I can’t say for certain if this is the first “various artists” compilation of Dylan songs, but I do know fans/record companies are still compiling them and putting them out in 2012, for Amnesty, with the tagline, “This Album Saves Lives” and will surely continue to do so long into the future. This early one from 1989 is quite a hefty beast with no less than 32 very mainstream artists covering 32 different Dylan songs. The songs are laid out in “near exact” order of composition, so we move from 1962 Dylan up to obscure Dylan songs from the 70s, finishing in 1982 with Bonnie Raitt’s cover of “Let’s Keep It Between Us” – a song never recorded by Dylan himself. Several of the Dylan versions are only available on Biograph or Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 and some are not available anywhere, nor even listed on Dylan’s comprehensive song list at the official website. The dates beside the song titles below show the original year of release of the cover version.
Michael Gray, author of the encyclopedic volume, Song And Dance Man III, made the selection here, although he puts forward the disclaimer that he couldn’t get all the tracks he wanted, and in some cases was forced to take tracks by record companies as a part of a deal to get the tracks he did want, so, a bit of compromise involved. But he’s done a decent effort of making his selections fairly wide ranging—obscure Dylan numbers, even obscurer covers, different styles, but also well known versions as well as artists as popular as Elvis. So there you go, Elvis is in the house along with quite a few other giants of the 20th century.
From the introduction to the sleeve notes: On this collection we catch one direct impact of Bob Dylan’s massive influence, and glimpse his extraordinarily prolific, multi-faceted output, in versions of some of his songs by other artists of the last three decades. Here are well-known songs and obscure ones, classic versions and weird ones, mega-stars and murky cult-bands … and this is only right, because Bob Dylan has shone his light in all these corners.
In some ways then, this album is like a microcosm of the past three decades worth of Dylan cover albums I’ve reviewed on this site. Fortunately there’s only one song here that I’ve already written about—the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Otherwise this is all one-off material gathered from these artists’ own albums. Let it fly Schteadmeister…
Sam Cooke – Blowin’ In The Wind (1964)… is possibly the best cover of this song I’ve heard yet. Here’s why: Cooke sings this completely naturally. His sweet burnt-honey ‘jazz’ voice floats all over the rhythm and melody so easily you feel he could have written the song himself. Obviously Cooke is an amazing interpreter and that becomes very evident here.
Bryan Ferry – A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall (1973)… the amusing way Ferry pushes his voice into the syllables of this song clearly indicate that he’s attempting satire. Despite that, this version is super-catchy, upbeat, with backing female singers which turn it into pure pop. All the things Ferry says he’s “seen” and “heard” are tossed over so quickly that it takes all impact out of the lyrics, but the most ironic clincher comes when he says it’s a “hard” rain that’s gonna fall. He sounds like he’s mocking Dylan here and it’s pretty funny, but you can’t knock him for it, because it’s done really well. Especially when he cackles, “And it’s a ha…ha…ha…hard rain’s a gonna fall,” like an old witch, or a chicken. Ferry would release a whole album of Dylan covers in 2007, titled, Dylanesque.
Bobby Bare – Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright (1965)… Bare’s voice sounds like a perfect cross between Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, both who appear on the same side of the record. This is a pleasant enough country-style rendition of this truly great song. The rhythm is all acoustic chug-a-lug pony clip-clop. Again, there are female backing singers who echo the lyric behind Bare. It’s super soft, but faultless to a T.
Elvis Presley – Tomorrow’s A Long Time (1966)… slow and soft, Presley croons in a voice barely rising above a whisper. Give me this any day over Dorinda Duncan’s version. (Er, duh). The musicianship is delicate, nuanced, acoustic fingerpicking, strum and light tambourine. Like Sam Cooke, Presley’s talent for interpretation is impressive—he too has his voice float through the melody so naturally you would never guess this was a Dylan song. He makes it sound like the definitive version—no wonder Dylan never sang this himself, it’s as if he only wrote it for others to sing. After hearing Elvis sing it, I couldn’t imagine hearing this in Dylan’s voice at all. Elvis does this so well he exposes every other rendition I’ve heard as hopelessly inadequate. It sounds like it belongs in the fifties. “If only she was lying by me / Then I’d lie in my bed once again.” Quite a long version too.
