turn! Turn! have faded somewhat upon dozens of listenings. That being said, all three of those albums are good, and well worth your time and money.

That said, as a Byrds fan and a music fan I have to take this opportunity to recommend Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers to all our readers, and definitely recommend at least picking up the Greatest Hits CD which covers the first four albums. No real fan of popular music should lack a Byrds record - they were definitely more than just Dylan-imitators or the product of hype.

Rating: B+

User Rating: B+


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