Odds and Ends: How Bob Dylan and the Band Outdid the Beatles

The first time I bought The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan and the Band, I got ripped off. A used copy of the two-CD set was selling for $22 at Plastic Fantastic, and I figured it was probably a good deal, so I bought it only to see a new copy selling for $20 across the street at Sam Goody an hour later. And Plastic Fantastic had a strict no-returns policy, so I was out the $2 difference.

So I went home and made the best of it and tried to squeeze every penny’s worth of experience out of the CD by listening to it over and over again until it became my latest favorite album. That was probably sometime in the early 90s, and dozens (if not hundreds) of other albums have briefly become my favorite album in the intervening years.

But the experience of getting burned—albeit mildly—on that initial purchase many years ago was still fresh in my mind when I spotted a used vinyl copy of The Basement Tapes at Siren Records a few weeks ago. The price this time around was $20, which isn’t bad for a double LP and is exactly what I should have paid for the two-CD set years ago, so, once again, and with only the mildest trepidation, I bought a copy.

What struck me this time around was the cover art. As one might expect, the front cover depicts Dylan and the Band gathered around a reel-to-reel tape recorder in a cramped basement. Dylan is holding a mandolin under his chin as if it’s a violin, and he’s playing it with an imaginary bow while a dog and a couple of other mysterious characters linger on the periphery.

Off to one side, a man sits cross-legged with his hands pressed together in something approaching prayer, and a woman in a wide-brimmed hat grins at the proceedings from the back of the room.

Turn it over, and a host of other characters appear, including a ballerina, a belly-dancer, a weight-lifter, a fire-eater, a clown, an Eskimo (Quinn, one imagines, despite the fact that “Quinn the Eskimo” does not appear on the album), a woman in a tee-shirt that reads Mrs. Henry (Mrs. Henry, one imagines, given that “Mrs. Henry” actually does appear on the album), and a diminutive newspaper delivery person.

Plus it’s a two-record set, so you can open the sleeve to see all of the aforementioned characters gathered more closely around Dylan and the Band, which immediately made me think of the cover another rock-era classic, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Rolling Stones.

Just kidding. I know it’s the Kinks.

In any case, the similarities between the two album covers got me thinking a little bit about the music contained therein. Specifically, I started thinking about how The Basement Tapes and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are essentially doing the same thing, and also that The Basement Tapes might actually be doing a better job of it.

All of this, of course, is just painted from memory, so make of it what you will. But my understanding is that the Beatles recorded Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band after they gave up touring. They wanted to do something new and different to what they’d done before, essentially an attempt at re-envisioning and reinventing themselves as something other than the loveable mop-tops they’d been since “Love Me Do.”

Sure, the Beatles had always been evolving since their early records, but this new project was meant to be a major leap forward. After all, quitting the road meant that they could spend more time in the studio, and spending more time in the studio meant, in theory anyway, that they could really break new ground in terms of what an album could do.

Apparently, they hit their mark.

I’ve always heard Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club described not only as the Beatles’ “masterpiece,” but also as one of the first – if not the first – concept rock albums of all time – the concept being that all of the songs on the album are being performed not by the band that actually recorded the songs but by a band they’re pretending to be.

Or something like that. As much as I like the album, my impression of listening to it is that if not for the two tracks announcing that the band we’re listening to is, in fact, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and not the Beatles as we might have guessed, the album would just be a collection of extremely good songs rather than an imaginary performance by a band that formed, if the first track is to be believed, in 1947.  

The problem for me is that the conceit doesn’t hold up. I mean, sure, I can willingly suspend disbelief as much as the next listener, but it gets increasingly difficult to do as the album goes on. Yes, the sound of an orchestra tuning up at the start of the album conveys the illusion of a live concert, and, sure, I can imagine that Ringo Starr is actually Billy Shears and that he gets by with a little help from his friends.

But by the time we get to “Within You Without You,” outlier thought it may be with its swirling sitar lines and percolating tablas, I’m starting to think that there’s no way all of these songs were recorded by a military band that got its start in the 1940s. It’s all too much, to borrow a phrase.

