In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Bob Dylan never got to #1. Twice in his career, Dylan got as far as #2 — with “Like A Rolling Stone” in 1965 and then with “Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35” a year later. Both are pretty staggering achievements when you consider how far Dylan’s music was from the stuff that surrounded it on the charts. But as a singer, Dylan only appeared on one #1 record: USA For Africa’s “We Are The World.” Dylan was an enormously popular and important artist, but plenty of enormously popular and important artists never hit that landmark. And in Dylan’s own particular case, that prickly voice needed some sweetening to reach that summit. And in 1965, the Byrds were the right band at the right time, and their version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” is the only Dylan-written record that has ever made it to #1.
Dylan wrote “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1964, after going on a road trip with a few friends. A visit to New Orleans during Mardi Gras might’ve been what incited the song. It’s a typically obtuse Dylan composition, and it’s never been entirely clear what the song means. (For his part, Dylan has said that it’s not about drugs and that Fellini’s La Strada influenced it.) Dylan recorded a version of the song for his 1964 album Another Side Of Bob Dylan, but he didn’t like how it turned out, so he kept it off the album. Later on, he recorded a different version for his next album, 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, and that’s the version we know now.
But when Dylan recorded that original version, Jim Dickson got ahold of an acetate version of it. Dickson was the manager of a new Los Angeles band that hadn’t quite settled on a name yet. (First, they were the Jet Set. Then, the Beefeaters. Finally, the Byrds.) Roger McGuinn, then known as Jim, was the leader. He’d spent time as a Brill Building songwriter in New York, working under Bobby Darin, before finding his place on the folk-revival coffeehouse circuit. The band came together after he teamed up with fellow folk-scene mainstays Gene Clark and David Crosby. They’d started playing old folk songs in Beatlesque ways, an innovation that made them a must-see on LA’s nascent young-boho scene. And of course they loved Dylan.
They did not, however, love “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Dickson had to badger them into recording it. They eventually did. They overhauled the song, changing the tempo and the time signature and throwing out most of Dylan’s lyrics. Dylan heard an early version of the band’s cover, and he loved it. (Legend has it that his reaction was this: “Wow, you can dance to that!”) And so the Byrds went into the studio, and with their first single, they hit #1 and changed the course of rock history.
But it wasn’t exactly them in the studio. Dickson wasn’t convinced that they really knew how to play yet, so only McGuinn got to play on the single. Of course, McGuinn is really the one who matters, and his sparkling, chiming 12-string intro is the part of the song that everyone remembers. But the band really recorded the song with the Wrecking Crew, the legendary group of LA session musicians who played on practically every third #1 hit in that era. It’s funny: Even at the dawning of rock’s auteur era, those session guys were still dominating. (When the Byrds recorded their debut album soon after, Dickson relented and let them play their own instruments.) The Byrds’ single came out less than a month after Dylan released his own version on Bringing It All Back Home, and it didn’t take long to hit the chart summit.
The record sounds gorgeous, of course. That guitar line hits your ears like a tiny little burst of euphoria. And the rest of the music does exactly what it should do. That bass, in particular, arrives at the exact right instant, sliding in right under that central riff. McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby harmonized over it, hitting angelic high notes without striving for them. They didn’t know what Dylan was singing about, either, but they had their own ideas. A few days before recording the song, McGuinn had joined the Subud religion, and he’s said that he sang the song as “a prayer of submission.” And you can hear that in his voice — the sense of striving for some type of transcendence.
As it is, the Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” makes for a fascinating inflection point. “Mr. Tambourine Man,” with its lush arrangement and its compact hooks, is unquestionably pop music in the old-school sense. And yet it hints at something deeper and wilder. It’s a tiny taste of what the next few years would offer. Pretty soon after, the folk-rock trend became this crashing, overwhelming wave. The Lovin’ Spoonful, the Mamas And The Papas, and Simon & Garfunkel would get their own moments in the sun, while the Byrds also arguably made things safer for further-out Californian psych-rock bands like the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother And The Holding Company, and the Grateful Dead. And when Dylan went electric soon after, it’s probably not too much of a reach to say that part of his inspiration may have been the amount of money he saw this version of his song raking in.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the deeply strange quasi-spoken-word version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” that William Shatner released on his 1968 album The Transformed Man: