On May 15, 1965, 50 years ago, one of the most influential rock-songs ever, „Mr. Tambourine Man“ (originally written by Bob Dylan) performed by The Byrds entered the U.S. Billboard charts and peaking No.1 on June 26! (See Footnote). Some weeks later, on 28.07.1965 the single also hit No.1 in the UK-charts.
The Byrds, founded in 1964 in Los Angeles by Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby, merged the very popular sound of the Beatles with the classical repertoire of American Folk, which they had all played before 1964 in different other bands. They were especially interested in material of Bob Dylan, who was at that time popular as folk singer, but who had not yet „converted“ to Rock-music in 1964. Both, the Byrds and Dylan respected each other and so the Byrds used a number of Dylan songs on their first two albums and also made Dylan interesting for listeners of classical Rock. Later on in 1965, Dylan also used Rock-arrangements for his songs (as on „Like a Rolling Stone“).
Their first hit, Mr. Tambourine Man – a psychedelic Dylan Song with subtle anti-war lyrics – was recorded in early 1965. The song was partly recorded by session musicians, because the Byrds at that time were not very experienced in studio recording and also had a rather poor live performance (you can guess from some of their early videos on youtube…). Producer Terry Melcher had a strong influence on the band on those records and he also strongly contributed to the success of the first albums. Finally the single „Mr. Tambourin Men“ appeared in April 1965, entered in the US Billboard Top 100 Charts on May 15, 1965, and finally became No.1 on June 26, 1965. The Album „Mr. Tambourine Man“ was also a huge success and has been still regarded by critics as on of their best album and included other Dylan Songs (e.g. „Chimes of Freedom„) but also some songs from band members.
So now why was their music style and especially Mr. Tambourine Man such a success: With the electric Rickenbacker 360 12-string guitar, a heavy bass and sophisticated voices arrangements, the Byrds adopted the Beatles sound and created a unique Rock-style, which was called „Folkrock“. However, the founding element of the Byrds sound is the special „jingle-jangle“ guitar-sound of the electric 12-string Rickenbacker, which was introduced by the Roger McGuinn and which we can still find in many more recent songs.
If we nowadays listen to early Rock’n Roll of the 50ties and 60ties and even to the early Beatles records, the sound is still far away from Classic Rock style, which is still used nowadays. So to me, it is also an interesting question, who invented the „Classic Rock“-sound and produced the first „Classic Rock“-song ever. (A bit philosophical, I know, however, I like the idea of the first rock song…). The answer is probably something in between „Ticket to Ride“ or „Help“ from the Beatles, „I can’t get no satisfaction“ of the Stones or „Break on through“ (or other songs) from the Doors debut album. There are a few other candidates to it, however, to me „Mr. Tambourine Man“ would surely be another top-candidate for the „First Classic Rock Song“ during the sixties.
Following their first hit, the Byrds strongly influence many other Bands during the mid-1960ies until today. The Byrds and the Beatles met in Summer 1965 in L.A. and the Beatles first adopted the typical Byrds-sound on their „Rubber Soul“ of late 1965: On the song „If I needed Someone“, the guitar-Intro of George Harrison is exactly the same as on the Byrds song „Bells of Rhymney“, which originally was a traditional Welsh Folk song, brought to the audience by Pete Seeger („Bells of Rhymney„).
In 1965, also Simon & Garfunkel had their first big single hit with „Sounds of Silence“. This original folk song of Paul Simon, which was never a success in the acoustic version, was in 1965 overdubbed with guitar, bass and drums mainly played in the Byrds style. And this rock version became the first no.1 hit single of Simon & Garfunkel and also initiated their career. Also other bands introduced elements of the Folksong style and a list of bands adopted Folkrock like Lovin’ Spoonful, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, The Mamas and the Papas, and finally also Neil Young. But the inspiration of the Byrds lasted until nowadays. In the late eighties, the sound had a great comeback: R.E.M. borrowed their typic sound in their song „The One I Love“ 1986, Tom Petty used elements of the sound, e.g. on „Learning To Fly“ and the LA’s with their one hit-single „There She Goes„.
