August 20: Bob Dylan – Slow Train Coming

bob dylan slow train coming

It’s in my system. I don’t really have enough time to talk about it. If someone really wants to know, I can explain it to them, but there are other people who can do it just as well. I don’t feel compelled to do it. I was doing a bit of that last year on the stage. I was saying stuff I figured people needed to know. I thought I was giving people an idea of what was behind the songs. I don’t think it’s necessary any more. When I walk around some of the towns we go to, however, I’m totally convinced people need Jesus. Look at the junkies and the winos and the troubled people. It’s all a sickness which can be healed in an instant. The powers that be won’t let that happen. The powers that be say it has to be healed politically.
~Bob Dylan (to Robert Hilburn – Nov 1980)

Musically, this is probably Dylan’s finest record, a rare coming together of inspiration, desire and talent that completely fuse strength, vision and art.
~Jann S. Wenner (rollingstone.com – Sept. 1979)

Slow Train Coming was a collection of songs Dylan had originally intended to donate to backing singer Carolyn Dennis.
~Clinton Heylin (The Recording Sessions)

Sometimes I feel so low-down and disgusted
Can’t help but wonder what’s happenin’ to my companions
Are they lost or are they found
Have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down
All their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon?
There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend
~Bob Dylan (from the title cut)

Slow Train Coming:

From Wikipedia:

Released August 20, 1979
Recorded April 30-May 11, 1979
Genre Rock, gospel, Christian rock
Length 46:19
Label Columbia
Producer Jerry Wexler
Barry Beckett

Slow Train Coming is singer-songwriter Bob Dylan’s 19th studio album, released by Columbia Records in August 1979.

It was the artist’s first effort since becoming a born-again Christian, and all of the songs either express his strong personal faith, or stress the importance of Christian teachings and philosophy. The evangelical nature of the record alienated many of Dylan’s existing fans; at the same time, many Christians were drawn into his fan base. Slow Train Coming was listed at #16 in the 2001 book CCM Presents: The 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music.

The album was generally well-reviewed in the secular press, and the single “Gotta Serve Somebody” became his first hit in three years, winning Dylan the Grammy for best rock vocal performance by a male in 1980. The album peaked at #2 on the charts in the UK and went platinum in the US, where it reached #3.

bob dylan slow train sessions muscle shoals

Today I’m accused of being a follower of religion. But I’ve always been a follower! My thoughts, my personal needs have always been expressed through my songs; you can feel them there even in ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. When I write a song, when I make a record, I don’t think about whether it’ll sell millions of copies. I only think about making it, the musical end-product, the sound, and the rhythmic effect of the words. It’s purely a technical piece of work because the most important thing is to come out with something that’s perfect artistically. Even Charlie Chaplin used to say that and I respect him for that judgment.
~Bob Dylan (to Sandra Jones – June 1981)

 

Musically, this is probably Dylan’s finest record, a rare coming together of inspiration, desire and talent that completely fuse strength, vision and art.Bob Dylan is the greatest singer of our times. No one is better. No one, in objective fact, is even very close. His versatility and vocal skills are unmatched. His resonance and feeling are beyond those of any of his contemporaries. More than his ability with words, and more than his insight, his voice is God’s greatest gift to him.So when I listen to “When He Returns,” the words finally don’t matter at all. They are as good as they ever were, maybe even better.I am hearing a voice.~Jann S. Wenner (rollingstone.com)

…. when Jerry Wexler agreed to produce, he was unaware of the nature of the material that awaited him.
“Naturally, I wanted to do the album in Muscle Shoals—as Bob did—but we decided to prep it in L.A., where Bob lived,” recalls Wexler. “That’s when I learned what the songs were about: born-again Christians in the old corral … I liked the irony of Bob coming to me, the Wandering Jew, to get the Jesus feel … [But] I had no idea he was on this born-again Christian trip until he started to evangelize me. I said, ‘Bob, you’re dealing with a sixty-two-year-old confirmed Jewish atheist. I’m hopeless. Let’s just make an album.'”

Jerry Wexler Talks Bob Dylan and Slow Train Coming:

Track listing:

All songs were written by Bob Dylan.
Side one

  1. “Gotta Serve Somebody” – 5:22
  2. “Precious Angel” – 6:27
  3. “I Believe in You” – 5:02
  4. “Slow Train” – 5:55

Side two

  1. “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” – 5:25
  2. “Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)” – 3:50
  3. “When You Gonna Wake Up” – 5:25
  4. “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” – 4:23
  5. “When He Returns” – 4:30

bob dylan slow train back

 

My 5 fav songs from the album:

