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Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Byrds: Mr. Tambourine Man


1) Mr. Tambourine Man; 2) I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better; 3) Spanish Harlem Incident; 4) You Won't Have To Cry; 5) Here Without You; 6) The Bells Of Rhymney; 7) All I Really Want To Do; 8) I Knew I'd Want You; 9) It's No Use; 10) Don't Doubt Yourself, Babe; 11) Chimes Of Freedom; 12) We'll Meet Again.

The historical importance of this record can only be denied by the same people who also deny the Holocaust, the Moon landing, and the Spaghetti Monster — but I suppose that it is also every re­viewer's and historian's responsibility to point out that the Byrds did not singlehandedly invent «folk rock» (even if the term was allegedly invented by American journalists upon listening to the Byrds). Folk music had already been successfully packaged together with pop/rock beats, band-style and all, throughout 1964 and even earlier, particularly in the UK (The Four Pennies and The Searchers are only the most easily memorable examples), and then you could actually trace it all the way back to the States with the Everly Brothers. And it is interesting that that kind of folk rock is really only represented by one single song on the Byrds' debut (ʽBells Of Rhymneyʼ).

What was really important here was the inclusion of no less than four Dylan covers — all of them reinvented as pop band numbers, bass, drums, electric guitars, and all. Before June 1965, people covered plenty of Dylan, but hardly ever moving away from the same stripped acoustic format, largely due to either lack of imagination, or lack of bravery required to bridge the silly artificial gap between «folksters» and «popsters» (or «rockers», whatever). The Byrds, from the very out­set, idolized the Beatles and wanted to appeal to pop audiences rather than Greenwich Village intellectuals — yet they also wanted to grab some of that intellectualism, admittedly believing that pop audi­ences wouldn't really mind listening a little bit about trips on magic swirling ships and cliffs of wildcat charms, in between wanting to hold your hand and needing your love eight days a week, you know.

In the end, the Byrds did not invent «folk-rock» any more than Bob Dylan could be said to in­vent «folk music» — what they invented was «Dylan-rock», a genre that was not only influenced by Bob Dylan, but also happened to influence Bob Dylan, who went on to adopt it soon enough and then quickly began pushing its boundaries into much harder rockin' territory (largely because Roger McGuinn was such a sweet, tender guy, and Bob Dylan was such a nasty asshole; isn't it odd how we love them both in the end?). The three main ingredients of the original brand of Dylan-rock, then, are: (a) the pop/rock band format providing a steady pop/rock beat with electric amplification; (b) the melodic component, largely carried over from the folk music tradition but also incorporating pop elements; (c) lyrics that are supposed to be listened to and perhaps even thought about, even when we still have boy/girl relationships at the core of everything.

In addition to that general formula which could be exported to other bands, The Byrds had their individual assets as well — three talented songwriters (although the debut album is still almost com­pletely dominated by one, Gene Clark), a lovely lead singer, a system of group harmony sin­ging that was quite novel at the time, and a unique 12-string electric guitar playing style that came to be known as «The Jangle» (or «The Jingle-Jangle» if you like complex sound-symbolic strings of sounds) and was a major sonic advance over previous similar styles, such as the Sear­chers (whose 12-string riffs sound seriously wussy compared to McGuinn's, both from a techno­logical standpoint and in terms of playing technique).

This strictly organized, immediately recog­nizable Byrds sound can have its drawbacks — the band has never managed to appeal to me all that much on a basic gut level, because the sound can get pretty monotonous, the songs rarely have much to applaud in terms of dynamics and development, and when you find out that for the fifth, sixth, and tenth time in a row you cannot describe those group harmonies with any other word than «lovely», a nasty subconscious strand of depression sets in. Another big problem is that the Byrds never had a proper sense of humor, which I think is essential for a truly great band. But then, most bands and artists have their natural limits, and it is only because the Byrds tend to get really overrated in certain critical circles that I find myself sometimes obliged to explain why I cannot bring myself to regard them in the same major league as the Beatles.

In my opinion, the Byrds were generally a better «singles band» than an «album band», despite the fact that Mr. Tambourine Man, even if it was named after their breakthrough single, was certainly not recorded according to the «one-two hit singles and a lot of filler» principle. It's just that the single does tower high above the other eleven songs here — the band's interpretation of Dylan's greatest merger of acoustic folk with psychedelic visions is one of the awesomest events from mid-1965, even if they only preserve one complete verse of the original due to the inevitable three-minute restriction on pop single length. There are these defining moments from that year — the fuzz blast of ʽSatisfactionʼ, the snare drum kick of ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ, the stunning cry for aid of ʽHelp!ʼ — and the opening riff of ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ is certainly one of them.

