Fifty years ago Bob Dylan turned pop entertainment into a vehicle for dazzling visions – and it’s been that way ever since. James Medd investigates the album that invented an art form.

In 2016, the single is king. iTunes’ unbundling of the album into single tracks for sale individually changed the way we buy and listen to music. We all know it, but we often act is if it isn’t so: though we most likely access music through streaming services or downloads, we still talk about “new albums”, and newspapers and magazines still review them over individual tracks. Strangely, many artists think this way too. The most innovative and ambitious of them, such as Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar, release albums and even a pop sensation like Miley Cyrus turns to the long format when she wants to be taken seriously. We continue to view the album as the mode for music worthy of attention, for art. The reason for that is ‘Blonde On Blonde’.

Released 50 years ago this May, ‘Blonde On Blonde’ still sounds fresh and unlike anything else – a sprawling double album that’s the perfect entry point to Bob Dylan’s sprawling career. Even unbundled, it is astonishing. There’s ‘I Want You’, a pop song that could compete with The Beatles for catchiness; ‘Just Like A Woman’, a torch song Sinatra could have covered; ‘Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’, the original epic love ballad; and ‘Visions Of Johanna’, a stream-of-consciousness tone poem that’s as enigmatic and atmospheric as anything in popular music – and none of them are the best song on the album.

Crucially, though, it’s the other tracks, the “filler”, that make it. What ‘Blonde On Blonde’ has, above all, is cohesion: it’s an album – in fact, it’s pretty much the album. It’s where rock – or pop as art – started, and where a new kind of listening began, one that’s only just coming to an end now.

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PERSONAL JUDAS: The infamous Manchester show where punters booed Dylan’s new electric sound. “Bob Dylan was a bastard in the second half,” one grumbled.

‘Blonde On Blonde’ was born in another time, one where the single also reigned supreme. In 1966, 45rpm singles outsold 33⅓rpm LPs – but for the last time (at least until now, that is). Pop musicians, previously run as a branch of showbusiness by an older generation who only understood this new music as a form of variety, had reached financial self-sufficiency and, with it, self-awareness. Dylan had been instrumental in this too, showing a way beyond songs about love, lust and dancing by cutting pop with the seriousness of folk and the self-expression of modern poetry, heavily influenced by the effects of LSD.

The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Animals and The Who had already followed him, as had the all-important Beatles. Now he wanted to create something on a grander scale. “Long-playing records with heaps of songs in the grooves,” he wrote in his 2004 memoir Chronicles, “they forged identities and tipped the scales, gave more of the big picture.”

He wasn’t the only one thinking this. May 1966 also saw the release of The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’, a complete listening experience that was to inspire The ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ the following year. “It was going to happen anyway,” says Jon Savage, author of 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded, the panoramic study of the period. “It was just an inevitable consequence of slinging loads of money at the whole topic.

“By that stage, as well as taking drugs, musicians also had the money to disappear into their own homes or very exclusive clubs, and not to be ‘down with the kids’ any more, on the street. The general trend, whether it was from Dylan or from the psychedelic drugs, was to go deeper. And in ’66, everything happened very quickly.”

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ZIM CITY: Early 1966, on the eve of ‘Blonde On Blonde’’s release. 

But The Beatles’ and Beach Boys’ records, brilliant and new as they were, were still undeniably pop. Dylan was headed elsewhere. In the past year he’d already turned to electric musicians, causing outrage among his more conservative fans, and then come up with ‘Like A Rollin’ Stone’, a raging anthem of dissatisfaction that seemed wholly uninterested in entertainment, but reached No. 2 anyway. An accompanying album of equally fevered blues-rock, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, completed his move from political commentary to self-expression. Fuelled by fame and the worship of his peers, not to mention a diet of acid and amphetamines that enhanced his self-belief as much as his work rate, he was already looking for a new way of expressing himself and another new sound.

Finding this sound proved tricky. Dylan was, like all musicians at the time, used to recording fast and frequently. Though still only 25, he’d already made six albums, each in just a couple of days. This time, however, he hit a wall. Recording in New York in November 1965 with his live band The Hawks, most of whom would later become The Band, produced just one single, ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?’, which sold poorly. When they returned to the studio in January, it got worse: while The Hawks’ road-tough bar-room blues gave him an effective shield from booing folk audiences, they couldn’t give him what he wanted with his new songs.