  1. Slow Train
  2. Gotta Serve Somebody
  3. When He Returns
  4. I Believe In You
  5. Precious Angel
Anyone else, riding as high as Dylan was in 1978, would have stuck with the same band and produced another Street Legal-type album. Dylan did no such thing. Converted to Born Again Christianity, he gathered different musicians around him and produced an album destined to be profoundly unpopular amongst almost everyone who’d ever valued him as a writer. It is not, however, an album that can be ignored, and in some ways now seems a logical direction for Dylan to have taken. No-one should have been surprised at Dylan choosing to add gospel to the many different modes of American popular music he has covered (and so well) on his artistic travels over the decades. Musically it’s strong, and strikingly well produced in Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studio under the supervision of veteran Atlantic Records producer JERRY WEXLER. Stand-out tracks are ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, ‘Precious  Angel’, ‘Slow Train’ and ‘When He Returns’.
~Michael Gray (The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia)

 

Reception:

  • Greil Marcus wrote, “Dylan’s received truths never threaten the unbeliever, they only chill the soul” and accused Dylan of “sell[ing] a prepackaged doctrine he’s received from someone else.”
  • According to Clinton Heylin, “Marcus isolated Slow Train Coming’s greatest flaw, an inevitable by-product of his determination to capture the immediacy of newfound faith in song.”
  • Robert Christgau gave a mostly positive review, grading it a B+. “The lyrics are indifferently crafted,” wrote Christgau, “and while their one-dimensionality is winningly perverse at a time when his old fans will take any ambiguity they can get, it does serve to flaunt their theological wrongheadedness and occasional jingoism. Nevertheless, this is his best album since Blood on the Tracks. The singing is passionate and detailed, and the pros behind him – especially Mark Knopfler, who has a studio career in store – play so sharply that his anger gathers general relevance at its most vindictive. And so what if he’s taken up with the God of Wrath? Since when have you been so crazy about the God of Love? Or any other species of hippie bullshit?”
  • Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone magazine, Jann Wenner proclaimed it “one of the finest records Dylan has ever made.”
  • On October 18, 1979, Dylan promoted the album with his first—and, to date, only—appearance on Saturday Night Live, performing “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “I Believe In You,” and “When You Gonna Wake Up.”
  • Nearly two weeks later, on November 1, Dylan began a lengthy residency at the Fox Warfield Theater in San Francisco, California, playing a total of fourteen dates supported by a large ensemble. It was the beginning of six months of touring North America, performing his new music to believers and his heckling fans alike.
  • Despite the mixed reactions to Dylan’s new direction, “Gotta Serve Somebody” was a U.S. Top 30 hit, and the album outsold both Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde in its first year of release, despite missing the top of the charts. It even managed to place at #38 on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1979, proving he had some critical support if not universal acclaim.

Charts:

Year Chart Position
1979 Australian Kent Music Report Albums Chart 1
1979 UK Albums Chart 2
1979 U.S. Billboard Albums Chart 3

Personnel:

  • Bob Dylan – guitar, vocals
  • Mark Knopfler – lead guitar
  • Tim Drummond – bass
  • Barry Beckett – keyboards, percussion
  • Pick Withers – drums
  • Mickey Buckins – percussion
  • Muscle Shoals – horns
  • Carolyn Dennis – background vocals
  • Helena Springs – background vocals
  • Regina Havis – background vocals
  • Harrison Calloway – arrangements
  • Gregg Hamm – engineer
  • David Yates – assistant engineer
  • Paul Wexler – original mastering supervision
  • Bobby Hatta – original mastering engineer
  • Wm. Stetz — cover concept/design

Civic Auditorium
Santa Monica, California
18 November 1979

  • Bob Dylan (vocal & guitar)
  • Fred Tackett (guitar)
  • Spooner Oldham (keyboards)
  • Tim Drummond (bass)
  • Terry Young (keyboards)
  • Jim Keltner (drums)
  • Regina Mcrary , Helena Springs , Mona Lisa Young (background vocals)

I Believe In You & When He Returns – Massey Hall, Toronto, Canada – April 20, 1980:

Album @ spotify:

Check out:

-Egil

35 thoughts on “August 20: Bob Dylan – Slow Train Coming”

  1. Loved this album. He was basically happy when singing this, with powerful songs to sing. My favorite album. He conveys so much through his voice. Such a talent.

  2. That band on Saturday night live really cooks! ‘When ya gonna wake up’ great, one of his best ever TV performances. Still did a killer ‘ change my way of thinking’ a few years back and ‘precious angel’ one of his most beautiful songs ever.

  3. One of my favorite Dylan albums ever. I normally bow to Clinton Heylin’s knowledge about all things Dylan, but that quote at the head of the article about Dylan donating those songs to Carolyn Dennis sounds preposterous! Anyone know where he found that information? If it is true, then why was Bob performing “Do Right to Me Baby” towards the end of the Alimony Tour?

  4. I’m recording a new CD at Muscle Shoals Sound with Spooner Oldham, David Hood, and other Muscle Shoals music legends. You can fell the spirit of Bob, Jerry Wexler, and Barry Beckett in that room.