A more recent and actually a very nice and unique example of a Byrds-adoption are the Raveonettes, who strongly took the sound in „Love In A Trashcan“ of 2007.
In October 1965 their second big hit single, „Turn Turn Turn“ was released and became their second No.1-Hit. After a year with a lot of political frictions, unrest and conflicts in the USA (Martin Luther King was killed, the Vietnam war became big), the song met the spirit of the time. And again, the band picked up a classical Folk song from legend Pete Seeger (here with Judy Collins) and combined it with their folkrock sound. And also here, the album „Turn Turn Turn“ was a chart success, even though it was perceived by critics as weaker then it’s predecessor.
In 1966, their third hit appeared, „Eight miles high“, a psychedelic song inspired also by Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane. And although ignored by many radio station because of alleged drug-messages, the song became very influential at this time. But their third album „5th Dimension“ was though interesting not such a success.
Unfortunately, Byrds front singer, Gene Clark suffered from flight phobia and exhaustion and left the band after two years in early 1966. This was a great loss, since he strongly contributed to the songwriting of the group and he was also a charismatic lead-singer. Gene Clark directly started a solo-career in 1967, but with less success than his colleagues. He died in 1991.
In late 1966, the group brought out „Younger than Yesterday“. The record (which is one of my personal favourites!) is still regarded by critics as a very strong album, but, it was not able to compete with the other big albums of the year 1967, with cutting edge records like „Sgt. Pepper“ of the Beatles and also the Doors’ and Jimi Hendrix’ both first albums. The album contained „So You Want to Be a Rock ’n‘ Roll Star„, which also was a single in Jan. 1967, another Dylan Cover „My Back Pages„.
After David Crosbys attempted to found the new supergroup Crosby Stills & Nash, he was fired by McGuinn and Hilman. During the years before, the had been a number of conflicts between Crosby and the rest of the band and some authors still guess, that the leave of Clark was also caused by those conflicts. The remaining Trio McGuinn, Hillman and Clark recorded „The Notorious Byrd Brothers“ in 1967, which I would call last album in the classical Byrds style. The album was also perceived very well by critics and it still contains a lot of excellent songwriting (Draft Morning, Old John Robertson). Especially the adaption of the Gerry Goffin and Carole King song „Goin‘ Back“ is a nice and unique song. (It’s actually one example for a cover version, which is better than the original.)
In 1968 also Michael Clark left the band and with this the first period of the Byrds ended. With the introduction of guitar player Graham White, the new singer Gram Parsons, who also played guitar and keyboard, and a new drummer Kevin Kelley, the band substantially changed their sound. At this point, the music became more country-influenced and therefore for me personally less interesting. However, the band was still creative. In 1968, they went to Nashville, the heart of US country music and also a „No-go“ for hippies at that time and they recorded „Sweetheart of the Rodeo“. It is quite interesting listening to band-members telling the story, how it was entering the heart of „rednecks“ and how they had to hide in the studio, because some big country star was not supposed to see them in the entry hall of the Columbia records building in Nashville. It must have been a rather stony way and the outcome was not as successful as it was in the case of Bob Dylans „Nashville Skyline“ or Neil Youngs „Harvest“, both also recorded in Nashville. The album „Sweetheart of the Rodeo“ is discussed very controversial by critics. The first song „You Ain’t Goin‘ Nowhere“ (another Dylan cover) is of course a classical Byrds song, but the general idea to incorporate country music and go to Nashville finally did not pay off. Within the band, there were again a lot of conflicts between Parsons and the rest. So Gram Parsons left the band in mid 1968 and formed new bands, which were not successful. He died a few years later in 1973 after several alcohol and drug problems.
