Mar 05

THE BYRDS – “Mr. Tambourine Man”

Popular27 comments • 3,658 views

#199, 24th July 1965

The impact of Bob Dylan as lyricist isn’t so much in the idea that pop could be ‘poetry’ but in the idea that it could be a riddle-game. (Of course the difference between these two ideas is mostly one of emphasis: that’s why we do comprehension exercises at school.) Coded meanings and lyrical references didn’t begin in 1960 but the formula was generally to take a subject that one couldn’t sing about and modify things so that one could. Once a listener to, say, “Sugar In My Bowl” understood the single metaphor, that was that: they were in the club.

Dylan did this too, as singer and as audience – his ears notoriously pricked up when he misheard dope references in the Beatles. But a lot of his mid-60s lyrics took the technique and exploded it, packing fabulous, ridiculous worlds of detail and allusion into rambling verses. You could have a lot of fun codexing them – which itself might let you into a particular club – but there’s not often a key central image that turns the song into something you can make literal sense out of. Your understanding is something personal, secret, hard to articulate.

But of course understanding of pop usually is like that. It turns on the private stuff you can draw out of a chord, or a phrase, or a snarl or twitch. The point at which pop criticism starts is that ginger moment when you play a song you love to someone else and hope that the world it opens up for them is the same as the one it opens for you (or maybe you hope that it’s not the same). What Dylan’s kind of cryptic pop is doing – and make no mistake, it does it well – is making the potential for private worlds more obvious, making them part of pop’s text.

We’re at a slight tangent, though, to “Mr Tambourine Man” by The Byrds. For one thing “Mr. Tambourine Man”, at least the wide-eyed way the Byrds sing it, is one of those Dylan songs that has a metaphor-key, and they’ve left the key squarely on the doormat with the label “Take me for a trip” tied on. I think it’s a very pretty lyric, but it’s approached here with a convert’s optimism and Dylan’s folksy tics (“I’m ready for to fade”) are treated with a bit too much reverence. The Byrds sing the song like Dylanologists-in-waiting.

But that’s fine, because while you’re helping them puzzle out the words, the music gets the chance to sneak up and charm you. I like the Byrds because of the way they hit on a lovely sound and then applied it for a couple of years to everything – stern old hymns, laments on Presidential death, wry musings on the rock biz, love songs, drug songs, anything. Any subject, any song could be polished and Rickenbackered into a blissful smoothness. Here their obvious faith in Dylan’s song and their musical committment to beauty link, and the result is three minutes that seem to bring a better world within touching distance.



  1. 1
    Ian on 7 Mar 2005 #

    See, with this and the last entry we’re starting to get to the really good stuff about how pop works (the general how, not the particular why). I’ve been enjoying Popular since the beginning, but I hope it continues like this.

    Or, to be less obtuse, this is great.

  2. 2
    Anonymous on 8 Mar 2005 #

    We talked a bit earlier about Lennon and word play and how it worked into Ticket To Ride and all the puns, double entendre and “in” remarks in many of the Beatles stuff. Small potatoes compared to Dylan. And , as time has proven, much more than a riddle game

    With the intro of M. Tam Man into the charts it’s an acceptance of poetic, lyric driven songs. I remember the general wisdom as ” Dylan can’t sing” but he could write. It took a band as tightly wrought and highly sung to make a silk pouch out of Dylan’s sow’s ear. We owe the Byrd’s a lot in being able to bring such an unusual song into the public limelight. That ol’ Rickenbacker’s jingle jangle does the trick.

    Here’s a song that we can listen to again and again and draw more and differing meanings from it. Just like all good poetry, it allows us to give it our personal meaning. And thank God that it was Dylan they chose to be ” Rickenbackered into a blissful smoothness. “. Had they not Zimmerman may not have ever strapped on a Stratocaster at Newport.

    Brian C

  3. 3
    Marcello on 9 Mar 2005 #

    In contrast, the reason for the decline of the Searchers is that they never had a Dylan to smooth out.

    No need to comment on the attendant irony of David Crosby knocking Graham Nash off the top of the charts.

