199. The Byrds – Mr Tambourine Man (1965)

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After failing to win the general election in 1964, Sir Alec Douglas-Home found himself on borrowed time as leader of the Conservatives, yet it was still a surprise when he announced his resignation on 22 July. During his time as party leader he had set up the means in which the next leader would be voted in, and so five days later Edward Heath won a secret ballot, defeating Enoch Powell and Reginald Maudling to become the new Leader of the Opposition. Heath was something different for the Conservatives, as it was unusual for their leader to be from the lower-middle class. As new Prime Minister Harold Wilson had deliberately played down his posh roots, and it had helped his public image no end, this was probably a canny move by the Conservatives.

While the Tories searched for their leader, former world light heavyweight boxing champion Freddie Mills was found in his car after being shot on 24 July. Mills died the next day. He had gone into light entertainment following his retirement from boxing and the news shocked the country. It is still not known exactly what happened, but the police ruled his death was a suicide. Despite being a family man, Mills was rumoured to be homosexual, and that combined with the fact he owed money to a crime syndicate, meant all kinds of rumours have circulated, including him being a serial killer, being in a relationship with former number 1 artist Michael Halliday, or that he was sexually involved with Ronnie Kray.

29 July saw the premiere of the Beatles new film, Help! (more on that next time), and three days later, cigarette advertising was banned from British television.

At number 1 during this fortnight was the Byrds’ interpretation of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man. The Animals had kick-started folk rock when they covered The House of the Rising Sun, but this single took folk rock to a whole new level. The Byrds were also heavily influenced by the Beatles, who in turn would be influenced by them. Music was about to get a lot more colourful.

The origin of the Byrds began in 1964 when Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby first worked together. All three had previously been folk singers on the coffeehouse circuit in the early-1960s. McGuinn had also worked as a professional singwriter at Brill Building, and his tutor was Bobby Darin, a UK number 1 artist twice. By the time 1964 began, McGuinn had introduced Beatles songs to his repertoire. Clark also loved the moptops, and approached McGuinn after watching him perform at LA’s Troubadour folk club. They decided to become a Peter and Gordon-style duo and also wrote their own material. David Crosby in turn approached them after a concert, and he began harmonising with them on stage. They named themselves the Jet Set due to McGuinn’s love of aeronautics, and began recording demos.

By mid-1964 they had hired a drummer. Michael Clarke certainly looked the part, coming across like Brian Jones, but he could barely play the congas and didn’t own a drumkit, so he played cardboard boxes and a tamboruine to begin with. They hired session musicians to record a single, Please Let Me Love You, and briefly changed their name to the Beefeaters to cash in on the British Invasion, but it didn’t chart. That August their manager Jim Dickson had got hold of an acetate of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man.

Dylan had written the track earlier that year and first recorded it during the sessions for Another Side of Bob Dylan. His version was four verses of beautiful, surrealistic imagery, with lyrics completely different to anything that had topped the charts before. Dylan was fast becoming as hip and influential as the Beatles, and of course Zimmerman and the Fab Four soon crossed paths.

Despite this, the Jet Set weren’t really sure what to make of it at first. They changed the time signature and cut right back to one verse, but still had doubts. In an effort to persuade them, Dickson brought Dylan along to watch them play his song. According to Johnny Rogan in his book The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited (1998), an uncharacteristically enthusiastic Dylan said to the Jet Set ‘Wow, man! You can dance to that!’. His postivity rubbed off on them.

Also that summer, they watched A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and decided they needed to have the same gear as John, Paul, George and Ringo. The most important purchase to contribute to their developing sound was McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker. In October, Dickson hired mandolin player Chris Hillman to be their bassist. Hillman brought country influences into the group for the first time. On November 10, thanks to their manager’s connections, and a recommendation from jazz legend Miles Davis, the Jet Set prepared for take-off by signing with Columbia. Over Thanksgiving dinner the four-piece changed their name to the Byrds, another tribute to their beloved Beatles.

On 20 January 1965 the Byrds went to record Mr Tambourine Man in Columbia Studios, Hollywood as their debut single, but producer Terry Melcher wasn’t convinced they could pull it off. He decided to be cautious and instead hired the famous session musicians the Wrecking Crew. Other than McGuinn, Clark and Crosby’s vocals, McGuinn’s guitar is the only sound on the single that belongs to the band.

