Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch Series,”where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!

The Byrds, American band of the 1960s who popularized folk rock, particularly the songs of Bob Dylan, and whose changes in personnel created an extensive family tree of major country rock bands and rock supergroups.

Among the pioneers of folk rock, their popularity in the mid-’60s rivaled that of the Beatles. The Byrds’ characteristic sound was McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker guitar.

Names before the Byrds include: the Jet Set, the Beefeaters. They misspelled “Byrds” as their nod to the Beatles.

They’re distinctive sound came naturally soon after they started performing together. “We had come out of folk music, so we had a sense of time and rhythm,” Chris Hillman said in an interview. “It was just basically transposing it into an electric format.”

When Clark left the band, the media was told it was because he had a fear of flying; a quote by McGuinn saying, “You can’t be a Byrd if you can’t fly” made the rounds.

Clark debunked this in a 1983 interview. “The fear of flying wasn’t why I quit the group,” he said. “When you’re 19, 20 years old and you start on a fantasy, then six months later you’re hanging out with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, it can cause you to become a little disturbed. The reason for the group’s breakup was much less the fear of flying than it was we were too young to handle the amount of success that was thrown at us all at once.”

Crosby went on to fame in Crosby, Stills and Nash. Parsons and Hillman formed the Flying Burrito Brothers.

White was a former bluegrass guitarist.

The Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on January 16, 1991, the same night the US began airstrikes on Baghdad.

Roger (Jim, as he was known then) McGuinn, had been in the New Christy Minstrels before joining the Byrds.

David Crosby recalled to Uncut magazine how The Byrds started: “I started going up and hanging out with Roger and Gene, we would sing together at The Troubadour,” he said. “Gene was from a family of 11 from somewhere like Mississippi, he had no clue what the rules were, so he would just do it in a way that somebody else hadn’t thought of. And Roger was so smart, who listened to and go, ‘Well, we could just do this and this to it,’ and boom, it’s a record! I almost hate giving Roger as much credit as I do, but you can’t deny it – he was a moving force behind that band, and he did create the arrangements for the songs.”

During the late 1940s, Roger McGuinn’s parents, Jim and Dorothy, wrote a best-selling book which was a satire of Baby And Child Care, Dr. Spock’s famed child-rearing manual. McGuinn recalled to Mojo: “It was called Parents Can’t Win and it was based on their experiences trying to raise me using child psychology and how it backfired all the time. It was considered very topical and sold well.”

Roger McGuinn recalled to Mojo that he once had a jam session with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix in New York but “couldn’t get a note in edgewise.” He added that he’s comfortable with his own style rather than trying to keep with his guitar heroes – “I really like the sound of a Rickenbacker.”

When Chris Hillman received an offer to join a new band, The Byrds, as bass guitarist, he agreed despite never having picked up the instrument before. Writing in his memoir, Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond, Hillman explained he was aware of how talented band members Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby were. So, when he was invited to audition, he lied and said he knew how to play the bass. “Total bluff, the greatest poker bluff ever,” Hillman declared.

The Byrds’ debut single, a version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” went to number one in 1965, breaking the British Invasion’s year-long dominance of Top 40 airplay and record sales in the United States. They introduced Dylan’s songwriting to a new, commercially empowered, teenage pop audience and, in the process, established Los Angeles as the creative hotbed of a new, “mod,” distinctly American style of rock. The Byrds’ trademark sound—a luminous blend of 12-string electric guitar and madrigal-flavoured vocal harmonies—spiked the Appalachian folk music tradition with the rhythmic vitality of the Beatles and the sunny hedonism of southern California. On early albums, the Byrds covered Dylan, Pete Seeger, Porter Wagoner, and Stephen Foster with a jangly clarity that reflected young America’s changing mood and its fantasies of a Pacific Coast utopia.

Psychedelic Lunch

Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!

The Byrds, Mr. Tambourine man. Album: Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)

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 later in 1965, it was a transatlantic hit, topping the charts in both the US and UK. 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 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.” >>

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.” >>

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. >>

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. >>

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. >>

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.'”

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?'”

Psychedelic Lunch

  • Many people believe this song is about drugs, but the band claimed it was inspired by a flight where singer Gene Clark asked guitarist Roger McGuinn how high they were in the sky. McGuinn told him six miles, but for the song they changed it to eight.

    This story was likely a smokescreen to keep the song in the good graces of sensitive listeners. The band had been doing a lot of drugs at the time, including LSD, which is the likely inspiration. If the band owned up to the drug references, they knew it would get banned by some radio stations, and that’s exactly what happened when a radio industry publication reported that the song was about drugs and that stations should be careful about playing it. As soon as one station dropped it, others followed and it quickly sank off the charts.

    When McGuinn was asked in 2016 if the song was really about drugs, he replied: “Well, it was done on an airplane ride to England and back. I’m not denying that the Byrds did drugs at that point – we smoked marijuana – but it wasn’t really about that.” In his book Echoes, Gene Clark said that he wrote the song on his own with David Crosby coming up with one key line (“Rain gray town, known for its sound”), and Roger McGuinn arranging the song with help from Crosby.

    In the Forgotten Hits newsletter, McGuinn replied: “Not true! The whole theme was my idea… Gene would never have written a song about flying. I came up with the line, ‘Six miles high and when you touch down.’ We later changed that to Eight because of the Beatles song ‘Eight Days a Week.’ I came up with several other lines as well. And what would the song be without the Rickenbacker 12-string breaks?” This song is often cited in discussions of “Acid Rock,” a term that got bandied about in 1966 with the release of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album. The genre covers a kind of psychedelic music that became popular at the time, and also the look and lifestyle that went with it. “Acid Rock” was hailed as a pathway to higher consciousness and derided as senseless drug music. At the end of the ’60s, the term petered out, as rock critics moved on to other topics for their think pieces. The band recorded this on their own, but Columbia Records made them re-record it before they would put it on the album, partly because they had contracts with unions. The Byrds liked the first version better. Don McLean referred to this in his song “American Pie,” which chronicles the change in musical style from the ’50s to the ’60s. The line is “Eight miles high and falling fast- landed foul out on the grass.” McLean could be sardonically implying that the song is about drugs, since “foul grass” was slang for marijuana. Husker Du recorded a noise-pop version in 1985. For decades, the story went that “Eight Miles High” was a commercial failure because it had been banned from radio due to its perceived pro-drug messages. Research presented by Mark Teehan on Popular Music Onlinechallenges this theory. Teehan instead blames the song’s failure to chart on three factors:

    First, its sound was too far ahead of its time, and radio stations didn’t know what to do with it.

    Second, the departure of Gene Clark led to Columbia Records significantly shrinking the scope of the band’s advertising campaign.

Psychedelic Lunch