So, if 1965 was the year of the folk rock boom, 1966 was the year of instrumental Dylan cover albums, with no less than four being released that year. The Metropolitan Pops Orchestra produce by far the poppiest collection of Dylan instrumentals I’ve heard yet. It’s big band stuff, chaotic and fun. Circus music! Yes, this is Dylan-for-circuses. Corny? Yes. Takes itself too seriously? No. And that’s its saving grace—this is the instrumental counterpart to Hugo Montenegro’s irreverent Dawn of Dylan from 1970. The arranger, Alan Lorber was out to have fun with the music. They keep it inventive, melodic and spontaneous at every turn. On the downside, it’s terribly throwaway. A few spins of this baby and you may never want to hear it again.
The back cover blurb tells an interesting story:
“Here is the album all parents (who have difficulty in communicating with their teenagers) have been waiting for. This goes also for uncles, aunts, et al who have trouble understanding THEM, particularly in the realm of musical taste. It is a painless way to get next to the Bob Dylan Scene – not only painless, it’s an absolutely delightful listening experience” (ha) … Suggestion: smuggle the album home. Play it several times while the teenagers aren’t around. Then, go around the house whistling a few of the tunes from time to time. It is a beautiful way to get ‘one-up’ on THEM!”
Way to go unhip parents of the 60s. The blurb goes on for a bit about how parents who are likely to be put off by his ‘shocking’ words and ‘wild free-swinging’ arrangements can at least enjoy the melodies contained therein, sans vocals. Nice one. Way to stick it to your kids, mum and dad. Nevermind that the last instrumental version here is “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in which the original lyrics go, “Mothers and fathers throughout the land / Don’t criticize what you can’t understand / Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command / Your old road is rapidly agin’.”
Like A Rolling Stone…bursts straight into the chorus with a swinging brass section; tubas, saxophones, trombones. It’s good finally to hear an instrumental cover of this that is fully recognizable. Mostly they play “How does it feel / To be on your own / With no direction home / Like a rolling stone” over and over. There are verse parts of course with seesawing brass sections playing counterpoint to one another. It’s exuberant and lively, which is faithful to the original in my opinion. You can sort of imagine elephants performing circus tricks to this version…
It Ain’t Me Babe…there’s a lot of ‘jingly’ sounds on all of these tracks, usually a tambourine bashed on the beat. The music quietens for “You say you’re looking for someone / Who’s never weak but always strong” before bursting into a huge string and brass flourish for the chorus. All over in about two minutes. Very catchy.
It’s All Over Now Baby Blue…opens with a Spanish guitar sound…until low sweeping atmospheric strings join in. This is full orchestral stuff; there must be thirty musicians in the house. The strings take this into some pretty fluffy territory. It’s a little bit Disney in that regard. Usually I enjoy the instrumental covers of this song but this is the first one that doesn’t quite catch the minor key melody in quite the right way and it sounds fairly inconsequential.
She Belongs To Me…is back to that full circus sound. I quite enjoy this one. I don’t know how to describe that searching horn sound—there’s some pretty fancy trumpet work here, some neat improvising over the melody. Brass and strings, ding dong bells that sound like my doorbell, snazzy vibraphones and some pretty cool improvised horn lines behind the main melody. Horribly catchy.
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right…this is almost a comedy version, it’s so upbeat. It uses short blasts on trombones and trumpets in a very joyful kind of way. This is no bitter kiss off—this is ‘yippee, I’m free again’. The mix between high pitched squealy trumpets and low boom bass drum bombs is quite comical. Again, it’s insanely catchy and just plain good fun. I can’t help admiring it even though every part of me is screaming ‘I can’t take it any more’. This is just so wrong.
One Too Many Mornings…opens with guitar and a very delicate but sharp flute sound playing the main melody, a few bass notes in the background, and then a wave of shimmering strings lifting the whole thing off the ground. What I’m trying to say is that these are far more interesting to listen to than the Golden Gate Strings’ versions which didn’t have half the life of these ones. It’s impossible not to enjoy the melodies here. This fact, however, gives it a longevity factor of about one week.
Positively 4th Street…has more of a swinging 4/4 rock beat. The brass sections share the main melody between them, and again, this is almost comedy, given that the original is a sort of revenge song. The piccolos and flute flourishes are hilarious. It sounds like you’ve stumbled into The Lion King, a menagerie of forest creatures, a cartoon orchestra.
All I Really Want To Do…now, I can honestly say, this is the best instrumental cover of this song I’ve heard. They really get the melody right here, and where the strings soared so tackily on the Golden Gate Strings covers, here they do something really magnificent, taking the chorus into hitherto unheard heights of heavenly hostfulness. They milk the melody for all its worth. It’s so saccharine you feel like you might catch diabetes off it.
Mr. Tambourine Man…is also probably the catchiest instrumental cover of this song I’ve heard. I can’t remember who else did it. What the Metropolitan Pops are doing differently to everyone else is not only sticking closely to the melody which they somehow enhance in a day-glo kind of way, but also the different sections of the orchestra are used to play off one another in, er, ‘delightful’ ways. The sound quality is magnificent, perhaps because of the sixties recording technology.
The Times They Are A-Changin’…lots of big bass drum bombs in the background. This even sounds like the big finale. It’s like, “So how did you enjoy the show folks?” Strings, drums, brass, and other percussion instruments all combine to make this sound like the whole house is going up. This fades out, and strangely, of all the tracks here, this one somehow works the least well. The original is a bit too serious to be taken down in this way.
So, yeah. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Nothing here is over three minutes. The most obvious point of comparison is the Golden Gate Strings, but to my ears, this is vastly superior mostly because it’s funnier. The arrangements are exhaustingly capricious. If you think about it, as stated on the sleeve, their goal was to get you whistling the tunes and I think they achieve that brilliantly. The louder you play it the better it sounds. I even think the kitsch factor is just on the right side of hip here. Or am I getting old?
Alan Lorber was a leading arranger in the early ’60s, having made over 2,000 recordings, He was responsible for having generated over 60 million dollars in sales. He created innovations in classical/rock fusion, East/West and jazz fusion, with the ability to write for most genres. Lorber worked with all of the top New York record producers, top artists and labels of the day. During the late 60s he established the now historic rock phenomenon, the “Boston Sound.”