Blue Ash – Dusty Old Fairgrounds (19??)… from the early 70s, Gray calls this ‘heavy metal’ although I personally wouldn’t want to insult the genre by suggesting this fitted under that umbrella term—it’s merely loud competent rock. The lead singer, Jim Kendzor, has what I suppose you’d call a ‘heavy metal-lite’ voice—he sounds most like the dude out of Slade. Anyway, here’s a Dylan song I’ve never heard before; it’s so obscure it’s not even registered on the Dylan website. It’s immensely catchy. The singing doesn’t really inspire you to listen to the lyrics much. Something about dusty old fairgrounds.
Johnny Cash – It Ain’t Me Babe (1967)… more pony clipclop rhythms. I’m not too fussed on hearing Cash sing this—he has an unpleasant way of accentuating syllables at the end of the lines, without any clear reason why he does this. It’s too strong, like he almost sounds angry, when he’s probably just trying to sound meaningful, and again, when he sings “no no no” before “it ain’t me you’re looking for babe,” it’s too hard—he pulls you out of the song briefly. It’s pleasant enough, but Cash lacks the natural subtleties and nuances to do the song justice.
Rod Stewart – Mama You Been On My Mind (1972)… pleasant acoustic guitar strum, while Stewart sings this in his quiet faltering rasp, although he tends to flatten the tune into something more simple. Nice pedal steel parts come in during the bridge and what I think is an accordion hums through most of the song. I’ve never really listened to Rod Stewart’s early stuff, but I can see what all the fuss was about. He’s got a very simple plaintive way of singing the song without any annoying affectations, making it sound very natural. Nice one Rod.
Flying Burrito Brothers – If You Gotta Go, Go Now (1972)… is rock’n’roll, boogie woogie rhythm, fast drumming, with harmonizing on the chorus, great sixties sound. “I ain’t just a poor boy baby looking to connect / And I certainly don’t want you thinking I ain’t got any respect,” sings Parsons, quickly, keeping up with the fast-paced rhythm section. It has a soft rolling and tumbling feel to it, and it’s all over in under two minutes. Probably tossed off a bit too quickly to have any lasting impact. Merely competent is the best I can say.
The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)… is the same version available on The Byrds Play Dylan. For that review I wrote: “Sooo dreamy and lyrical, all soft burred edges and note perfect harmonizing, pure heavenly pop. Love the little bass part and the jangly electric guitar lines. Everyone knows this. It’s like toasting marshmallows over a campfire on a cool summer night. “Take me for a trip on your magic swirling ship,” and that’s exactly what they do. You can’t fault this—the lyrics even beg the song to be done this way.”
New Riders Of The Purple Sage – Farewell Angelina (1975)… is another obscurish number that remains unrecorded by Dylan. I’ve heard of this band, but I’ve never heard them before, so with no idea what to expect, what I discover here is a soft folk-country version, with pedal steel notes spinning off to create that warm summer night feel. There’s some nice harmonizing too, but to be honest, it sounds like half-baked Byrds. The singing is weaker, the performance is a little lackluster, although the song doesn’t exactly lend itself to power pop. The New Riders sound like a weird cross between The Clancy Brothers and The Byrds. Not terribly satisfying. Bit weak.
Them – It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (1973)… but I can’t much fault this. Hearing the start of this version, I had no idea Beck had sampled/ripped off that opening segment note for note for his song “Jack-ass” on Odelay. In fact, he created an entire song out of those first few bars. The music is delicate, all soft steps, tentative, as if the band are worried about destroying this great song. Morrison’s vocal is typically great, impassioned, felt, half-spoken, half-sung. “The empty handed painter from your streets / Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.” Hearing this has made me want to purchase a Them record, which is high praise indeed. The music is tremulous, so beautiful. Love it. Too short.
