Bob Dylan: There will be more blood on the tracks
Just for the record: a bi-weekly vinyl review
In his memoir, Chronicles, Volume One (Simon & Schuster), Bob Dylan suggested that the songs on Blood on the Tracks, his acclaimed double platinum January 1975 Columbia Records release later dubbed “the divorce album”, were not based on personal experience but were rather inspired by Anton Chekhov’s short stories.
Many thought differently, especially as Dylan himself had told the singer Mary Travers in a radio interview a few months after its release: “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean … people enjoying that type of pain, you know?” Years later, Dylan’s son, Jakob, would describe Blood on the Tracks as sounding like an argument between his parents.
It was the opinion of another family member, though, who would later cause much controversy. Upon hearing a test pressing of the album, Dylan’s younger brother, David Zimmerman, a manager and promoter of music acts in Minnesota, declared that it was too “downbeat” for popular appeal and convinced his brother to hastily rerecord half the album.
The decision to do so caused great consternation with executives at Columbia. As far as they were concerned, the tracks Dylan had laid down over four nights in September 1974 in New York’s A&R Studios were among the best recordings he’d done in years. Many fans felt the same way once those recordings began circulating as bootlegs.
The good news, then, is that they’re finally to be officially released by Sony/Legacy next month as More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol 14.
In his liner notes, journalist Jeff Slate writes: “Dylan cut each of these amazing performances – some of the best he ever committed to tape – one after the other, live in the studio, without headphones, and without the types of overdubs that most performers rely on to make their records sound finished.
“Instead, on these tracks, we find Dylan – just a singer with a guitar and a harmonica and a batch of great songs – delivering performances that thrill you when they’re supposed to and break your heart when they need to … The performances are also in the purest state we’ve ever experienced them.
“During the production of Blood on the Tracks, Dylan asked [producer Phil] Ramone to speed up many of the masters by two to three percent, a common practice in the 1960s and 1970s, especially for records sent to AM radio. It was thought that doing so would give the songs a little extra bounce to better engage listeners. Most of the songs from the New York sessions that previously circulated, officially and unofficially, are the sped-up versions that Dylan requested. [Now], for the first time, we’re hearing the songs exactly as Dylan recorded them.”
In addition to a six-CD deluxe set containing every note recorded during those New York sessions (including, it says here, “false starts and studio banter”), More Blood, More Tracks will also be released as a double album on 180g vinyl featuring 10 of the “most emotionally resonant alternate takes” of the original Blood on the Tracks songs, plus a previously unreleased version of [outtake] Up to Me.
MARTY BALIN, 1942-2018
The death at the weekend of Jefferson Airplane co-founder and leading light of San Fransisco’s psychedelic Summer of Love, Marty Balin, will no doubt prompt a reappraisal of the Airplane’s better work. A guitarist and singer, Balin was a member of the Town Criers, a folk-revival group but, after hearing the Beatles, wanted to explore a more rock sound. Unfortunately, San Fransisco’s night clubs weren’t so keen on the idea, so Balin formed his own club, The Matrix, and by 1965, was hosting such acts as the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother & The Holding Company in addition to his own band.
Landing a major deal with RCA, they released their debut, Takes Off, in 1966.
It was a folk record best described as “mild-mannered”, and most of the band were unhappy with it. Enter Grace Slick, a former model who’d previously sung with Bay Area band The Great Society. She brought a punk attitude to the band, a steely beauty and two extraordinary songs, White Rabbit and Somebody to Love, which would provide the foundation for their next album, 1967’s classic acid masterpiece, Surrealistic Pillow.
The surprise success of the album, and those two hits, did turn the group into something of a Top 10 act, so the group hastily set out to reaffirm their underground credentials a few months later with After Bathing At Baxter’s, an album which set out to undermine pop convention and which has been described as “single-mindedly dedicated to the pursuit of high art via hallucinogenics”. Slick was now emerging to the fore, and Balin’s influence on his group was waning. The free-spirited Slick, it was later said, would also sleep with every member of the band except Balin.
Their last truly great album was 1969’s Volunteers, a powerful album that wrapped up the decade with its revolutionary rhetoric and call to arms and activism, on one hand, and its more simpler pastoral “back to the earth” concerns. Though we may now find the sentiment a little twee and outdated, it was considered a greatly controversial release at the time. It remains, though, a perfect time capsule of an era that is perhaps unfairly maligned. Surrealistic Pillow, rereleased by Sony on vinyl last year, remains the place to start.
MORE 50th ANNIVERSARY MADNESS
The dizzying scramble to rerelease 1968’s brightest musical moments on heavy duty 180g vinyl continues apace – often in both standard reissue and, for those with deeper pockets, mega-deluxe box sets as well.
First up, the wonderful whimsy that is the Small Faces’ most loved album, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, one of rock’s earliest concept albums in that its second side is a song suite detailing the psychedelic adventures of one Happiness Stan as he journeyed to find where the moon went after it waned.
