Studio Essentials: 1979 - 1988
Gotta Serve Somebody - Slow Train Coming - 1979
Got My Mind Made Up - Knocked Out Loaded - 1986
I & I - Infidels - 1983
Trouble In Mind - Slow Train Coming, Outtake - 1979
Jokerman - Infidels - 1983
Saved - Saved - 1980
Blind Willie McTell - Infidels, Outtake - 1983
Trouble - Shot Of Love - 1981
Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street) - Down In The Groove - 1988
Property Of Jesus - Shot Of Love - 1981
When He Returns - Slow Train Coming - 1979
Solid Rock - Saved - 1980
Lord Protect My Child - Infidels, Outtake - 1983
Man Of Peace - Infidels - 1983
Brownsville Girl - Knocked Out Loaded - 1986
Shot Of Love - Shot Of Love - 1981
Someone's Got A Hold Of My Heart - Infidels - 1983
Let's Stick Together - Down In The Groove - 1988
I Believe In You - Slow Train Coming - 1979
You Changed My Life - Shot Of Love, Outtake - 1981
Something's Burning Baby - Empire Burlesque - 1985
Union Sundown - Infidels - 1983
Angelina - Shot Of Love, Outtake - 1981
Slow Train - Slow Train Coming - 1979
Caribbean Wind - Shot Of Love, Outtake - 1981
Foot Of Pride - Infidels, Outtake - 1983
Pressing On - Saved - 1980
Are You Ready? - Saved - 1980
The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar - Shot Of Love - 1981
Every Grain Of Sand - Shot Of Love - 1981
Welcome to the second installment of A Thousand Highways DIY Playlist project! As with the earlier edition, these are officially released recordings, so you'll have to purchase them and assemble the playlist yourself; I'm just offering guidance.
This iteration will be dedicated to a much-maligned era, 1979 to 1988. It was originally intended to cover the 1980s, but I found that Slow Train Coming had much in common with the records that followed, and that Oh Mercy represented a pretty clear break with the past; as such, the beautiful songs of Oh Mercy will be covered in a future entry.
As for the earlier years of the 1980s, I find that there's a unity of sound in spite of the radically different recording conditions. From 1979 to 1985, Dylan was produced by no fewer than six people: Jerry Wexler, Barry Beckett, Bumps Blackwell, Chuck Plotkin, Mark Knopfler, Arthur Baker. From 1986 to 1988, the details get a bit hazier, but Dylan did quite a bit of the production himself. With this melange, and particularly the scattershot method of recording for Knocked Out Loaded and Down In The Groove, one could wrongly assume that the resulting recordings would lack any sense of coherence.
There is something to that theory, but the overall tone is surprisingly consistent - Dylan sings with full band and chorus accompaniment on the subject of high-minded themes of faith, world politics, and corruption of the physical world. A handful of relationship-oriented tracks round out the bunch, but they serve more as additions than anything else. The popular narrative, that the writer's talents were steadily diminishing from the late 1960s on, can be disproven with even a cursory listen to this set. If anything, to my ears, Dylan's writing has steadily improved throughout his career, as he moved from basic concerns to relationship matters, to surrealism, and then on into much broader thematic content, including faith, family, and the relationship of the individual and his or her society to their history.
In any case, I'm getting carried away. Let's review the recordings:
01. Gotta Serve Somebody - Slow Train Coming - 1979
Here is the first track from the record that started Bob Dylan's 1980s era. From the start, it's clearly very different from his 1970s recordings. Jerry Wexler and the team at Muscle Shoals studio had been employed, after the sonic disaster of the Street Legal sessions, to give Dylan's music a significantly more professional sound; a quick listen to this recording makes the listener aware that Wexler was successful. The song sets out something of an ideological mission statement that divides Dylan's work into two periods, too - the era prior to 1979, and the era after it. While the tone of the message would broaden and become more complex, particularly after 1989's Oh Mercy, the idea that a person is either working for good or working for evil is present from the chorus of "Gotta Serve Somebody" up to Dylan's most recent output. Concerning the lyrics and sound, I hear echoes of Memphis Slim's "Mother Earth," though you might not feel the same way.
02. Got My Mind Made Up - Knocked Out Loaded - 1986
To be clear, Knocked Out Loaded is not a great record. It resulted from a variety of recording sessions held between 1983 and 1986, and the record suffers for this lack of focus. With that said, Knocked Out Loaded has some great tracks. The first on this compilation is "Got My Mind Made Up," about which I don't have a lot to say. It includes the only reference to Libya in Bob Dylan's recordings, as far as I know, and the music has something of a 1950s Bo Diddley sound. One of my favorite modern bands, Langhorne Slim, recorded a rocking version in 2014 for A Tribute To Bob Dylan in the '80s.