Stills-Kooper-Bloomfield – It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry (1975)… brings back the rock and roll. Here’s another group I’ve never listened to before, although I’ve always been tempted to pick up a copy of Super Session. It uses a straight-ahead driving rhythm, bippety bop drumming, and a harmonized style of singing in which you can hear their American accents loud and clear, in the manner of say, Kings Of Leon. It’s all a bit soft, and again, simply suggests that the Byrds had already done this style and done it better. My usual complaint prevails—a merely competent version that fails to ignite anything of Dylan’s lyrical style thus rendering the lyrics just a part of the recording.
Gary U.S. Bonds – From A Buick 6 (1981)… chiming piano chords, a pounding beat and another ‘heavy metal’ vocal. Bonds has a voice that sounds like it’s emerging from a throat full of flem before it hits the microphone. The emphasis is on those heavy piano chords, wiggly guitar solos, and a pulsing backbone of a bass line. The pianist, whoever he is, is doing a great jazzy job of augmenting the tune with feeling. “You know if I go down dying / Mama’s bound to put a blanket on my bed … Come on mama / Come on over here mama / Come on / Throw a blanket on my bed / Yeoowwww.” Heh, not bad. Very standard bluesy rock’n’roll.
Judy Collins – Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (1964)… is warm, light, soft acoustic strum, a bed of piano chords. It’s live, and we get a vocal that sounds not unlike Joan Baez. “Don’t put on airs when your down on Rue Morgue avenue / They got some hungry women there / They really make a mess out of you.” The band are recorded a bit too quietly, such that Collins’s voice appears quite loud over top of the music. She’s got a sharp, sure voice and unlike so many of the little known artists who recorded whole albums of Dylan covers in the 60s and 70s, she’s infinitely more adept at fitting her own feeling into the lyrics. Actually, her tone reminds me a little of Margo Timmins from the Cowboy Junkies although it’s stronger. There’s a slight withered quality to her voice. The piano is also a main feature here, and we get little squiggly electric guitar solos in between the syncopated stop-start of the drumming. “All the authorities / They just stand around and boast / They say they blackmail the sergeant at arms / Into leaving his post.” This is great. Her singing is impeccable, and she gets really worked up towards the end: “I’m going back to New York city / I do believe I’ve had enough / Oh yeahhhhh.” [I do believe this is the first time I’ve ever heard Judy Collins.]
Jason And The Scorchers – Absolutely Sweet Marie (1984)… launches into a fast rock and roll beat with a raunchy guitar sound and a graunchy vocal. Here’s another band I’ve never listened to before—the emphasis here is clearly on electric guitar and a full-throated vocal. “Where are you tonight / Where are you tonight / Sweet Marie?” I don’t know—this bog-standard kind of blues rock has never really appealed to me in a big way. Here’s another singer who sings in his American accent. He’s sort of putting on a deliberately ‘wild’ vocal, a little bit of theatrics mixed in there. It’s enjoyable but nothing special.
Siouxsie And The Banshees – This Wheel’s On Fire (1987)… and we shift suddenly to England, with this post-punk outfit. I’ve never been much of a Siouxsie fan though. The 80s aesthetic is loud and clear—way too much echo on the vocal and drums. The guitar is that super fast thumbed kind of thing, like, a sound I usually associate with heavy metal or a guitarist like Gary Moore. There’s also that typical Banshees sound of a screechy background guitar, high-pitched keyboards. The singing, I have to say, is really good. The Banshees bring a stronger sense of melodicism to the song that you don’t catch so much on the original. Being one whose formative listening years were steeped in the 80s sound, I find myself really familiar with this—perhaps almost too familiar. It sounds dated though. Siouxsie’s vocal is the best part of the song.