Initially, work on the project had been slow, so Immediate Records boss Andrew Oldham sent the group on a barging holiday up the Thames and they returned brimful with ideas for songs that echoed the music hall traditions of their East End roots. Interestingly, Stanley Unwin, the cockney comedian whose barmy narration linked the “Happiness Stan” songs, was born in Pretoria in 1911.
Odgen’s shot straight to the top of the charts upon release in June 1968. The cover, inspired by a tin of tobacco, was the first ever circular album sleeve. Sadly, these have not been replicated for the Sanctuary Records reissues which will come later this month in more traditional sleeves. (The circular sleeves tended to roll off shelves, it seemed.) The deluxe three-disc box set, on red, blue and white vinyl, features the original mono and stereo mixes of the album, with several rare tracks to boot. A 72-page book is also included. The standard release contains the original stereo mix.
Another slice of classic English pop getting the full-blown anniversary treatment is the Kinks’ brilliant-but-sadly-underappreciated The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, which will be reissued in various formats later this month, including a monster box set containing the original stereo and mono mixes of the album on vinyl, plus three singles, and five CDs containing a staggering array of unreleased material.
Announcing the anniversary project, lead Kink Ray Davies said: “I think The Village Green Preservation Society is about the ending of a time personally for me in my life. In my imaginary village. It’s the end of our innocence, our youth. Some people are quite old but in the Village Green, you’re never allowed to grow up. I feel the project itself as part of a life cycle.”
Probably the better part of a life cycle, considering the original 15-track album has now been stretched to a staggering 174 outtakes, alternate versions and unreleased songs.
The deluxe 50th anniversary reissue of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland is a six-LP set from Sony Legacy. In the box is the original double album remixed by Eddie Kramer from original master tapes, another double album set of early takes and demos, entitled At Last … The Beginning, and a double album live recording of a September 1968 Hollywood Bowl concert previously only available on bootleg. This being the #MeToo era, Electric Ladyland’s original “nude ladyland” cover for the 1968 UK release on Track Records, banned elsewhere, has been passed over in favour of all-new artwork. The deluxe set is reissued in November.
Also out in November is the anniversary edition of The Beatles, or “The White Album”, remixed and remastered by Giles Martin, son of original producer George Martin. Two vinyl versions will be available: the original double, and a limited edition four-LP deluxe set, which features Martin’s new stereo album mix, sourced from the original four-track and eight-track session tapes, plus a double album of acoustic demos for the album recorded at George Harrison’s home in Esher, Surrey, in the week before the official Abbey Road sessions began in June 1968.
There’s no shortage of Bob Marley’s Island albums out there, either as original pressings or reissued and remastered product. For example, sealed copies of the 40th anniversary edition of Kaya – a two-disc set, some issued on green vinyl, which features the original 1978 album alongside a new remix by Stephen Marley, one of the singer’s sons – can now readily be found at local vinyl fairs.
More interestingly, so are reissues of earlier, pre-Island work by the Wailers – Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston. One such album is the 1971 Jamaican album, The Best of the Wailers (Beverley’s Records), which has been reissued by the Russian label DOL.
There’s a fascinating story behind the release. Firstly, it wasn’t a career-spanning retrospective but rather 10 new songs the group had cut with producer Lesley Kong in sessions at the latter’s Kingston studios almost two years earlier.
Kong was then an in-demand producer, having worked wonders for Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff and the Metals, among others. The Wailers, on the other hand, were at a low point in their careers; hopes of working with the US singer Johnny Nash had come to nothing, as had various recording sessions with other producers.
The Kong sessions, however, were a different story, with the studio band, the Beverley’s All Stars, complementing the Wailers’ rippling harmonies with a solid reggae backing on tracks like Marley’s Soul Shakedown Party and Tosh’s Stop That Train. Only problem, though, was that Kong sat on the recordings and wouldn’t release them – at least, not until much later.
In the meantime, the Wailers had begun to work with Lee “Scratch” Perry, who produced and released their Soul Rebels and Soul Revolution Part II albums, 1970 and 1971 respectively, on his Upsetter label. Both were bestsellers in Jamaica, and prompted Kong to cash in on the group’s rising fortunes and now release the work he’d done with them.
Understandably The Best of … title angered the group.
According to Timothy White’s Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley (Omnibus Press), Livingston cornered Kong in his record store and told him, “Don’ do it, mon. It cannot be de best of de Wailers, ’cause our best is yet ta come. When yuh seh dat de best of someone has gone, den dat person is already dead or soon dyin’, so we don’ wan’ dat.”
When Kong protested, Livingston cut him off, saying: “If yuh do dis t’ing I prophesise dat it is yuh who will die.”
Kong told the singer the album was already at the presses and the title would remain. Kong’s brothers thought it all bad mojo, though. They pointed to an incident, several years earlier, when Kong had refused to pay Marley for his fledgling solo recording sessions, and the young singer had warned that although he would work with the producer again in the future, Kong would never enjoy the profits from such a venture.
Some weeks later, White writes, Kong’s accountant told him that, based on the sales of the Wailers album, he was now officially a millionaire. That same day he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 38.