Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

7. Blonde On Blonde (1966)

"Okay, we're gonna play some new stuff now" is a phrase that has struck fear into the hearts of many a gig-goer down the years, for understandable reasons. However, when reading about the reactions Dylan and his new backing band The Hawks faced during the 1966 world tour, I was shocked at just how furiously some audience members welcomed this new "thin, wild mercury sound". It seems unimaginable these days that folks not only booed and catcalled when faced with this material, but large sections of them actually walked out - and this happened night after night, in country after country.  It must have depressed the hell out of those on stage, and it's not surprising that Bob was in no hurry to resume touring after his motorbike accident in June of that year.

Following several abortive attempts to record in NYC with The Hawks, the vast majority of Blonde On Blonde was made in Nashville with Hawk Robbie Robertson, organist Al Kooper and a host of top-rate sessioneers including multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy who'd appeared on Highway's Desolation Row.  As a result, the album is smoother and musically more accomplished than anything he'd put out before, with the long, late-night sessions adding an enchanting sleepiness to many tracks.

This is particularly apparent on the love songs.  Dylan hadn't been very preoccupied with women on Highway, and he makes up for it here.  On the gorgeous Visions Of Johanna his infatuation is set to a laid-back Stax groove the MGs would be proud of.  This is the first time his oft-impersonated elasticated vowels have really come to the fore, and I must admit that they did induce a few giggles the first couple of times as I got used to their stretching and contracting.  I'm over it now, and it has become one of my very favourite tracks.

I was surprised to find out that I already knew the equally smitten I Want You, but then realised it must be on the 2007 "Dylan" compilation CD we have knocking about the house somewhere. Although it has a poppy, upbeat sound, and is apparently written about his new wife, to me it's always had a yearning quality that suggests an unrequited love.

Another surprise to me, this time when reading about the album, was the view that Just Like A Woman is somehow misogynistic.  I'd never thought of it that way at all; to me it's about how someone who seems confident and together still has vulnerabilities, rather than a load of sexist accusations.  Perhaps this is because the version I'm most familiar with is sung by a woman; Nina Simone's on her Here Comes The Sun covers album.  Also, the gentle way in which Bob performs it here rules out any callous intent as far as I'm concerned.

Long-winded album closer Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands was also written for his new bride Sarah.  I'm sure they are meant as compliments, but what exactly are "your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs", not to mention "sheet-metal memory"?  It's a beautiful song, but for me doesn't have the same emotional pull of the other love songs, perhaps because of the inferior melody, or maybe just the sheer length of it - although 11-minute songs don't usually put me off.

Elsewhere, women get a rather more merciless treatment, particularly on the highly entertaining 12 bar blues of Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, which mocks a dedicated follower of fashion as well as giving us a searing guitar solo from Robertson.  There are three breakup songs; One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) which is the the only non-Nashville recording and has some lovely tumbling piano from Paul Griffin, the rather less apologetic Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine) and my favourite; the weary Temporary Like Achilles where Bob is the one being dumped.

A late-night wooziness seeps out of the drunken Vaudeville of Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, and reminds me of Something Happened To Me Yesterday from the Rolling Stones' Between The Buttons album from the following year.  I very much doubt that it's a drug song as some hear it, as there are several, more convincing possible interpretations of the lyrics (although the same can't be said for the Stones track!).  Whatever he means to say, Dylan is clearly having a good time, as are the other musicians, who not only were encouraged to have a few drinks (and whatever else), but also to swap their instruments around, resulting in a gleefully clumsy brass section, my favourite of which is the Flumps-evoking trombone (confused non-UK readers see here: ).

Bob meets the British invaders head-on with their own sound on Obviously 5 Believers, with its Merseybeat rhythms and a Stonesy harmonica riff courtesy of Charlie McCoy.  This transatlantic cross-pollination is more marked on 4th Time Around, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Norwegian Wood both musically and lyrically, and seems to be a gentle dig at Lennon's more Dylan-inspired songwriting efforts rather than out and out mickey taking.

Blonde On Blonde is heavily blues-influenced, and the slow, lazy Pledging My Time is the bluesiest song of all, with squealing harmonica squeezed into every available space. Absolutely Sweet Marie has its share of pervy blues language, including references to "beating on my trumpet" and "your railroad gate, you know I just can't jump it".

My favourite song on the album - at least at the moment - is the wonderful country rock of Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again; nine verses of surreal shenanigans from a cast of characters that includes Shakespeare, the rainman, a French girl, a preacher with "20 pounds of headlines stapled to his chest" and Ruthie with her enticing "honky-tonk lagoon".  Robertson's guitar flourishes and Al Kooper's spiralling organ lift an already great song to the heights of classic status, but the best part is Bob's final "Awww, MAMA!" which makes me grin from ear to ear, (tricky when you're trying to sing along) and usually moves me to play it a second time before moving on.

Blonde On Blonde is an album that's often cited as being Dylan's best work of the whole of his vast catalogue.  I can't yet comment on this, but I'm not surprised to learn that it stands at no.9 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Album of All Time.  I don't know what's coming next in the BobBox, but it has a lot to live up to.

What does Blonde On Blonde mean to you?  I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

***BobBox price check***

When I bought this box set back in February it had plummeted in price to £89.36.  Since then (on amazon UK) the price has risen to over £150, crept down again and continues to fluctuate.  With those tempted to buy the set in mind, I'm adding a UK price check to the end of every blog post: - £145.43 (free postage)
Discogs - from £110.29
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99

All prices correct on 31/03/2015


  1. Thats made we listen again to Blonde On Blonde (doing so right now).
    Thanks for the inspiration - I haven't listened to it for ages - whadda mistakea to makea.
    It's good - its very good.
    I was going to suggest its too long, and 4 or 5 tracks could be lopped off to make a prime single LP. But which 5?

    1. Ooh, too soon for me to think about that. My faves are bound to change over time and I wouldn't want to rush to a decision! At the moment I wouldn't like to lose any tracks. Might make for an interesting AW thread though:)
      P.S. Are you tempted to buy the box yet?

    2. Getting more tempted after each post. A couple more entries and I may be treating myself