Robert Zimmerman was born in Minnesota in 1941, renaming himself Bob Dylan after Welsh poet Robert Thomas. Dylan started his musical career dabbling in rock and roll, and saw Buddy Holly perform three days before Holly’s death. He switched interests to American folk music while at university, finding early rock and roll too facile. In 1961 he dropped out of university and travelled to New York city to meet his idol Woody Guthrie, ill with Huntington’s Disease. He started playing in Greenwich Village cafes, launching an iconoclastic career that influenced the course of popular music.
Dylan started off as a folk singer, but refused to be pigeonholed, going electric in the mid-1960s. After 1966’s magnum opus Blonde on Blonde he retreated from the limelight, and his output became less consistent, but there are some terrific albums from the late 1960s and 1970s as well. I’m planning to cover most of his albums from the 1960s and 1970s, but only have a couple of albums after that.
Like The Beatles, Dylan’s been so well covered that the world doesn’t really need my thoughts on him, but I’m covering him because the site would feel incomplete without him – he’s one of the key artists of the rock music era, and it’s difficult to overstate his influence or his catalogue of recordings.
Bob Dylan Album Reviews
Dylan was invited to play harmonica on a recording session by folk singer Carolyn Hester, where he was signed to his own record deal by Columbia Records talent scout and producer John Hammond. Surprisingly, given that he’s known as a preeminent song-writer, Bob Dylan’s first album is comprised almost entirely of covers. It’s a personality driven record, and Bob Dylan’s charismatic and braying vocals are intriguing. Only four of these songs were drawn from Dylan’s live set at the time, so that the album serves as a summary of the early 1960s New York folk scene – Dylan used arrangements devised by contemporaries like Dave Van Ronk and Eric Von Schmidt.
Even if you think of early Dylan as a folk artist, many of these songs are blues based – Led Zeppelin later stretched out ‘In My Time Of Dying’ into an epic, while the album ends with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’. The two original songs here show Woody Guthrie’s influence – ‘Talkin’ New York’ is in Guthrie’s style, while ‘Song For Woody’ is a lovely tribute piece that’s one of Dylan’s most unguarded moments.
It’s essentially a false start to Dylan’s career, not preparing listeners what was to come with his phenomenal second album, but Bob Dylan is an enjoyable, albeit minor work.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Dylan’s first album failed to make an impact, and producer John Hammond was determined that the second album would succeed. Perhaps shaped by the parents of girlfriend (and cover companion) Suze Rotolo, who were members of the American Communist Party, Dylan peeled off an astonishing number of phenomenal original songs. Early Dylan is known as a protest singer, and some of the most notable songs here are in that vein – the anti-war and universal ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ is early Dylan’s signature song, and was his breakthrough piece, thanks to Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version. But he’s hardly a po-faced protest singer here, balancing the ultra serious material like ‘Masters of War’ with fun songs like ‘Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance’.
There are at least five towering achievements of song-writing here. The three most notable protest songs are the ubiquitous ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, the nuclear commentary of ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, and ‘Masters of War’. The latter is notable for perhaps the most righteously stinging rebuke in recorded music; “even Jesus would never forgive what you do.” But Dylan’s also gentle on ‘Girl From The North Country’, a beautiful original that I’d always assumed was a traditional folk song, while the brilliant ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ navigates personal relationships; the line “I gave her my heart/But she wanted my soul” is another of Dylan’s most cutting lines.
When you consider that other defining rock acts of the 1960s were still reliant on covers in 1963, Dylan’s effort in delivering a masterpiece on his second attempt is even more impressive.
The Times They Are a-Changin’
Dylan focused on a very specific aspect of his musical vocabulary for his third album, stretching the pessimistic protest songs from Freewheelin’, like ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ into a full length statement. The result is a stark album that doesn’t capture Dylan at his most musical. Strong outtakes like ‘Percy’s Song’, which was later covered magnificently by Fairport Convention, and ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’, which The Byrds later recorded, are more musically interesting than the songs that were included on the completed album. Songs like ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ and ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ are ultra-serious and not particularly tuneful, and a whole album of them is exhausting.
The album’s most famous song is the title track, which has always felt like a uninspired retread of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ – additionally, Dylan’s version has been diluted by insipid versions by terminally uncool acts like The Seekers and Simon and Garfunkel. Dylan recycles the melody of the title track for ‘One Too Many Mornings’, a song which shines in electric versions like on Live 1966, but which isn’t terribly exciting here. My favourite song is ‘When The Ship Comes In’, inspired by an incident when an unkempt Dylan was refused entry to his hotel room, while like ‘Girl From The North Country’ on the previous record, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ is another pretty melody inspired by English folk music.
