When Dylan sang “The Times They Are A-Changin'” in 1963, he sang it with the voice of a prophet; when the Byrds sang the same song in 1965, the times really were a-changing. When Dylan sang “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” in “My Back Pages”, he was revealing a personal shift in how he felt about black and white political messages; when the Byrds sang the same lyrics, it signified a cultural shift by an entire generation. Politically, the assassination of President Kennedy and the war in Vietnam marked an end to the simple innocence of the folk revival era. Musically, the return of electric guitars by way of the Beatles and the Animals marked a re-emergence of rock ‘n’ roll in one form or another.
The joining of a folk-rock unit with a handful of word-heavy songs written by a midwestern poet must have seemed an odd pairing at first glance. Rock in general wasn’t known to be overly concerned with heavy-duty lyrics, much less a wheelbarrow full of them. But the Byrds must have sensed — as many listeners did — a deeper connection to what Dylan was saying. Songs like “Chimes of Freedom” and “Nothing Was Delivered” may have lacked commercial appeal, but they were solid. Anyone, though, could re-record one of the master’s songs and a number of groups did. The genius of the partnership, as David Fricke points out in the liner notes, was the way the Byrds arranged Dylan’s songs. One story goes that Dylan, attending an early Byrds’ session, failed to recognize the group’s version of one of his songs. Indeed, the radically altered chorus of “All I Really Want to Do” is custom-made for the group’s lush harmony and only faintly hints at the original. In essence, these versions were hip interpretations.
About half of the 20 tracks come from 1965-66, over half if you count the two pieces from 1968, and there’s a good reason for this: the Byrds’ earliest interpretations of Dylan, for the most part, are the best. It’s fascinating how McGuinn and his comrades could take a likable, though awkward, song like “All I Really Want to Do” and make it soar. McGuinn’s leads usually sound pleasant, even when he’s singing a phrase like “crucify you”. Unlike Dylan, the Byrd’s never expressed much anger. When an angry edge enters a piece like “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, for instance, the group’s ethereal harmony and the oddly structured 12-string Rickenbacker solo take the kinks out.
Most of these early songs — “Chimes of Freedom”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” — follow a similar, successful pattern. A jingly 12-string guitar provides the backdrop for McGuinn’s lead vocals while the group’s harmony is woven into the song’s tapestry. The timing is often changed, giving the material more of a rock feel, and a number of structural changes make room for harmony.
While the Byrds continued to return to Dylan after 1966, they relied on him less often. Fifth Dimension contained no Dylan songs, and Younger Than Yesterday, only one. The band’s approach to Dylan’s songs, like their approach to their own songs, would evolve as members came and went. While “My Back Pages” from Younger Than Yesterday doesn’t sound markedly different in style than the earlier “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, the appearance of Sweetheart of the Rodeo signaled a significant shift. While McGuinn’s vocals and the harmony remain, the steel guitar has replaced the Rickenbacker, giving “Nothing Was Delivered” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” a country spin. Like the band’s earlier versions of Dylan material, however, the arrangements on these songs are perfectly integrated and in my opinion, two of the most realized pieces on Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
After 1968, though, things get a bit murky. While the Byrds continued to make good albums — Untitled and Ballad of Easy Rider — rapid personnel changes and questionable production choices made the band — quality wise — less predictable.
It’s interesting to juxtapose the studio material from between 1969-71 with live cuts from the same years. Like the studio albums they originate from, “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “Lay Lady Lay” sound overproduced. One version of this later song, with Bob Johnston at the helm in 1969, includes an overblown gospel choir on the chorus. Perhaps this seemed like a cool idea at the time, but it hasn’t aged well. Interestingly, live versions “Positively 4th Street” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” fare much better. It isn’t that these takes are masterworks, but the lack of studio adornment leaves them spiritually closer to the Byrds’ 1965-68 work.
The Byrds Play Dylan is a solid overview of one band’s innovative interpretations of the premiere musical poet of the ’60s. There was plenty of material to choose from and while I might argue that it would’ve been better to include the version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” from Ballad of Easy Rider than the second, overblown version of “Lay Lady Lay”, such choices are toss ups in the end. Anyone who compiled such a set would do it differently. For anyone interested in the Byrds’ artistic connection to Bob Dylan, The Byrds Play Dylan is a rich resource with the additional benefit of being an enjoyable listening experience.