Turn! Turn! Turn! (To everything there is a season)
Conor O’Toole weighs up two very different renditions of a well-known song.
Pete was the one who rescued those words from Ecclesiastes and laid that skeleton melody over them
The way that headline reads this piece looks like it’s set up as an equal race. It isn’t really. To be honest I don’t think I’d ever heard the Pete Seeger version until Youtube was a thing. A bit unfair on the late Pete as he was the one who rescued those words from Ecclesiastes and laid that skeleton melody over them. However let’s turn to what Roger McGuinn and friends laid over (or extracted from) Seeger’s plain and earnest folk outpourings. Here’s a place to start – McGuinn on his own playing the song on a 12 string Rickenbacker.
It’s easy to be blasé having heard the song so many times but go straight to the solo from about 2 minutes in. This is where McGuinn soars up along the G string(s) while maintaining a cascade of fingerpicked higher notes on the first two pairs of strings. Isolated on one guitar like this the piece begins with a distinctly country feel, more associated with later Byrds albums such as Sweetheart of the Rodeo. But as the solo goes on and the melody diverges from the higher register overtones the spectre of avant garde jazz comes into view, foreshadowing such groundbreaking psychedelic classics as this.
Famously, ‘Eight Miles High’ was McGuinn’s (Gene Clark wrote the song but the guitar part I mean) attempt to incorporate the influence of John Coletrane into contemporary pop music. There was also the broader project to unify American music under one “cosmic” umbrella, bringing country and folk roots into contact with deep grooves predicting acid rock, and inventing that ringing sunburst guitar sound forever known since as Byrdsian. Add in the three part harmonies of McGuinn, Clark and David Crosby and you’re looking pretty cosmic alright.
So what do we have? A seminal moment in pop music from October 1965, the progression of the sound unleashed on the world in the middle of that year with ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, a radical reinterpretation of the folk music of the day and all masquerading as a protest song. Sure, they were protesting as much as anyone but they had a different long term plan in mind.
Here are the clips. First a fairly rough live tv appearance from late 1965 which should provide consolation for any band worried about translating its recorded sound to live. Then Pete Seeger hanging on each word. Then The Byrds hanging on every sweet note.