  4. 4
    Mark Gamon on 9 Mar 2005 #

    Marcello – now THAT’S what I call observant. Have recently been listening to Crosby and Nash’s most recent work. Patchy but in places fabulous. Whatever else you think about the sixties, it seems to me like a golden age of harmony singing.

  5. 5
    Mark Gamon on 10 Mar 2005 #

    Mystifying. King of the Road gets 40+ comments, Tambourine Man gets 3…

  6. 6
    Anonymous on 10 Mar 2005 #

    Funny, I thought everone had gone to the moon but I guess M.Tam Man is too smooth for it’s own good.

    And we all LIKE it !

  7. 7
    Anonymous on 10 Mar 2005 #

    Funny, I thought everone had gone to the moon but I guess M.Tam Man is too smooth for it’s own good.

    And we all LIKE it !

  8. 8
    Mark Gamon on 10 Mar 2005 #

    If it’s worth saying once, it’s worth saying twice…

    If we all like it how come it only got an 8?

  9. 9
    Alan Connor on 12 Mar 2005 #

    If we all like it how come it only got an 8?

    I don’t like it.

    I don’t dislike it either, but it’s never said anything to me. I understand that they were the talk of the town when they appearted on the live scene, but I wasn’t there, and nothing about their look, sound or project has ever done the slightest thing for me.

    (That’s not entirely true: I go for “Chestnut Mare” and “Feel A Whole Lot Better”.)

    Apologies for posting such a personal blank meh post, but the greater the assumption of unanimity, the more important that the odd blank face says meh.

  10. 10
    Mark Gamon on 13 Mar 2005 #

    Good point. Your dissent duly noted!

  11. 11
    Alan Connor on 14 Mar 2005 #

    I feel I may be missing out on something. I love Neil Young, and mistook the intro to one of his 45,654 versions of “Mr Soul” for “Eight Miles High” this evening, and thought: “hey, maybe I do like the Byrds!”. And I love some bits of CSN, and some bits of Hollies, and some bits of West Coast harmony stuff, and some garage, and have never much of a bad word to say about Dylan, and love Love, but…

    …I suppose I’m saying “ta” for noting the dissent.

  12. 12
    Anonymous on 14 Mar 2005 #

    Sorry for the double post about LIKING IT.
    I’ve had a real problem getting my box to post stuff – may be that’s why so little response – to this song.
    Dissention included.

    Brian C

  13. 13
    Alan Connor on 15 Mar 2005 #

    Resurrection Watch: This Kilroy tribute. Plus Shatner, Melanie et al, of course.

  14. 14
    Семен Соколов on 27 May 2009 #

    Кстати, я сейчас посмотрел, ваш блог в Yandex хорошие места занимает ,если название сайта в поиск вбивать.

  15. 15
    thefatgit on 3 Aug 2010 #

    I love this track. There’s the optimism and wonder that Dylan attributes to the drug-lifestyle that serves as bookend to something like Low’s “In The Drugs”, which for me, this band above all others soundtracks Effy’s journey in to drugs hell in Skins. Which in itself seems to be one of those stories that will transfer into modern fable, in the same way Beth Jordache (sexuality) in Brookside, and Kat and Zoe (family relationships) in Eastenders have.

    (Although Dylan wrote and recorded Mr.TM first, in my mind, I tend to attribute The Byrds version as the earliest example of drug-pop I can remember. I know there are others. And I know music and drugs go back a helluva long way before the 60’s and psychedelia.)

    Although it may be hard to draw comparisons between 60’s pschedelia and noughties slowcore, both bands (and Dylan for that matter) flirt with that almost intangible, but everpresent soft-focus gauze-over-the-camera, half-asleep half-awake style of delivery, which in relation to drugs, always seems apropriate.

    The Byrds are unlocking the door and inviting you in. Some 40-odd years later, Low are nailing it shut.

  16. 16
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #


    James Fox, actor(1983)

    Chris DeBurgh, singer(1998).

  17. 17
    Lena on 27 Jul 2011 #

    UK fuzziness alert: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2011/07/taking-off-yardbirds-heart-full-of-soul.html Thanks for reading everyone!