More to the point, I’m not really buying the whole “what ties these songs together thematically is that they were all recorded by the same imaginary band” angle. How’s that any different than saying what ties all of the songs on Love Me Do—or any album from any band for that matter—is that they were all recorded by the same band?

It’s probably worth noting that the Sergeant Pepper concept only became part of the project after much of the album had been recorded. Before that, it was a collection of songs looking for a concept to tie everything together. After that, it was a collection of songs loosely tied together by a somewhat flimsy premise.

By way of contrast, there’s The Basement Tapes, which I’d describe as “the real deal.” Like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album was recorded in relative seclusion in 1967. Following a motorcycle accident in which he had broken his neck (or so the story goes), Bob Dylan was recuperating in Woodstock, New York, when he started visiting his former backing band at the house they were renting in nearby Saugerties.

That house, known as Big Pink, is where the band in question (formerly the Hawks) became The Band as they recorded their debut album Music from Big Pink. It’s also where informal jam sessions with Dylan yielded what originally circulated in bootleg form and would eventually (and officially) be released as The Basement Tapes.

You know all of this, and I know you know it, but I feel like I need to build my case, so thanks for continuing to bear with me.

Just so we’re on the same page, the parallel I’m drawing thus far is that the Beatles stopped touring because, among other reasons, being the Beatles meant that they were always working in the shadow of the public’s perception of what the Beatles were. Similarly, Bob Dylan stepped out of the public eye in the wake of his motorcycle accident at least in part because he needed to get out from under the spectacle of being the voice of a generation. Both parties, in other words, needed a break from the public personas they had created.

Interestingly, though, Dylan and the Band weren’t recording a product that was necessarily meant for public consumption as the Beatles were. They were just having fun, and the tape recorder happened to be running, which is why the recordings sound muddy and somewhat unrefined.

The songs, moreover, don’t always make sense and often end up going nowhere. By opening with the incredibly short “Odds and Ends,” The Basement Tapes signals that the collection of songs will be idiosyncratic, to say the least: “Odds and ends, odds and ends, lost time is not found again!” lacks the direct, declarative assurance of “We’re Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We hope you will enjoy the show!”

Likewise, “Odds and Ends” does what the opening track of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sets out to do without being so obvious about it. Rather than saying, in effect, “Look, here’s the premise of the album: We’re the Beatles, but we’re not the Beatles because we’re actually this other band that formed twenty years ago today,” Dylan and company just go ahead and become another band by sounding like a band that could very easily have formed decades ago.

As The Basement Tapes progress(es?), one thing that becomes clear is that it’s neither a Bob Dylan album nor an album by the Band. Dylan’s lyrics are not what had been his usual far up until that point; lines like “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” are replaced with lines like “Under that apple suckling tree, there’s just gonna be you and me.”

And though the Band hadn’t released any music as the Band yet, largely because they still hadn’t recorded any, the loose, loping band we hear on The Basement Tapes is distinct from the tight, forward-charging version they would become as the Band on Music from Big Pink. To get a sense of the difference, listen to the versions of “This Wheel’s on Fire” that appear on both albums.

The track order is also somewhat telling in this regard. When I bought the CD many years ago, I was frustrated by the fact that the “Dylan” tracks were interspersed with the “Band” tracks. What I wanted was to be able to just listen to the Dylan tracks on one CD and the Band tracks on the other, if I was so moved. Instead, even if I was in a Dylan mood, I’d have to listen to some Dylan, then some Band, then some Dylan, and so on.

Looking back on this forced blending of Dylan and the Band, I realize that the effect was to make me imagine new entity that was greater (or at least different) than the sum of its parts. They never declare that they’re a different band than who they might appear to be, but by playing loose and swapping singing duties throughout the album, I get the sense that I’m listening to the music of a band that never actually was.

What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that without even trying, or at least without saying as much, Bob Dylan and the Band conjure an imaginary band and make me feel like I’m actually listening to them as captured “live.” The Beatles, in contrast, overplay their hand a bit by announcing that they’re not, in fact, the Beatles and delivering a product that’s just a little too slick to be believed.

