‘It was just a thrill to play’: Roger McGuinn on the Byrds’ breakthrough Bob Dylan interpretation

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The Byrds’ breakthrough single, a charttopping 1965 version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” came to them almost by accident — and created quite a rift along the way.

Roger McGuinn, in a talk with Growing Bolder, says the song arrived via an approximately year-old demo from manager Jim Dickson: “Turns out Bob wasn’t going to use it, because — the style of recording he used, he would just turn on a mic and whatever happened, happened. Well, some guy was singing out of tune on it — so it was not useable.”

The problem? Byrds bandmate David Crosby didn’t like the song, saying that its “folkie 2/4 time is not going to play on the radio. Radio was very particular. First of all, they weren’t playing folk anymore — they were playing the Beatles and the Stones — and AM radio wouldn’t play anything over 2 minutes and 30 seconds.” Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” of course, was roughly five minues long.

McGuinn set about to solve those issues, one by one. First, he paired the track down to one verse, he says — focusing on the one with “bootheels” in it, since that reminded him of the vagabond writer Jack Kerouac. He then added a fast-paced new acoustic lick to the front, and what he calls a “Beatle beat.” Best of all, it was now short enough to fit into the hit-single format — 2:16 seconds long, McGuinn says.

McGuinn ended up recording the song not with the other Byrds, but with members of the legendary professional sessions men known as Wrecking Crew — Hal Blaine, Leon Russell and others.

“Oh, man, it was a great band,” McGuinn says. “It was just a thrill to play with them. Their timing was just so right on and tight. And they were really cool: They wore leather jackets with their collars turned up, and they drove black Cadillacs. The reason for that was so that they could fit all of their gear into the trunks. Of course, the other guys in the Byrds were upset. They lobbied real hard, and they got to play on all of the other tracks, except for ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and the flip side of the single.”

McGuinn and the Wrecking Crew knocked out both “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Gene Clark’s b-side composition “I Knew I’d Want You” in three hours. McGuinn says the Byrds’ subsequent sessions for “Turn Turn Turn” took an astounding 77 takes.

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