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.
“Turn! Turn! Turn!” is a neat little bit of subterfuge — a ’60s song that argues for peace but does so almost entirely through the medium of Bible quotes. The grandfatherly leftist folkie Pete Seeger wrote “Turn! Turn! Turn!” sometime in the late ’50s. He says he put the melody together in about 15 minutes when he was pissed off at his publisher. But almost all of the words come directly from the King James Bible translation of the Book Of Ecclesiastes.
There are all kinds of possible interpretations for that passage, about how there’s a time for all these different things in life. But Seeger heard it as a song about the possibility of peace, and the few lines that he added to the song make that concrete: “A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.” The Byrds released their version of the song as the Vietnam War was just starting to rip open the United States’ generation gap. And so it’s possible to see their version of the song as some slick maneuvering. The kids could hear the song as a pro-peace anthem, but the band also had plausible deniability. After all, how countercultural could a Bible quote possibly be? (Christian hippies, like my parents, loved this song.)
Byrds frontman Roger (then Jim) McGuinn, a folkie with a pop-industry past, had a history with “Turn! Turn! Turn!” In 1963, he’d arranged a version of the song for folksinger Judy Collins. (He’d also played guitar on her version.) After the Byrds blew up, he realized it was possible to play the song in that chiming, droning, vaguely Beatlesque way that had become the Byrds’ signature sound. And so this blissful little Bible passage became a straight-up smash during that very early psychedelic era.
It’s pretty, of course. The Byrds’ three-way harmonies were languidly lush, and McGuinn was still figuring out new ways to interweave those guitar jangles. Seeger, who liked the Byrds’ version of his song, said that those guitars sounded “like bells,” and he was exactly right. It’s a utopian, beatific sound, like a campfire singalong on the astral plane.
But it’s a bit clumsy, too, the words of that passage sounding a bit unnatural coming out of those dovelike vocals. The Byrds worked hard to sell them, and I like how surprised they sound as the urgency ramps up. Still, it’s simplistic and softhearted. (Turned out it was too late.) Again and again, movies like Forrest Gump and shows like The Wonder Years have used “Turn! Turn! Turn!” as baby-boomer nostalgia-bait, which hasn’t helped it. In the months after their sophomore album, the Byrds would push their sound further out into the ether, figuring out stranger and newer things to do with those guitar chimes. But they’d never hit #1 again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s My Morning Jacket’s studiously faithful 2013 cover of “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” recorded for the soundtrack of the HBO show True Blood: