This is the fourth orchestral/symphonic/classical Dylan covers album in only three years. A quick recap then: The Golden Gate Strings (1965) mixed rock and orchestral elements together resulting in an interesting sound but the whole thing was way too kitschy kitsch. The Gotham String Quartet (1966) complicated the arrangements and performed exquisite renditions, yet it worked wonders probably because there were only four musicians in the house. The Metropolitan Pops Orchestra (1966) did Dylan in a pops big band style, easily the most fun, melodic and exciting. The Fontana Concert Orchestra are way more ‘classical,’ not wholly dissimilar in style to what the Gotham String Quartet were doing, but they give it the full orchestral treatment. Words like ‘Wagnerian,’ ‘bombastic’ and ‘symphonic’ spring to mind (especially when you turn the volume up). The arranger and conductor utilize all manner of intricate changes and wild dynamic shifts, liberally rearranging the original material in freewheelin’ ways.
However, symphonic this may be, I find it tiresome and annoying to listen to. It’s a bit toffy for my tastes. I get the feeling the record was made for upper-crusty types who wouldn’t dream of tainting their ears with anything Dylan himself actually recorded. The back sleeve even has a rather pretentious “Simplified Diagram Of Part Of The Complex Multitrack Stereo Recording System Used For Creating Living Presence Stereo” with a space for technical data, a symbols key, and a flowchart illustrating things like ‘reverberation return control’. Swanky stuff for hi-fidelity nerds.
It gets even more pompous. There’s a long-winded, lofty-minded write-up by someone called Nigel Hunter on the back sleeve. An excerpt will suffice:
The nineteen sixties will go down in history as the decade of protest. The trend started in the immediate post-war years when man realized for the first time what dreadful and unprecedented powers he had unleashed through nuclear fission, and it gained momentum as the global stalemate of terror did not prevent bloody eruptions in localised cockpits such as Korea, the Congo, Tibet and Vietnam. It has now reached fever pitch in several areas of the world with sweeping consequences and unforeseen significance, and seldom a weekend in Britain goes by without a demonstration by somebody for or against something.
This is his lead-in to Bob Dylan, but then he mentions ‘Blowing In The Wind,’ adds the ‘g’, gets the title wrong, and makes a schmuck of himself. That may sound like a very minor criticism, a typo perhaps by whoever typed up the back sleeve, but it’s a crucial point. I can just imagine a plummy-voiced Nigel Hunter telling the orchestra, “By jove, you do know that classic tune by Bob Dylan don’t you chaps? Yes, yes, that’s the one Tilsley! Blowing In The Wind. By golly, my dear fellows, we simply must arrange a recording session immediately and make a jolly good show of it.” Whatever Nigel. However, I will give Fontana a few points for selecting tracks from Blonde On Blonde, The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding. Yo, Bumstead, needle in groove already!
Mighty Quinn (sic)…opens with a church organ sound, which then turns into woodwind, while buzzing violins hover in the background like a swarm of bees. That ends, then the violins come on tastefully before the brass kicks the main chorus off with loud jubilant expression (!) The violins continue, someone plays a xylophone, then the whole orchestra kicks in as they play the “Come all without / Come all within / You’ll not see nothing like the Mighty Quinn” section over and over again. Then the drums kick off a rhythm and the whole thing becomes orchestral and really quite cool. This isn’t a bad way to open at all. Mostly they play the melody as we know it. It’s quite short.
John Wesley Harding…opens straight into the main melody with woodwind, and then a second section with trombone, while violins play shimmery vibratos in all the inbetween spaces. The pace quickens a little, a flute toots interjections and trills here and there and then a momentary break while a different section starts up on the melody, sort of alternating between strings and brass. It’s a good tune; one more coda of the tune again and then finish.
Too Much Of Nothing…from The Basement Tapes, a tune I’m less familiar with though I’ve quite enjoyed hearing it here. Again, quite stop start, quite a lot of changes, several different instruments all being employed to keep things interesting. Frills and adornments abound on this version. Momentous pauses, then what sounds like a few notes on an electric guitar. To be honest, I can’t really hear the vocal tune of ‘Too Much Of Nothing’ very clearly here. But this is okay too.
All I Really Want To Do…sweeping strings play a plaintive opening, then woodwind plays the main theme before shimmering, vibrating violins come hovering over the tune, and things remain soft as the guitar takes over the melody from the woodwind. The whole thing basically floats all over the show. It’s definitely one of the strangest versions I’ve heard of this song so far. Usually it’s played very simply, but here they keep shifting it all over the place without ever getting bombastic. This is fairy-tale music. I keep picturing Tinkerbell and a sparkling wand. A jazzy little end piece.