03. I & I - Infidels - 1983
Bob Dylan's 1983 album, Infidels, was considered to be something of a return to form at the time of its release, but to my ears it's just another of the singer's excellent 1980s records. In full disclosure, Shot Of Love is a personal favorite, but regardless, I understand why the general public took to Infidels - it was a distinct move away from the sermonizing of Bob Dylan's albums recorded between 1979 and 1981. Listening to "I & I," you can hear that shift, but the lyricist is clearly still quite preoccupied with spiritual matters. The rough cut of this song is a little stronger, but the overdubs do little to harm its powerful darkness.
04. Trouble In Mind - Slow Train Coming, Outtake - 1979
Labeling this song as an outtake is a tad misleading, since it was officially released as the b-side to "Gotta Serve Somebody" in 1979, but it was not released on the album itself. That's a shame, because I'd say it's one of the strongest tracks from those sessions. It sounds like a reflection on the singer's life before his conversion, as would be heard again in a more melancholy later song, "Every Grain Of Sand." While this song is something of a rarity in Dylan's catalog, you can find a beautiful remastered version it on Pure Dylan: Intimate Look At Bob Dylan, a compilation released by Rolling Stone in Germany in 2011. If you would not like to go so far afield, you can replace this song with "Seeing The Real You At Last," another excellent 1980s mid-tempo rocker.
05. Jokerman - Infidels - 1983
"Jokerman" is the lead song off of Bob Dylan's 1983 Infidels record, and it's evident why it was picked to start the album. The song is one of the singer's visionary tales, in the vein of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands" and "Changing Of The Guards." I'm not fully sure what the lyrics are getting at, but there's quite a bit to take in. It was inspired by journeys around the Caribbean in the early 1980s - these are the same inspirations for "Caribbean Wind" and "I & I," among others. Moreover, as is typical for the album, the production and instrumentation are superb. An outtake exists, but I think the released version is superior. This track was accompanied by a music video, and would go on to be performed extraordinarily well in a live setting on the David Letterman show, as well as on tour in 1994, 1995, and 2003.
06. Saved - Saved - 1980
Though Saved was recorded at the same studio as its predecessor, Slow Train Coming, it had an appreciably rougher sound. With a minimum of overdubs, it is effectively a live recordings. Unfortunately, Dylan and his road band had trouble replicating the sound from their concerts, and the album is not as strong as it could have been. Happily, the title track suffered little from this process; I'd make the case that it is a major exception, being performed more tightly here than it generally was on tour. The piano riff in the middle of the song is especially groovy.
07. Blind Willie McTell - Infidels, Outtake - 1983
This is one of Bob Dylan's indisputably towering, classic recordings. Strangely, it was not included in Infidels final track list, though that didn't keep it from folks who sought out bootleg recordings. Finally released on the first installment of Sony's Bootleg Series, it immediately attained a status appropriate for its stature. The central figure, Blind Willie McTell, seems to have been chosen primarily for the meter of the song rather than any specific blues-singing abilities; he's an excellent performer, but you'd be hard-pressed to make the case that he's an extraordinarily noteworthy blues singer. This is more an excuse for the writer to explore themes of his nation's complex, dark history. Using the melody from "St. James Infirmary," to which he makes explicit reference in the final verse, he weaves through fleeting images of plantations burning, whips cracking, and tribes moaning. Mark Knopfler's guitar acts as a stirring counterpoint for Dylan's piano, and the acoustic version here is even more potent than the alternative electric cut recorded at the same sessions.
08. Trouble - Shot Of Love - 1981
Another song about which I have little to say. The lyrics are not particularly compelling, but the overall sound and effect are powerful. The band strikes a brooding blues riff, and the singer explores his preoccupation with what he perceives as the world's corruption.
09. Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street) - Down In The Groove - 1988
As with Knocked Out Loaded, Down In The Groove is an assembly of songs recorded at various sessions. Together, the two comprise something of a sequel to Self-Portrait. Concerning this song, I was primarily familiar with it from Hank Snow's delightful country version. It was quite a surprise to hear Bob Dylan play it in a gospel style, reminiscent of Saved's "Satisfied Mind." The harmonizing is especially interesting here, as the singer employs some male singers in contradiction of his typical dependence on a female chorus.
