When doing my weekly This Week in Rock History post, I often think about doing a deeper dive into the acts, albums, artists, concerts, events and personalities that I cite, and sometimes working on TWIRH has inspired the Can’t Get It Outta My Head blog entries.
Obviously, that hasn’t been happening much this year. But one item from two weeks ago has spurred me to write at greater length: the release, that week in 1965, of the Byrds’ first single, “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
But before I get to that, let’s reflect for a moment on the year when that happened. Was 1965 possibly the best year in Sixties rock and roll and pop? Yeah, the Beatles and Stones broke out in ’64, Sgt. Pepper’s came out in ’67 and ’69 saw a raft of classic albums released.
But think about what happened in that mid-point year of the decade: The Beatles have five No. 1 hits, begin filming Help! and release that movie’s soundtrack AND Rubber Soul, and perform at Shea Stadium. The Stones top the charts with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud.” Dylan goes electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and releases Highway 61 Revisited. The Animals appear on The Ed Sullivan Show FOUR times.
Not enough? How about The Who releasing the single “My Generation” and their debut album of the same name? Two Supremes’ classics, “”Come See About Me” and “Stop! In the Name of Love” reach No. 1, and are followed by the group’s fifth and sixth consecutive chart-toppers. A sampling of the other Billboard No. 1s that year: Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’”; “My Girl” by the Temptations; Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”; “Help Me Rhonda” by the Beach Boys; and “Hang on Sloopy” by the McCoys.
Could have put the Byrds in that last list a couple times, but they’re the subject of this piece, and we’ll get back to “Mr. Tambourine Man” now. The Dylan song was the first single release by the Byrds under that name; they had formed a year earlier as the Jet Set, and issued one single under the name the Beefeaters (because that sounded British, and the U.K bands were dominating the charts at the time).
A couple months before the Beefeaters’ single was released, the group’s manager came up with an unreleased recording of “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Dylan, which he had written early in 1964. It appeared on the folkie-turning-rocker’s fifth studio album, Bringing It All Back Home, which was released shortly before the Byrds’ single came out.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” was not only the Byrds’ first No. 1 hit, it was the first Dylan-penned song to top the charts. It wasn’t the last of Mr. Zimmerman’s songs to be turned into hits by others, not even in 1965 — the Turtles broke through in late 1965 with a cover of ”It Ain’t Me Babe,” which made it to No. 8.
Nor were the Byrds done hitting the ’65 top spot. They took a song folkie Pete Seeger had adapted from the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes, "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season),” to No. 1 barely five months after that first hit.
That, however, would be their last chart-topper. The original lineup of the group lasted only a year, and the personnel changed repeatedly in the years that followed, until the Byrds disbanded in 1973.
But although the band was relatively short-lived, their music was hugely influential. The sound that surfaced in “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn!Turn! Turn!” could be heard in the music of ’60s groups like the Mamas and Papas and the Turtles — they arguably influenced the Beatles, too — and in subsequent generations of rockers, like the Eagles, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, R.E.M., the Gin Blossoms, etc. Members of the Byrds spun off into bands like Crosby Stills and Nash and the Flying Burrito Brothers; passing through the band during the lineup changes were the likes of Gram Parsons, whose influence helped the group kick off another sub-genre, country rock.
All that said, the Byrds’ initial offering/first big hit does have its shortcomings. While they used Seeger’s song pretty much Word-for-Word, they stripped down Dylan’s from four verses to one, with repeats of the chorus padding it out — although not as long as originally planned, because radio stations back then didn’t want to hear anything much longer than two and a half minutes.
That left some really great lyrics on the cutting room floor. Dylan’s version features some wonderful, powerful imagery — the best, in my opinion, being the last half of the last verse. When (not if, I hope) I blog about My Favorite Lines, at least the first three lines that verse will be at or near the top of the list: “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky/With one hand waving free/Silhouetted by the sea/Circled by the circus sands/With all memory and fate/Driven deep beneath the waves/Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”
The Byrds also did the song in a different key, and with a tempo and meter that just kind of bores into your brain; Dylan’s skips along — with one hand waving free, you could say. Still, Clark, Clarke, Crosby, Hillman and McGuinn ignited a revolution-within-a-revolution, which has echoed down these 55 years, and through The Music ever since.