Just Like A Woman…is orchestral in the more familiar sense, exploding into immense and grandiose strings on the familiar part of the melody. They soon settle down while a plucked bass adds interest, various other noises, xylophones, and er…other things I can’t name off the top of my head, do a little dance on the spot before the strings sweep back in. The melody is very slight here. They don’t utilize it too well, and I don’t think it really suits this treatment. Things heat up in the second half, drums, and short blasts from the trumpets, and big swirly tuba notes zooming up. That stops, and a few steely notes from a harp are plucked, a cha cha cha on the trumpet and its over. A bit trying.
It’s All Over Now Baby Blue…is much better. I like what they do on the piano here. I’ve always loved this tune, and I like this version. They milk it by playing it really slowly, pausing and slowing the tune down even further, then playing those notes. Oh, cripes, it’s changing so fast I can’t even keep up with my typing. Let’s just say there’s a lot of changes, four bars, some new instruments, a pause, the melody plucked out stealthily, pause, change instruments, four bars, and over, like that. Anyway, they keep it interesting, a tune that I adore, and they really extract the essence out of it in the same way that a dub engineer strips a reggae track down to its barest essentials.
Blowing In The Wind (sic)…big warbly cymbal crash to open with, bells, piano, guitar, flutes trilling a helical loop around each other, then finally the main melody which keeps getting interrupted by mysterious sparkly interjections. That’s why I keep thinking of this as fairyland music. It sounds like a soundtrack to Cirque Du Soleil or something. I have to say, they really only touch on the melody here, always avoiding it if anything. Whenever a man turns his head pretending he just doesn’t see…some noisy brass or strings twirl a whirly wind around him and he’s forgotten what it was he was even looking at.
Rainy Day Women (sic)…what are those clacker things called—clackers? This has a great opening. Very inventive—all sorts of bizarre sounds. A zither? Sounds zithery. The melodic parts only very loosely reference the main tune, then the whole thing erupts into a brass marching band at a parade, apropos of the original, and there’s lots of those stealthy mouse-tip-toeing-along-the-floor-trying-to-avoid-the-cat type sounds. There’s an electric guitar in here, and then a screechy little viola solo at the end. And woah, it’s over. Quite strange this one.
Mr. Tambourine Man…lots of shimmery vibrato, smooth strings, a double bass, zither, clackers again, and the main melody played on very high-pitched strings. That gets usurped by cellos, and again, they play the main melody with a lot of little pauses and interjections, although this is one of the straightest tracks on the album.
This Wheel’s On Fire…is another Basement Tapes number. There’s no way I know the melody of this well enough to pick it out as an orchestral instrumental. Oh yeah, “If your memory serves you well,” is the refrain here. Obviously my memory wasn’t serving me too well. This is more ‘rocky’, with a grinding piano/bass line and a rock beat. There’s a middle section where everything speeds up and…oh yes it does…oh yes it does…it sounds like … ELO!
It Ain’t Me Babe…launches straight into the melody on strings. That soon quiets down, and we get the melody on piano with stepping bass and some kind of tinkled ivory, and bells, and crashes, and zither slithers. “But it ain’t me babe / No no no, it ain’t me you’re looking for…” as we cut that short and climb up an imaginary step ladder of bass notes, look out the window and see the tune flying away on a stave of dancing musical notes. See, it’s really hard to write about this, there’s so much happening so quickly. At a lower volume this isn’t as annoying as I found it when I had the volume up.
You Ain’t Going Nowhere…also off The Basement Tapes and covered by Joan Baez in the same year. I can’t hear the melody in this at all. Are they sure they’ve got the song name right here? I know this song well enough, but I ain’t hearing it. So instead it sounds like an orchestra chasing its tail. Some speed towards the end of the song, some really amazing stuff happening in the violin section, then a rock beat takes over, and horns and brass and bass drum announce the end with a finale flourish.
Haha, this wasn’t so bad. Not my kind of music and it’ll probably be a long while before I ever listen to it again—it’s a bit precious, quite exciting in places, but overall less Dylan and more classical orchestra showpiece-type stuff.
Fontana was a record label started in the 50s as a subsidiary of Philips. Looking at a catalogue of stuff they released in the 50s and 60s, it appears they foisted quite a lot of European ‘world music’ on the world—Jewish Folk Songs, Echoes of Ireland, Polkas and Waltzes of Bavaria—that kind of thing. However they did record a few pop artists every now and then too, such as The Silkie whose own collection of Dylan covers is reviewed elsewhere on this blog. One presumes Fontana gets this orchestra together every now and then for the express purpose of showing off the latest in recording technology rather than deliberately wanting to destroy the likes of Dylan’s back catalogue. Credit goes to writer Pete Smith and conductor Reg Tilsley for their efforts in putting this together.