10. Property Of Jesus - Saved - 1981
This is a pretty cool gospel meditation that reflects the same concerns found on Dylan's two previous records, Slow Train Coming and Saved. In particular, it concerns the narrator's feeling of being set apart from his contemporaries, who have a more secular character and have little time for his spiritual mindset. Musically, it's great, with a live-in-the-room sound accentuated by someone going to town on a cowbell. The rhythm section is top-notch. It is notable for being the only song from Shot Of Love to never be performed live, though it would take almost ten years for "Trouble" to get a live airing. I'm of the opinion that this song, along with "Slow Train Coming," represents one of the first instances of the writer arguing against globalization - he rails against "Olympic Games" for reasons not explicated - a theme that would be more fully explored on Infidels.
11. When He Returns - Slow Train Coming - 1979
"When He Returns" is the closing track of 1979's Slow Train Coming, and with good reason: it's hard to follow this song up. It's a stark statement of expectation for the second coming of Christ, sung with only piano accompaniment. Interestingly, the song was almost not sung by Dylan at all - he originally intended to have one of his backing singers record the song. Luckily, an engineer recorded the demo and Dylan liked it enough to sing the song himself on the record. Apparently, the studio recording sheets indicate that an alternative version was recorded with the band, but it does not circulate. One more reason to keep hoping for a gospel-era Bootleg Series release, I guess!
12. Solid Rock - Saved - 1980
One of the standout tracks from Saved, "Solid Rock" is also one of only a couple that were played on the Never-Ending Tour, having been revived in 2002. It's not hard to hear why - Dylan's band gets a muscular looping groove going, and even his typically reserved lead guitarist gets a chance to shine. The song was well-received on the road, and had a few arrangements tried out from 1979 to 1981. Lyrically, it's quite similar to "Trouble" or "Slow Train Coming," as the singer reflects on the world's flaws, but it carries with it a more hopeful attitude for redemption.
13. Lord Protect My Child - Infidels, Outtake - 1983
Here is a brief, somewhat slight song recorded for, but not released on Infidels. It is superior to that album's "Sweetheart Like You" and "License To Kill," but may have rung as overly confessional for the singer. In any case, it was eventually released alongside "Blind Willie McTell" on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3. The narrator expresses concern over the state of the world that his child will grow up in, which is a fairly common theme for Bob Dylan in this period (albeit with an uncharacteristically personal touch). Most intriguing is the way that the vocals, strong as ever, present something of a counterpoint to the musical backing. Not having a musical education myself, I would find it difficult to express this in words, but the vocal melody does not proceed in quite the way the listener would expect it to. Whatever the case, it's a pretty great little track.
14. Man Of Peace - Infidels - 1983
This is another marvelous song from Bob Dylan's 1983 album, and it outspokenly puts the lie to any claims that the singer abandoned his focus on the Bible. Someone plays a blazing slide guitar on this song, and while it's been performed excellently in live incarnations over the years, the original is still among the best outings. Evidently, it was recorded in only a single take!
15. Brownsville Girl - Knocked Out Loaded - 1986
"Brownsville Girl" is often regarded as the masterpiece of Knocked Out Loaded, and with good reason. Despite some unsympathetic production that de-emphasized the lead vocals, this is one of Bob Dylan's low-key epics in the vein of "Highlands." He recounts a relationship intertwined with his memories of several films starring Gregory Peck. The song has some great non-sequiturs, but they don't distract from the central theme of American cinema and lost love. In terms of background, the song was originally recorded during the Empire Burlesque sessions as "New Danville Girl." The version I recommend is the one from 2007's Dylan compilation, as the song was remastered to present a cleaner overall sound, though I've not heard the one on Amazon's 2013 Complete Album Collection - The '80's, which I tended to depend on for these songs. As a fun side-note, comedian Reggie Watts recorded a very entertaining cover of this song, which you can find on 2014's A Tribute To Bob Dylan in the '80s.
01. Shot Of Love - Shot Of Love - 1981
The title track from Shot Of Love also happens to be one of that record's strongest performances. Surprisingly, it was not produced by Chuck Plotkin, who recorded the rest of the album - this one was produced by Bumps Blackwell, who had an excellent reputation for having recorded Ray Charles, among others. Here he achieved a raw sound that is significantly more impressive than the circulating alternate take of the song.
02. Someone's Got A Hold Of My Heart - Infidels, Outtake - 1983
"Someone's Got A Hold of My Heart" is fascinating as a rough draft of Empire Burlesque's "Tight Connection To My Heart." Melodically identical, the song would transition from a fairly basic, emotive song to a heavily produced, largely opaque final version. Part of this is down to rewrites - the original version is full of Biblical allusions and original writing, which the Empire Burlesque version trades for cinema references. These are interesting, but hardly as powerful as the earlier draft. Luckily, the originally circulates both in this version, released officially on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3, as well as an unreleased version from the same sessions.
