United Artists for The Poet (Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary), Various Artists, 1991

This is an Italian compilation of Western artists released in 1991 to celebrate thirty years of Dylan whose first album, the self-titled Bob Dylan (1962) contained three Dylan originals written and recorded in 1961. A quick scan of the track list shows that six of these songs had already appeared on other compilations I’ve reviewed for these pages, such as It Ain’t Me Babe (1980) or The Songs of Bob Dylan (1989) or the artist’s own Dylan covers albums in the case of The Byrds and The Hollies for example. There’s an inner sleeve with several paragraphs of sleeve notes in Italian. Otherwise, this looks like just another quickly cobbled together collection of covers with little thematic intent. So why this compilation from Italy? Maybe Tito Schipa’s recent effort Dylaniata (1988) had led to a newfound popularity for Dylan among young Italian hipsters, or not.

Here’s the first couple of paragraphs of the inner sleeve spiel translated directly with Google with semi-poetic results: “It’s thirty years old that Bob Dylan affects Colombia; In fact in 1961 it was John Hammond Sr,. who was Robert Johnson’s discovery and Bessie Smith, to insist on engaging Dylan. The extreme sensibility of writing the problems of American youth and the great ability in composing both texts and music make Dylan a single artist, the first to introduce the song of protest in rock. He made the most important lyrics of melody and rhythm and his songs “… not everyone could afford to do it again” admits Roger McGuinn of the Byrds and adds, “Some have never played, I’m sacred to me!” But still today, Dylan relies on such a new rock, and it’s all a matter of humor, which originates in its enormous production. To celebrate this great event, we have collected famous artists from yesterday and today who, by Dylan’s musical message, with a commitment and personal style, testify to the constant and lasting up-to-date. Some of them have established themselves following the footsteps, while others have actively collaborated with the artist by strengthening and confirming their musical personality.”

The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)… appearing on The Byrds Play Dylan (1979) and then again on Irish/French/UK compilation, It Ain’t Me Babe. I’m always in two minds about this cover. It’s very inviting and easy to like, but I agree with a comment Dylan once made about this song, or about the Byrds covering his music—I don’t remember his exact words but it was something about not understanding why anyone would take a song of his and turn it into meaningless radio pap. The tambourine is definitely loud and clear. Certainly if you compare the original side by side with this version, there’s simply no comparison. The Byrds have got nothing on Dylan. It’s all surface beauty, smooth, glib, and they sing only one or two of the four verses, which in itself is enough of a crime to make me want to dismiss it outright.

Stevie Wonder – Blowin’ In The Wind (1966)… first appeared on Wonder’s 1966 album Up Tight, although Sam Cooke had beaten him to the soul punch with a cover version in 1964. Wonder can also be heard singing “Blowin’ In The Wind’ on The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration. Wonder’s version of this overheard Dylan staple is a semi-gospel R’n’B version that succeeds only to render the lyric utterly stripped of its poetry. It swings in a pretty but bland rhythm and blues way, and Wonder’s vocal treats the song like pop, with added oh-wohs throughout. Pretty average.

Nina Simone – Just Like A Woman (1971)… appears on Simone’s 1971 album Here Comes The Sun. And here we have Dylan jazzed up. Opens with a piano melody before the song starts at what feels like half-tempo, but at least this time the lyric seems to work in tandem with the jazzy vibe of the piano, organ, drums and bass. The strings bring too much sentiment to the song such that it starts to drift and get a bit sleepy, yet it’s just odd enough to sustain interest. It’s hard to say what happens exactly, but about halfway through, all these noises come tumbling together to create a slightly distorted dirge beneath the vocal. I’m not too fussed on Simone as a vocalist—nothing that special, a smooth but uninteresting voice in my humble opinion. She sounds weak in places. I’d hoped for more from this but she doesn’t do that much for me.

Manfred Mann – If You Gotta Go, Go Now (1965)… was released as a 7” single in 1965. Now we have a classic Bealtesy sixties pop sound with organ, Liverpool beat, tangy guitar, but like all pop versions of Dylan songs, one laments the lack of spontaneity that Dylan always brings to his songs, which I think is one of the magic ingredients that makes him sound so great, and the same might be said of Neil Young who’s cottoned on to that fact. The listener senses that urgency, that tremulous possibility of failure inherent in the performance. These pop versions completely lack that—they keep the songs running within a very strict metronomic structure such that they hold little interest beyond a pretty melody.

Ron Wood – Seven Days (1979)… released on 7” single by Wood in 1979 and also included on the 1989 compilation, The Songs Of Bob Dylan. The sounds are notably more modern on this record with more of a three-dimensionality in the rhythm section, and the whole thing is more ‘rock’ than what we usually get. It’s a good tune and Wood’s raspy voice keeps things Dylanesque, as does his guitar theatrics. The vocals are buried slightly in the boomy sound of the recording, but I’ve found myself enjoying this version as I’ve listened to his record over the past week. There are places where Wood sounds a lot like Dylan.

Spirit – Like A Rolling Stone (1975)… appears on their 1975 album Spirit of ’76 as well as on a 1980 Dylan covers compilation called It Ain’t Me Babe. I was determined to slag this off when I wrote about it only a week ago for the It Ain’t Me Babe review, but since then, I’ve come to really like it. It’s truly unique among Dylan covers. The lyrics are whispered for no good reason that I can tell, except for the chorus which is sung falsetto, sung in weird wisps of windy fading. It completely lacks the snarling urgency of the original, but it transforms the song into something very different that sounds like art over the commercial pop of most of these covers. Maybe none of this is deliberate. Maybe this is just the only sound Spirit could come up with. I’ve never listened to Spirit before, and I suspect I wouldn’t like them much, but I do find this version very affecting. It’s gotten inside my head and I can’t get it out. I even dig the way the song evolves into noisy trippy psychedelia at one point. This is really long too, like, it’s already a long song, but at this slower pace it feels like Spirit are stretching towards the ten minute mark. I’d like to hear a high quality remaster of this. Approval from Alan Bumstead.

