Music

Bob Dylan: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack

A portrait of the legend as a young genius.

Bob Dylan

No Direction Home: The Soundtrack - The Bootleg Series Vol. 7

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2005-08-30
UK Release Date: 2005-08-29
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[My grandma] told me once that happiness isn't on the road to anything. That happiness is the road.

-- Bob Dylan, Chronicles

Although Bob Dylan has been on his infamous "Never Ending Tour" since 1988, continually redefining and reinterpreting his vast back catalogue as he travels worldwide, performing in any city that'll have him, the man has certainly been in a reflective mood as of late. Obviously still getting a huge kick out of playing the role of the enigmatic troubadour, the first volume of his autobiography, Chronicles, was an immensely entertaining collection of anecdotes from various phases of his life and music career. It was like hearing a favorite relative reminisce on a lazy evening; there were times where we weren't quite sure if Bob was remembering things correctly, if he was exaggerating a bit too much, or if he was completely full of shit, but the playful lyricism of his prose, so much like his song lyrics, and so vastly different from Tarantula, his pretentious attempt at Kerouac-style spontaneous poetry from nearly four decades ago, made it impossible for us not to just sit back and enjoy the tales, tall or not.

It turns out Dylan is far from finished. With the help of none other than the venerable director Martin Scorsese, Dylan's massive film and tape archives have been mined to piece together the upcoming feature length documentary No Direction Home, which focuses on the artist's early years, from his high school days in 1959, to his journey from Minnesota to Greenwich Village in early 1961, to his reign atop the rock 'n' roll world in 1966. Loaded with never before seen archival footage, it's sure to be an absolute treat for fans, but even better, such a film project gives Columbia records an excuse to release a new entry in the ongoing Bootleg Series.

Easily the best musical archive project contemporary popular music has ever seen, the first six volumes of Dylan's Bootleg Series has unearthed much sought-after rare tracks and studio outtakes, as well as documenting the man at various key stages of his career, including his important 1964 concert at New York's Philharmonic Hall, his legendary, confrontational 1966 concert in Manchester, England, and his ambitious, eventful Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975. More of a companion piece than a true soundtrack to the film, Volume Seven, titled No Direction Home: The Soundtrack, serves as a sort of addendum to Volumes One and Two of the series. Like the film, it takes a look at Dylan's rise from 1959-66, and several tracks from the film are included here, but producers Jeff Rosen, Steve Berkowitz, Bruce Dickinson, and Scorsese have decided to center more on alternate takes of key tracks from Dylan's early years. The two-disc set might look like a hodge-podge, but what a fascinating, treasure-filled one it is.

Kicking off with what is believed to be the earliest known recording of an original Dylan composition, the blues-inspired "When I Got Troubles" is a snapshot of a tentative, 18-year-old Robert Zimmerman still in search of his voice, the primitive quality of the audio making the recording sound more ancient than it actually is, as if it came from an old 78 RPM record from the 1920s. "Rambler, Gambler", from 1960, has Dylan, now attending the University of Minnesota, offering his own striking variation of the traditional folk tune "Wagoner's Lad". The quickness with which the young Dylan developed as a performer is astonishing, proven on his heartwrenching rendition of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land", recorded live, barely a year after the university recording. Two songs have been culled from the well-known bootleg Minneapolis Hotel Tapes, recorded in late December of 1961: the traditional "I Was Young When I Left Home" is tweaked just enough to come across as a powerful autobiographical song, while "Dink's Song", named after the woman who taught him the song, is a lively performance of a melancholy tale about an abandoned woman.

A well-known remnant from the 1962 sessions for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, "Sally Gal" is a exuberant burst of energy, thanks to Dylan's chugging chords and his lively huffing and puffing on his harmonica, while the demo version of "Don't Think Twice", performed in his music publisher's office (where it would be recorded and transcribed), is as strikingly intimate as the album version. Dylan's rapid ascent in the folk world is chronicled on four live tracks recorded in 1963: a beautiful, tender performance of "Blowin' in the Wind" (which was just becoming a major hit), a venomous "Masters of War", and flawless renditions of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "When the Ship Comes In". "Mr. Tambourine Man", the song that marked Dylan's shift from impassioned folk prodigy to surrealist genius, is present here, in the form of the first complete take ever recorded, with Ramblin' Jack Elliot singing background, preceded by fun studio chatter between Dylan and producer Tom Wilson. The performance of "Chimes of Freedom" at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival showcases Dylan at the height of his folk period, but unbeknownst to the massive crowd listening, things would change greatly in a year's time.

Disc Two is where the real fun begins. After a wonderful, drums-free studio out-take of "She Belongs to Me", we're transported to that epochal afternoon in July of 1965, when Dylan infuriated the folk establishment by going electric, changing popular music forever. Cynics have always stated that Dylan's amplified performance with the Butterfield Blues Band is overrated, sounding sloppy and rushed, but despite the fact that the band's blues pop accompaniment is admittedly run-of-the-mill, the overall performance of "Maggie's Farm" is remarkably tight, and downright spine-tingling. You can sense Dylan and the band feeding off their collective nervous energy, and to have such a good recording for people to hear makes it an essential slice of rock history.

Much of the rest of the second disc consists of alternate studio recordings from the Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde sessions. Although, we were already treated to the fiery alternate take of "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" on Volume Two of the series, we get another take on Volume Seven, one that is just a touch less lively than the raucous Volume Two version, more befitting of the song's original title, "Phantom Engineer". The alternate take of "Tombstone Blues" is fantastic, made unique by the heightened presence of guitar virtuoso Mike Bloomfield and the unusual use of background vocals, before the song disintegrates, Dylan unable to hold in his laughter. Lyrical changes abound on "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Desolation Row", which will enthrall Dylanphiles worldwide, but it's the three Blonde on Blonde out-takes that prove to be biggest treats. "Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat" is transformed from the uproarious stomper on the album, to a stunningly slow blues tune, in the same mold as "Pledging My Time". The version of "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" we all know is a fun, upbeat tune, but the version included here has a more lackadaisical pace, which works very well with Dylan's slyly humorous lyrics. It's the recording of "Visions of Johanna", performed with Al Kooper and The Band, that steals the entire collection, as Dylan and his six pals hammer away at the normally somber tune, Robbie Robertson's lead fills right up front, and Levon Helm's insistent snare beats giving it a much more anthemic quality.

For the first time in the series, two previously released tracks have been included, but while some fans may grumble, it's impossible not to feel the emotion of the album version of "Song to Woody" right after the performance of "This Land Is Your Land", nor can anyone dispute the inclusion of the immortal Manchester '66 performance of "Like a Rolling Stone" (preceded by the famous "Judas" exchange), which is the perfect way to conclude both the film and this collection.

Accompanied, as usual, by a wonderful, 60-page booklet, containing an essay by Andrew Loog Oldham, a lighthearted look back by Al Kooper, and excellent track notes by Eddie Gorodetsky (not to mention the photo of Dylan on his motorcycle on the back cover which eerily hints at what lay ahead for him on July 29, 1966), No Direction Home lives up to the lofty standard set by the first six volumes. Like the Volumes 1-3 box set, though, Volume Seven is best enjoyed by those already familiar with Dylan's albums, and although new listeners will find plenty of music here to enjoy, it's best to become familiar with the original versions of the songs first. The Bootleg Series has now become so enjoyable, so revelatory with each new release, that the first thought that enters our heads when the current volume ends is, "What will Volume Eight have in store?" Considering the absolute wealth of material that has not seen the light of day, the mind boggles at the thought.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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