Sunday, 26 June 2022

Blonde On Blonde - Bob Dylan's artistic peak in the 1960s

Cool Bob, 1966

Like many a 1960s classic album, Blonde On Blonde is a record that is very much of its time, but one that still resonates down the years as an important milestone in rock music. 

It marked the end of an era for Dylan himself, the culmination of two years of intensive writing, recording and touring that could have turned him into another rock and roll casualty. He was too smart to fall into that trap, though. Or maybe he was just lucky.

In 1965, Bob Dylan had consolidated his move into electric music with the album ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and its iconic single ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. He had toured Europe, confronting the hostility towards his new electric sound from folk purists who called him Judas, for abandoning the protest movement and his acoustic guitar.

In his contemporary review of Blonde on Blonde for Crawdaddy magazine in July 1966, Paul Williams had words for those who continued to boo Dylan at his live shows.

Electric Bob, cool suit
"As long as people persist in believing that Dylan should be playing his new songs on a folk guitar instead of with a band, they will fail to realise that he is a creator, not a puppet, and a creator who has now reached musical maturity. If you’re interested in what he’s saying, you must listen to him on his own terms."

By the end of 1966, Dylan would be in hiding, burnt out from the road and keen to embrace family life. But as the year opened, he was on top of the world commercially. He had sold 10 million records worldwide and had begun recording a double album (a first in the rock era) that would be the culmination of his early 60s rise to stardom. 

On Blonde On Blonde, in contrast to his previous albums, two things stood out for Paul Williams: “the uniform high quality of the songs chosen for this extra-long LP and the wonderful, wonderful accompaniments.”

Recording sessions had begun in New York in October 1965, but whatever Dylan was looking for, he wasn’t getting it from these sessions. His producer Bob Johnston recognised that Bob wanted to craft an album with greater refinement than his previous efforts. Organist Al Kooper and guitarist Robbie Robertson were retained from the New York dates and in early 1966, the sessions moved to the CBS studios in Nashville, using their highly experienced session players.

“Not only is Dylan’s present band easily the best backup band in the country, but they appear able to read his mind,” said Williams. “On this album, they almost inevitably do the right thing at the right time. They do perfect justice to each of his songs, and that is by no means a minor accomplishment.”

My vinyl copy is an original 1966 UK CBS version, with inner sleeves advertising
Andy Williams and Doris Day alongside Dylan, The Byrds and Miles Davis.













At the first Nashville session on Valentine’s night, Dylan recorded a keeper version of ‘Visions of Johanna’, side one track 3 of the original vinyl. Dylan biographer Greil Marcus suggested the song had been written during the blackout that shut down New York in November 1965, which might explain lines like “the heat pipes just cough” and “lights flicker in the opposite loft”.  

When people refer to this song as an example of Dylan’s genius, it’s down to the atmosphere he creates with the lyrics and their delivery.

"Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo, 'this is what salvation must be like after a while'
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles"

While folkies complained that he wouldn’t sing ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ any more, rock fans puzzled over the meaning of these new words. Dylan's command of language and his own skewed and playful lyrics were a key part of the intrigue - and he wasn't about to enlighten anyone as to their meaning.

"Only when it is amplified by music and declamation," wrote the poet Gerard Malanga, "does Dylan's verse stand forth in all its living strength and beauty. In the subtle distinction of its peculiar entirely new language prevails."

On 'Memphis Blues Again', Dylan relates specific episodes and emotions in his offhand, impressionistic manner.

Well, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley
With his pointed shoes and his bells
Speaking to some French girl
Who says she knows me well
And I would send a message
To find out if she’s talked
But the post office has been stolen
And the mailbox is locked
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again

This track sounds fresh and full of bounce, which is amazing considering it was Take 20, finally completed in the early hours of February 17. Dylan did a lot of lyric writing in the studio, so the musicians needed to be patient. 

Contemporary reviews referred to Dylan as a poet - how he "knew" and how he was "telling it like it is". But as NME writer Mick Farren admitted in a retrospective mid-1970s assessment of Blonde On Blonde, "If Dylan was really telling it like it is, we'd all know exactly what he was talking about. We wouldn't have been sifting through his symbolism, in the vain attempt to find his particular Rosebud." That sifting has only intensified in the intervening 50 years.