Brian Ferry – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (1973)… seems to be a Dylan covers compilation album staple – it appears on 1980’s It Ain’t Me Babe and also 1989’s The Songs Of Bob Dylan. And so for the third, or maybe even fourth time I find myself writing about this Bryan Ferry cover. In 2007 Ferry released an entire album of Dylan covers, but none of them sounded anything like this breathless version. I still haven’t got sick of it. In fact I can’t help liking it more and more with each listen. I like the humour of it. If you’re going to desecrate a classic you’d better (a) do it really well and (b) make it unique and (c) make it funny. Ferry ticks all three boxes. He’s got women singers offering all sorts of harmonised backing, and some great musicians, and “it’s so ha-ar-ard.” Very cool.

Eric Clapton – Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (1975)… released as a 7” single by Clapton in 1975, this also appears on The Songs Of Bob Dylan from 1989. Ye gods, we’ve got what is surely the world’s most boring musician covering what is easily Dylan’s most boring song. The only saving grace is that the recording quality is good, and Clapton’s made Dylan’s most boring song interesting by giving it a reggae beat. Little spurts and ejaculations of guitar squiggle, chikka-chik rhythms, tambourine, organ, harmonica and Clapton’s dry dull voice with female backing complete the range of resonance. One might be cynical and suggest that Clapton was jumping onto the ska-beat bandwagon as picked up by punk in the mid-70s UK, but otherwise this sounds good.

The Hollies – Quit Your Low Down Ways (1969)… appears on the Hollies half-decent Dylan covers album Words And Music By Bob Dylan and is one of the best songs on that album. I like the speed of this, and I like the inventive arrangement, especially of the vocal mix, which twists and contorts the lyric to fit its sixties British beat exuberance, including a spastic guitar jam-out in the middle of the song. It’s unlike anything else on the Hollies album, sounds fresh, and it’s got a great tune, with some great harmonising. Love it.

The Band – I Shall Be Released (1968)… I’m not quite sure it’s a cover per se, this is from The Band’s debut album Music From Big Pink, but Dylan wrote it, so. This is easily my favourite version of this song ever. I love the slow plonky piano opening, and I especially love the weird alien abduction keyboard tone that weaves throughout the song. I also love the falsetto vocal from Richard Manuel, and the slow pace. The whole thing comes together beautifully, is quietly affecting, like an epiphany unfolding, like a flower in the sun.

Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills – It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry (1968)… is the same version that appears on the 1989 compilation The Songs of Bob Dylan and comes from the trio’s famous 1968 album Super Session. Their rock and roll version of this song is way too smooth and dull to capture my interest. The original is just way too original and fresh, whereas the only thing the Blooper-Killfields achieve is to iron out all its edges. Likeable for the tune but largely bland, tired, some inspired soloing in the break. “I tried to tell everybody but I could not get across.” Exactly. Cool drumming at the end, then fade.

Jeff Beck – Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (1972)… appears on the Jeff Beck Group’s self-titled album from 1972. There’s something about the sound of this recording that doesn’t wash with me, despite Beck pouring his heart and soul into the vocal. This is two bland rock versions in a row. There’s just something so tired and stale about guitar, bass and drums sometimes, when they sound like this, which is…a streamlined contrived rock sound. Probably meant to be listened to while stoned. Beck sounds like a less affecting Rod Stewart to my ear. He sings like he plays guitar—all bets placed on the notes and none on the meaning.

Cock Robin – Don’t Think Twice (1986)… must admit I’d never heard of Cock Robin until now. Passed me by completely. They’re a US rock group who did very well in Europe apparently, hence their appearance on this Italian compilation. This is a live version, with heavy boomy piano, two lead singers, male and female, boring voices. All piano and voice and lighter-waving dynamic grandiosity, which seems way too much drama for the lyric to carry. It’s a lament that works best in plaintive mode. Add histrionics and you lose the pathos of the song entirely. Filler.

Bruce Springsteen – Chimes Of Freedom (1988)… released by Springsteen as a live 12” in 1988. I don’t think of myself as a big Springsteen fan. This is live and begins with Springsteen lecturing the crowd on the Declaration of Human Rights as a prelude to the song he’s about to play. Springsteen’s rambling about Amnesty International and his upcoming six week tour takes up about the first two minutes of the track before the song opens with chiming keyboard tones (a tad corny), but then the Boss begins singing and I’m reminded that it’s surely his voice and singing style that makes him so well loved. I like this song, especially as it hasn’t been over-covered. A big drumbeat starts up to add drama to the tune, although the mix is a bit murky and overloud, such that the music boom-chimes, and all we’re really left with is Bruce’s voice, but that’s enough to make the song enjoyable. What is it exactly that makes his voice so good, so memorable, so emotionally affecting? There’s a cry buried in there, a waver, an apologetic or hurt tone only faintly detectable, and it makes this song all the more poignant. But I’d much rather hear a studio version than this live racket.

Once again, this compilation serves little real purpose and has little obvious cohesion. Maybe if I’d bothered to translate all of the liner notes I might’ve learned something about its raison d’etre. Dylan covered by “big name artists” can often seem like an opportunistic grab, rarely approaching the majesty of the originals, but as we see on the German-curated Dylan covers series May Your Song Always Be Sung it’s when you start seeking out the bedroom Dylan connoisseur that you find some truly inspired covers.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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