In 1965 it seemed like everyone was recording a version of It Ain’t Me Babe. Johnny Cash had got in first, having a country hit with a mariachi-tinged version of the Dylan song at the back end of 1964, but after Mr. Tambourine Man was such a hit, everyone latched on to this song. It was a song that had proven hit potential — it had been a country hit, so it could be a pop hit too — and it was about a romantic relationship, so it wasn’t threatening or weird like Dylan’s other songs; but it was still a Dylan song, so it gave Instant Folk-Rock Cred. You too could be the new Byrds!
And so Jan & Dean, ever the bandwagon-jumpers, recorded a version on their Folk ‘n’ Roll album. Davy Jones, a child star whose biggest claims to fame were appearing in the Broadway version of Oliver! and having been on the Ed Sullivan Show on the same day as the Beatles, recorded a version on his debut album. The Surfaris released a surf cover, and Wrecking Crew member Billy Strange released a guitar instrumental version.
But it was a band of teenagers who struck gold.
The Crossfires had been kicking around for a couple of years as an unsuccessful garage band, playing the standard LA repertoire of sax-and-guitar instrumentals. They’d released a few novelty recordings, tracks like Santa and the Sidewalk Surfer and One Potato Two Potato, to absolutely no notice at all, and were seriously considering splitting up.
They had two things going for them that other bands didn’t, though. The first was that Howard Kaylan [FOOTNOTE: Kaylan was born Howard Kaplan and changed his name when It Ain’t Me Babe was released.] had seen Louis Prima and Keely Smith’s act and essentially stolen it. He would sing lead impassively while his fellow vocalist/saxophonist Mark Volman would interject, joke around, and try to distract him. It was effective when Prima and Smith did it, and it was effective for the Crossfires.
The second was that while every other band in America was trying to sound like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, Howard Kaylan had decided to emulate the vocal style of a less popular British singer, Colin Blunstone of the Zombies, and in particular the sound of the Zombies’ hit She’s Not There.
And so in 1965 when the Crossfires quickly changed from being a surf group to being a folk-rock group and got signed to a deal with new independent label White Whale on the basis of their live cover of Mr. Tambourine Man, they had a new take on the folk-rock sound, one that was poppier and had a better sense of dynamics than the Byrds and their imitators.
She’s Not There had had Blunstone almost whispering the minor key verses before the band belted out the rave-up chorus, and the Crossfires applied this to It Ain’t Me Babe, with Kaylan singing the verses softly over acoustic guitar with a tambourine and occasional electric guitar embellishment. The full band come in on the bridge, with the guitar playing essentially the same part as on the Animals’ House of the Rising Sun, before the chorus turns into a four-on-the-floor Motown/Four Seasons stomper. The whole pattern repeats, and then the song fades out on a repeat of the chorus. No solos, no fuss, and no third verse (as was often the way, they dropped the most cutting of Dylan’s verses, with the line “anyway I’m not alone”) just two minutes and fourteen seconds of classic pop tension and release.
But this alteration of the song’s dynamics had an even more profound effect on the song’s meaning. Dylan had originally sung the song with a cynical sneer — to Dylan, the subject of the song has been deluding herself that she’s the only one for him, and that makes her a fit subject for mockery. Cash’s version of the song, by contrast, is more mature and resigned. To Cash, it’s a tragedy that this couple aren’t suited for each other, but a tragedy to be borne in good humour.
But Kaylan takes an altogether more adolescent approach even than Dylan. While Dylan’s protagonist is the sixth-form poet who reads Rimbaud and wears black, Kaylan’s is a confused, hormonal, teenager. In the verses he’s trying to be nice, to let the girl down gently, to be as kind as possible, and taking the lines utterly sincerely at their face value. He doesn’t understand why he’ll only let her down, but he knows he will, and he has to tell her that for her own good. But slowly, as the bridge builds, the anger and resentment starts to spill out, and he’s eventually yelling “NO! NO! NO! It ain’t me, babe”, full of confused, upset, fury.
It’s a remarkable reading of the song (though the fact that the song is strong enough to withstand three such distinct readings is in itself remarkable), and while it may be one that was forced by the dynamics Kaylan imposed on it from She’s Not There, it’s also the case that Kaylan soon proved himself an intelligent enough singer that it’s likely to have been intentional.
It’s certainly an attitude that appealed to the teenagers of America, and the track would soon hit the top ten, just as soon as one final change was made. Just as Howard Kaylan had changed his name from Kaplan, so too would the band change their name, on their label’s advice, to one that sounded “like they come from England”.
The Crossfires had become the Turtles.
It Ain’t Me Babe
Composer: Bob Dylan
Line-up: Howard Kaylan (lead vocals), Mark Volman (backing vocals), Al Nichol (lead guitar and backing vocals), Jim Tucker (rhythm guitar), Chuck Portz (bass), Don Murray (drums)
Original release: It Ain’t Me Babe/Almost There White Whale single 222
Currently available on: Save The Turtles: The Turtles Greatest Hits Manifesto CD (the It Ain’t Me Babe album itself is currently out of print but is being reissued on vinyl and MP3, though not CD, on July 28 2014)