California Dreaming: Mr. Tambourine Man

Mr. Tambourine Man is almost unique in popular music — a track so determinedly formulaic that it inadvertently spawned a whole new genre.

The Byrds had formed in 1964, inspired by A Hard Day’s Night, and were so desperate to be a British Invasion act that they had hired their drummer, Michael Clarke, purely on the basis of his having the same haircut as Brian Jones. Their lead guitarist, Roger McGuinn [FOOTNOTE: McGuinn was at this time known as Jim McGuinn; he changed his name later for religious reasons. For consistency I shall refer to him by his current name throughout.], played a twelve-string Rickenbacker, just like the Beatles and the Searchers used, and the band used the name The Beefeaters on their first single, to sound as English as possible, before choosing the name The Byrds as a Beatles-inspired misspelling.

But it wasn’t their aping of the Beatles that got the Byrds lucky. While Bob Dylan was of course not a British Invasion artist, his songs were becoming very popular for other musicians to cover, and the British band the Animals had had two hit records in 1964 with cover versions of traditional folk songs he’d recorded on his first album. So when the Byrds got hold of a demo of a song from Dylan’s forthcoming album, knowing it wouldn’t be released for several months, they had the perfect opportunity to get a hit.

Despite the band not being hugely fond of the song, they rehearsed a rather turgid, dragging version of it, which can be heard on the Preflyte compilation. This arrangement featured a march beat, with McGuinn and David Crosby playing arpeggiated guitar parts reminiscent of the fade to A Hard Day’s Night, and McGuinn, Crosby, and Gene Clark singing Beatle-esque three-part harmonies on the choruses. They cut the song down ruthlessly, from Dylan’s five and a half minutes to just two and a half, cutting three of the four verses, because they’d been told that the radio wouldn’t play any songs longer than two and a half minutes long. And on the one verse that they did keep, McGuinn, who took the lead, decided to go for a sound “that was very calculated between John Lennon and Bob Dylan”, because he saw a gap in the market.

As calculatedly commercial as they were, though, the Byrds’ early demo of Mr Tambourine Man does not sound like a hit — it sounds like a bunch of amateurs who can’t tell their good ideas (the guitar line) from their really bad ones (the drum pattern). Luckily for them, when they signed to Columbia Records, Terry Melcher was there to help.

McGuinn has, over the years, dismissed Melcher’s contributions somewhat, saying of him “they gave production to someone low on the totem-pole — which was Terry Melcher who was Doris Day’s son who was getting a token-job-in-the-mailroom sort of thing. They gave him the Byrds and the Byrds were supposed to flunk the test.” This is, at best, a mischaracterisation of Melcher, who had already produced several hits (including Move Over Darling for his mother and Hey Little Cobra for the Rip Chords) and would go on to have a long and relatively successful career.

Melcher understood arrangements, and in particular how to make a big hit record by nicking ideas from the Beach Boys, and he proceeded to do that with Mr. Tambourine Man.

Melcher realised that other than McGuinn’s twelve-string part (which as well as being an interesting part in itself also reinforced the “jingle jangle” of the lyrics), the instrumental parts on the band’s demo were at best rudimentary and at worst frankly incompetent, but that the vocals were nearly perfect. He therefore got in the Wrecking Crew, and had them play essentially the same arrangement that Brian Wilson had used on Don’t Worry Baby. While the idea of a second arpeggiated guitar locking in with the lead was kept from the demo, it was mixed right down, and a new guitar part added which copied the slashed chords from the Beach Boys’ hit (doubled almost inaudibly by Leon Russell’s piano [FOOTNOTE: In fact I’ll go further and say actually inaudibly. Russell is credited on the session sheets, but I don’t hear a piano part on the track as released, no matter how hard I listen. It’s possible though that he’s doubling the rhythm guitar, and the generally muddy mix makes it difficult to tell for sure.] ), while the bass part was also replaced with one copying the same basic figure as the Beach Boys’ track.

These Beach Boys elements were combined with McGuinn’s twelve-string guitar part (which is usually spoken of as sounding Beatlesque, but is actually far closer to the sound of the Searchers), which is put through as much compression and tape delay as possible to give it a punchier, ringing, sound, and a drum part from Hal Blaine which goes against the style that Blaine used with Brian Wilson and Phil Spector, being a direct copy of the sound on the British Invasion hit records of the time — all splashy hi-hat. What Melcher presumably failed to realise was that the reason the British hit records were full of hi-hat isn’t because anyone thought that sounded good, but because the British studios were generally using a single overhead mic to pick up the drums and the hi-hat was the only thing it could pick up with any clarity. Having Blaine play a part like that in a studio where it was possible to get a decent drum sound was almost a cargo-cult attempt at being British.

Between the hi-hat, the tambourine, the high vocals and the jangly guitar, the finished production can sound to modern ears like a jumbled mess of high-frequency sounds with no mid-range or lower sounds to fill it out. More than most tracks from the 60s, this one has lost a lot of its power because of the changes in listening habits over the intervening decades. At the time, records in the US were mixed to be heard on AM radio in cars, and in order to boost the signal AM radio stations used to add a lot of compression when transmitting. Get hold of a copy of this track and compress it to death in audio software like Audacity, and suddenly you have something that sounds the way it did to listeners back then — a powerful, punchy record that combines equal parts Merseybeat, the Beach Boys, and Dylan into something new and fresh.

What was conceived as a naked attempt at cashing in on as many trends as possible had somehow managed to transcend its origins and become the start of a whole new strand of popular music, one whose influences are still felt today.

Mr. Tambourine Man

Composer: Bob Dylan

Line-up: Roger McGuinn (guitar, vocals), Gene Clark and David Crosby (vocals), Bill Pitman and Jerry Cole (guitars), Leon Russell (piano), Larry Knechtel (bass), Hal Blaine (drums). A Roger Webster is also credited on the AFM sheet, as leader, but I have been unable to find any further information as to who he is or what, if anything, he played. Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke, the Byrds’ rhythm section, were pictured on the sleeve but did not play on this track.

Original release: Mr. Tambourine Man/I Knew I’d Want You The Byrds, Columbia 4-43271

Currently available on: Mr. Tambourine Man Columbia Legacy CD

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1 Response to California Dreaming: Mr. Tambourine Man

  1. TAD says:

    I think this song (Tambourine Man) and its b-side (I Knew I’d Want You) were the only tracks that the Byrds didn’t play on as a band, from their first album.

    I agree that this track sounds a bit unexciting today. It could use a sonic cleanup and remix, if that’s possible.

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