03. Let's Stick Together - Down In The Groove - 1988
This song, originally released in 1962 by Wilbert Harrison, was a memorable hit for the band Canned Heat in 1970. Bob Dylan opened his 1988 album with the cover, which is quite effective as a bluesy rock song. The harmonica playing, in particular, is outstanding.
04. I Believe In You - Slow Train Coming - 1979
More than most of the songs on Slow Train Coming, "I Believe In You" bears the mark of guitarist Mark Knopfler. His clean sound allows Dylan's deeply passionate vocals to shine, and his sympathetic accompaniment emphasizes the bright, optimistic theme of the song. The song would go on to be performed regularly in concert, both during the gospel tours of 1979 to 1981 as well as semi-regularly on the Never-Ending Tour.
05. You Changed My Life - Shot of Love, Outtake - 1981
"You Changed My Life" is one of my favorite songs from this era, as it's just so hard not to love. The rhythm section is especially strong, propelling the song forwarded with a rollicking sound that would later be employed on live renditions of "Early Morning Rain" and "Series Of Dreams." Lyrically, the song is interesting as a counterpoint to other tracks chronicling the narrator's feeling of being pulled from a corrupt world, like "Trouble In Mind," "Property Of Jesus," and "Solid Rock" - this one dwells on the narrator's optimism rather than the feeling of being above an evil material existence. In that way, it is more closely connected with one of the writer's masterpieces, "Every Grain Of Sand." Perhaps those two songs' similar thematic content is what kept this recording from being included on the album upon release in 1981. Whatever the reason, I'm grateful that Sony opted to release it on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3.
06. Something's Burning Baby - Empire Burlesque - 1985
Here we have this compilation's only track from 1985's Empire Burlesque. It's not necessarily a bad record, but most of its songs were later performed in much more effective live renditions. Unfortunately, "Something's Burning Baby" has never been played in concert. The production threatens to overwhelm most of the songs on this album, but there are two notable exceptions - "Something's Burning Baby" and "Dark Eyes." The first of these circulates in an alternate take, but it went through a couple of lyrical improvements before the final release; in particular, the rewrites served to emphasis the apocalyptic nature of the narrative, placing the song in a context similar to "Caribbean Wind," "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar," and "Angelina," among others. Arthur Baker's production here also manages to enhance the song, rather than detract from it, as the sound on the final release is a distinct improvement on the outtake. The best aspect of the song, though, is Dylan's vocals - he really gives it his all. As for the second song from Empire Burlesque referenced above, "Dark Eyes," it will appear on a later all-acoustic DIY Playlist, where it fits much more comfortably.
07. Union Sundown - Infidels - 1983
This song is a reminder that the writer never really moved away from secular social causes, even though he hadn't written such an avowed "protest" song since 1975. Between 1975 and 1983, however, Bob Dylan's writing had become much more focused on faith, so this new protest anthem carried with it a spiritual dimension. As noted by Clinton Heylin in his book, Still On The Road, "Union Sundown" echoes Dylan's earlier song, "North Country Blues," updated to reflect the significant globalization that had occurred since the 1960s. While the outtake is quite remarkable in its own right, with many lyrics that wouldn't survive to the final draft, the bluesy guitar and reverberated vocals make the version on Infidels an excellent addition to Dylan's 1980s catalog.
08. Angelina - Shot Of Love, Outtake - 1981
"Angelina" is part of a core group of song from Bob Dylan's Shot Of Love sessions to dwell powerfully on apocalyptic and redemptive imagery. Along with the other tracks, "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Alter" and "Caribbean Wind," "Angelina" would have formed a poetic backbone to the record if it had been released on the album in 1981; as it stands, the song would have to wait until The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 to be heard by the public. This song has sparer instrumentation than most of the songs on Shot Of Love, so perhaps it was found to be too different from the surrounding recordings. The backing vocals are put to excellent use here as a chorus to strengthen the song's single-word chorus. Unfortunately, unlike its sister songs, "Angelina" has never been performed live.