In the end, only one track made it onto ‘Blonde On Blonde’: ‘One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)’, a stately but slightly chilly expression of regret and sadness. Abandoned for good was one extraordinary song, ‘She’s Your Lover Now’ – like the rejection of the hymn-like ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, attempted later, a baffling decision that might have capsized a lesser record.

Producer Bob Johnston was, apparently, not to blame for this failure. A former hit songwriter from Texas, he was a man “born one hundred years too late,” as Dylan wrote. “He should have been wearing a wide cape, a plumed hat, and riding with his sword held high.” He had overseen ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, marking himself out as a loose hand who would allow his artist to get on with things. When he suggested they move proceedings down to Nashville, where he’d worked before, Dylan agreed.

Inner sleeve BM Orange

SLEEVE IT OUT: Rare original gatefold of ‘Blonde On Blonde’ with unauthorised shot of actress Claudia Cardinale, later removed.

Johnston set about hiring the best young musicians in town, starting with Charlie McCoy, a harmonica player and multi-instrumentalist who at the age of 24 had worked with everyone from Roy Orbison to Elvis and was one of the city’s most in-demand session players. He’d even worked with Dylan, inveigled onto the recording of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ track ‘Desolation Row’. “Little did I know the producer had some kind of scheme cooked up,” he says, some 50 years on, “and I was being used as a pawn.”

Johnston’s hunch was that Dylan would find the experience and improvisational skills of the Nashville boys helpful. “New York sessions were quite different,” explains McCoy, “everything was written down, everything was arranged, whereas in Nashville it’s totally encouraged for the musicians to lend suggestions. When they first started recording here they were doing country music and only country music, and nobody had anything written down, it happened there spontaneously.”

All the same, McCoy and his equally experienced team – which included members of his own band, The Escorts, including drummer Kenny Buttrey and guitarist Wayne Moss, as well as Joe South, later a Country star in his own right – were surprised by the way the sessions would be conducted. Arriving in the early afternoon of February 14, they expected to be put straight to work. “We were booked from 2pm,” says McCoy, “he shows up at 6pm and tells us, ‘You guys just hang loose, I haven’t finished writing the first song.’”

Dylan spent the time at a piano with a legal pad and a copy of the Bible, but once he was ready, it was quickly apparent this was going to work. Recording live, with no overdubs, they tried ‘Visions Of Johanna’, the song that had caused Dylan to lose patience in New York. Within four runs, the Nashville musicians had mastered it, bringing out all the longing and world-weariness that had lain buried in its previous incarnation, and breathing life into what remains one of Dylan’s greatest achievements. It was no big deal, says McCoy: “We were doing our normal thing, we played to the songs. We weren’t trying to play different because it was Dylan. I learned from the old Nashville guys: let the song dictate where you’re going. That’s what we did.”

“I SHOULDN’T BE SINGING…” ‘Visions Of Johanna’ from Martin Scorsese’s 2005 retrospective ‘No Direction Home’. 

The next day they again arrived for 2pm and this time waited till 4am, playing ping pong and cards without complaint. “Obviously, we were all being paid a lot of overtime,” says McCoy. Then Dylan showed them some chords and mumbled something about seeing how it went from there, and they began. Ten minutes later they were still going. “I thought the guy had blown a gasket, and we were basically humouring him,” recalled Kenny Buttrey later. Eventually clocking in at 11 minutes 19 seconds, ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ took up a whole side of the double album, and became one of the album’s totemic tracks.

For Sid Griffin, Kentucky-born author of two books about Dylan and a musician himself with country-rockers The Long Ryders, ‘Sad-Eyed Lady’’s unique quality is at least partly down to circumstances. “On that song the dawn chorus can be heard outside the studio,” he says. “A lot of ‘Blonde On Blonde’’s success is due to the fact that he’s using musicians that aren’t used to recording at that time in the morning. They sound more mellow, fatigued, they’re just really in a groove. If it had been recorded at noon, it would have sounded a lot different.” Al Kooper, who played organ on the sessions, was later to say much the same: “Nobody has ever captured the sound of 3am better than that album. Nobody, even Sinatra, gets it as good.”

