The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man


1. This is the second best Byrds album.

2. Among the most canonized bands of the 60s not named the Beatles (the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys), the Byrds had the best debut album. Which is ironic since they’ve largely been forgotten while the other three have still managed to cling to their legacies.

3. All that being said, the Byrds weren’t the greatest of songwriters and that fact is documented here (more than half of these are covers and they’re making 30-minute albums like it’s still 1963) and will show more and more as their career goes on. I mean, they were so unsure of themselves that they named their album after someone else’s song (and not even a homage like their band name! We would’ve settled for an eponymous entry, guys! No one would’ve judged you!), started said album with said song, and decided that “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” was b-side material. But what they lacked for songwriting, they made up in style. I’m not just talking about the fact that they’re all sporting shined circle-toed dress shoes, I’m talking the jangle of the 12-string guitar that every one of your beloved indie heroes would fall in love with as soon as they heard it. If that’s not Peter Buck playing those arpeggios on “Here Without You,” I’ll eat my hat.

4. Now, because my (and everybody else’s) favorite tracks open the album and the second side has basically been universally understood to be weaker than the first, let’s do this in reverse order. I was ready to write closer “We’ll Meet Again” off after the first time I heard it as one of those pedestrian songs from the 60s that exists for a sole melody (in this case, the “Sunny day-ay / Ay-ay-ay” in the outro, an addition of their own). They don’t—or simply can’t—convey the same emotional uncertainty in the vocals of the rest of the song that made the original such a hit, but the simplistic and rather amelodic way they echo that last sound manage to do that. And seeing as how 1965 was in the dead middle of the Vietnam War, the song’s message hadn’t lost its poignancy in the two plus decades in between.

5. Don’t misunderstand my point in #3; I don’t have a problem with the fact that Mr. Tambourine Man is mostly comprised of covers. When they’re as good as “Mr. Tambourine Man,” how could I have a problem with it? That being said, their cover of “Chimes of Freedom” is easily the least impressive song here. Unlike the other three Bob Dylan covers that I’ll touch on momentarily, they don’t do anything spectacular with this one, and it just becomes a close reading of the original. Moreover, the Byrds had a good sense of the economical property of pop songs—most of the songs here last only 2 minutes, but “Chimes of Freedom” runs (and feels) twice that.

6. Their cover of “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe” sounds a little too fast for the Byrds’ comfort zone (especially in the chorus), but they sound like they’re having enough fun playing it.

7. Allmusic’s Matthew Greenwald calls “It’s No Use” a “precursor” to “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better.” Let’s go with that, because I have no other words for it. Elsewhere, only the tone of the vocals in “I Knew I’d Want You” help it stand out.

8. The second side starts with its strongest offering. Their cover of “All I Really Want To Do” abandons Bob Dylan’s sudden launch into falsetto during the chorus (which was both slightly jarring and absolutely endearing simultaneously), opting instead for a more natural climb upwards. And the way they harmonize partway through the main hook helps that.

9. The second longest song on the album, the most impressive part of “The Bells of Rhymney” is the instrumental bridge, which we’re pushed towards when Chris Hillman doubles down on the bass (at the 1:30 mark, at the title’s words).

10. Their cover of “Spanish Harlem Incident” is pretty straight-forward, but the dynamic shift generated from the harmonized chorus helps elevate it beyond just another Bob Dylan cover.

11. ”I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” is reason enough to listen to the album—and it’s an original too! I don’t mean to oversell it, but it doesn’t hurt that it has the most tangible riff, the most inventive bass line, and the best use of backing vocals on the album. Oh, and that guitar solo jangles. Yeah.

12. Whether or not their version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” is better than the original is not the point. They’re different songs, and it boils down to whether you prefer Bob Dylan’s poetry or the Byrds’ slice of psychedelic pop. All of the Dylanisms—the “evening’s empire”’s, the “reels of rhyme”’s, the “tambourine in time”’s, etc.—are gone, but they’re replaced by a riff that delivers the “jingle jangle” that the chorus tells you, a bass that rolls you ‘round, and the twinkly beauty of high-pitched guitar chords chiming in the background. They keep one verse, and it’s the most poignant one for their purposes. They could’ve been lazy and just did the first verse of the original, but instead they picked the one with the “Magic swirling ship” and other psychedelic goodies because they knew what they were doing on this one, and they knew what you were going to do while listening to it.

13. I’ll end with an excerpt from the album’s liner notes:
There’s a new thing happening, and it probably started with Bob Dylan.  He gave the audience a new vocabulary, a new set of symbols to fit the feelings exploding in and around them.  The Byrds take his words and put them in the framework of the beat, and make imperative the meaning of those words.  And there’s an unseen drive, a soaring motion to their sound that makes it compelling, almost hypnotic sometimes.  And when you listen, hear through the sound to the joy that propels it.  I hope you enjoy the record and, as Jim McGuinn says, I trust everything will turn out all right.
—Billy James



4 responses to “The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man

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