09. Slow Train - Slow Train Coming - 1979
I'm not sure if this can be called a title track. It's quite similar to the title of the album, but a word seems to have been omitted... Whatever the proper nomenclature, "Slow Train" is one of the most effective songs on Dylan's 1979 album. It would be echoed by an excellent 1991 Buddy Guy record, Damn Right I've Got The Blues, and it represents Dylan in his most effective R & B mode. He rails against earthly corruption with righteous anger, and the sound is enhanced powerfully with a horn section. In a rather amusing story of what might have been, the singer had to choose whether to take this horn section or his backing singers on the road in 1979 - budgetary restrictions - and he opted for the singers. One wonders how his live sets might have sounded over the following decade with horn accompaniment.
10. Caribbean Wind - Shot Of Love, Outtake - 1981
It's been referred to several times in the notes above, and with good cause - "Caribbean Wind" is one of Bob Dylan's best songs of the 1980s, though it occupies a peculiar place in the singer's catalog. Like "She's Your Lover Now" in the 1960s, the singer apparently tried this song many times without ever quite nailing it down. The gulf between the single live version, the circulating outtake, and the version released on Biograph (the one on this compilation) make the mercurial nature of the song quite clear. The song's story is a compelling one, as the singer confronts not only his weakness when confronted with the possibility of carnal lust, but also the world's general corruption. It was inspired by Dylan's travels in the Caribbean, as he evidently dreamed the song up while sailing that region. If ever there was a song for which I'd love to hear the complete recording sessions, this is the one.
11. Foot Of Pride - Infidels, Outtake - 1983
This track was the subject of some deeply contentious recording sessions, having been played an alleged 43 times in the studio, including a bossa nova and reggae version! It was almost included in the final release of Infidels, but was sadly left on the cutting room floor. Given its stream-of-consciousness lyrics, putting across a scathing critique of contemporary culture, this is really quite a loss. The song was finally released in 1991 on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3, and it is one of the greatest gems of that collection. Surprisingly, it was actually covered by Lou Reed at 1992's tribute concert.
12. Pressing On - Saved - 1980
"Pressing On" is one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, because it's just so inspiring. Rather than looking at the world's failures, the singer emphasizes his own experience in moving past worldly weakness. It's hard not to be moved by such a powerful performance, which was luckily caught effectively on tape at the Saved recording sessions. Interestingly, a third verse was originally present, but was either cut before recording or cut in the editing process; you can hear that verse on some live performances of the song.
13. Are You Ready? - Saved - 1980
1980's Saved ends with this confrontational track, which harkens back to the more fire-and-brimstone Dylan of Slow Train Coming. With a beautiful harmonica solo and a fiery band performance, the singer describes Armageddon and asks the listener if he or she is ready for that inevitable occurrence if it was to occur today. Intriguingly, this was the only song from Saved that had not been written prior to the singer's 1979 tour in support of Slow Train Coming.
14. The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar - Shot Of Love - 1981
Though it was not included on the released record in 1981, this has luckily been included in editions published since 1985. Thank goodness, since it represents one of Bob Dylan's peaks as a blues performer. Here he marries a muscular blues performance with lyrics about the sorry state of the world. In particular, I like the ambition of the couplet "Don't know what I can saw about Claudette, ain't seen her since January / She could be respectably married or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires." Incidentally, this is one of the strangely numerous reference to Argentina in Dylan's early 1980s output; other such songs include "Angelina" and "Union Sundown." The live performances from 1980's Musical Retrospective Tour represent an earlier draft, with lyrics that would be improved by the time the song was recorded for Shot Of Love.
15. Every Grain Of Sand - Shot Of Love - 1981
Along with "Blind Willie McTell," this song represents the height of the writer's lyrical prowess in the 1980s. "Every Grain Of Sand" was originally composed as a poem, shared with the writer Paul Williams backstage at a concert in 1980, but was eventually set to music. A demo, released on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3, documents that the song was effectively in its final lyrical form from early in the process, but the beautiful accompaniment found on the final release had yet to be added. This is one of Bob Dylan's most moving songs, as he uses classic poetic language, Biblical allusion, and confessional honesty to convey the experience of the person who has found redemption in something greater than himself.
I hope you enjoy the compilation. It's quite easy to compile, as you can find virtually all of the tracks on Amazon's Complete Collections - '70's and '80's. The one challenge will be locating "Trouble In Mind," though if you are willing to purchase the German Pure Dylan album, you won't regret it. As far as production tweaks go, the songs from Biograph need to be raised in volume. Similarly, "Something's Burning Baby" also needs its volume raised, as the vocals are a bit buried when juxtaposed with surrounding songs. Otherwise, you've got yourself a pretty representative collection here. I find it's surprisingly good to work out with, though your mileage may vary.
Come on back next month for another installment of the DIY Playlist. Until then, keep yourself healthy and listen to some good tunes.