Dylan succeeded in creating the album he was trying to make with The Times They Are a-Changin’, a pessimistic collection of protest songs, but fortunately he’d be more musically interesting on his next record.
Another Side of Bob Dylan
Another Side of Bob Dylan is Dylan’s last guitar and vocal album from his early folk records and was recorded in a single session. After the dour Times, Dylan’s sense of humour is back on songs like ‘Motorpsycho Nitemare’. The political “finger-pointing” songs are gone entirely and Dylan rejects his previous status as a protest singer on ‘My Back Pages’. Dylan’s songwriting is becoming more sophisticated and outgrowing the simple acoustic format. This combination of the more expansive melodies and simple arrangements highlights Dylan’s vocal limitations, like his high notes in the opener ‘All I Really Want To Do’. Many of these songs are better heard in cover versions – several turned up on Byrds records, most notably ‘My Back Pages’.
Another Side is one of Dylan’s lesser known 1960s albums, perhaps because it doesn’t have a single iconic song – ‘My Back Pages’ is the best known, but The Byrds’ version is more celebrated. But there’s a lot of strong material here – my favourite is the downbeat closer ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’, with its nihilistic attitude to love, and it suits the simple acoustic presentation. I’ve always enjoyed the gentle ‘To Ramona’, while Dylan plays piano of ‘Black Crow Blues’. Among all the well-written songs, there’s one tough listen; ‘Ballad in Plain D’ is an account of Dylan’s breakup with Suze Rotolo, a vehicle for self-expression and a turgid eight minutes.
There are many strong songs here, but Another Side of Bob Dylan is an album that feels weaker than the sum of its parts – put a full band on some of these songs, and drop ‘Ballad in Plain D’, and it would be one of Dylan’s best records.
Bringing It All Back Home
Bringing It All Back Home is a candidate for the most groundbreaking album in the history of rock music, combining the energy of rock and roll with sophisticated, introspective lyrics, expanding the scope of popular music. A couple of years earlier, Dylan was the golden child of protest folk; he’d largely abandoned the genre lyrically on Another Side of Bob Dylan, and now he abandoned it musically, utilising a rock band on the album’s first side.
The album’s divided into two clear sides – the first side sees Dylan accompanied by a band. They’re not as sharp as his later accompanists, and they’re best on the relaxed grooves of ‘She Belongs To Me’ and the excellent ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’, but tracks like ‘Maggie’s Farm’ could arguably use some more firepower. Opening track ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ works fine with its minimal arrangement; it was accompanied by the first significant music video, while the song’s beat poetry inspired lyrics and delivery were another boundary broken. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” is perhaps Dylan’s most quoted line.
The second side is almost entirely solo, with four longer compositions. If you’re accustomed to The Byrds’ version, Dylan’s original of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ is in 2/4 time and has extra verses. I always assumed it was a drug reference, but it’s literally about producer Tom Wilson owning a very large tambourine. The seven and a half minutes of ‘It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ are hypnotic, and it’s full of quotable lines (“He not busy being born is busy dying”). ‘Gates of Eden’ can be a tough listen, and four lengthy acoustic tracks in a row can drag, but it’s one of Dylan’s most intriguing LP sides.
For all of the historical significance of Bringing It All Back Home, it’s overshadowed by its two successors. But there are a lot of essential songs here, and it’s a worthy first installment in Dylan’s renowned mid 1960s trilogy of electric albums.
Highway 61 Revisited
Dylan was in full electric mode on his second album of 1965. He recruited a classier backing band, featuring musicians like Al Kooper and young guitarist Mike Bloomfield, and kick-started the record with the classic rock chestnut ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. If Dylan sounded ornery on his earlier records, here he’s an amphetamine fuelled whirlwind of disdainful wordplay.
Highway 61 Revisited isn’t all intense – ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’ is pleasant, relaxed blues, while ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ is pretty and sweet. The banging piano of ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ features Dylan’s wordplay at its most surreal, with lines like “give me some milk or else go home,” although my favourite line is from ‘Tombstone Blues’; “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”.
But the album has its most notable songs as bookends – ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ is a disdainful put-down of a socialite and features Al Kooper’s organ playing – unrehearsed, his organ changes are a beat behind the rest of the band, giving the song a distinctive sound. ‘Desolation Row’ is the epic closer, featuring some of Dylan’s most vivid imagery with Nashville guitarist Charlie McCoy supplying the background colour. If there’s a weakness, some of the tracks are a little long, and it doesn’t quite have the stylistic range of Blonde on Blonde.