Tom Robinson Band – I Shall Be Released (1977)… is crystal clear, sweeping strums and Robinson’s yearning vocal that suits the melody and lyric quite well. Piercing organ notes, sharp bass sound. The song takes a unique turn halfway through, where it builds into a churning mesh of instruments, though the vocalist loses me at this point. And then we get the kind of portentous guitar theatrics that do nothing for me at all, and suddenly, what was sounding like a fairly respectable cover turns into some kind of turgid pub-meets-stadium rock.
Richie Havens – I Pity The Poor Immigrant (1969)… love Havens’s voice, really unique, it has this high timbre just discernable on the edge of what is really quite a throaty sound. Piano is the main feature of the instrumentation, heavy, resonant notes, and some interesting ‘military’ drumming. The atmosphere is a little lighters-aloft I suppose, but Havens brings some real feeling and passion into his vocal.
Jimi Hendrix – All Along The Watchtower (1968)… is probably the most famous Dylan cover ever, so much so, that for many, this is the definitive version. Inspired guitar-work, while Hendrix puts his whole voice into it. That Hendrix production sound has always been such a unique feature of his work—a sort of trippy, shambolic, underwaters 60s aesthetic. Bass often sounds too boomy, but it fits with everything else so well, you can dismiss the hiccup, or rather, acknowledge it as an integral part of the sound. Fantastic fretwork Jimi. Brilliant.
Hoyt Axton – Lay Lady Lay (1976)… has some neat effects, twisty twerbly keyboards or guitar effects, a strong country feel. Axton’s voice at the start is really deep, earthy, close miked, except for the chorus where he brings out some much graunchier, richer tones into it. I like this, and I think it suits the melody well. There are female backing singers toward the end.
Tina Turner – Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (1974)… another country style effort with some honky tonk piano. Turner has a sharp rich thin voice here, occasionally doing her trademark throaty bellow, but something about the soul diva doesn’t translate into the melody all that well, unless you love that old screechy style. To me it’s a bit over the top. If it’s your style to sing like this all the time, then it makes me wonder whether she’s really paying all that much attention to the finer nuances of meaning in the lyrics. Musicianship is nice. I find this version a bit dull.
George Thorogood – Wanted Man (1982)… nice pop rhythm, with another strong, earthen country vocal on this song written by Dylan with Johnny Cash. I’d not heard this song before, but it has a very, easy familiar feel. “Wanted man in Oklahoma / Wanted man in old Cheyenne, / Where ever you might look tonight / You might see this wanted man.” Great stuff.
Carl Perkins – Champaign Illinois (1969)… wicked wah-wah blues guitar, with an old-school feel to the recording. Jaunty, rocking rhythm, some cool organ fills. Here’s another very obscure Dylan song. “Well I certainly enjoy / Champagne in Illinois.” Perkins gives us a very competent bluesy vocal, and with all the neat effects on guitar, and great organ parts, this really sounds fantastic, almost as shambolically brilliant as Hendrix’s “Watchtower.”
The Band – When I Paint My Masterpiece (1971)… opens with a swoozy concertina, before we get Levon Helm’s rich, plangent vocal. It seems a bit cheaty putting this song on here though, like, isn’t this the definitive version anyway? Bob Dylan’s version only appeared in 1975 on Greatest Hits Vol. II. That accordion sound throughout really makes this song, but the instrumentation is all strident, clear, full, and yet nicely rendered, distinct. Excellent.
Joe Cocker – Watching The River Flow (1978)… strong thumping rhythm, piano, jiggy electric guitar, and Cocker’s drunken-sounding expression, so slurry and flemmy that I can barely hear the words in there. By now though, I’m starting to find all this Dylan-done-as-bluesy-rock a little too samey. Cocker’s band give us some neat sax fills, other horn blasts too, but it all sounds like Vegas show music to me.
Eric Clapton – Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (1975)… in fact, all Michael Gray has really pulled together are the biggest names on the planet in the mainstream rock world. The best thing about Clapton’s version of this otherwise tiresome song is that he uses reggae rhythm with a squelchy kind of reggae guitar sound. Again, the production here is all very crisp. After hearing all those American vocalists, Clapton keeps his understated, just there, quite non-descript really, that high-dry sound you often hear in Paul McCartney’s voice. I have to say that the guitar parts and rhythm section here are great.
