Bob Dylan wrote this, and the song was originally released on his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home on March 22, 1965. The Byrds cover, released later in 1965, is the only song Dylan ever wrote that went to #1 in America.
Dylan wrote this on a road trip he took with some friends from New York to San Francisco. They smoked lots of marijuana along the way, replenishing their stash at post offices where they had mailed pot along the way.
The Byrds version is based on Bob Dylan's demo of the song that he recorded during sessions for his 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan (Dylan's version was not yet released when The Byrds recorded it). It was The Byrds manager Jim Dickson who brought in the demo and asked them to record it - the group refused at first because they thought it didn't have any hit potential. When The Byrds did record it, they took some lyrics out and added a 12-string guitar lead.
Only three of the five members of the Byrds performed on this song: Roger McGuinn sang lead and played lead guitar; Gene Clark and David Crosby did the vocal harmonies.
Session musicians were brought in to play the other instruments, since the band was just starting out and wasn't deemed good enough yet by their management. The session musicians who played on this song were the Los Angeles members of what came to be known as "The Wrecking Crew" when drummer Hal Blaine used that term in his 1990 book. This group of about 50 players ended up on many hit songs of the era.
In addition to Blaine, studio pros who played on this song were:
Bill Pitman - guitar
Jerry Cole - guitar
Larry Knechtel - bass
Leon Russell - piano
The Byrds who didn't play on this one were bass player Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke.
This was the Byrds' first single. In a 1975 interview with Let It Rock, Roger McGuinn explained how the unrefined sound of this song came about. Said McGuinn: "To get that sound, that hit sound, that 'Mr. Tambourine Man' sound, we just ran it through the electronics which were available to us at that time, which were mainly compression devices and tape delay, tape-sustain. That's how we got it, by equalizing it properly and aiming at a specific frequency.
For stereo-buffs out there who noticed that 'Mr. Tambourine Man' in stereo isn't really stereo, by the way, that's because when Terry Melcher, the producer, first started mixing records he didn't know how to mix stereo, and so he made all the singles up to 'Turn Turn Turn' mono. The label is misrepresentative. See, when Columbia Records signed us, they didn't know what they had. So 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 song changed the face of rock music. It launched the Byrds, convinced Dylan to "go electric," and started the folk-rock movement. David Crosby of The Byrds recalled the day Dylan heard them working on the song: "He came to hear us in the studio when we were building The Byrds. After the word got out that we gonna do 'Mr. Tambourine Man' and we were probably gonna be good, he came there and he heard us playing his song electric, and you could see the gears grinding in his head. It was plain as day. It was like watching a slow-motion lightning bolt." (Quote from Bob Dylan: Performing Artist: The Early Years.)
This was inspired by a folk guitarist named Bruce Langhorne. As Dylan explained: "Bruce was playing with me on a bunch of early records. On one session, [producer] Tom Wilson had asked him to play tambourine. And he had this gigantic tambourine. It was, like, really big. It was as big as a wagon wheel. He was playing and this vision of him playing just stuck in my mind."
Dylan never told Langhorne about it (Bruce had to read about it in the Biograph album liner notes, like the rest of us). He wrote the song and recorded a version with Rambling Jack Elliot that got to the Byrds (known as the Jet Set at the time) before it was ever put on a record.
Dylan claims that despite popular belief, this was not about drugs: "Drugs never played a part in that song... 'disappearing through the smoke rings in my mind,' that's not drugs; drugs were never that big a thing with me. I could take 'em or leave 'em, never hung me up." (thanks, Mike - Mountlake Terrace, WA, for above 3)
This was the first of many Bob Dylan songs recorded by the Byrds. Others include: "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "The Times They Are a-Changin'," "It's All Over Now Baby Blue," and "Chimes of Freedom."
The production style was based on The Beach Boys song "Don't Worry Baby
," which was the suggestion of producer Terry Melcher. Bill Pitman, Leon Russell and Hal Blaine had all played on that Beach Boys song, so it wasn't hard for them to re-create the sound on this track.
Roger McGuinn: "I was shooting for a vocal that was very calculated between John Lennon and Bob Dylan. I was trying to cut some middle ground between those two voices." (thanks, Fredric - NYC, NY, for above 2)
This was the first influential folk-rock song. All of the characteristics of that genre are present, including chorus harmonies, a rock rhythm section and lots of thought-provoking lyrics.
This was discussed in the 1995 movie, Dangerous Minds. In the movie, they talked about the underlying drug references this song might entail... Example: "Mr. Tambourine Man"=Drug Dealer; "Play a song for me"=give me a joint. The basis for this theory was that music was heavily censored at that time, so musicians would share their feelings about drugs and unallowed subject material through coded songs. (thanks, Kristy - La Porte City, IA)
Although the Byrds didn't write this or play most of the instruments, they would later write the song "Rock N' Roll Star," which made fun of The Monkees for not writing their own songs and not playing their own instruments. (thanks, Conrad - Los Angeles, CA)
In the movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Austin Powers (Mike Myers) attempts to play the CD of this album on a record player. (thanks, Ethan - Ridgely, MD)
While many interpreted the song as a thinly veiled drugs record, McGuinn had other ideas. Having joined the Eastern cult religion Subud just 10 days prior to entering the studio, he saw the song as "a prayer of submission." McGuinn told The Byrds' biographer, Johnny Rogan, in 1997: "Underneath the lyrics to 'Mr Tambourine Man,' regardless of what Dylan meant, I was turning it into a prayer…. I was singing to God and I was saying that God was the Tambourine Man and I was saying to him, 'Hey God, take me for a trip and I'll follow you.'"