In the mid 1960s Dylan was at the height of his powers and at the height of his cultural significance – his next record was even better.
Blonde on Blonde
Dylan had started using The Hawks as his live band, a largely Canadian bar band who had previously backed Ronnie Hawkins and who would later become famous as The Band. They recorded the non-album single ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?’, but attempts to record an entire album were difficult, and the only song captured was ‘One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)’. Dylan instead recorded in Nashville, bringing Al Kooper and Hawks guitarist Robbie Robertson along with him. At the peak of his creativity, Dylan recorded rock and roll’s first double album.
Blonde on Blonde is a logical successor to Highway 61 Revisited, expanding that record’s parameters – the blues songs are more aggressive, with Robertson’s lead guitar, while the slower songs are prettier. It’s less verbose and more musical – closer ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ arguably isn’t quite as lyrically exhilarating as ‘Desolation Row’, but it’s more musically satisfying.
Unlike almost every double album that’s followed in its wake, Blonde on Blonde barely has a dispensable track. Dylan’s perhaps a little over-reliant on blues, but the blues songs are memorable – due to Robertson’s lead guitar or hilarious lyrics like ‘Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat’. For all the charm of highlights like the the opening Salvation Army band style ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’ and the prettiness of ‘One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)’, the real stunners are the slow songs. ‘Visions of Johanna’ is slow and meditative, one of Dylan’s most accomplished yet mysterious songs. ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ is a melodic tribute to Dylan’s new bride, Sara Lownds.
One of the most intriguing, yet musically satisfying, albums in the classic rock canon, Blonde on Blonde captures Dylan at the height of his considerable powers.
John Wesley Harding
Bob Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident was a catalyst for a major change in lifestyle – he retreated from the limelight, embracing family life, and moving to Woodstock. While he was the forefront of stretching the parameters of popular music in 1965 and 1966, his 1967 music was markedly different, acoustic and inspired by Hank Williams and The Bible. Despite the changes, 1967 was his most prolific year as a writer, recording dozens of demos with The Band as The Basement Tapes, which weren’t released until 1975, and then recording John Wesley Harding in Nashville.
After the rich textures of Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding is stark, with Dylan’s writing newly economical and mostly centred on a trio, just Dylan with a rhythm section of Kenny Buttrey and Charlie McCoy. it was originally planned for The Band’s Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson to overdub parts but it was decided to let the original recordings stand, a decision at odds with the rich, psychedelic albums of the era, like Sgt. Peppers and Surrealistic Pillow.
The minimalist treatment suits these songs – while they may initially appear slight, they’re some of Dylan’s best work. The most well known song is ‘All Along the Watchtower’, taken from the book of Isaiah in The Bible; it was an unsuccessful single but Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic cover placed it in the annals of classic rock. Songs like ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ are melodically rooted in British folk. After a bleak set of morality tales like ‘The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest’, John Wesley Harding ends with two warmer, country flavoured songs, notably ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’..
It’s hard to know what Dylan’s audience would have made of John Wesley Harding at the time – it’s almost a 180 degree reversal from the musical richness and verbal verbosity of Blonde on Blonde. But in retrospect it stands as one of Dylan’s best records.
Van Morrison made a trio of tuneful, satisfied albums that are known his domestic trilogy, and which reflect his happy settled life in Woodstock. Nashville Skyline, which marginally pre-dates the Morrison records, is very much in the same vein, a tuneful, but often slight record of country tunes. While John Wesley Harding offered a unique take on country, with the minimal arrangements and Biblical, foreboding lyrics, Nashville Skyline plays it safe. There’s little to identify it as a Dylan album, and even his voice is different – Dylan quit smoking temporarily, and his voice here is a pleasant country croon.
Aside from the reworking on ‘Girl From The North Country’ with Johnny Cash, there are only two songs that have been identified as definitely written before the recording sessions. Perhaps not coincidentally, they’re the two strongest tracks .’Lay Lady Lay’ is the best known song, filled with alliteration, (“lay lady lay”, “big brass bed”). My favourite interpretation of the excellent, introspective lead single ‘I Threw It All Away’ is that it concerns Dylan’s relationship with his muse. But elsewhere the material does sound a little like a writer struggling for inspiration, and making stuff up in the studio – songs like the wordplay of ‘Peggy Day’ are fun, but not among Dylan’s best.
Nashville Skyline is a likeable record, but at the same time it’s surprisingly dispensable for a 1960s Dylan record.
Ten Favourite Bob Dylan Songs
Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
Tangled Up In Blue
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Like A Rolling Stone
Visions of Johanna
Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?