50 years ago this month a seismic shift occurred that altered the course of pop music history.
An unusual sounding single by a new LA band, The Byrds, commandeered the pop charts in June of 1965, elbowing out hits like "Help Me Rhonda," "Wooly Booly," and "I Can't Help Myself" for the top spot. The song, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” was written by singer/songwriter Bob Dylan—already a folk music star but unknown to most pop music fans.
At the time, the surrealistic lyric of the song in combination with the jangly guitar sound of the band—highlighted by an electric 12-string—made it one of the most original sounding records EVER. By early summer the single had caught fire like few other recordings of the era, stayed on the Billboard charts for 13 weeks, and earned rave reviews from music critics—and even accolades from The Beatles, who 16 months earlier had rescued rock music from oblivion.
The song was a game-changer because it introduced to pop listeners a quality of lyrical poetry previously unheard on Top 40 radio, delivered with an alluring melody, celestial harmonies, a densely-arpeggiated electric guitar sound, and a solid back beat. To my mind, the triumph of this record marks the date that rock music grew up—after which the lyrics began to say something and the music gained the sophistication to powerfully communicate them.
Many who were caught off guard by the song went scrambling to hear what else this Dylan guy wrote and got exposed to the treasure trove of his early folk albums. Dylan himself, recognizing the possibilities that rock music arrangements could now offer his songs, released his iconic “Like a Rolling Stone” a month later (with solid rock accompaniment) and the folk-rock boom was officially underway. The Beatles, creative sponges that they were, released their first folk-inspired album, Rubber Soul, later that fall, featuring their most creative and meaningful lyrics to date.
And now to the business angle (there always is one): even Columbia Records didn’t quite know what to do with this record once the Byrds recorded it, given how outlandishly different it sounded from everything else on the airwaves that spring. It was not a dull time for AM radio—with the British Invasion offering a fresh take on rock & roll and Motown cranking out its catchiest tracks ever—but this song, reflecting the hyper-literacy of Dylan’s approach, was revolutionary stuff.
When Columbia didn’t release the record right away, Roger McGuinn, the leader of the Byrds, almost quit the band in protest, but the company finally decided to take the risk and released “Mr. Tambourine Man” to the stores on April 14, 1965. (The label had already released Dylan’s own version of the song four weeks earlier, as part of his Bringing It Back Home album, but there was no commercial risk there, since Dylan was already selling plenty of albums to his folk audience.)
Once the Byrds’ single was released, the public also didn’t quite know what to make of it. (The first response to something as different as MTM is often WTF.) But the song did get the attention of radio program directors and deejays, some of whom recognized it as a singularity in pop music history. And after the Byrds hit the road to promote it—opening for the Rolling Stones on a West Coast tour, performing the song on NBC’s Hullabaloo, and personally shopping it to radio deejays—local LA stations put the song in heavy rotation.
After Billboard declared the record a regional breakout single it took over AM radio nationwide. MTM along with the Stones' “Satisfaction” went on to tyrannize the charts in the summer of 1965, joined later by Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and the Beatles' "Help!" (If there's been a better summer for high quality, intelligent rock & roll singles—as represented by these four—I'd like to hear about it.)
There are probably a dozen lessons to learn from the success of "Mr. Tambourine Man." Here are two obvious ones:
#1: Different isn’t always better, but better is always different. If you don't stand out from the pack with what you're offering you're at an acute disadvantage in this economy. Even more true today—given global competition—than fifty years ago.
#2: You need to personally market the hell out of your product. The Byrds didn't rely just on their record label to promote MTM. They took it upon themselves to make it happen—person to person, gig to gig.
So how did MTM change the future of rock? Well, the success of the Byrds' electric version of it (and their subsequent successes with other Dylan tunes) played a major role in bringing Dylan into the forefront of rock. The band not only marketed Dylan to a mainstream audience by blasting his song to the top of the charts; they also convinced Dylan himself that he had a future in rock. And he quickly took full advantage of it with a rock release ("Like a Rolling Stone") and a rock tour.
Through Dylan's influence, rock and pop songwriters soon began taking their lyrics more seriously. Recording artists—from The Beatles (especially John Lennon) to the Stones to the Kinks to the Who to the Loving Spoonful to Simon & Garfunkel and more—wasted no time in giving themselves poetic license, that is to say, a license for poetry. Even Motown songs began to reflect the new direction in song lyrics. Two decades later you could hear it in the beginning of hip hop. Such was Dylan's reach.
A footnote for the rock historian/archivist/aficionado: the Byrds, in order to fit the track into the typical two-and-a-half-minute AM radio format, left out three of the original four verses of “Mr. Tambourine Man” including the final verse, which is arguably the most dazzling and sublime lyric Dylan has ever composed—beginning with the line, “Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind.” But those who went searching for Bob Dylan’s original version of the song got to hear the song in its full glory. (Check it out here.) In the intervening 50 years, there has never been a song like it.
By the way, if you have a different Bob Dylan lyric—besides the fourth verse of "Mr. Tambourine Man"—that you’d nominate as his best, I’d love to hear it on the comment thread that follows. Don’t include more than a line from it though or the copyright trolls will be sucking my blood.