Sunday, July 25, 2010

April 12, 2010: 10 Great Dylan Versions That Aren’t by The Byrds

When The Byrds released their beat version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” 45 years ago today, they established a tradition of radical interpretations of Bob Dylan’s music. Dylan songs were ripe for such imaginative tinkering because they are melodic yet fluid in form. One doesn’t necessarily miss the multitude of verses McGuinn and the gang excised from “Mr. Tambourine Man”—a veritable epic poem on Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home—because the band restructured it to the point where it nearly became a different song. Dylan’s arrangement is Spartan: voice, two guitars, and harmonica. The Byrds’: ringing twelve-string Rickenbacker, swooping bass, a rock-steady backbeat, and velveteen vocal harmonies. In their hands, “Mr. Tambourine Man” became an entirely different animal incomparable to the original. The Byrds’ version did not trump Dylan’s, and vice versa. Both are perfectly wonderful for their own reasons. Compare that to any cover of, say, the Beatles, which will invariably be inferior to the original because The Beatles’ songs are so inseparable from George Martin’s brilliantly definitive productions. Before going whole-hog electric (Dylan only cut half of Bringing It All Back Home with a band), he recorded in true troubadour tradition, allowing his work to be as interpretable as “Greensleeves” or any other folk standard.

The Byrds were without question Dylan’s greatest interpreters—not just “Mr. Tambourine Man”, but “My Back Pages”, “Spanish Harlem Incident”, “Chimes of Freedom”, “All I Really Want to Do”, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, etc.—but several other artists did right by Mr. D and his repertoire. Here are ten of the best.

1. “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” by Manfred Mann (1965)

Manfred Mann weren’t as intrinsically linked with Dylan as The Byrds were, but they were no slouches when it came to interpreting the master either. Their version of “With God On Our Side” is stately and poignant and they scored a UK #1 hit and a US top ten by reinventing “Quinn the Eskimo” as a euphoric blast of bubblegum retitled “The Mighty Quinn”. But their best take on Dylan may have been a twangy, wistful reading of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”, which Dylan did not release himself until it appeared as a failed Dutch single in 1967. Two years after that, Fairport Convention further reinvented the song as a cooking Cajun French-language freak-out, but more about that band a little later.


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2. “It Ain’t Me Babe” by The Turtles (1965)

The Turtles made their biggest splash as purveyors of kitchy bubblegum like “Happy Together” and “Elenore”, but they were actually regarded as fairly serious folk-rockers early in their career. This was largely due to their menacing hit version of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe”. Odd that their decision to record P.F. Sloane’s sugar sweet “You Baby” would be met by such righteous outrage from the folkies considering that “It Ain’t Me Babe” isn’t exactly Dylan’s most socially conscious song. But I guess a folkie doesn’t need much of an excuse to indulge in righteous outrage.


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3. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” by Them (1966)

“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is one of Dylan’s most caustic songs, which makes this version by Van Morrison and Them a real oddity. Angry young Them were kings of rage, shredding numbers like “Mystic Eyes” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” to ribbons, but they chose to take on Dylan at his angriest with one of Morrison’s more placid vocals and a shimmering pre-psych guitar line (which many of you may know as the lead sample on Beck’s “Jack-Ass”). Taming “Baby Blue” could have resulted in something ineffectual, but the arrangement is so unique, Morrison’s growls so beautiful and pure, that this version ranks among the best Dylan covers.

Oh, and I have no idea why the following video matches this song with pictures of the Rolling Stones logo. You Tube can be pretty fucking weird sometimes.


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4. “I’ll Keep It With Mine” by Nico (1967)

For obvious reasons, Dylan was quite taken with German model and occasional Velvet Underground singer Nico, but handing her his “I’ll Keep It With Mine” was an act of generosity beyond the beyond. Dylan had actually recorded the song a few years earlier (which can be heard on the Biograph box set), but didn’t release it during its time despite it being an exceptional song, even for him. On Nico’s solo debut, Chelsea Girl, “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is a standout among a uniformly superb collection of songs. Icy as her singing style was, Nico will tear your heart in half as she reaches the climactic refrain. Larry Fallon’s baroque arrangement is exquisite.


