The Byrds, The Byrds Play Dylan, 1979

Here it is, surely the biggest selling album of Dylan covers ever. Despite the 1979 release date, this compilation gathered Dylan songs recorded and released by The Byrds in the years 1965-1970. In fact, an earlier version of this album was released in 1970 for the Japan market only, but according to the liner notes, pretty much everything here was already available on The Byrds’ 60s albums. I guess for a lot of people born after Dylan’s 60s era, people like me growing up in the 70s that is, the Byrds’ versions of certain Dylan’s songs were the definitive ones. When I hear “Mr. Tambourine Man” for example, in my mind it sounds like the “Mr. Tambourine Man” – the one I’ve always known. And I had a copy of Younger Than Yesterday on CD ten years ago, which again, for me contained the ‘original’ version of “My Back Pages.”

So The Byrds take Dylan songs and sweeten them for the ear, make them commercial, radio-friendly, but somehow steal the grit, soul and message out of many of the songs at the same time. The harmonizing and arrangements are second to none and it really would be churlish to lambast them for trivializing Dylan, because at the same time, they brought him to a far wider audience. I remember reading a particularly disparaging comment from Dylan once, though I forget where, about The Byrds’ versions of his songs. He says something like, “I can’t understand why they do that to my songs,” and I shall stop ‘quoting’ Dylan right there because I don’t want to put words in his mouth without having a solid source, but he went on to say something about the meaninglessness of watering it down, turning his music into silly pop songs, and what’s that all about? On the other hand, in Chronicles, he raves about David Crosby.

Having played the LP over a few times lately, I don’t find myself getting terribly hooked. Perhaps I’m too familiar with the Byrds’s sound. More likely I’m overly familiar with hearing these songs covered time and time again. But something about the pillowy, pleasing softness of The Byrd’s playing Dylan leaves me wanting more. The tone arm floats beautifully across the record and when it’s done, you don’t feel arrested in any way. You just find yourself humming or singing the words, forgetting that the words are supposed to mean something. And in that sense, this is not the best Dylan covers album by a long stretch. Odetta for example, played Dylan with real feeling, whereas The Byrds airbrush much of that feeling into the ether. Roll it Bumstead…

The Times They Are A-Changin’… jangle jangle, hi-hat/drum snare, and you’ve got to love the warm throaty harmonizing on, “And you’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.” I love the lead singer’s voice here—it’s an oddly accented thing, though I’m not exactly sure who it is—Jim McGuinn perhaps. I’ve never really liked most bands’ covers of this. It nearly always fails as an instrumental or a trite pop version, which this is to some extent, but it’s still one of the best. Very catchy.

Mr. Tambourine Man… is sooo dreamy and lyrical, all soft burred edges and note perfect harmonizing, pure heavenly pop. Love the little bass part and the jangly electric guitar lines. Everyone knows this. It’s like toasting marshmallows over a campfire on a cool summer night. “Take me for a trip on your magic swirling ship,” and that’s exactly what they do. You can’t fault this—the lyrics even beg the song to be done this way. Pity they leave out half the verses…why??

All I Really Want To Do… and even though this also sounds great, it doesn’t really make much sense turning it into a tin pan pop song. Where Dylan affects a real sense of comedy and sincerity in his version by singing it the way he means it, every single ‘pop’ version of this eschews that for a simple run-through, such that the words lose all their meaning. And they do here, despite this being pretty; pretty trite.

Chimes Of Freedom… when the three singers, Jim McGuinn, Dave Crosby and Gene Clark get together on the chorus, it’s pure magic. The pace is somewhat faster than Dylan’s version. The verse parts are given the run-through treatment, but it’s the chorus part that makes this sound so great. Then we get “dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee,” haha, whatever that’s supposed to represent. The lead singer, not sure which of those three it is, Crosby I think, wheezes the words out like he’s taking a crap. “And for every hung up person in the whole wide universe…” great line. Pretty nice.

Spanish Harlem Incident… and I’m rapt to hear this covered for the first time on my blog project. 25+ Dylan covers albums and no one’s covered this song yet. An absolute favourite of mine, just love the lyrics, the rhythm, the melody and I especially love the way Dylan sings it. “The night is pitch black / Come and make my / Pale face fit into place, oh please.” Mm. “I’ve been wondering all about me / Ever since I seen you there / On the cliffs of your wildcat charms I’m riding / I know I’m round you but I don’t know where.” Brilliant. This is perfectly competent, lyrics tossed off with gleeful abandon in three part harmony.