  5. Awesome post about an awesome and I believe inspired production. When people ask how I came to know Jesus Christ, I tell them I met Him through Bob Dylan.

      1. Johan,

        Unfortunately I’d missed your reply until now. How great is to “meet” someone who had such a similar experience. The phrase “The Lord works in mysterious ways” may not be scriptural, and while it’s not mysterious to Him, it is so neat that He knew just how to speak to us and get our attention. I’m eternally grateful for Dylan’s work and his availability to be “used”.

  6. Beautiful ‘When He returns’ but are you sure this is 1989? More like ’79 by the sound of the band and the voice,

  7. To me “Slow train coming” forms a turning point in his life and the centre point of his career. All his work can be classified as either pre- or post- Slow train. I would like to suggest Slow train as one of his best, if not his best!

  8. Egil,
    Congratulations on a stupendous presentation: the pics; graphics; videos; text; and quotations pack a formidable punch. Never ran across that June ’81 Dylan quote from Sandra Jones. Intriguing.

    And to gringo557–and anyone else here reading this that was at one or more of those Nov. ’79 gigs at the Warfield Theater–I’d like to interview you about your recollections. That is, if you’re open to it. (My e-mail is sandtree@windstream.net)

    Scott

  9. I got my basic foundations of faith when I got saved in 1980 from Slow train. I became a huge Dylan fan as a result. I also LOVE ‘This dream of you’ from TTL. I believe the old fox is still a BA believer who needs to come out of the ‘closet’ again. A raw gospel finale would be great!

  10. Has Dylan played the title song ( Slow train coming ) live, and if so, do you happen to have a video of same ? That would be a feast to watch !

    1. Hi Rajan,

      He played it many times during the 79-81 shows.. and a couple of times in 1987.

      If you wanna see ST live just check this earlier post here at JV.. :

      The song starts at ~1:05
      Cheers!
      -Egil

    2. Dear mr Mahadevan,

      A live version is on ‘Dylan & The Dead’ a ‘misunderestimated’ (G.W. Bush) album from 1987.

  11. Such a great LP – In fact, I believe this to be the very best gospel album ever made.
    Thanks for doing this particular entry. Now, if only Bob / Sony would consider doing
    a Bootleg Series Box Set of the Christian period albums, with outtakes, demos, live stuff maybe
    from the great Toronto shows, etc….

    1. Thanks for your feedback Bruce,

      I’m afraid we’ll have to stick to our bootlegs a while longer…. but a box set with the 3 “christian” albums with upgraded sound (esp. for “Saved”) and outtakes… namnam. We need a separate box set for the Nov79 shows 🙂

      -Egil

      1. Love your ideas for future releases. There’s no question in my mind that they would sell. Some of us have been waiting, if not at the altar, then at the record store counter (virtual or real) for such recordings for a long time.

        The only “live” rock concert I have attended was one of Bob Dylan’s performances at Portland, Oregon’s downtown Paramount Theatre. The concert was exclusively Gospel-oriented.

        The Dylan concert was on a Wednesday evening, 16 Jan. 1980, rescheduled from an opening date the previous week. Someone on the theater staff told me that I couldn’t bring my camera inside; I forget if I left it at the car or at a front desk.

        We sat down about six rows from the back of the main floor. There was no opening act for the 8:00 event. At about 8:50 p.m. an announcement was made that “we just got here — sorry for the delay.” The concert started a little over an hour late.

        Dylan performed all of his Slow Train Coming songs plus eight songs that were unreleased at that time. About half a dozen additional songs were performed by his female back-up singers. Dylan’s eyes seemed closed most of the time. He didn’t talk to the audience much, according to my notes, but, when someone apparently shouted to a friend, Dylan said “Do you people know each other? …I thought so.”

        I don’t think that I was aware, at the time, that Dylan had been heckled and booed during his Gospel tours, people had walked out on him, etc. (Did that sort of response mostly come later in his Gospel tours?) Here, though, there were two encores. He introduced his band for the first one. He led the audience in the chorus of a song about God’s “might and glory.” He asked, “Do you believe it? … You better believe it.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Portland-area young Christians had made a point of attending the concert and showing their support for the born-again singer and his message, especially given the hostility he’d encountered elsewhere (right? it had occurred by then?).

        My notes state that he played harmonica for one number and played piano for the second encore, “Pressin’ On.” Most, but maybe not all, of the unreleased Dylan songs appeared on the Saved album.

  12. Love the gospel era, but it was so much more powerful on the road than it was in the studio. Im still hoping to get a Gospel era Bootleg Series …

    1. I’ve seen him live from 1974 to 2013 and I have to say he was really at his peak performance in 1979. Nothing will ever touch those shows . . . and ALL new material too! I left the theatre the happiest kid in the world having seen those shows. Yes, gimme an “amen” for a bootleg series gospel release!

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