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5. “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)

The only Dylan cover that could vie with The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” in terms of familiarity and impact. Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell, and Noel Redding took one of the rustic mock-parables on John Wesley Harding and transformed it into a mind-melting freak-show of otherworldly guitar work, tortured wailing and stormy rhythms. The Experience so owned “All Along the Watchtower” that a lot of people don’t even realize it’s a cover. As is the case with all of these songs, Dylan’s original is still a masterful piece of work, but the Experience’s version is a monolith.


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6. “Tears of Rage” by The Band (1968)

Dylan’s most intense collaboration of the ‘60s was with The Band. When the Great Divide-crossing group was still called The Hawks, they backed up Dylan in ’66 as both his stage band and the sessionmen on Blonde on Blonde. The horde took their collaboration further the following year when they mounted the extensive sessions released nearly a decade later as The Basement Tapes. One of the songs they recorded was Dylan and Richard Manuel’s “Tears of Rage”. Less ramshackle and more soulful than the Dylan/Band version is the recording The Band cut on their own with Manuel singing lead. His vocal and Garth Hudson’s Lowrey organ both sound as though they’ve descended from the clouds.


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7. “Million Dollar Bash” by Fairport Convention (1969)

Another Basement Tapes leftover, “Million Dollar Bash” is a hilarious screed against the decadent rich given one of Dylan and The Band’s best performances. So it’s quite a feat that Fairport Convention bested them. The party atmosphere is heightened by the multi-singer approach, and when Sandy Denny steps in to holler the third verse, the effect is sublime. The album for which it was recorded, Unhalfbricking, contains several fine Dylan covers—including the earlier mentioned French version of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” and a gut wrenching take on “Percy’s Song”—but the most exhilarating is “Million Dollar Bash”.


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8. “Wicked Messenger” by The Faces (1970)

For the first track on their first album, the raggedy Faces chose one of the Biblical farces from John Wesley Harding. With its ready-made-for-heavy-rock riff, “Wicked Messenger” was a perfect choice. The Faces hammer out the song in typically sloppy fashion, but the nearly out-of-sync vocals, guitars, and drums all cling to that riff like it’s a magnet. The greatest cocktail of Dylan and whiskey-drenched mischief ever spilled on vinyl.


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9. “If Not For You” by George Harrison (1970)

The same year Dylan sang the atypically tender ballad “If Not For You” on his album New Morning, pal George Harrison recorded it for his triple-LP masterpiece and solo debut All Things Must Pass. Also atypical is Phil Spector’s production, which veers from his pounding Wall of Sound to more ethereal territory. The woozy slide guitars, glistening organ, and George’s audible smile compliment the romanticism of Dylan’s lyric gorgeously, while interjections of wheezy harmonica pay a more jestful tribute to the writer.


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10. “This Wheel’s on Fire” by Siouxsie and the Banshees (1987)

Cover albums tend to be desperate stop-gaps released while the recording artists either recoup their creativity or come to terms with their absence of original ideas. Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Through the Looking Glass is a rare exception, an album as essential as any of their collections of original material. Their versions of John Cale’s “Gun”, The Doors’ “You’re Lost Little Girl”, and Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” are magnificent, as is this rendition of The Basement Tapes’ most covered song. Co-written by Dylan and Band-man Rick Danko, “This Wheel’s on Fire" has been recorded by The Byrds, The Hollies, Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger, Golden Earring, and of course, The Band. Several versions were recorded as the theme song of Britcom Absolutely Fabulous, including a new take by Driscoll and Young One Adrian Edmondson and a version by Debbie Harry. But the best may be the one by Siouxsie and the Banshees, which soars with Mike Hedges’s exotic string arrangement and Siouxsie Sioux’s exoticer howl.

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