Saturday, 3 October 2020

Bob Dylan - How Does It Feel? (1965-1967)

Dylan's seismic shock to the cosy world of folk was only three studio albums, but their influence was immeasurable. Check out three of the greatest albums of all time -

Bringing It All Back Home (1965)

Subterranean Homesick Blues/She Belongs To Me/Maggie's Farm/Love Minus Zero-No Limit/Outlaw Blues/On The Road Again/Bob Dylan's 115th Dream/Mr. Tambourine Man/Gates Of Eden/It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)/It's All Over Now Baby Blue

"Bob was really excited about what John Hammond was doing with electric blues. I talked to him in the Figaro in 1964 and he was telling me about John and his going to Chicago and playing with a band and so on …" - Danny Kalb

The album that alienated Bob Dylan's folk fans by "going electric" on the old "side one". It was, in many ways, an album that changed all sorts of things - Dylan's approach to songwriting and also that of The Beatles, who Dylan had recently met for the first time. Gone were the "protest songs" of 1962-1964 and in came the much-vaunted "stream of consciousness" lyrics and an electric guitar, rock 'n' roll influenced drum, bass and keyboard sounds.

The first track, Subterranean Homesick Blues, was one hell of a hit, right between the eyes - frantic, manically delivered, both vocally and instrumentally, it was a song that introduced a style that would be imitated even as far into the future as the punk rock explosion some twelve years or so later. Just listen to Elvis Costello's Pump It Up as an example. Dylan was influenced by Chuck Berry's Too Much Monkey Business in many ways in constructing this ground-breaking song, although it was very much his own, unique creation.

She Belongs To Me was lighter in content, more melodic and had a beautiful bass line on it, again, though, its lyrics were somewhat oblique and belied analysis despite the general romantic feel of the song. 

Maggie's Farm is a more traditional piece of harmonica-driven blues rock and apparently sees Dylan saying goodbye to the protest song movement as he had played folk songs on a farm back in 1963. Musically, though, it is a blues the like of which he would continue to use through the next two "electric" albums. 

The same applies to the frenetic Outlaw Blues, another with a real Chuck Berry influence. 

On The Road Again sounds like Canned Heat's late 60s track of the same name in many ways, although the latter is not a cover of this. It is an upbeat blues full of harmonica and twelve-bar structure.

Love Minus Zero-No Limit is simply a beautiful song. For many it is seen as dispensable. For me, it is my favourite track on the album. Lovely melody, appealing lyrics.

The "electric" part ends with Bob Dylan's 115th Dream which, for me, has hints of the track Highway 61 Revisited but most say it is similar to Motorpsycho Nitemare from the previous album. It is another fast-paced piece of blues rock with more rapidly-delivered stream of consciousness lyrics.

The iconic Mr. Tambourine Man opens "side two" with Dylan's laid-back acoustic version, with jangly guitar as The Byrds used on their huge hit version of the song. In my opinion, it is not about a drug dealer as some have suggested endlessly over the years. It's just about a tambourine. Maybe the lyrics were inspired by Dylan's increasing LSD use, but that's as far as as it goes. Whatever. It is a lovely, evocative atmospheric song and very 1960s. No drums are used on this "acoustic" side and the sombre acoustic guitar and harmonica-only Gates Of Eden is suited by this approach. It sounds like something off The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Maybe the direct protest songs were gone, but not so the "grim warning" songs. This is one of those. 

As indeed too, to an extent, is the cynical It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding with its political references. It is not as doom-laden as Gates Of Eden though.

The final song is the kiss-off to a lover of It's All Over Now Baby Blue, stark and baleful but with a subtle bass guitar backing Dylan's acoustic. The only other person to play on this side. The song was covered convincingly by a young Van Morrison with his group, Them, by Chris Farlowe and, of course, by The Byrds.

This album signalled a new era. Dylan was off on the electric tour and within a few years electric guitars, weird lyrics and psychedelia were everywhere. In many ways it started here although the UK blues rock groups were similarly genre-creating.

** Outtakes from this album's sessions were the Rolling Stones-esque bluesy pop thump of If You Gotta Go, Go Now, the earlier recording of I'll Keep It With Mine and the superb acoustic ballad Farewell Angelina.

Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Like A Rolling Stone/Tombstone Blues/It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry/From A Buick 6/Ballad Of A Thin Man/Queen Jane Approximately/Highway 61 Revisited/Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues/Desolation Row

"The first time that I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother, and we were listening to, I think, WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody kicked open the door to your mind, from 'Like a Rolling Stone'. And my mother, who was no stiff with rock & roll, she said, 'That guy can’t sing'. But I knew she was wrong. I sat there, I didn’t say nothin’, but I knew that I was listening to the toughest voice that I had ever heard. It was lean, and it sounded somehow simultaneously young and adult, and I ran out and I bought the single. I played it, then I went out and I got 'Highway 61', and it was all I played for weeks. Bob’s voice somehow thrilled and scared me. It made me feel kind of irresponsibly innocent. And it still does. But it reached down and touched what little worldliness a 15-year-old kid in New Jersey had in him at the time" - Bruce Springsteen  

The album that blew the windows wide open. Yes, half of Bringing It All Back Home had introduced the “electric” element to Dylan’s sound with a colossal bang, but here it took it to the max and mixed it with some of his most evocative, cinematic, imagery-full lyrics. Indeed, some of the most adventurous lyrics popular music had ever seen. Remember, this was 1965. The Beatles were only just out of the covering of rock n roll standards on half their albums, The Rolling Stones of covering blues standards and The Beach Boys were still singing about surfing, cars and girls. What Dylan achieved on this album was just remarkable.

He spoke of the album thus in his later recollections -

"...Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began. I always felt like I'd started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down in to the deep Delta country. It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors ... It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood..."

With that quote in mind, one may have expected a blues-oriented album, like his much later Love And Theft, from 2001, but, while here are obvious blues influences, this is something different. It is Dylan taking his influences and making something new, innovative and adventurous out of them. As the title suggests, Highway 61 is "revisited". "Re-worked" more like, with Dylan's supremely poetic, image-packed lyrics making Dylan's style of blues something completely unique.

The “bookend” tracks of the album are its two best - the sensational, six minute single, Like A Rolling Stone, from whose opening guitar notes so many were inspired, notably a young Bruce Springsteen, who said hearing it literally changed his life from that point onwards. Then there is the monumental, magnificent, mighty Desolation Row, eleven minutes of Dylan heaven, and my own personal favourite Dylan track of all time. It is so good, its verses so potent, it is virtually impossible to write about it. Its multifarious images demand years of analysis, and indeed many writers have delivered their explanations of the song over many years. 

My favourite of its many verses is this one -

“….Cinderella, she seems so easy, "It takes one to know one", she smiles/And puts her hands in her back pockets - Bette Davis style/And in comes Romeo, he's moaning "You Belong to Me I Believe"/And someone says, "You're in the wrong place, my friend, you'd better leave"/And the only sound that's left after the ambulances go/Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row…”

Pretty impossible to analyse, isn't it? Yet eternally fascinating and inspirational at the same time. Without knowing what the hell it is about, I am lifted up and enlivened by it every time.

The album is packed with other gems too - The frenetic, almost punky blues rock of Tombstone Blues; the rollercoaster imagery of It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry; the madcap, frenetic, wired-up Americana blues of From A Buick 6 and the religious overtones of the barnstorming pumped-up stream of consciosness rock of Highway 61 Revisited. As on the following album, the blues is very important here, something that cannot be understated. 

Then there is the lyrical poetry and swirling organ attack of Queen Jane Approximately and Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues with its great opening line  - “when you’re lost in the rain in Juarez, and it’s Easter time too…”. All stuff that blew people's minds in 1965 - minds that were used to listening to crooning and singalong pop on their radios.

Ballad Of A Thin Man sees Dylan spitting out invective at “Mr Jones” as only Dylan circa 1965 could do. Every track broke new boundaries. Simply one of the greatest albums of all time. “Sgt. who”? Two years before Pepper, Dylan was releasing material like this.

** The few unused outtakes that date from this album's sessions include the upbeat, harmonica and organ-driven blues of Sitting On A Barbed-Wire Fence (which contains a few paraphrased lyrics from Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues), the lively non-album single and vaguely Stonesy Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window and the most well-known of the non-album singles, the beguiling, again organ-enhanced Positively 4th Street. Also knocking around from this period is the sub-one minute blues romp of Jet Pilot. 


Blonde On Blonde (1966)

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

"That thin, wild mercury sound - metallic and bright gold" - Bob Dylan                       

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.


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'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 BeatlesThe StonesThe Beach BoysDylanElvis 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 - JohannaMemphisI Want YouOne Of Us Must KnowWoman 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 forceSad 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.

Below is an old picture of New York's Chelsea Hotel, in which Dylan wrote Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.

** Two tracks that did not make it on to the final album are the potentially excellent, but frustratingly unfinished (even after six minutes plus) She's Your Lover Now, and I'll Keep It With Mine, that was initially recorded in 1964, for Bringing It All Back Home. The latter would not have suited this album at all, being very 1964 in its sound. 

There is also the rocking Beatles parody I Wanna Be Your Lover from 1966 sessions too.


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