Saturday, December 19, 2009



Purists will go to great lengths to protect an art form from becoming diluted or tainted by the introduction of elements that would dare to give it wider commercial appeal.

Populists are generally responsible for pissing them off.

Amusing from a contemporary viewpoint, as most genres of music have been blended many times over, but in the early sixties if you were a fan of folk, rock or pop was a lower form of entertainment. In short, it was viewed as bubblegum for mindless kids to waste their time with.

Collegiate types of that era would be the first to lecture you on the merits of what the performer had to say with special emphasis placed on the fact that many (though not all) who pursued this style of music sang about social injustice, politics and the madness of waging war against fellow human beings. In truth, the folk tradition stretches back further than even the most tenacious music researcher would likely care to investigate. Etymology aside, the revival of the form in the fifties would bring many new converts into the fold and a host of performers that played acoustic instruments and had a message tucked in their back pockets. Many simply gave recorded life to songs that had been passed down through generations.

One young singer-songwriter who came to prominence in the early sixties had captured the minds and hearts of his audience with compelling work that moved peers and listeners alike to appoint him as spokesperson for the "protest movement" that swept college campuses and all corners where words were the most powerful weapons with which to denounce the most reprehensible actions of the establishment. Bob Dylan was practically deified by the folkies.

No one counted on the fact that this guy was not interested in labels or becoming the crown prince of topical song writing. When he released the excellent Bringing It All Back Home LP in '65, his core audience was completely shaken by what they heard. Electric guitars, drums and nary a word that addressed the socio-political upheaval of the times. One tune from this set was co-opted by a newly formed rock group, whose members had themselves been steeped in acoustic folk music. The arrival of the Beatles in the US changed the game plan and for Jim McGuinn, seeing George Harrison playing that electric, 12-string Rickenbacker in the film "A Hard Day's Night" was his epiphany.

The worlds of Dylan and The Beatles collided in the sound of The Byrds and "folk rock" became a buzzword in the summer of 1965.

At that precise moment, a frustrated, idealistic and somewhat drunken folk music purist emptied the contents of his beer on a friend who tried to get him to listen to this groovy new group.

Editing Dylan's verses down to two from the original four, adding floating, ethereal harmonies, bright electric 12 string and employing McGuinn's brilliant arrangement ensured that the Byrds version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" would find a spot at the top of the charts. Within seconds of the start of that chiming, iconic riff, you know what you're listening to. Heralding the promise of all that would follow it, they instantly became one of the most stirring groups in the universe.


Combining literate subject matter, three part harmony and two guitar/bass /drums backing was truly a step forward, with many established acts sitting up and taking notice. All of these ingredients had previously shown up on records by the Searchers ("Needles and Pins" was a precursor to Gene Clark's "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better"), the Beatles, the Animals and Dylan himself, though no one had successfully integrated them until the Byrds came along. Without a doubt, that sound has been bounced off the walls of countless studios by scores of subsequent artists in the decades that followed.

Absolutely stunning vocals were the cornerstone of this record. Gene Clark, David Crosby and McGuinn brought an embarrassment of riches to the table in this department. All had done the folk circuit either on their own or with other small groups. Chris Hillman was the Eddie Van Halen of the mandolin, schooled in country and bluegrass and switched to bass primarily to fill the gap. Michael Clarke looked like Brian Jones, though he was a quick study when it came to picking up the requisite skills to handle the back beat. Together they became a force, though this incarnation of the band fared better in the studio than they did on stage.

That is when they were finally given the green light to do their own instrumental work.

McGuinn was the only Byrd allowed to play on "Mr. Tambourine Man" (the lead single) as the others were sidelined in favor of session players. Hiring members of Phil Spector's famed "Wrecking Crew", Terry Melcher had Hal Blaine, Leon Russell, Larry Knetchel, Bill Pittman and Jerry Cole handle the other instruments. The same lineup recorded "I Knew I'd Want You" as well. Crosby and Clark sang on both tracks with McGuinn, though.

They tracked their own parts on all other songs on the disc. Four Dylan tunes appear on Mr. Tambourine Man (the LP) which they interpret quite well. Three more covers made the album, with the remaining space filled by Gene Clark's compositions, several of which were co-written with McGuinn. The one original that stood head and shoulders above the others was the magnificent "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better", with excellent harmonized lines that echo the verses and the indelible stamp of the Rickenbacker 360. Over twenty years later, Tom Petty would re-record this gem for his first solo project and it retained a contemporary freshness that made it seem like a brand new song.

He didn't alter the arrangement at all.

Clark's early efforts have been nailed by some critics as being derivative of British Invasion stylings, though frankly, most of the output of that era followed a blueprint that was designed and engineered for radio playlists. He wrote to hit the benchmarks laid out for that format and did it well, being by far the most accomplished wordsmith of the five at that point.

For me, whether McGuinn pronounced it correctly or not, the best adaptation out of the pack was their take on Pete Seeger's "Bells of Rhymney" which depicts a Welsh coal mining disaster. I can relate to this as I grew up in an industrial area with a number of coal mines. When you heard the pit whistle (kind of close to an air raid siren in tone) it meant something went woefully wrong deep beneath the surface. McGuinn's solo still gives me shivers each time I hear it. This is what I would play to anyone to demonstrate how subtlety is a much more powerful way to evoke emotion in the listener, rather than beating them over the head with histrionics and a "now you're supposed to feel something" vibe. This is the biggest blunder that makers of contemporary film and music continually repeat: They don't think that the masses possess enough intelligence to discern what is being depicted by their art without flash cards.

"Cry here" "Applaud here" "Big laugh now"

Enough of my ranting, please judge for yourself.

Overall, this is one of the strongest debut sets of that era, inspiring their peers right out of their skulls. Reportedly, Dylan felt a bit let down that the Byrds take on "All I Really Want To Do" was beaten in the charts by Sonny and Cher's version. (With everyone clamoring to record his music, his bank account wasn't suffering). McGuinn was an ideal and sympathetic translator of Bob's work, though Dylan started working with other musicians around the same period and his compositions were augmented with electric accompaniment from that point on.

Let's leave the last words to McGuinn, caught here in performance last May.

1 comment:

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