The gatefold of Blonde on Blonde and the NME reassessment by Mick Farren

It’s not just the words though. Credit must go to the musicians for providing such sympathetic accompaniment. The keyboards and the guitar playing, the bass and drums are all excellent. That must have been inspiring to Dylan himself, pushing him to produce his best work.

“Blonde on Blonde is - in the quality of the sound, the decisions as to what goes where, the mixing of the tracks, the timing - one of the best-produced records I’ve ever heard. Producer Bob Johnston deserves immortality at least,” said Williams in his ’66 review.

Bob and Joan Baez

There's a strong romantic thread running through much of the album. It's a key factor that made Blonde On Blonde so powerful for the listener. Dylan’s love songs up to this point - like ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ (“I'll only let you down”) or ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’ (“Valentines can't buy her”) - had been less than tender.

Blonde On Blonde has a handful of truly romantic songs that stand today as classics, where the tenderness outweighs the bitterness; notably I Want You, Just Like A Woman and Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

The day after recording ‘Visions of Johanna’, the session for Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands began at 6 pm, but Dylan hadn’t finished the words. Finally, at 4 am, the musicians assembled for a take.

Though they were reasonably familiar with the song, the band hadn’t appreciated it would run for almost 12 minutes. Drummer Kenny Buttrey recalled they'd be looking at each other thinking, “man, this is it, this is gonna be the last chorus and we've gotta put everything into it we can. We're cracking up. I mean, we peaked five minutes ago.”

Part of the intrigue of the romantic songs on Blonde On Blonde was who Dylan was writing about - it could often be Joan Baez, on ‘Sooner Or Later’ or ‘4th Time Around’, for example. Dylan later acknowledged the debt he owed to Baez - who nurtured his career early on - but he did a poor job of repaying it in 1965, when Joan accompanied him to the UK.

You feel for her, watching the movie 'Don't Look Back'. the film about Dylan's UK tour in April 1965. By this time, Bob was already involved with Sara Lownds, but he hadn't told Joan. It was Sara, while working at the film production division of Time Life, who had introduced Dylan to D.A. Pennebaker, the director of Don't Look Back. It must have been humiliating for Baez, realising she'd made a big mistake in coming on that tour.

Sara poses for an unused version
of the Highway 61 album cover

Bob and Sara married in secret in November 1965. On ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, it was his new wife he was serenading.

In his book 'Bob Dylan - An illustrated history', Michael Gross called Blonde On Blonde "letter-perfect rock and roll. Here was an album with a song that lasted a whole side. The symbolism was Dylan's but the situations were everyone's. If any one disc recorded in the Sixties can stand as a psycho-historical recreation of the times, this is it.

"With its passionate love songs and descents into Dylan's dramatic, urban landscape, is not an album to pin down. Like the ‘ghost of electricity, howling in the bones of her face,’ it is more something to feel.”

The first single from Blonde On Blonde in April 1966 saw Dylan being as plain as could be about smoking marijuana, while also deflecting to avoid censure. Knowing that a song called ‘Everybody Must Get Stoned’ might be banned before it even got out of the traps, he called the song ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’.

In The Rolling Thunder Logbook, Sam Shepard quotes a character called Johnny Dark saying, “I couldn’t believe it the first time I saw ‘Everybody must get stoned’ on the jukebox. I mean there it was, right in front of everybody. Right there in the restaurant. I couldn’t believe you could play that kind of stuff in public while you were eating your cheeseburger.”

Regardless of the cryptic title, it’s a wonder the song wasn’t banned anyway. It did inevitably fall foul of conservative programmers at some radio stations in the US and it was excluded from playlists at the BBC. But exposure on pirate radio stations was sufficient to see it rise to No. 7 in the UK. It made it all the way to No. 2 in the US.

With Francoise Hardy, 1966
Blonde On Blonde was so entwined with the unique circumstances of the sixties – the flowering of youth culture and rebellion against the cultural norms of the time - that sober reflection was difficult for those who had lived it.

