Monday, 11 June 2018

Bob Dylan - Blonde On Blonde (1966)

The silver saxophones say I should refuse you....


Released May 1966

Recorded in New York City and Nashville, Tennessee

Running time 72.55

Before Sgt Pepper had been conceived of came Dylan's double album masterpiece, Blonde On Blonde, his third consecutive "electric" album featuring what he described as "that wild, mercury sound" - a sort of guitar, swirling organ and crystal clear cymbal/percussion sound that is pretty much unique to this album alone, in all his works.

It is a magnificent, ground-breaking work of contemporary musical and lyrical art. For a start, double albums were virtually unheard of, let alone one side of a vinyl disc being taken up with one single track, as here in Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. Indeed, this was the rock genre's first double album. Dylan's vocal delivery was as good as it had ever been, many of his lyrics were actual poems, full of intriguing imagery, the result of an imagination running wild and free. The connection with traditional blues musical conceits was a strong one too. There is some great blues material on here.

For many, this was/is Bob Dylan's crowning achievement. It is difficult to disagree. It is also very difficult to review because a) it is so damn good and b) so many people have offered so many opinions on it. Mine are just some more.


1. Rainy Day Women #12 & #35
2. Pledging My Time
3. Visions Of Johanna
4. One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)
5. I Want You
6. Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues
7. Leopard-Sin Pill-Box Hat
8. Just Like A Woman
9. Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)
10. Temporary Like Achilles
11. Absolutely Sweet Marie
12. Fourth Time Around
13. Obviously Five Believers
14. Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands                              

Anyway, here we go. For me, the album starts disappointingly, with one of my least favourite Dylan songs of all time and one I regularly skip, to be honest. Yes, Rainy Day Women #12 & #35 is a lively, brass-driven "oompah" of a opener, a Salvation Army band and a lyric urging the world and his wife to "get stoned". Right on, man. However, I have always found it tiresome and a trifle idiotic. It seems to be the product of a drunken or drug-addled bit of studio messing around that has no place on an album full of so much quality as this one. Many clearly still love it. I don't. Sorry.

Ok, enough of that faux good-time druggy nonsense, let's get down to playing some blues. Thankfully, the Chicago blues of Pledging My Time did just that. Guitar, drum and piano to the fore and a general sombre tone that sits far better with the album as a whole. It sets the one far more than the incongruous opener did. Some excellent harmonica from Dylan as well.

Now for the poetic genius to join the party. Visions Of Johanna - a great bass line and shuffling drum sound (not to forget that whistling organ) underpins some wonderful, epic, imagery-packed lyrics. One of those that is just pretty impossible to analyse. Who are Louise and Johanna? We don't need to know, really. Each time one listens, the images of them changes. Just one of Dylan's finest-ever compositions. Compare a song like this to those on Rubber Soul. It is one of night and day. "Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial..". Could anyone match lines like that at the time? No. A huge no.

The line "jewels and binoculars hang from the head of a mule" was given life on the cover of The Rolling Stones' 1969 live album, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out.

One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) apparently took ages to record, with many takes. You couldn't tell, it seemed totally perfect to me, with an addictive hook on the chorus with matching rat-a-tat drum rolls. As with all the material on the album, the sound is fantastic, particularly when considering it dates from 1966. I love this track - Dylan's affected vocals, the cymbal sound, the drums, the piano, the organ and that huge swell of musical majesty leading into the "sooner or later" chorus lines. Just perfect. Even more, perfect, unbelievably, is my favourite track on the album, the lovely, melodic I Want You with its heartfelt lyrics and beautifully descending guitar part. It is strangely short, though.

Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again was another dyed-in-the wool classic. Lively, fast-paced drum sound, organ blowing around and more imagery than in a complete works of Shakespeare. For a 1965-66 composition, this really is an utterly remarkable piece of work. To think that Sgt Pepper and songs like When I'm 64 were considered to be world-changing is almost incomprehensible when you listen to this. The song influenced so many mid-seventies rock artists, notably Cockney Rebel's Steve Harley (his What Ruthy Said paraphrased Dylan's lyric from this song) and Mott The Hoople's Ian Hunter (particularly on No Wheels To Ride and God (Take 1). On this album, it ends a run of four completely brilliant songs in a row. The crashing cymbals at the end seem to say "ok time for a brief interlude, how was that for starters?".

Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat sounds quite vapid in comparison - a simple, repeat verses chugging  Chicago-style blues. It is, however, a credible blues, with some searing guitar parts, particularly Robbie Robertson's solo two minutes in. Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine is a lively blues upbeat rocker, short, sharp and pretty dispensable in comparison with much of the other material. In between these two blues songs, though, is the sumptuous, beautiful Just Like A Woman - "with her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls". Accusations of lyrical misogyny tend to fall short, to be honest as pretty much any song written by a member of one sex about the idiosyncrasies of the other are almost bound to attract such accusations.

It was blues all the way for a while now, with the lengthy slow blues of the plaintive Temporary Like Achilles and the more up-tempo, organ-driven rocky Absolutely Sweet Marie, which has always reminded me of Queen Jane Approximately from Highway 61 Revisited.

4th Time Around is, of course, remarkably similar to John Lennon's Norwegian Wood - coincidence, a spiteful warning or a playful tease? I plump for the latter. Dylan got on with The Beatles and respected them too. There was never any real bad blood between The Beatles, The Stones, The Beach Boys, Dylan, Elvis and so on. Certainly not as been suggested by some.

Obviously 5 Believers is probably the most authentic fast blues rocker on the album. It sounds as if it would have fitted well on to Highway 61 Revisited. Amongst all the cornerstones of genius - Johanna, MemphisI Want You, One Of Us Must Know, Woman and Lowlands this is very much a blues rock album. Take those tracks out of it and that is what you have got.

The blues is left behind, though, on the album's mighty, stately tour de force, Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands, written for his wife, Sara. Apparently Dylan considered it the best song he had ever written at the time. It is lengthy - eleven minutes or so and once again full of all sorts of images and couplets that bely analysis. It captures that wild, mercury Sound as much as any song on the album.  For me, it is up there with Desolation Row and Like A Rolling Stone in my best Dylan songs. A wonderful end to a simply wonderful album.


No comments:

Post a Comment