199. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, by The Byrds

Heading towards the big two zero zero, and our next record opens with a riff that every man and his dog has heard, probably more than once. File it alongside ‘Shakin’ All Over’ and ‘You Really Got Me’ as one of the most prominent riffs to have wound up at the top of the charts so far.

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Mr. Tambourine Man, by The Byrds (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 22nd July – 5th August 1965

But, unlike the two records I just mentioned, this isn’t an aggressive riff. There’s no lust here. It’s a riff that, instead, aims for the heart. It’s the musical equivalent of the sun streaming out from behind a cloud. And when the vocals kick in it only adds to the effect. Hey mister tambourine man, Play a song for me… I’m not sleepy and, There ain’t no place I’m goin’ to… Suddenly we’re in California, on a long stretch of golden sand, watching the surf break and the gulls soar…

Lyrically, too, we’re far from home. These are the most abstract, poetic lyrics we’ve heard in this countdown. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ is the only #1 so far to have an ‘Interpretations’ section to its Wikipedia page. Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship, Oh my senses have been stripped, And my hands can’t feel to grip… Not weird enough for you? How about the moment when you expect a chorus (I love the way they draw it out, prolong the pleasure, by adding this gorgeous bridge) but get an insistent plea: I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade, On to my own parade, Cast your dancin’ spell my way…

Huh. I think, you know, that they may be making some drug references there. Going for trips, and senses being stripped… It’s the summer of ’65, and counter-culture has arrived at the top of the UK singles charts. The sixties are really starting to swing. Groovy, baby!

It’s not just the lyrics that feel like something new, though. There’s the jingle-jangle guitars (referenced in the jingle-jangle morning lyric), the structure of the song – chorus, verse, verse, chorus – and the long, trippy fade-out. As with so many of our chart-toppers over the past two years, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ sounds like the stakes being raised. It’s the sound of pop music being pushed forward.

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It’s folk rock, but it’s a mile away from the couple of folk rock hits we’ve covered previously. The Highwaymen’s ‘Michael’ sounds like it was from another century – well, it was 1961 – while The Seekers sounded like they were merely playing at being folkies. The Byrds are the real deal. Who was the tambourine man? What was his ship? Does it matter? Just listen, and let yourself be swept away… Meanwhile, this song’s folk-rock credentials are helped massively by the fact it was written by a certain Robert Allen Zimmerman.

Bob Dylan will never (gasp!) top the singles charts as an artist. But this is the first of three #1s that he will enjoy as a composer. (I think it’s three… please correct me if I’m wrong… He has written an awful lot of songs…) Dylan’s version is, naturally, twice as long as this one – and it’s safe to say that The Byrds make it their own. He’s also gone on to deny that it’s in any way about drugs. So there you go.

‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ was The Byrds first hit in both the US and the UK – impressive considering they had only formed the year before. Following this, they were more successful in their homeland (‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ hit the top there while it only reached #26 in Britain.) But even in the US their popularity didn’t last long. They were just too darn experimental, it seems, to maintain chart success. They went psychedelic, then Indian, then country, all the while changing members like most bands change socks… It couldn’t last; but their influence lingers on.

I’ve mentioned it many times before, but the vast majority of Merseybeat, R&B and rock groups that we’ve met since the Beat explosion have been British. Compare that to the fifties, when every rock ‘n’ roll hit, good or bad, was coming from across the Atlantic. Slowly but surely, though, the Americans are now staking their claim on the sixties. We’ve had some Motown, some Spector-patented Wall of Sound, and now some sun-drenched Californian folk-rock. There may not be too many US #1s at the moment; but when they do arrive, they’re golden.

11 thoughts on “199. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, by The Byrds

  1. badfinger20

    This is the part of the sixties I wish would have lasted longer. The Rick 12 string sound that made the mid-sixties pop jangly…it would be later on built on by Tom Petty and many others. Excellent song and sound.

    It surprised me that Like A Rolling Stone didn’t take the number 1 spot but nope…

    1. No, he wrote this, ‘The Mighty Quinn’ by Manfred Mann, and ‘Knockin on Heavens Door’, which topped the charts in charity version in the 90s. Though I’m convinced I’ve missed one…

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