"One of the main problems approaching Blonde On Blonde after all this time (my italics) is the temptation to take the whole thing far too reverently," said Farren in 1976. 

Indeed, so here we are, another fifty years down the track and the album is still resonating.   

The playfulness and wilful surrealism of some of Dylan's imagery doesn’t detract from the power and fascination of this record. Even as a teenager, I could tell this was something to get lost in. Blonde On Blonde was the first Bob Dylan album I bought and it was another of those records that fired my imagination. Did I get the full message on those first listens? Certainly not, but what I did hear was an atmosphere and a sense that this music really had depth to it. I was tapping into an unattainable bohemian lifestyle.

In his book ‘The Ballad of Bob Dylan’, Daniel Mark Epstein described seeing Dylan’s comeback show at Madison Square Garden in 1974. “Now, at the age of 25, I could understand lyrics that meant little to me when I heard them at 17. Poetry grows with you.”

In the year when punk rock broke through in the UK, Farren was still in awe of Dylan's achievement 10 years earlier.

"It is certainly Bob Dylan's finest hour and there are less than a handful of other works that can seriously challenge it for the title of the greatest rock album of all time."

In fact, a year earlier, the NME writers had judged it to be, in their collective wisdom, the second greatest album ever, after Sgt Pepper.

In April 1966, Dylan’s friend Richard Fariña died in a motorcycle accident in California, just as he was launching his first novel. It was his partner Mimi Baez’s 21st birthday. Tragic in every way. 

Three months later, Dylan came off his bike near his home in Woodstock, New York. He knew he could have died on his motorcycle, as Fariña had.

Ironically, the accident offered him the perfect excuse to go into hiding.

Dylan wrote, in his memoir, Chronicles, Vol 1: “I had been in a motorcycle accident and I’d been hurt, but I recovered. Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race. Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on. Outside of my family, nothing held any real interest for me and I was seeing everything through different glasses.”

In his excellent book ‘Positively 4h Street’, about how the lives of Bob, Joan, Mimi and Richard Fariña had intertwined, David Hadju wrote: “For a year and a half after the accident, Dylan stayed in seclusion in Woodstock, while rock musicians absorbed and drew upon his ideas.

“The trio of records uniting poetry with elements of folk and rock and roll – Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and the double Blonde On Blonde, came to be acknowledged as pop masterworks and charted a whole new style of music. 

“When Dylan began making music again, it was wholly for his own pleasure.”

He made very few public appearances once Blonde On Blonde was released and did not tour again for almost eight years.

Here's Dylan on the 1966 UK tour, singing 'Visions of Johanna' unaccompanied.

Also on this Blog:

Bob and Joan and Scarlett and Joni... Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue

Bob Dylan live in 1976 - A spirited 'Idiot Wind'

Saturday, 4 December 2021

Smoke On The Water - Montreux 50 years on

The Montreux Casino goes up in smoke, Dec 4 1971
50 years ago this evening, “some stupid with a flare-gun” caused the Montreux casino fire that was the inspiration for Deep Purple’s best-known song Smoke On The Water.

In December 1971, Deep Purple were in Switzerland to record what would become their classic album Machine Head. On December 4th they attended a show at the Montreux Casino, on the shore of Lake Geneva. During the show, by Frank Zappa’s band The Mothers Of Invention, a member of the audience fired a flare into the wooden rafters of the casino roof.

There is an audio recording of the concert where Zappa can be heard calmly telling the audience to head for the exits. The evacuation was completed safely and there was no loss of life. The casino building was totally ruined by the fire.

The Montreux Casino as it was

As the smoke drifted across the lake, Purple's bass guitarist Roger Glover thought of the title, Smoke On The Water.

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn't have much time
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground

Smoke on the water
Fire in the sky

FZ surveys the scene
Zappa’s band lost most of their gear in the fire. Deep Purple, who were scheduled to begin recording at the casino the next day, managed to avoid losing their equipment, but had lost their recording location.

