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...

Saturday, 29 August 2015

28. Knocked Out Loaded (1986)

Creatively adrift in the 1980s yet under pressure from Columbia to put something out to promote on tour, Bob cobbled together Knocked Out Loaded in the spring of '86 from cover versions, co-writes and a few warmed up leftovers from older sessions.  He later described the album as "...all sorts of stuff.  It doesn't really have at theme or a purpose".  The man wasn't kidding.  Literally dozens of names appear on the credits, counting Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (with whom he was touring at the time); several guitarists including T-Bone Burnett, Ron Wood and Dave Stewart; over twenty names for "background vocals"; six bassists including James Jamerson Jr.; plus a smattering of familiar old hands like Al Kooper, Steve Douglas and Steve Madaio.  If all this sounds to you like it resulted in a bit of a mess, you'd be bang on.

First up is a cover of Little Junior Parker's Do You Wanna Ramble.  Opening with a long, farty bass note, it finds Dylan in good voice and features some nice R&B riffage and pleasant, low-key backing vocals.  It doesn't really go anywhere, but after the last couple of turkeys in the BobBox it's a surprisingly decent start.  But my goodness, what's up with those DRUMS?  Mixed way too high and with a frankly ridiculous amount of reverb, they sound like a toddler bashing a dustbin lid with a rolling pin (albeit a toddler with great time), ruining what's probably the second best song on the album.

This is immediately followed by the worst song on the album (and that's saying something): a cover of Kris Kristofferson's syrupy paean to Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Jesus, My God They Killed Him.  I've not sought out KK's original, but to his banal lyrics Dylan heaps on reedy brass, horrible echoing vocals and out-of-tune gospel bvs, all wrapped up in tinny, paper-thin production. The vomit on the cake comes from a children's choir; thankfully after a couple of sickly lines they disappear as suddenly and as bafflingly as they arrived.  Press play if you dare:

(It's just occurred to me that those kids sound exactly like Ned Flanders' boys.)

The third cover on Knocked Out Loaded is a reggae-lite version of a traditional gospel hymn called Precious Memories, complete with steel drums.  It's not terrible, but rather boring and dronesome. At this low point in his creativity I can understand why Bob would lean heavily on cover versions, but given the wealth of material out there, the songs he picked are all unremarkable and the execution just terrible.  It feels like he was desperately looking around for inspiration and coming up with nothing, and then just losing interest, thinking "fuck it" and including anything that he thought he could get away with.

Three of the five Dylan originals on KOL were collaborative affairs, no doubt undertaken in the hope of being jolted out of his writer's block.  Got My Mind Made Up is a competent rocker written with Tom Petty.  Musically it's one of the most interesting songs on the album, featuring as it does the Heartbreakers, but it's still very close to the outskirts of Dullsville.  Under Your Spell is another nothing-song, this time co-written with Carole Bayer Sager.  This faintly pleasant track was recorded at Eurythmic Dave Stewart's London studio and Dylan's voice here isn't bad; he at least sounds like he cares about what he's singing, which is more than can be said for much of the rest.

If you've heard anything about Knocked Out Loaded you'll know that the most well-regarded (indeed the only well-regarded) track is Brownsville Girl, a song written with playwright Sam Shepard and originally called New Danville Girl in its first incarnation before being rewritten and re-recorded.  Over 17 verses the narrator's reminiscenses flit between a half-remembered film and a series of better-remembered experiences, a product of Bob's half-remembered songwriting talent. The movie in question is 1950's The Gunfighter starring Gregory Peck, and the song is addressed to the Brownsville girl herself, an old flame.  Dylan speak-sings his way through this long, rambling tale in a conversational style, and there are lyrical gems to be found among the vivid pictures he paints, such as " blows right through me like a ball and chain" and more amusingly "I didn't know whether to duck or run, so I ran".  It's also full of unusually long lines that Bob seems able to fit in with ease, like "Now I know she ain't you but she's here and she's got that dark rhythm in her soul" and "The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn't Henry Porter".  Perhaps the most telling in terms of where he was at this point in his career is "Oh if there's an original thought out there, I could use it right now, You know I feel pretty good, but that ain't sayin' much", which ironically, sums up all of Knocked Out Loaded except this unexpectedly great song.  It's a shame that the canvas on which it's painted is inferior; the melody is merely so-so, there's once again a stupid amount of reverb on the drums, and it all gets a bit overwrought on each chorus with the frequently odd, OTT wailing from the Queens of Rhythm combining with screeching brass to replicate the sound of a cross elephant stuck in Vegas nightclub.  Overall Brownsville Girl is a success, but it's not really able to sustain itself over the 11 minute running time.

This leaves the two Dylan-only songwriting efforts, and it's under this harsh spotlight that his writer's block is most plainly evident, as both are cast-offs from Empire Burlesque and both are no more than boring, repetitive, melody-free filler.  Driftin' Too Far from Shore includes a lame 80s guitar break from Ron Wood, and Dylan's vocal on betrayal tale Maybe Someday is so heavily drenched in reverb that it sounds like he recorded it in the loo.  Both suffer from the annoying EB production and those too-loud female backing vocals.

For me, Knocked Out Loaded is cohesive in that it mostly sucks pretty uniformly, and it would seem that on its release, the public would agree, being united in their indifference on both sides of the Atlantic (it reached a high of no. 35 in the UK and no. 53 in Dylan's home country).  As charming as it is, Brownsville Girl isn't enough to save it, and to those considering spending actual money I'd recommend either downloading the track individually, seeking out one of the compilations on which it appears, or even ripping the original New Danville Girl from somewhere like youtube.

This loss of identity that Bob seems to be going through at the moment is frustrating for me as a listener, so I can't imagine how despairing he must have felt at the time.  It's as if the the only thing he knows for sure about Bob Dylan right now is that his real name isn't Bob Dylan.  I can only hope he rediscovers his mojo soon, as there are still over a dozen discs left in the BobBox. Knocked out loaded?  Perhaps.  Down but not out?  I'll have to wait and see.

*****BobBox price check***** - £125.99 (free postage)
Discogs - from £84.46
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99
All prices correct on 29/08/2015

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