If I was to construct one of those music-journo referential polygons, I’d pull together The Band, CSNY, Cream and most anything off Classic Hits FM to hint at the sound of this hairy British outfit calling themselves Coulsen, Dean, McGuinness, Flint. All Music Guide gives this album high praise, calling it the best Dylan cover album ever. What do I think? After playing it a lot over the past few weeks, then yes, I’m close behind, although some qualifications have to be made. Firstly, as a ‘Dylan covers album’ it’s not entirely true—at the time of release none of these songs had been officially made available to the public, so for those who hadn’t heard the Basement Tapes bootlegs where half of this material comes from, these were less ‘covers’ than new songs. Neither ‘Get Your Rocks Off’ nor ‘Sign On The Cross’ were even recorded by Dylan from what I can gather. Secondly, this is only ‘greatest’ in the sense that these songs are played in the rock and roll mode. If anything, this is only the second time a whole album of Dylan covers had been made and sung in English by a male rock band (both British bands, The Hollies being the other one). There was the Byrds Play Dylan of course, but they’d recorded Dylan songs intermittently throughout the sixties, only releasing their collection of Dylan covers as a stand-alone album in 1979.
The upshot is that for anyone who was a fan of Dylan and rock music in 1972, there really wasn’t much competition. All Dennis Coulsen et al had to do was put in a decent effort. Fortunately they went beyond decent and recorded a bona fide rock album that still sounds great in 2011. Yet until I researched Dylan cover albums I’d never heard of this group. Tom McGuinness had been a member of Manfred Mann while Hughie Flint was from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Coulson is the lead singer here, though from what I can tell, the other members add backing vocals too and there’s several other musicians roped in to play sax, clarinet, trombone, euphonium and even flugelhorn.
Eternal Circle… was first heard here, otherwise not released by Dylan until the Bootleg Series 1-3 collection. Dylan’s version is as good as anything off Freewheelin’ but this version turns it into classic rock. Great lyrics too, all about how there’s a young woman in the audience watching the singer very intently but it’s such a long song that by the time he’s finished, he’s taken his eyes away, and she’s gone, like Batman. And now he’s singing a song about that experience, which makes this a meta-song, hence the title “Eternal Circle.” The instrumentation is rich and strong, hefty beat and bass, beautifully clear strummed guitars, piercing electric notes, and the singer is fantastic. “But the song it was long and it was far to the end / So I glanced at my guitar / And played it pretendin’ / That of all the eyes on me / I could see none.” There’s something almost Indian about the instrumentation here, sweeping strums across a Jews harp, a fairly fast tempo offset by those slow electric notes. They stuck this on first because it’s awesome, and it has that perfect pathos about it, a song of unfulfilled desire, grasping for something that’s not really there.
Lo And Behold… has a classic blues rock feel. Singer does a fantastic falsetto on the chorus part that goes “Get me outta here, my dear man!” These Basement Tapes lyrics are sort of brilliantly absurdist: “Going down to Tennessee / Get me a truck or somethin’ / Gonna save my money and rip it up.” The basic riff, beat and bass all sound like something you’ve heard a thousand times before, my idea of what George Thorogood and the Destroyers sound like, even though I’ve probably not heard them since the eighties. But the tune here is pure rock/pop and on one level it’s almost like they blow the Band out of the water, this is so good. But what it lacks I guess is that beautiful ramshackle carefree feel of the Basement Tapes versions.
Let Me Die In My Footsteps… is another only released on Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. This has a similarly forlorn vocal to Dylan’s version. But it’s a nice dynamic shift from the previous song, with this tabla, and low submerged bass sound, tom tom type drums and mantra-esque quality about the melody. It doesn’t sound a million miles away from the Beatles’ ‘Within You Without You’ or ‘Love You To.’ The chorus: “Let me die in my footsteps / Before I go under the ground.” There’s two or three of them singing in semi-falsetto unison here too which also adds to that Hindi effect. Yet again, they’ve got the sound aesthetic exactly right. The recording is lavish, full, opulent. Crystal clear guitar parts, everything balanced just beautifully. Love that tabla.
Open The Door Homer… is another absurdist Dylanesque tale which plays on rhyming words. “Open the door Richard / I’ve heard it said before,” they sing here. This has a mid-tempo rock beat, a strong baroque-metal rock vocal. “‘Take care of all your memories,’ said my friend Mick / ‘For you cannot relive them / And remember when you’re out there / Trying’ to heal the sick / That you must always / First forgive them.’” Then we get a banjo solo, an electric guitar solo, some drum fills. A good time feel.