Joan Baez – Simple Twist Of Fate (1975)… seems Baez wasn’t content recording an entire double album of Dylan covers, and so, continued to mine Dylan’s catalogue for inspiration in the 70s too. I’ve grown to really admire Baez’s powerful voice and her natural way with a Dylan tune. Good on her for picking something off Blood On The Tracks to cover. One funny thing—in the middle verse section, Baez mimics Dylan’s vocal style brilliantly, so well it sounds like parody. Nice. You also sense that Baez has a strong, innate grasp of what she’s singing about too, more so than many of the others here, who often rattle through Dylan songs with false theatrics or just too simply and blandly.
Jerry Lee Lewis – Rita Mae (1979)… hey, how cool is this, Jerry Lee Lewis seems like an ancient name to me such that I’m surprised he was still alive in 1979, let alone still recording and covering Dylan in such versatile, energetic tones as this. Pure rock and roll as it sounded at the beginning. Lewis is another whose natural way with a Dylan vocal is pretty impressive. Very confident. The song seems not to have been recorded by Dylan. [Postscript: Much to my great surprise, Jerry Lee Lewis is still very much alive and rocking in 2012, at the not-so great age of only 76.]
The Everly Brothers – Abandoned Love (1985)… interesting instrumentation, though I can’t quite place the sound at the beginning. Mid-tempo, plain rock style, but a lovely harmony between the two singers and soaring melodica (?) instrumental break. I’m not too familiar with this Dylan tune only available on Biograph. “My heart is telling me / I love you but you’re strange.” Something about this sounds … Irish? Scottish? Sounds like it reaches out from up in the highlands, or from over the other side of beyond, some green county. Nice.
Ron Wood – Seven Days (1979)… more graunchy rock and roll, with a real neat scratchy guitar sound, a stomping beat, and a vocal that could almost be mistaken for 1970s Dylan himself. It’s all very white bread, stock kind of stuff though, probably filler on some otherwise completely forgotten album. One gripe I’ve always had about so many of these pop/rock covers of Dylan is that singers rarely keep the elasticity of Dylan’s style alive. The vocal always gets force fitted into regular 4/4 units, and loses all that uniqueness and originality of the source.
Ry Cooder – Need A Woman (1982)… has a shuffly syncopated rhythm, with another Joe Cockeresque vocal, gravelly, unarticulated. This song and the previous one were both only first available on Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. There’s some neat bluesy vocal effects, when the backing band join for the chorus, with organ frills. Not a song I’m ever likely to get too excited about though. “Need a woman / Yes I do / And I want you to be that woman.” Hmm…
Bonnie Raitt – Let’s Keep It Between Us (1982)… more of the same. Sorry Bonnie, but you’ve come at the long end of an increasingly bored rock sound. This just sounds really tired to me, and the pace is slow, and the musicianship is the same old thing, and the tune is dull, and Raitt’s vocals are nothing too special to my ears, just a touch of attitude.
Yes, I enjoyed the first record a lot more than the second, which perhaps got too obscure for its own good. I mean what’s the point in hearing people cover ‘Dylan songs’ if you’d never heard Dylan’s own versions? Well, there is a point of course—you get to hear songs penned by the man that you might not have otherwise, but that mainstream white American blues style can get boring really quickly when there’s so little variation. Bryan Ferry deserves huge kudos for his unusual take on “A Hard Rain.” Otherwise, there’s a wealth of talented singers, and talented musicians here, but eventually the styles come to seem very generic. This is partly a lack of imagination and partly a result of some of these being songs Dylan didn’t deem worthy of putting on his own albums. Nevertheless, as an introduction to the wide range of Dylan covers out there, in 1989, this must have kept quite a few punters happy. With hindsight, given that everything is kept so comfortably within the American song tradition, the stylistic variation Gray trumpets in his inner sleeve blurb is not as wide as he’d like to think it is.