My Back Pages… and again, this always sounds like the definitive version to me. It’s hard to know how sincere Dylan was being in this song. Like on the one hand he’s taking the piss out of himself but after re-reading Chronicles recently, one almost wonders whether he wasn’t taking the piss out of the idea of himself as being a young gullible folk-protest-singin’ upstart. I do love this version though, especially when McGuinn and Crosby bring the chorus up together, it’s so sweet, I’m trapped in it. I can’t fight my way out of it.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune… and here we have another great slower melodic number which I’m mostly familiar with from hearing it on the brilliant Coulsen, Dean, McGuinness, Flint album, though their version is far better. This is a little insipid. Bit too hymn-like. Great lyrics though. “The last of leaves fell from the trees / And clung to a new love’s breast / The branches bare like a banjo played / To the winds that listen the best.”

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue… has a different feel than anything on Side One. Slow strummed chords, and a wavery sincere vocal followed by a verse done in harmony, some slow pedal steel notes. This is from the Ballad Of Easy Rider album with four vocalists. They’ve attempted to slow it down and ‘arrange’ it in unusual colorations, changing the vocal parts from solo to multi-vocal with aplomb. Love the guitar parts, shooting about like fading stars in the background. Great to hear a country take on this song.  “All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home / All your reindeer armies, they are going home / Your lover who just walked out the door / Has taken all your blankets from the floor / The carpet too is moving under you / And it’s all over now, baby blue.” Dylan singing to himself according to one interpretation I read. One of the best songs here so far, in terms of doing something interesting with the song.

You Ain’t Going Nowhere… and here we have a Sweethearts Of The Rodeo track, this time with Gram Parsons on board, and again we get all sorts of pedal steel and weird keyboards star-spangle bannering about in the background. Got to admit, I love this version too. Sure, it sweetens the original up a lot, but it’s such a good song, I don’t really care. I haven’t overheard it, know what I’m saying?

This Wheel’s On Fireanother Basement Tapes track, this time done with some heavier guitars, though heavy as in sponge-full-of-water heavy. It’s quite slow, honeydrippin’ vocal style, with Roger McGuinn taking lead this time. “Wheels on fire / Rollin’ down the road / Best notify my next of kin / This wheel shall explode.” Good to hear the electric guitar lightning storm in the break. Quite a groovy druggy vibe to this one. “If your memory serves you well / Then you remember you’re the one / That called on me to call on them / To get your favours done.” Heavy thunder, drone out…

Nothing Was Delivered… back to the country twang of Gram Parsons, and a horse-riding rhythm on yet another Basement Tapes number. I have to confess to failing to remember this song though. Must be one of the lesser numbers—it’s never really registered with me. “Nothing is better / Nothing is best / Take care of your health and get plenty of rest.” Pure country rock. Lovely, though it lacks a little spark. Tssh.

Lay Lady Lay… haha, and this sounds very much like the version on Hugo Montenegro’s Dawn Of Dylan. The guitar parts are all tiny things over on the side, while through the middle comes a McGuinn vocal that I find hard to take seriously, like it sounds as if he’s taking the mickey a little. The chorus is pretty funny – a loud multi-part high-pitched male/female choir interjecting angelic oohs and aahs, lots of drama. Montenegro’s version was vastly superior.

Positively 4th Street…  opens with applause, must be live: “We’re gonna play a song by Bob Dylan.” And the recording quality is pretty awful. It’s from some Untitled/Unissued 1970 Byrds album, a collection of bits and bobs presumably. The pace is funky, rocky, with a country feel, lots of fiddly electric guitar. Much of Dylan’s sneer and venom is completely lost from the song. Big applause at the end.

Click once to expand, again to magnify

I hope my criticisms don’t seem too harsh. You can’t fail to enjoy this album. I’ve found though, that playing it while I’m doing something, it just drifts by completely unmemorably. I enjoyed it far more when I actually sat down to pay attention and listen to the detail. I suppose with the volume cranked up to ten, it probably grabs your attention more then too. But in the general scheme of Dylan cover albums, it’s only so-so. There’s been better and there’s better yet to come folks…

About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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