wednesday, october 11, 2006

Mr. Tambourine Man - The Byrds

Sometimes you are so close to what you really love you need someone to point out the obvious for you to really see it. A few years ago my musical compatriot, Micheal Powell, once exasperatingly commented on my love for "those damned jangly guitars."

I hadn’t really thought about it much before then but, after looking though my music collection I noticed there really were a lot of jangly guitars in evidence. And, instead of trying to figure out why, I just moved on.

It turns out there was a very good reason but it has only been relatively recently have I figured out that it all goes back to one record – The Byrd’s Mr. Tambourine Man.

The sound of Roger McGuinn's heavily-compressed 12-string Rickenbacker is one of the most distinctive in all of modern music and its echoes were apparent in all the albums I most dearly love.

Of course I’ve long known that this 1965 album was the Rosetta Stone for tons of great bands I have long loved but I never really 'got it.' This is partly because I simply cannot stand "Turn! Turn! Turn!" because it sounds painfully close to the California hippie crap the era is blighted by.

So, for a long time I wrote off all The Byrds work due to that. Bad mistake.

The fact is the genius of the Byrds went far beyond a horribly overplayed Pete Seeger cover on their second album. The band was able to meld the pop sensibility of the Beatles with the more focused song structure of Bob Dylan. With Mr. Tambourine Man they achieved that synthesis but then upped the ante considerably.

Mr. Tambourine Man is much more than an arithmetic equation. What you get is substantially greater than the individual influences it drew upon. Somehow, with this album, the band melded an array of powerful music ideas and created something completely unique and stood on it’s own merits.

While McGuinn’s guitar is the trademark sound, it’s far from the only thing this album has to offer musically. Gene Clark’s compositions are among the strongest of an era renowned for excellent songwriting. David Crosby’s pitch perfect harmonies are only bested by his propulsive rhythm guitar.

In total, outside of The Beatles, it’s hard to imagine a more talented group nailing everything down at the same time on one single album.

Far better writers than myself with much more extensive background in the history of this band have penned analyses of this record so I will leave the exegesis to them. But my interest in the record has to do with its longer-term impact.

Any reading of this blog makes it pretty clear that the mid-1980s college music scene dramatically shaped my musical tastes. There was a wide-open music world we called the Alternative scene that absorbed just about everything you would hear beyond the confines of Top 40 radio.

I was savvy enough to stumble on The Velvet Underground pretty early and Big Star slightly later. But I was in the south where Jangle Rock was gaining a toehold in the musical hotbeds of Athens, Ga. and Chapel Hill, N.C. Think R.E.M. and then work your way outward from there.

But The Byrds were there the whole time as well.

When I hear the dB’s use their goofy yet glorious "Everly-Brothers-reverse-dive-bombing" harmonies, it is due to the Byrds.

When I hear the happily rattling guitar running through Love Tractor’s "Beatle Boots," it is due to the Byrds.

When I hear the delirious cacophony of R.E.M.’s "I Believe" twirling around anarchy but always pulling back from the brink, it is due to the Byrds.

(Interestingly, it was only after numerous critics pointed out R.E.M.'s first record Murmur boasted a Byrd's-like sound did the band's guitarist, Peter Buck, go back and find out more about their music.)

Many of my faves such as Big Star and The Raspberries walked the line between this sound and The Who’s 'power pop.' The latter would be championed by the likes of great bands like Material Issue, Matthew Sweet and The Replacements but the former is where my true allegiance lay.

If you are looking for the acme of Mr. Tamborine Man’s influence you need to take a listen to Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s self-titled 1976 debut. The tragic hopefulness that makes "American Girl" such a powerful song is pretty much taken directly from "I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better." (Something Petty acknowledged by covering the latter on his solo album Full Moon Fever.)

Which isn’t to say "American Girl" is simply a rip off McGuinn & Co. The song breaks your heart because it takes the bright idealism of the Byrd’s sound and mixes it with the crushing heartbreak of middle-American adolescent broken dreams.

Mike Campbell, the lead guitarist for the Heartbreakers, approach of playing two or three-strings-at-a-time was inherited from his love of the Byrds. It stands in stark contrast to the punk rock one-at-a-time style that also came out of that era and here it gives the song its added depth and power.

All this came a bit of a relief to me since, for years, my love of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was kind of a secret shame in light of my indie cred. Turns out, I was just being consistent. Of course don’t think the Byrds haven't bequeathed anything to the punk legions either.

Take a listen to Hüsker Dü’s powerful take of "Eight Miles High." It’s a gut wrenchingly furious rendition that is still vibrantly loyal to the original. The music writer Michael Azerrad considers the recording the defining statement of the band and I tend to agree.

If you wonder where The Pixies took off from, this is as close to the launch pad as one can get.

Because as much as I am reveling in the jangly glory of this first Byrds record, the fact is they went on to trailblaze several other far-reaching rock genre's including folk-rock, psychedelic-rock and country-rock. The sheer artistic power of this group of musicians is breathaking when you step back and allow yourself to appreciate it properly.

In his glistening cover of "Eight Miles High," alternative music icon Robyn Hitchcock noted the importance of The Byrds point blank.

"In July 1965 the Byrds first visited Great Britain," he says during the guitar break. "I was twelve. You weren’t even born yet."

It seemed somewhat snobbish when I first heard it years ago but I later came to understand he was trying to make a musical point that simply playing the song might not make totally clear. As much as Hitchcock understands his role as a trailblazer, he is very much indebted to other artists as well.

And we listeners would be wise to give them a chance the first opportunity we can find. Waiting for later will only result in regrets.

more:  Music 

posted by kleph @ 4:56 am |

comment posted by: spit on october 26, 2006 @ 11:04 am
Stands for Decibels was the first album I bought with my own money. In 8th grade (followed by Human Sexual Response, another great band)
Wow, I never met anyone else who even knew who they are!
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