Superb debut by five folkies who realised that the times were indeed a-changin’
Heavily influenced by the Beatles, The Byrds rapidly transcended their folk origins and incorporated the electric vigour of The Fab Four, thus inadvertently creating a whole new sound in the process. And just like the Beatles, they also had the look, growing their hair long, but unlike their idols, The Byrds wore individual outfits of their own choosing. Even the album cover, with its trippy fish-eye lens effect, predated the Beatles’ own slightly warped Rubber Soul photo by at least several months.
The Byrds’ cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man” would manage to alter the entire course of pop/rock, thanks to the group’s exquisite harmonies and Jim McGuinn’s 12 string Rickenbacker guitar, succeeding in recording what is arguably one of the most definitive interpretations of Dylan ever made. A magical recording, and one which still sounds as fresh today as it would have all those many years ago.
Gene Clark’s “I’ll Feel A Whole Better” is another classic, proving that at this point in the band’s evolution, he was clearly the superior songwriter. Dylan’s “Spanish Harlem Incident” is given a full harmonic makeover, while Clarke and McGuinn’s “You Won’t Have to Cry” reveals the weighty influence that the Beatles had on The Byrds’ collective psyche, along with “It’s No Use” and Clarke’s “I Knew I’d Want You” are a definite nod to early Beatles. Pete Seeger’s “The Bells of Rhymney”, itself adapted from a poem by Idris Davies about the plight of Welsh miners, is readapted and transformed into something almost bordering on being glorious, while “Here Without You” offers a glimpse into The Byrds immediate future.
Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” is given another authoritative rendering, replete with perfect harmonies and McGuinn’s world weary vocals, fulfilling his objective of combining Dylan and Lennon into one distinct voice. The near cosmic atmosphere of “Chimes of Freedom” would serve as a foreboding of things to come, with the hippie movement just around the corner, and western youth marching towards social revolution (or at least those who could afford it). The non-folk “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe” is less successful however, as is album closer “We’ll Meet Again”, a song made famous by Vera Lee in World War II, is obviously an intended joke, and one which doesn’t quite translate as well nowadays.
Finally the Americans had their own answer to the British Invasion, with a band whose ability to digest and absorb its influences then reinterpret them with such brilliance is a testament to their collective genius. Producing something even the harmony rich Beach Boys could never have dreamed of, even if Brian Wilson was himself beginning to fall under the spell of Lennon and McCartney.
Although without Dylan, The Byrds might not have existed at all. At this point in the game, they were, at the end of the day, great interpreters, still finding their way – although that would soon change.
Mr Tambourine Man is indeed a folk-rock classic, and one of the finest debuts by any group of the ‘60s. The 1996 remaster is the best, with several bonus tracks and the obligatory liner notes. Yes, there are a few weak spots, yet none of which should detract from what is overall a superb LP.