The Byrds' Triple Play
Pop Culture Released - Jan 06, 2013
They were after a big sound, resonant and full, like an orchestra. The place was Pacific Recorders in Hollywood and the instrument being recorded was the twelve-string Rickenbacker of Jim McGuinn, of the Byrds. They had a potential hit song and wanted to really punch it up with a big electric-guitar sound.
“One of the few things McGuinn and I saw eye-to-eye on was the exceptional recording qualities of the twelve-string,” said Byrds manager Jim Dickson several years later. “You can make a very big sound with the harmonics of the octave strings.”
Dickson paired McGuinn with producer Terry Melcher to perfect the Byrds’ distinctive guitar sound. They experimented with overdubs and high-end boosters. “The rest was just the way he played,” says Dickson. “He did some magnificent things on the twelve string that just overwhelmed me; his intro riff for ‘Mr. Tambourine Man” was just the beginning.
The Byrds’ vocal harmonies were the other distinctive element of their sound. Melcher double-tracked their three-part harmonies to make them sound richer and fuller than they actually were. Tape delay and echo were employed to further amp up their sound.
The Byrds’ treatment of Dylan’s song struck an immediate chord with record buyers. “It was a classic example of an overnight hit,” said Dickson. “A San Francisco DJ played it on a Sunday afternoon; by Tuesday, hundreds of new fans began arriving from San Francisco to see the Byrds at Ciro’s on the Sunset Strip; an L.A. radio station picked up the record; and by the end of the week, it was being played throughout the West. The following Monday I flew to New York, and Columbia Records told me we had a regional hit. By Friday, it was on the top New York radio station and was breaking simultaneously in England.” The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” was destined to become a top-five record in twenty-six countries and number-one in the United States.
Their follow-up single, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” employed the same recording techniques and went number one as well. Their third single, with an even bigger sound, was “Eight Miles High.” It too appeared headed to the top of the charts when a rumor circulated that the song was about drugs. Overnight DJs opted for another song that borrowed heavily from the Byrds’ sound. The song was “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. It went number-one instead of “Eight Miles High” and the Byrds lost momentum and gradually faded from top-40 radio.
“Disagreement over image and material were among the things that led to my eventual departure as manager,” said Dickson. “The tensions that ultimately broke up the band were always there, and at times they actually worked for them. On tracks like ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ and ‘Eight Miles High,’ when everyone was contributing equally and they played with one mind and feeling, the Byrds were unbeatable.”
The Byrds’ “unbeatable” triple has aged well. Using the latest digital technology, they have been remastered and sound timeless. How many pop songs from the sixties can make the same claim?