With nowhere to make their album, Montreux’s music festival promoter Claude Nobs came to the band's rescue. Glover said, “He put all his problems aside. We had no place to record, so he arranged to have us move into a small theatre near the smouldering remains of the casino.”

The ruins of the Casino

They burned down the gambling house
It died with an awful sound
And Funky Claude was running in and out
Pulling kids out the ground

Whilst at the theatre, they started messing around with a new riff. "We were doing the first take of this new song – well, it wasn’t a song yet, it was just a jam with a kind of rough arrangement to it," said Glover.

What they didn’t know was that the police were outside banging on the door trying to get in and stop them playing. Apparently they were keeping the whole town awake. "Montreux was then a very sleepy town, populated mostly by old ladies,” quipped Glover.

It became clear the band were not welcome in the lakeside town, especially after the events of the fire. Rock bands meant trouble to the Swiss, but Nobs helped Purple find “a place to sweat”.

When it all was over
We had to find another place
But Swiss time was running out
It seemed that we would lose the race

Deep Purple recorded their classic album in a hotel corridor
Thanks to Funky Claude, they were able to secure a place where they could make some noise - The Grand Hotel.

Glover recalled, “It was closed for the winter. A cold sort of place, I mean it was freezing cold. We had a carpenter put a couple of walls up. We threw some mattresses against the windows, brought in a couple of industrial heaters. And we recorded there.”

The Rolling Stones’ mobile recording truck was parked at the rear of the hotel. Engineer Martin Birch set up an intercom so he could communicate with the band in the hotel corridor. Here's Take 2 of Highway Star, the first track on the album.

"We were still short of a song, so it was suggested that we work up the song we had jammed at the theatre. It became a song about the adventure of coming to try and record, and the place burning down and ending up doing it in a hotel corridor."

 The Stones' mobile truck at the hotel

We ended up at the Grand Hotel
It was empty, cold, and bare
But with the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside
Making our music there

Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore came up with the classic riff and in its simplicity, Blackmore has likened it to the famous introduction to Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

"What Beethoven does with just very few notes, that riff does too. But it’s got a hint of Eastern mysticism in it, just by the semitone lift. Instantly recognisable and yet like nothing else," said Glover.

Blackmore also pointed out that everyone plays the famous riff wrong. Blackmore plays it in fourths, plucking two strings at a time, rather than block chording it, like everyone else.

Glover and singer Ian Gillan wrote the lyrics. "We never thought for a minute it was going to have the kind of future it has had,” said Glover. “We didn’t think that much of it. We put all our efforts into another song on the album, Never Before."

The Grand Hotel, Montreux, November 2021

Purple"s run of hit singles in 1970 and '71 - Black Night, Fireball and Strange Kinda Woman - came to a halt with Never Before, one of the new tracks recorded in Montreux.

Nonetheless, the album sold well and Purple picked up further sales momentum when the live version of Smoke On The Water, from the album Made In Japan, was released in the US in 1973. 

Given the limitations of space and comfort at the Grand Hotel, it is remarkable that Deep Purple were able to make such a great record as Machine Head. It showcases not only a consistently high quality of songwriting, but also a band that rocks (Highway Star, Space Truckin) and swings too (Lazy, Maybe I'm A Leo). 

And then there is Smoke On The Water - a riff they must be sick of playing after all these years. But for better or worse, it's what most people know them for. And it's got a great story behind it.

The rebuilt Montreux Casino, November 2021
With a few red lights, a few old beds
We made a place to sweat
No matter what we get out of this
I know, I know we'll never forget Smoke on the water
Fire in the sky

Last month, my wife and I visited some friends in Vevey, the next big town along the lake from Montreux. We walked along the promenade, sampling the delights of the Christmas market in Montreux. We visited the rebuilt Casino, which houses the recording studio that was owned by Queen for many years. 

And there, on the water, was the same view of the Lake Geneva shoreline from the Machine Head album, minus the smoke.

The Lake Geneva shoreline, November 2021

See also on this blog:
1970 - Deep Purple Get Heavy with 'In Rock'

Most-viewed Youtube clips - Tommy Bolin live, 1976

There's a lot to like in the 'ZAPPA' movie