Griffin also points out that, since many of the songs were blues-based, “he was asking them to play a lot of R&B licks, which as country players they didn’t really use”. Dylan had brought Kooper and The Hawks’ guitarist, Robbie Robertson, with him from New York but the Nashville players had the effect of smoothing off the hard edges of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, creating what Johnston called “that mountainside sound”, and which Dylan, in 1978, referred to as “that thin, that wild mercury sound”. Though recorded live, it sounds intricately arranged, with layers of instruments including up to five guitars on any one track as well as organ and harmonica.

This sound enveloped the songs in a wistful, dreamlike tone that perfectly enhanced Dylan’s enigmatic, startling lyrics. One of the strongest flavours was the Beatnik movement – “The On The Road, Howl and Gasoline Alley ideologies that were signalling a new type of human existence,” as he called it in Chronicles. “A lot of the songs conjure up the Beat writers rambling around America,” says Howard Sounes. “It’s wonderfully evocative of being on the road in America and being young, of being really engaged with the world and meeting people and falling in love and having new experiences.”


RAINY DAY WOMEN p.12 & p.35: In July 1966, Crawdaddy magazine asked “Who is Bob Dylan, and what is he really trying to say?”

Through the Beats, Dylan also drew on the Romantic poetry of William Blake, the symbolism of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, and Modernists including TS Eliot, using them to write lyrics that pop music had never attempted before. For all the surreal images such as the “ghost of electricity” or “jewels and binoculars”, however, there was also a playfulness to the songs that took in a warm world-weariness and a carnival spirit.

The giddy ‘Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat’, another hipster put-down – which appeared in a blues form like many of the more sardonic songs on the record – was sheer nonsense. In ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile (With The Memphis Blues Again)’, a string of characters including a preacher with 20 pounds of headlines stapled to his chest, a senator showing everyone his gun, a rainman and a ragman all gave Dylan various hard times. Like ‘Visions Of Johanna’ it meant either nothing or anything (even, if you were to believe some of his fans, everything). But that didn’t hugely matter. Dylan’s delivery was more important, and his attitude – wry, clever and knowing but above all, intimate and confiding.

Perhaps with this in mind, the first single was ‘Rainy Day Women #12 And #65’, recorded as if by a drunken marching band in a bout of early-hours hysteria during the all-night marathon that brought the six days of recording to an end. With its chorus of “Everybody must get stoned”, it was, writes Jon Savage, pure spirit of ’66: “a feeling of openness [that] spoke of a new confidence and freedom, that you could try anything and it might work”.

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“A WHOLE NEW BAG”: Original press advert for ‘Rainy Day Women’.

Released in the US in May, ‘Blonde On Blonde’ was advertised by Columbia Records as “a marketing innovation in the teen-age field”. You didn’t even have to play it to know that this was something different. First, there was the fact that there were two discs. Then there was the cover: just a blurry portrait (taken in a hurry, said the photographer, because it was cold), without even the name of the album or artist. It sold well but, for the first time, this was a record that had to be measured on a different scale.

“It was taken seriously, it was a big deal,” says Savage. “It helped to usher in what we call rock, even though people writing about it weren’t really calling it that. In fact, the word rock starts to come in in magazines, particularly Crawdaddy, in 1966, trying to work out an aesthetic that goes beyond Top 40 and simple pop. It’s all to do with young people creating a mass youth culture.”

One of the defining characteristics of this culture was social rebellion, as in ‘Rainy Day Women’, which reached Number 2 despite widespread radio bans. “Dylan, The Beatles and the Stones had all been on this treadmill of three singles a year, two LPs and hundreds of dates, and they were getting fed up with it,” says Savage. “So they started to make provocative gestures that said ‘I don’t want to be a teeny popstar anymore’. It’s the Stones doing ‘Have You Seen Your Mother Baby’, which is this incredibly chaotic record, and John Lennon’s ‘We’re more popular than Jesus’ comment. They’re all saying, ‘I’m not who you want me to be,’ which is very rock.”