  18. 18
    Billy Smart on 3 Dec 2011 #

    TOTPWatch: The Byrds performed ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ once on Top of the Pops, but precisely WHEN they did is something of a mystery. The performance was repeated on the Christmas Day edition of 1965, but if it had been broadcast previously is not documented. My guess would be that when The Byrds visited the studio to perform ‘All I Really Want To Do’ on the 12th of August they also recorded ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ at the same time for later transmission. No copy of the performance survives.

  19. 19
    lonepilgrim on 11 Jan 2012 #

    This was also a number 1 in the USA – as noted here:


  20. 20
    enitharmon on 20 Apr 2012 #

    Now here’s a conundrum; where to find the right place to mark the death (the passing Across the Great Divide, maybe) of Levon Helm. In retrospect, The Weight would have been a worthy number one (“Ah wuz feelin’ ‘baht haif past dayud” just about sums up how I’ve been feeling with a throat and chest infection this week) but I’ll just have to make do with this first Dylanish outing, unless somebody can suggest something better.

    The Weight, as it happens, was the only single I ever bought in Barrow, from the long-gone record shop in Dalton Road while staying with relatives in 1968. I never had Music From Big Pink, though I have seldom been without a copy of the eponymous second album by The Band.

    Joan Baez’s version of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down was one of the ever-presents on the jukebox in the Sphinx Bar in the Liverpool Students Union.

  21. 21
    enitharmon on 28 Jan 2014 #

    And I can’t find a better place, either, to say goodbye to Pete Seeger.

  22. 22
    hectorthebat on 13 Apr 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 10
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 207
    NPR (USA) – The 300 Most Important American Records of the 20th Century (1999)
    Paul Williams (USA) – Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1993)
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 86
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 79
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 79
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1960s (2008)
    Colin Larkin (UK) – The All-Time Top 100 Singles (2000) 1
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 19
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (1976) 42
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (2002) 35
    Paul Morley (UK) – Words and Music, 210 Greatest Pop Singles of All Time (2003)
    Q (UK) – 100 Songs That Changed the World (2003) 51
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 784
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Sounds (UK) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1986) 52
    The Observer (UK) – 31 Songs That Changed 31 Music Fans’ Lives (2003)
    Vox (UK) – 100 Records That Shook the World (1991)
    Zig Zag (UK) – Gillett & Frith’s Hot 100 Singles (1975)
    Helsingin Sanomat (Finland) – 50th Anniversary of Rock (2004)
    Nerikes Allehanda (Sweden) – The 50 Best Rock Songs of All Time (1992) 15
    Berlin Media (Germany) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1998) 20
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Les Inrockuptibles (France) – 1000 Indispensable Songs (2006)
    Rolling Stone (France) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 15
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  23. 23
    lonepilgrim on 25 Jul 2015 #

    one of the things that bob does so well is to pile on the rhymes in the song so that it appears to go into slow motion before lurching back into real time: ‘Take me on a TRIP upon your magic swirlin’ SHIP
    My senses have been STRIPPED, my hands can’t feel to GRIP
    My toes too numb to STEP, wait only for my boot heels
    To be wanderin’.
    The Byrds edit the song from four verses to one and use a poppier 4/4 rhythm. I find their version easier to admire than love, and to be honest the original is not one of my favourite bob songs, but the chiming guitars and glorious harmonies lift this out of the ordinary.

  24. 24
    enitharmon on 18 Oct 2016 #

    This, then, the first #1 written by a Nobel laureate? One could argue the toss about whether the original lyricist of Mack the Knife should have won it but he didn’t.

  25. 25
    flahr on 19 Oct 2016 #

    It’s All In The Game” was a co-write for Charles Dawes (Peace, 1925).

  26. 26
    Cumbrian on 19 Oct 2016 #

    #25: That is an astounding fact. Every day is a school day.

  27. 27
    Gareth Parker on 1 Jun 2021 #

    Nailed on 10/10 for me. Fantastic version of a terrific Dylan track in my opinion.

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