After the intermezzo of Gram Parsons, the third reincarnation of the Byrds was founded in July 1968 with Roger McGuinn, Clarence White, Gene Parsons (not related with Gram), Chris Hilman was founded. Especially the new guitarist Clarence White was important for the band, since he introduced a more powerful and sophisticated guitar-style into the Byrds music. He was also a very good performer, which also changed the whole appearance of the band on stage. The Byrds are a band of continously changing personal: After Hilman frustratedly quit in September 1968 (he was replaced by John York and lateron by Skip Battin), this third incarnation still lasted until 1972.
During this period, the Byrds became good live performer and toured a lot. Their first record, „Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde“ was not such a success. From this first period 1964, existed some unreleased material of the band (e.g. „Here without you„), which also documents the development of the classical Byrds sound. This material was released almost at the same time in 1969 as „Byrds Preflite“ and it was much more successful than „Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde„.
In 1969, the film „Easy Rider“ of 1969 made the band successful again: The band was asked to contribute to the soundtrack, which became finally the album „Ballad Of Easy Rider“. The material was not brand new, it also contained some older material „I Wasn’t Born To Follow“ (also from Gerry Goffin and Carole King) and the new „Ballad Of Easy Rider“. On the film-soundtrack, McGuinn is also interpreting „It’s alright ma (I’m only Bleeding)“ of Bob Dylan, but it’t not on that record. Overall, this record was was a moderate success (No. 36 in the US) and kept the band in the public awareness. In 1970 they released „Untitled“, which was also a moderate success (No 11 in UK), which contains one of the late songs I like most: „Chestnut Mare“.
However, despite their good live performance in the following two years, their two last records weren’t so influential anymore. They produced “Byrdmaniacs“ (1971) and „Farther Along“ (1972), which were not so well perceived. If you like, there are some good live-albums, which were released later on, from that period (e.g. „Live From Holland“), but the sound is already far away from the classical Byrds-style and more a typical hippie-country-rock sound of the seventies. In 1973, Roger McGuinn (after a number of conflicts) managed to organise a reunion of the original five members. Finally, after a last reunion-album „The Byrds“, all members agreed to resolve the Columbia-contract and on not using the name „The Byrds“ anymore. Clarence White unfortunately died with a car accident 1973.
Most of the members are active and especially Crosby, Hilman and McGuinn remained successful as solo performer and the reunified every once in a while. And especially Roger McGuinns record „Back from Rio“ was a very successful comeback in 1991 one with two hit-singles.
But also the late folk-career of McGuinn is remarkable. He discovered the new option to make folk popular via internet, his website Folk Den is still online, so have a look there! He recorded tracks with colleagues, mainly some classical folk songs, he produced MP3-files and offered them for free on the internet. In 2001, he summed up a lot of those songs in a CD: On the record „Treasures of Folk Den“ of 2001, he collaborates with folk-legends like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Eliza Carthy or Tommy Makem. And I can also strongly recommend the also his live record „Live from Spain“ from 2008, which is a very good one showing, that he can still do very attractive solo live-performances.
So congratulations to Roger McGuinn and colleagues for their historic contribution and phantastic rock songs! It might be a good season to remember and have a new listen to The Byrds oeuvre. And as always on this site, comments, critique and questions are always welcomed!
In a previous versions of this article, I had May 15 as the date of No.1, however, I guess that was wrong. The single entered Billboard Hot 100 on May 15, 1965. Some Wikipedia articles are misleading in that respect. I found diverging dates of the No.1-peak of „Mr. Tambourine Man“. However, on the Billboard website, it says June 26, 1965 and I would trust that more. Sorry for the wrong information in the previous versions.
You can find a short snapshot from the Ed Sullivan-Show of „Mr. Tambourine Man“ , but that is a playback. A true live performance of the song on TV is here, however, it is probably also a real-life performance: „Mr. Tambourine Man„.
I am familiar with the Byrds songs and history for a long time now, so I can’t exactly tell, where I got many details from. However, in this article, I used a lot of precise background-info (dates etc.) from the excellent and detailed wikipedia-page on the Byrds. There is also a very good documentary on the history of the Byrds, (which is a „must“ for other Byrdmanics like me): „The Byrds under Review“.