‘Blonde On Blonde’ was firmly an invitation to join in. ‘Highway 61 Revisited’’s tone had been the no-squares sneer of ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’’s “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is”. This was welcoming and inclusive, a joke everyone could be in on. It was still hip, still aspirational, but it didn’t shout at you. “‘Highway 61’ is more of a rock’n’roll album,” says Sid Griffin. “They’re chomping at the bit and going for it. But it’s one-dimensional compared to ‘Blonde On Blonde’, which has a lot more different shades and textures. It’s a lovely album to listen to just in the distance.”

It also repaid close attention. Whereas The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’, released three months later, was like tuning into the best possible radio station, where a variety of brilliant pop hits of different styles were played one after another, ‘Blonde On Blonde’ was like tuning into Bob Dylan’s head. This, finally, was art – an object of substance worthy of the respect given to literature and cinema, to classical music and jazz.

From this came the idea of music as a mental activity, performed either alone or in small groups, rather than as material for dancing or communal singing. Equally, Dylan’s open-ended lyrics encouraged the kind of myths that true obsession brought, from theories on the title (something to do with Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol? A term for a particular combination of guitar and amplifier?) and the significance of the blurred cover photo to rumours that the title character in ‘Just Like A Woman’ was a transvestite, that ‘I Want You’ was a love song not to his new wife but to heroin. From here, you can trace a direct line to YouTube footage of The Wizard Of Oz soundtracking ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’. 

“FANTASTIC LIES!” Dressing room shenanigans in an out-take from ‘No Direction Home’. 

Despite ‘Blonde On Blonde’’s success, Dylan never properly followed it up. Driven to the brink by the combined effects of touring, drugs and fame, after a motorcycle accident in July he hid himself away in Woodstock and worked on the rural folk and country tunes that would later be released as ‘The Basement Tapes’, with Robbie Robertson and The Hawks. His next album was 1967’s ‘John Wesley Harding’, a stripped-back folk-rock record made with Charlie McCoy and Kenny Buttrey that was, in its way, as brilliant as ‘Blonde On Blonde’. But from there, a long decline set in.

Other musicians, however, picked up on the template as if they had been waiting for permission. Among them was The Grateful Dead, whose leader Jerry Garcia said that ‘Blonde On Blonde’ “gave rock & roll the thing I’d wished it had when I was a kid – respectability, some authority”. Another was Eric Clapton, then about to form Cream, who “realised that [Dylan] was truly making a crossover”.

Albums by Love, Jefferson Airplane, The Moody Blues, The Zombies and more featured their own interpretation of Dylan’s gambit, as well as The Rolling Stones’ ‘Beggar’s Banquet’, full of his influence but with its own unique sound. By the decade’s end, the idea of an album as randomly assorted as ‘Revolver’ was almost unthinkable – as the heavy and sonically smoothed ‘Abbey Road’ showed.

Soon, a whole generation of singer-songwriters would take up the idea of the pop lyric as self-expressive poetry. Even Motown soul move into deep album territory with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. ‘Blonde On Blonde’’s influence was all over progressive rock, as Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters made clear: “‘Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’ sort of changed my life,” he said. “When I heard that, I thought, if Bob can do that, I can do it… it’s a whole album and it in no way gets dull or boring. You just get more and more engrossed.”

The notion of the album as a complete work would survive through punk (see The Clash’s ‘London Calling’) and acid house (Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’), remaining in rude health well into the 21st century. Without it, Radiohead’s soundscapes and Arcade Fire’s rock operas would be wholly different.

In fact, any band that ever talked about finding a sound for their new album tapped directly into ‘Blonde On Blonde’, while for fans it invented a way of listening that most of us grew up on and couldn’t foresee ending. In 2016, when white rock is the last place you’d find generational conflict, when innovation is all in hip hop, R&B and – once again – pop and the single, it looks like ‘Blonde On Blonde’’s influence may finally be fading. Astonishing to consider, then, just how good it still sounds, and how it would still dazzle if it appeared tomorrow.

Hear more ‘Blonde On Blonde’ from James Medd and Eamonn Forde on the Bigmouth podcast here


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