With Bob Dylan’s fifth album Bringing It All Back Home turning 50, Getintothis’ Will Neville revisits its musical and personal impact, and explains how it still sounds as vital and original as the day it was released.
What a shock this album must have been, especially for British listeners, who had last picked up a new Dylan release from the record racks just two weeks before, when The Times They Are A-Changin’ was released as a belated single from the album of the same name that had come out a year earlier.
Instead of another bash-you-over-the-head protest anthem in the grand folk tradition, the new album’s first side sees the then 23-year old Bob backed by an electric rock band, earning the wrath of the traditionalists, exacerbated by the classic Like A Rolling Stone single four months afterwards and his controversial electric Newport Folk Festival appearance later that same month. The acoustic, second side of the album was still a challenge for the luddites as it stepped away from protest with his lyrics becoming ever less tangible and more personal.
Dylan’s musical and lyrical innovations were soon taken up through much of the folk community, helping to birth folk rock, for which he can perhaps be indirectly blamed for the likes of Mumford & Sons and Noah And The Whale, as well as receiving plaudits for inspiring The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Lovin’ Spoonful amongst others, not to mention The Band. The effect of this album (along with many of his others) on the singer/songwriter explosion of the 1970’s is impossible to overstate, while Dylan’s influence continues to be felt today in genres as diverse as hip hop and acid folk. It would be practically impossible to list all the bands or singers who have covered tracks off this album, but the range encompasses Solomon Burke, The Specials, Uncle Tupelo, The Residents and U2, and that’s just Maggie’s Farm.
Dylan’s influence on The Beatles is often cited, particularly their first meeting in August 1964 when he turned them on to the delights of cannabis, but surely this was a symbiotic relationship, with the sheer thrill of the Fab Four felt by the boy from Duluth as much as the rest of the nation, no doubt nudging him towards plugging in. There’s even what is presumably a lyrical nod to them in Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream (“this Englishman said, “fab”).
This is still my favourite Dylan album out of all his 36 studio albums, helped by the fact that this was my first real introduction to the man, and so the first of his albums I loved. This was back in the day when cassettes were my format of choice, and I fondly recall the looks ranging from bafflement to outright disgust when I snuck it on in the sixth form common room one lunchtime, perhaps exaggerated by picking the acoustic side. Bob was not cool in the mid to late 80’s, although he was to come back into critical favour with Oh Mercy in 1989, and I was of an age to be eager to embrace standing out from the crowd musically (so long as it was with great music), so Dylan joined the then-forgotten (hard to believe though that might seem) The Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, Wire and The Fall in my personal pantheon of sticking two fingers up at the SAW, synthpop and goth of the day.
This album almost certainly remains in my personal Top 5 albums of all time, if there was enough time in the day to work that out. Pretty much everything about it is perfect, from the intriguing just-about-on-the-right-side-of-pretentious album cover (featuring album sleeves from Robert Johnson, Ravi Shankar and Lotte Lenya amongst others, and the wife of Dylan’s manager posing) to the sequencing and production, complete with false starts, the songs of course, and the lyrics (oh, those lyrics). And a word for Bob’s singing – wonderful. Those who complain that Bob Dylan can’t sing are missing the point. In fact, they are in a different postcode, no time zone, to the point. The man’s voice is just a perfect match for his gnarly words.
As was the way back then, the album was recorded remarkably quickly. After a solo session, Dylan returned to the studio the following day with a full band, with three and a half hours enough to lay down master takes of Love Minus Zero/No Limit, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Outlaw Blues, She Belongs To Me and Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream. Hats off to producer Tom Wilson, guitarists Al Gorgoni, Kenny Rankin and Bruce Langhorne, Paul Griffin on piano, bassists Joseph Macho, Jr. and William E. Lee and drummer Bobby Gregg. An evening session with different musicians did not prove as successful, but the following day brought the return of the original band (except for Frank Owens replacing Paul Griffin) as the other six songs for the album were started and finished, with Maggie’s Farm only requiring a single take.
The album kicks off with Subterranean Homesick Blues’ anti-establishment message and shotgun proto-rap delivery that must have been truly startling half a century ago. The tune owes a lot to Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business, with Dylan confessing to this inspiration (is Chuck the most now-overlooked originator in rock ‘n’ roll?). This song gave the band fIREHOSE their name, and was referenced in the track listing of Radiohead’s OK Computer.
The gently flowing She Belongs To Me with its tale of love turning to obsession (“you will wind up peeking through her keyhole”) is followed by Dylan’s ubernasal rejection of his role as the leader of the protest folk movement in Maggie’s Farm, later taken up as an anti-Thatcherite message, with Dylan himself topically returning to it on his British tour in 1981. This is one of many of his songs on this album that you can’t help but break out into a grin when listening to.
An early ode to Bob’s soon-to-be first wife Sara in Love Minus Zero/No Limit is followed by Outlaw Blues that only got its first concert airing with Jack White in Nashville in 2007. After the bizarrely funny On the Road Again, the electric side ends with the surreal, six minutes-plus Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, before listeners originally had to flip the platter over to find the whimsical, psychedelic imagery of Mr. Tambourine Man, a song that proved its versatility when it gave birth to folk rock when it was taken to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic by The Byrds in April 1965, although they only used one of its four verses so as not to overload young pop pickers with too much surrealism.
The dark Gates Of Eden is followed by my favourite song on the whole album, the finger-poking It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), the longest, most paranoid and existential number on the album featuring some of Dylan’s most well-known lyrics, such as “he not busy being born is busy dying” and “money doesn’t talk it swears”, quotes that I had up on my wall as a somewhat pretentious student. The album ends with It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue with Dylan proclaiming “strike another match, go start anew” as he headed off into a bright new future, with his next classic LP Highway 61 Revisited coming only five months later. Think about that, just five months later. Them’s cover of this track in 1966 was a major influence on 60’s garage rock, yet another genre given a kick start by this album!
Bob certainly didn’t stand still after this quick-fire pair of stone-cold works of genius as he released the first rock double album the following year (Blonde On Blonde), then helped to birth country rock with John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, and laid the foundation for Americana with The Basement Tapes. After a brief lull he returned to form in 1975 with Blood On The Tracks before moving into the 1980’s with a trilogy of ‘born again’ Christian albums that are far better than that description makes them sound. Even today, Dylan remains a truly vital performer and recording artist, with his most recent album Shadows In The Night coming out earlier this year, a collection of songs made famous by Frank Sinatra that has typically divided responses based on their attitude to his vocals.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, pop fans heartily embraced Bringing It All Back Home as it became his first Top 10 album in the US, and his second to hit the top spot in the UK. In 2003, the album was ranked number 31 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. If there really are thirty albums better than this out there, then the world is truly a magical place.