Not that it really matters, as this beautiful recording is all about the vocals and guitar anyway. The Byrds may have gutted the song’s lyrics, but they fleshed out the sound, adding dreamlike, colourful shading to the words. Dare I say these colours were psychedelic? Despite wearing their influences brazenly on their sleeves, the Byrds truly were something new for the pop scene at that point. They may have still been getting their act together musically, but they were certainly moving in the right circles, meaning half the battle was already won. They looked incredibly hip, and the first signs of the US counterculture became keen followers.

The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride had broken the mould for hinting at where pop lyrics could go, but by taking Dylan and melding his abstract writing to their sound, the Byrds were, appropriately, reaching new heights. Ironically, it knocked the Hollies’ I’m Alive from the top spot, meaning David Crosby toppled his future band member Graham Nash in the UK. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Their debut single went to number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, and they convinced Melcher they were ready to record their debut album, which went by the same name. Listening to it this week, it sounds no different to the Wrecking Crew, so perhaps Melcher was worrying for nothing.  Having said that, their UK tour soon after was poorly-received. They certainly didn’t have the charisma of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.

The Byrds were soon enveloping religious text, more Dylan songs, even Vera Lynn war anthems with their signature sound. Early the following year they released their groundbreaking single Eight Miles High, one of the first psychedelic classics. Ironically, prior to the release, Clark quit the band due to his fear of flying. He became a critically-acclaimed solo artist with songs including Dark of My Moon. but was troubled and unable to eclipse the Byrds, dying in 1991 from heart failure. Third album Fifth Dimension was released in the summer of 1966, and the band further explored jazz and raga influences. Just as psychedelia went overground, they began adding country to their sound in 1967, and So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star is believed to be a jibe at the Monkees. That same year saw Jim McGuinn find religion and change his name to Roger, and tensions erupt within the band. They sacked their management and during the sessions for what would become The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968), Michael Clarke quit. McGuinn and Hillman were growing tired of Crosby’s out-there opinions that the press would gleefully report. They drove to his house, told him they were better off without him, and sacked him. Crosby went on to form one of rock’s first supergroups with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, and later on Neil Young. Their first album in particular is a classic, and this lowly writer had the great pleasure of seeing Crosby, Stills & Nash perform at Glastonbury 2009.

Line-ups in the Byrds changed over and over from then on, most notably with the addition and departure of Gram Parsons, who helped the Byrds embrace country to a greater extent and resulted in their acclaimed Sweethearts of the Rodeo album (1968). However, the hippies were annoyed at the lack of psychedelia, and the country establishment were just as annoyed at this hippy band trying their hand at country.

Around this time, the producer of Mr Tambourine Man, Terry Melcher, had a fall-out with a struggling wannabe musician called Charles Manson. The fact the producer refused to work with such an eccentric enraged Manson, and ultimately led to to the murder of Sharon Tate and others at Melcher’s former home.

1969 was a more successful year for the Byrds. Ballad of Easy Rider became the theme to the classic movie Easy Rider (1969) (albeit a solo McGuinn version) and the excellent Wasn’t Born to Follow also featured on the soundtrack. But the 70s saw the law of dimishing returns come into effect, and by 1972, McGuinn broke up the band for a lucrative reunion of the original five-piece. Predictably enough, this didn’t last long as egos had only grown over the years. Several versions of the Byrds came and went until the original five reformed for the last time to tie-in with being entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The reunion was timely, as Clark died soon after. and Clarke also died two years later of liver disease.

Despite Crosby and HIllman being publicly in favour of some kind of Byrds reunion, McGuinn always refuses. Earlier in 2018, however, he and Hillman celebrated the 50th anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo with a tour. For as long as these three are still alive, there will always be an audience for a Byrds reunion, though, and money talks, so I wouldn’t rule it out.

Written by: Bob Dylan

Producer: Terry Melcher

Weeks at number 1: 2 (22 July-4 August)

Births:

Author JK Rowling – 31 July
Director Sam Mendes – 1 August 

Deaths:

Boxer Freddie Mills – 25 July 

One Reply to “199. The Byrds – Mr Tambourine Man (1965)”

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