For me, there is no dilemma when it comes to the old, tired, and stupid question of "whose ver­sion do you prefer, Dylan's or the Byrds'?" — it is so much more exciting to simply look at the song from different angles than to put a dollar value on any of its avatars. The Byrds, it could be argued, have «tamed» and «dressed up» Dylan's roughly hewn masterpiece, converted it into a state of organized and disciplined beauty, carried it over from the Dionysian into the Apollonian field of existence. The musical arrangement, in fact, owes more to Phil Spector and the Beach Boys than to any folk musicians — and the vocal harmonies are more Smokey Robinson than even Peter, Paul, and Mary, if another folk analogy is required. But to say that this somehow «cheapens» the rough, direct, intimate, human, etc. atmosphere of the original would be just as ridiculously judgemental as stating the opposite ("oh, it sounds so much more melodic now, and Jim McGuinn has such a lovelier voice than Dylan's nasty rasp"). I just prefer to sit back and watch the sheer awesomeness of the power of intelligent conversion — the same way I can enjoy a really great Russian translation of a classic English novel, or vice versa.

As I said, my problem is with the rest of the album — that the Byrds offer a great, distinctive style, but stumble upon the problem of providing distinctiveness for its individual constituents (a.k.a. «songs»). At first, it seems like they have a great solution for the problem — namely, the songwriting skills of Gene Clark, and the decision to include ʽI'll Feel A Whole Lot Betterʼ as the immediate follow-up to ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ was totally brilliant: there we have just stunned the world with the most imaginative and innovative reinvention of a great Dylan song yet, and here we have our own young aspiring songwriter who can write a «fuck off, unfaithful bitch» type song as if he himself were Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and a bunch of Everly Brothers all in one. Okay, he is a bit clumsy on the verses ("The reason why / Oh I can say / I have to let you go / And right away" isn't exactly a Joycian type of handling the English syntax), but he also says "I'll probably feel a whole lot better when you're gone" rather than just "I'll feel...", which, when you come to think of it, is actually a huge advance on the lyrical front. And that guitar solo — they're just playing one riff over and over, instead of copping Chuck Berry licks, but it weaves in so nicely with the rhythm, so fluently and melodically, it's like wow, you never really heard any of that on Searchers records. Two songs into the album, and you already begin to think that Bob is God, and Gene Clark is his Prophet, and we're entering a new era when the infidels from the British Invasion will finally be pushed out, and purity of faith restored.

The problem is that the band's bag of tricks seems exhausted with those first two songs: every­thing else ranges from «very pleasant» to «almost great», but essentially follows the established stylistic patterns. The insane success of ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ meant that from now on, the Byrds would be expected to cover more Dylan — but already the second single, ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ, is less convincing and maybe even somewhat of a misstep, because they took a straightforward joke number and turned it into a catchy, but humorless jangle-pop number, and no matter how Apollonian it is made, ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ really cannot survive without a strong sense of humor to go along with it. ʽChimes Of Freedomʼ, in comparison, is quite fantastic, but tailored so strictly in agreement with the recipe of ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ that the dreaded word «formula» cannot be avoided.

Clark, too, writes in accordance with a formula, but at least he has different subvariants of it: ʽYou Won't Have To Cryʼ is a tender song of consolation, ʽHere Without Youʼ is a sad song of loneliness, ʽI Knew I'd Want Youʼ is a chivalrous serenade, and ʽIt's No Useʼ is the fastest and hardest rocking tune on the entire album, with an almost garage-like lead part and such a harsh, decisive resolution of the vocal melody that the message is perfectly carried over — "it's no use saying you're gonna stay if you don't want our love to live", period. (So much for chivalrous sere­nades and tender songs of consolation). They are all catchy, pretty, and have enough lyrical quirks to be regarded as «progressive stuff» for mid-'65, but in the end, they seem to somewhat dissipate the enthusiasm generated by ʽI'll Feel A Whole Lot Betterʼ than multiply it. With the possible exception of ʽIt's No Useʼ — I've always liked that one's sharp energy shot in compari­son with the rather limp overall flow of the record. (Should have invited Dave Davies over to play the guitar solo, though).

