Bob Dylan wrote "Mr. Tambourine Man," which was originally released on his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home
, on March 22, 1965. His version wasn't released as a single, but when The Byrds released their cover on April 12, 1965, it was a transatlantic hit, topping the charts in both the US (on June 26) and UK (on July 22). It's the only song Dylan ever wrote that went to #1 in America (in the UK, Manfred Mann's cover of "Quinn The Eskimo
" also went to #1).
Dylan claims that despite popular belief, this song is not about drugs. In the liner notes to his 1985 compilation Biograph, he wrote: "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."
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 Ramblin' Jack Elliott that got to The Byrds (known as the Jet Set at the time) before it was ever put on a record.
Mike - Mountlake Terrace, WA, for above 2
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. He started writing it after they got to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and partied there the night of February 11, 1964.
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.
"Kudos to Roger McGuinn for taking on 'Tambourine Man,' which didn't knock us out when we first heard it," Byrds bass player Chris Hillman said in a Songfacts interview
. "Bob Dylan had written it in a very countrified groove, a straight 2/4 time signature, and Roger takes the song home and works with it, puts it in 4/4 time, so you could dance to it. Bob heard us do it and said, 'Man, you could dance to this!' It really knocked him over and he loved it."
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 "Mr. Tambourine Man" 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."
"Mr. Tambourine Man" 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 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 explained: "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."
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.
Sure, anyone can strike up a hit with Bob Dylan as your songwriter and The Wrecking Crew as your band, but The Byrds quickly proved their mettle with songs they wrote (and played on) like "Eight Miles High
" and "So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star
." They entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
The Byrds recorded this under a one-single deal with Columbia Records that Miles Davis helped secure. Davis, who was signed to Columbia, knew a friend of the band's manager, and as a favor called Columbia boss Goddard Lieberson to ask for the deal. Davis made that case that it was the kind of music young people were listening to.
The Byrds never met Davis, but they did cover his song "Milestones."
This song is discussed in the 1995 movie Dangerous Minds
, where the characters talk 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.
Kristy - La Porte City, IA
While many interpreted the song as a thinly veiled drug 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.'"
He put it this way in 1971 when he spoke with Record Mirror: "To me the 'Tambourine Man' was Allah, the eternal life force – it was almost an Islamic concept."
Chris Hillman admitted to Mojo that he's never been a fan of The Byrds' version. "Even though it opened the floodgates, I never liked that track," he said. "I loved the song, but I never liked the track - it was too slick. I always wonder what would have happened if we cut it ourselves. But in a business sense Columbia were hedging their bets, because we were a pretty crude sounding band then."
Bob Dylan didn't make it to Woodstock, but four of his songs did, including "Mr. Tambourine Man," which Melanie included in her set on the first day. Joan Baez and The Band both did "I Shall Be Released
," and Joe Cocker sang two Dylan songs: "Just Like A Woman
" and "Dear Landlord
Roger McGuinn admitted to Uncut magazine he was petrified going into the studio to record "Mr. Tambourine Man." "I was playing with the big boys, the Wrecking Crew. I was so nervous that Hal Blaine kept saying to me, 'Settle down kid. Why don't you go out and have a couple of beers?'"
There is lots of tambourine on this track, but none on Dylan's orignial. His arrangement is just voice, guitars and harmonica.
In the 1997 movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
, Austin Powers (Mike Myers) attempts to play the CD of this album on a record player.
Ethan - Ridgely, MD