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Bob Dylan's first number one hit wasn't even performed by him

Bob Dylan is an artist in every sense of the word, and he needs no introduction. Since the dawn of the 1960s, he has made such a critical contribution to music and culture that it is certain he will continue to be studied long after he and we depart this earthly realm. His songs such as ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” are rightly considered amongst the most important ever put to wax. In terms of his stature as an artistic juggernaut, he is only really matched by the late Leonard Cohen in terms of output, credibility and influence.

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in the port city of Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941, the artist we all know as Bob Dylan is highly respected for his music as he is an intellectual, thoughtful ethos, a stark antithesis to the mass-produced pop music of the modern era. His work is coloured by a vast array of literary references, which contribute greatly to his dense back catalogue. Whilst cherry-picking from the canon of literature, over the years, Dylan’s work has come to resemble somewhat of a compendium itself. In addition to his brilliant music, Dylan’s unmatched status as a lyricist of the highest class defines him as an unfaltering star in the expanding space of pop culture.

A folk musician at his core, Dylan resembles somewhat of a traditional wandering troubadour rather than the stereotypical “rock god” with whom he has brushed shoulders over the past 60 years. He writes music that is so cerebral it appeals to so many globally, not limited by social, cultural or musical barriers. This is what truly comprises the icon who soundtracked the ’60s, hailed as the ‘Voice of a Generation’.

Dylan‘s career has been so extensive that it has taken my twists and turns, encompassing genres such as folk, gospel, rock and jazz. A sonic version of Homer’s Odyssey, the ‘Bard’ has given us countless memorable moments of the years, and of course, forgettable ones too. May we remind you of the indulgent curiosity of the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous? directed by Larry Charles.

In 2016, Dylan’s critical social impact was duly noted when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. One of the standout songs is 1965’s unmistakable ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. 

The song’s warm, broad melody in tandem with the surrealism of Dylan’s lyrics are a perfect embodiment of the author. It is said to be equally as inspired by French poet Arthur Rimbaud as by the films of Italian mastermind Frederico Fellini. The titular character is asked by the unknown narrator to play a song, and told that they would follow. This could mean literally tagging along or following in a jam session. Furthermore, the most well-known interpretation of the dream-like imagery is that the song is a paean to LSD, although Dylan didn’t actually start experimenting with the hallucinogenic till after the song’s release.

(Credit: The Byrds)

The songs central lyrical motif and chorus is: Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me/ I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to/ Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me/ In the jingle-jangle morning I’ll come following you“. Upon closer inspection, they almost seem as if they are a reflection of the masses unrealistic demands on the wandering troubadour Dylan. Understandably, the lyrics have also been taken as representative of figures such as Jesus and the Pied Piper of Hamelin. If true, the latter would give the song a wickedly sinister edge.

Given the song’s glorious composition, it has remained one of Dylan’s most enduring hits and was his only single to reach the number-one spot on the charts until 2020. However, as is typical of Dylan, this tale is steeped in irony. Dylan’s version was not the one to climb to the summit. Instead, it was the Byrds who achieved the feat with their classic cover, released in April 1965, only a month after Dylan’s.

The Byrds‘ version is widely hailed as initiating the folk-rock wave that captured listeners between ’65 and ’66. Celebrated as the “first folk-rock smash hit”, the mesh of a rock rhythm, jangly guitar and poetic lyrics gave rise to this ubiquitous new genre. The template the Byrds set out on their version has been imitated countless times over the years. In this sense, Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby and Co., can be seen as the godfathers of folk rock. 

Greeting our friend irony again, allegedly, after the band’s manager acquired one of Dylan’s demos of the song in August 1964, which featured Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the Byrds were initially indifferent to it. Before too long, though, McGuinn had changed Dylan’s original time signature from 2/4 to 4/4 after taking inspiration from the Beatles’ popular rock style, and the song was swiftly recorded in the electrified band format we know today. It reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic, granting Dylan his first and only number one until he would finally achieve it with 2020’s ‘Murder Most Foul’. 

The irony doesn’t stop there, either. It is alleged that the Beatles were so inspired by the Byrds’ version that their sound deeply impacted the Fab Four when writing and recording Rubber Soul in 1965. Parallels have continued to be drawn between the song and the iconic Beatles tracks ‘Nowhere Man’ and ‘If I Needed Someone’.

The Byrds’ take on the Dylan classic was so influential that their sound has coloured many of our favourite jangly indie legends. These include Tom Petty, R.E.M., The Smiths, Teenage Fanclub and The La’s. This is telling of Bob Dylan‘s pervasive influence, as without him, many of our favourite acts and records would not exist. Coming back to one of the character’s mentioned earlier, to erase Dylan from history would be like erasing Jesus from the Bible.

Listen to The Byrds’ ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, below.