Of course, the Beatles would move in a different, rootsier direction soon enough with The Beatles and the aborted Get Back, which eventually saw light of day as Let It Be. That these albums both appeared after Magical Mystery Tour, itself a pale imitation of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that continued to play on themes of concealment and disguise—the band appears dressed as cartoonish animals on the album cover—suggests that the ruse of their 1967 masterpiece had begun to wear thin.

The Basement Tapes, meanwhile, continued to circulate underground, hissy, fuzzy, and shot-through with sonic imperfections that only leant to the music’s credibility and the underlying aura of mystery behind it. By the time of its official release in 1975, it truly was music of another time that somehow also managed to also sound oddly contemporary—the music, perhaps, of a generation still trying to find itself in a past that was already slipping inexorably into the realm of myth.  

J’Ecoute La Radio/Song 71

It’s been a busy few weeks music-wise. I recorded and released an album with my friend Tim Simmons, then the album I’ve been working on with my cousin for the better part of two years years also came out. Somewhere in the middle of it all, the LaLaLettes reached out to me from Wales, UK, to see if I’d be interested in playing on a couple of tracks. I’d been a fan of their since hearing their album ONKY earlier this year, so I leapt at the opportunity!

What I like about the LaLaLettes is that their music sounds alive. Playing one of their songs is like walking into a party that’s already in full swing. I hear hints of a lot of my favorite musical acts on their tracks as well. My first impression of ONKY was that it sounded like a cross between any classic Frank Zappa album and The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan and the Band, with maybe a slightly more experimental flare.

Granted, I’m not the most objective of observers when it comes to their latest pair of tracks, but I’m picking up shades of the Beach Boys on their (our!) new offering. In fact, when I asked what kind of sound they were looking for on “J’ecoute La Radio,” their response was simply “Mid to late 60s Beach Boys.” Even before I added anything, that’s exactly what their track sounded like to me — a cross between Beach Boys’ Party (1965) and Smiley Smile (1967).

For some reason, the song earned an “E” for “explicit lyrics” on Spotify. My French is a little rusty, so I’m not sure why, but one of the lines struck me like it might roughly translate to “I will molest an elephant tomorrow morning for breakfast.” But, again, my French isn’t what it used to be — and it used to be pretty bad — so take my translation for what it’s worth.

“Song 71” (aka “You Didn’t Want My Love”) takes a quieter turn. It’s a short, sweet, sad song about being spurned that leans in a Dylanesque direction, once again reminiscent of The Basement Tapes. What makes the two songs perfect complements to each other is their looseness and intimate sound. If “J’ecoute La Radio” is like walking into a party that’s already in full swing, “Song 71” is like sticking around to help the host clean up.

In any case, I’m playing drums and bass on “Song 71,” and I’m playing organ and singing on “J’ecoute La Radio.” Despite its French lyrics, I have to admit that I sound a little more like Edith Bunker than Edith Piaf on that one. But I’m mostly in key, and I also imagine that sounding like a diva is far from the point on a record like this. The real point is to have fun, which is exactly what I did — and I hope you have fun, too, when you listen to it!

Review: I’m in a Mood by Scot Sax

My review of I’m in a Mood, the latest CD release from Scot Sax, is now up at The First Day.

Here’s an excerpt:

Musically, the opening tracks of I’m in a Mood call to mind a handful of my favorite Bob Dylan albums. The slide-guitar infused “Hate to Love” harkens back to Nashville Skyline, while bluesy numbers like “Sweaty Get Ready” and “Reflection in the Glass,” bounce playfully between Dylan’s 1975 classic Blood on the Tracks and his Blonde on Blonde from nearly a decade earlier. As with all of Dylan’s best work, the relatively spare production throughout Sax’s latest CD lends itself to a sense of candor and sincerity. To put it another way, listening to the CD is like catching Sax playing guitar on his back porch when he thinks no one is looking.

Read more at The First Day.

In a Mood Cover