The philosopher’s stone of folk rock

By Sergio Ariza

It was a completely iconic and influential debut. The Byrds were a group of folk singers (Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark) who had gone nuts after seeing the movie A Hard Day’s Night by the Beatles. Together they would blend the music of the Fab Four with Bob Dylan lyrics creating in this attempt what would became known as folk rock. The original trio was joined by drummer Michael Clarke (recruited because his likeness to Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones) and Chris Hillman, a bassman who came from country music and would be one of the main pieces of the band on records to come.   

However, the main three figures on this debut album were McGuinn, who fashioned the band’s sound on his 12-string Rickenbacker, Crosby, in charge of harmonising the vocals to sound like angels, and Clark, the band’s main composer, who wrote their best songs, such as I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better, You Won’t Have to Cry, I Knew I’d Want You, and the sublime Here Without You. Despite the incredible calibre of Clark’s songs, the band preferred to go with their covers of Dylan songs (the same ones that made the author of Like a Rolling Stone burst out,”Wow, you can even dance to them”). There are four on this record, among them, his two big singles, Mr. Tambourine Man (the song that shot them to fame) and All I Really Wanted to Do.

The first one is perhaps the most iconic song the band ever had, regardless of McGuinn being the only member who played on it (although Crosby and Clark joins him on harmony vocals) and gave the group its unique sound, with his twangy 12-string Rickenbacker 360, a sound that would influence the very own Beatles, and would extend far beyond their time, with repercussions on people like Tom Petty, Johnny Marr, and
Peter Buck.  The song used on the B side was Clark's  splendid I Knew I’d Want You also recorded with players from the famous Wrecking Crew (the most legendary session band in  Los Angeles) as support for McGuinn's Rickenbacker, his voice, and those of Clark and Crosby. But when it came time to record, the band stood firm and demanded to play on it, which becomes obvious  on the sound, a bit dirtier yet also more authentic on numbers like Chimes of Freedom, and I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better, one of the finest examples of what later would be known as ‘power pop’, where McGuinn’s Rick is heard alongside the ‘62 Gretsch 6119 “Chet Atkins” Tennessean in Crosby’s hands.   

Mr. Tambourine Man was a very important record in rock history, not just as a launching point for folk rock, or for the fact it didn’t have a single filler song, but for its influence on the great artists who provided a base for the group: the Beatles and Dylan. The Beatles didn’t wait long to add that sound in their music, with Harrison lifting the riff from The Bells of Rhymney in If I needed Someone (a strange case of returned influences, now that McGuinn had bought his Rick after seeing George in A Hard Day’s Night) and Dylan would end up electrifying his music at almost the same time as the Byrds appeared… and the rest is history.