The choice of non-Dylan covers is cool: ʽBells Of Rhymneyʼ honestly confirms the band's link with Green­wich Village (although, shame on me, I've always found its three-and-a-half minute length somewhat overlong — they are left with nothing new to say after the first verse is over); Jackie DeShannon's ʽDon't Doubt Yourself, Babeʼ confirms the band's link with... the Searchers? (but how amusing it is, actually, to find out that the coda of the song has been lifted from the Stones' version of ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ!); and the decision to end the record with the age-old ʽWe'll Meet Againʼ is symbolic on so many levels — not only is this one of the first rock band arrangements of a non-folk pre-war song, and a suitable goodbye song to add a bit of conceptua­lity to the LP, but it's also a not-so-thinly-veiled signal to their British friends (and competitors) across the ocean. An encoded ironic hello to Lennon and McCartney? Who knows, really. But here's a fun coincidence: Vera Lynn was the first UK performer to top the American charts, and the Byrds were the first American band to top the British charts (not the first American artist in general, I believe, but still...). The 12-string guitar strikes back.

All said, the criticisms in this review should not be taken too harshly: yes, the Byrds had a for­mula, but it was a fabulous formula, and for what it's worth, musically Mr. Tambourine Man is heads and tails above, for instance, that whole indie college rock scene of the Eighties (yes, R.E.M. included, you Eighties nuts!) which was so heavily influenced by McGuinn and his pals. In 1965, there were two brands of pure organized beauty in America — the heavenly brand of the Beach Boys and the earthly brand of the Byrds — and even if organized beauty can seem boring when taken in mass quantities, a Byrds song a day still keeps the cynic away. So if you thought the final verdict was going to be anything other than a major thumbs up, you're as mistaken as anybody who has ever taken the phrase I HATE PINK FLOYD much too literally.


  1. To be sure, the Byrds at their best really were a singles band and, therefore, don't hold up quite as well as "Album Artists" as some of their peers. And their small set of revolutionary breakthroughs is pretty much limited to their debut single, "Eight Miles High", and the concept (not so much the execution) of "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." But, half a century on, when taken in bite sized doses or in the right magical mood, these guys still "do it" for me. I'm curious to see what significant change of opinion George may have in store for us regarding the later albums made by the McGuinn-led band.

  2. "a lovely lead singer": You mean Harold Eugene Clark, right? McGuinn is a genius on the Rick, and while his vocals are pleasant and probably have a little more grit and gravitas than Gene, I'd hardly call it "lovely". Gene was way better than just the fifth to Roger's root.

    "Bells Of Rhymneyʼ honestly confirms the band's link with Green­wich Village" : I played the original Greatest Hits album vinyl record to death in high school. It never occurred to me that they were singing about 19th Century Welsh mining villages. I thought they were singing, "Is there hope for the future, sing the black bells of ERRFERR" etc.

    "ʽChimes Of Freedomʼ, in comparison, is quite fantastic,": Agreed, in spite of the fact that my literal teenage mind for years thought he was talking about actual bells (from Rhymney, no less) flashing, crashing, booming. Then it hit me like a bolt of, well, you know...

    " ʽI Knew I'd Want Youʼ is a chivalrous serenade": And if you listen really closely, you can make out the dull chime of an electric piano in the mix. Remember, the only actual Byrd playing on this record is Roger, the rest are studio ringers.

    "a Byrds song a day still keeps the cynic away." True that, but don't take it to far; I once tried to binge through their catalog and ended up really depressed. Underneath all that beauty is a lot of morbid melancholy. Keep some Beach Boys handy in case the journey starts to bring you down. Very excited to read your upcoming posts!

  3. Very fine analysis, as always. You always get me thinking about why I like (or dislike) a given record.

  4. "a Byrds song a day still keeps the cynic away"
    Like me, who rather associates "pure organized beauty" with Tired of Waiting for You.

  5. I love the Byrds, they're probably my third favorite artist / band after Dylan and the Beatles. I overdosed on them a while ago, so I was holding off on relistening to them for until you would review them. I had to wait a year longer than I thought, but now's the time I guess.

    Kind of against the norm, but my favorite album of theirs is Turn, Turn, Turn, since the bonus tracks are excellent and there is only a set of three non-descript songs to watch out for in the second half of the album. I think it's only a minor blemish and it doesn't really interfere with my enjoyment, though objectively it's not their best album of course.

  6. "the Byrds never had a proper sense of humor": They ended their album with "We'll Meet Again", which is something like a homage to "Dr. Strangelove". The movie, which came out the year before, ended with the song in the Vera Lynn version. So they must have had some sense of humor after all, mustn't they?

    1. Theirs was a very dry sense of humor. Their levity came in shades and nuance, and they like to end their albums with questions rather than answers: Their version of "Times are a changing", with that dopey "rodeo-doh" ending; "WHY?" indeed?; Throwaways like "242 Foxtrot" and "Armstrong, etc."; and that ridiculous coda to Untitled. I always got the feeling these things were humorous only in McGuinn's head.