Lay Down Your Weary Tune… Dylan’s version wouldn’t see light of day until Biograph in 1985. Again, they really mix it up. Here we get Coulson’s appealing, emotive voice: “Lay down your weary tune, lay down / Lay down the song you strum / And rest yourself ‘neath the strength of strings / No voice can hope to hum.” While he sings this without any instrumentation the other three provide loud ‘aahs’ and ‘oohs’ like a barbershop quartet, then the song kicks in proper. The lyrics here are great too. It’s all about comparing various instruments and the sounds they make to aspects of nature. So for example “the morning breeze like a bugle blew / Against the drums of dawn,” “the ocean wild like an organ played,” “the crashin’ waves like cymbals clashed,” “the cryin’ like a trumpet sang,” “the branches bare like a banjo,” and “the water smooth ran like a hymn / And like a harp did hum.” All the backing musicians join in, the volume rises, everything builds in tune with these ideas spilling out of the lyrics which exhort the musician to take time out. Exhilarating stuff.
Don’t You Tell Henry… has the coolest opening ever on various brass instruments playing all whacky whoopy, bent notes. Then the song kicks in and sounds like some great lost Beatles classic along the lines of ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite’ with one of those fairground tubas keeping time. When the chorus comes on each member joins in one by one, “Don’t you tell Henry / Don’t you tell Henry / Don’t you tell Henry / Don’t you tell Henry” until all four of them are singing in unison, “Apple’s got your fly.” It’s over quickly, but it bounces around resonantly. Wonderful.
Get Your Rocks Off… is not even listed as a Dylan song on his quite comprehensive website. It has this slow blues feel, again very much of the George Thorogood or John Mayall camp. Bass and drums playing together slowly, bumping and grinding out that bluesy rhythm, meanwhile, the phrase ‘Get your rocks off’ as it’s used here seems to have little or nothing to do with the usual meaning of the phrase as far as I can tell. Here we have a maid lying on a bed, a man up on Blueberry Hill, another man laying down around Mink Muscle Creek and finally some children in the side road, all of ‘em hollering “Get your rocks off / Get your rocks off-a-me!” The four short verses end, and we get some fiddly solo work, all plucked and skewered guitar notes, as the tempo begins to pick up pace, the electric guitar soloist starts showing off his Thorogood/Satriani chops, and even the drummer joins in with some hot little fills. Good stuff.
The Death Of Emmett Till… another great little number from 1962 which finally saw the light of day on the Witmark Demos boxset in 2010. “It was down in Mississippi / A few short years ago / When a young man from a Chicago town / Stepped through a southern door / Now this young man’s tragedy / I can remember well / For the colour of his skin was black / And his name was Emmett Till.” One of Dylan’s best race protest songs. Coulson takes care of the first verse solo before the drum and bass start up with a rhythmic rock beat. A word about the singer – he has the perfect ‘classic rock’ kind of voice. A little bit Glenn Frey/Don Henley, a little bit John Lennon, a little bit Jack Bruce, a little bit Ozzy Osbourne. His voice practically reeks of the dust you smell in any old second hand vinyl shop. Great protest anthem. Brilliantly performed.
Odds And Ends… sounds the most like The Basement Tapes version. Lead singer here is Hughie Flint who sounds a lot like Dylan, and he certainly gets the affectations exactly right, but it’s totally natural, not like he’s putting it on. What a pity these guys didn’t stay together and record a few more albums. Maybe they couldn’t write tunes as great as these, I don’t know, but this is like some long lost classic right up there with those Big Star records. About the only criticism I could level at this is that it sounds almost too much like the Basement Tapes version. “Odds and ends / Odds and ends / Lost time is not found again.” Indeed.
Sign On The Cross… was never released by Dylan in any official form. It’s a slow piano ballad, “Now I try, oh, for so awfully long / And I just try to be / And now, oh it’s a gold mine / But it’s so fine / Yes but I know in my head / That we’re all so misled, / And it’s that ol’ sign on the cross that worries me.” The pace is laidback, the vocal forlorn, serious, tender, gospel-like. The drum, bass, guitar all join in and pick up the pace, the piano drops out. This is the longest song here clocking in at well over five minutes. When the chorus comes on, Coulson lets loose on his baroque falsetto, what I like to think of as his heavy metal voice, but done in gospel style. He’s a brilliant singer as was Flint on the previous song. Here we get several female gospel singers doing backup on the chorus: “Sign on the cross / Sign on the cross / Sign on the cross.” Coulson actually manages to sound African-American! How are they doing this!? Piano bouncing away, all singers joining in, musicians pick up the pace, everyone hollerin’ and hootin’ in the background as the song does a long slow fade out. Truly inspiring stuff. One almost wonders if this isn’t one of those secret supergroups made of members using aliases. Look at those hairy bastards on the cover! Surely they can’t be the chaps producing this incredible sound? Here’s what so perfect about this album – they have a distinct sound, but they keep the dynamic continually on the move from song to song, so that they never sound like they’re repeating themselves. This should get the reissue treatment big time.
‘McGuinness Flint’ was the name of a rock band formed in 1970 by two of the members here, but who’d roped in the other two as musicians in their band plus another couple of multi-instrumentalists before extending their moniker to include all four of ’em. According to Wikipedia they were quite popular in Britain but failed to have any impact in the States.