This might not be the best idea for a list, I know. We here @ JV don’t write about music we don’t like. But this is different, this is my fav artist..by far, and the 5 worst Bob Dylan albums still contains much great music. A bad Dylan album might still be a good album.
It’s always easy to write negative critique, but I chose not to comment on the 5 albums on the list… except highlighting the best song/songs.
To set the record strait: on my “all time greatest albums” list I have 3 Dylan records @ top 3:
- Blonde On Blonde
- Highway 61 Revisited
- Blood On The Tracks
- Exile on Main St. – The Rolling Stones
- Born To Run – Bruce Springsteen
My rules: I’ve excluded Greatest Hits/Best of albums, but bootleg series & live albums are in. And Christmas in the Heart is also excluded from this “competition”, it’s not really a Dylan album after all.
Then we are down to 52 albums.. and here are the worst:
- Down In The Groove
Released May 30, 1988 Recorded 1983–1987 Genre Rock Length 32:10 Label Columbia Producer unlisted
Best song: Silvio
Released November 19, 1973 Recorded April 24, 1969 – June 4, 1970 Genre Rock, folk rock Length 33:22 Label Columbia Producer Bob Johnston
Best Song: Mr.Bojangles
- Dylan & The Dead
Released February 6, 1989 Recorded July 1987 Genre Rock Length 43:07 Label Columbia Producer Jerry Garcia
Best Song: Queen Jane Approximately
- Self Portrait
Released June 8, 1970 Recorded April 24, 1969 – March 30, 1970 Genre Country rock, rock Length 73:15 Label Columbia Producer Bob Johnston
Best Songs: Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight), Days of’ 49, Early Mornin’ Rain, Let It Be Me & Living The Blues
- Real Live
Released November 29, 1984 Recorded Summer 1984 Genre Hard rock Length 50:15 Label Columbia Producer Glyn Johns
Best Songs: Highway 61 Revisited, Masters of War & Tombstone Blues
Here is a spotify playlist with the best songs from the worst albums:
(PS – I did not find “Dylan” on spotify… hence the missing “Mr. Bojangles”)
4 runners up:
- Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
remove Brownsville Girl and it might be the very worst
- Bob Dylan at Budokan (1979)
ok in small portions and contains a great Is Your Love In Vain
- Saved (1980)
the tame & toothless sound nearly kills it off, still it contains some really good songs: Saved, Solid Rock, In The Garden,..
- Empire Burlesque (1985)
with typical bad 80’s production (horrible drum sound), and leaving best versions of key songs in the studio. This one also have some strong songs: Emotionally Yours, Dark Eyes & Tight Connection To My Heart
62 thoughts on “Bob Dylan’s 5 Worst Albums”
I don’t look at bob dylan albums but I look at songs from each one. try to remove the “worst five” dylan records and you’re gonna be missing some great stuff. one of my favorite dylan covers is When “Did You Leave Heaven. And SelfPortrait is one of my favorite Dylan albums. I even stood in the room where he painted that picture. The record Dylan sold surprisingly well. Iknow it was not suppose to be a record, but has some great songs. St Legal is amazing. But I take them song by song. the thing about bob is that he has outfoxed everyone. Springsteen, Jagger, McCartney. he has just been who he is. We are waiting for his next album. To see what the pundits say.
Thanks for you’re view Daud.
5 albums, mmm , that’s not much 😉
when I am very critical the whole era after “John Wesley Harding” till “Blood on the tracks” & “Desire” till “Time out of mind” can be thrown away.
when I am less critical every album got his moments…
but I think over 100 years everybody is forgotten the era’s I mentioned & what rest are the first 7 albums + “Blood on the tracks” & “Desire” & “Time out of mind”
BTW I am a big Dylanfan 😉
Thanks for your feedback bobcat,
So your 10 fav albums is the 7 first + BOTT, Desire & TOOM…
If you’d included Hard Rain.. and dropped the first, you would have been close to my top 10 list 🙂
(if you don’t count bootleg series releases off course)
Thanks for a different comment, Egil
sure, you can put Hard Rain to my list indeed 😉
but I got much more than 10 fav albums:
I got about 50 bootleg albums from the 1961 – 1966…
+ complete Basement Tapes
+ Rolling Thunder Bootlegs
+ dont’ forget beautiful concert tapes from 1999 – 2000
This is not to win friends & influence my uncle 😉
I love them ALL!
Hi again bobcat,
There’s so much beautiful Dylan-music “available”.. the outtakes, the concerts, the official stuff…
Making lists is fun though.. and “everyone” love lists.. 🙂
I agree for the most part, but Self-Portrait is a great album, even by Dylan standards. I know Dylan himself put it down, but his much-praised “Copper Kettle” isn’t the only good thing on it. It’s not one of his best, but certainly not one of his worst. It’s in the same vein as “Nashville Skyline”–easy, laid-back, sitting-on-the-porch-drinking music. It’s got a wonderful sound. With the caveat you used–that there are no bad Dylan albums–I would chose it over any of the “gospel” albums, Planet Waves, Pat Garrett, Knocked Out Loaded, and even World Gone Wrong and Good As I’ve Been (right title?).
Thanks for the feedback Chris,
I think I’ve laid out my opinion in the post and many comments…
but Self Portrait over Slow Train Coming… come on.. 😉
Nice to read your view
Having defended Self-Portrait above…over Planet Waves? Don’t think so, not even close!
Thanks Dark Eyez, I myself remember very little from those days, since after all I had just turned four and my world wasn’t that big and my blue eyes weren’ opened that wide yet to include reading news clippings from the Woodstock region. Probably wasn’t even aware of the existence of neither Bob nor the entire USA. Was listening to a different type of music as well, I think. Now, even 46 years later, I still have lots of catching up to do on my reading of international news clippings, but I will keep doing my best…. 😉
On a more serious note, and more on-topic: for me the reworkings of Budokan and the more pleasant-to-the-ear new melodic arrangements of his entire repertoire mixed with the backing of the large band with its back-up singers helped to open up my ears and heart to the depth and riches of all this amazing man had to offer on all his work which he recorded long before. For me it was the entrance door into his whole oeuvre and all his work, which I am afraid, without the double album Budokan with all its extras, like the full lyrics in both English and Japanese (which really helped me 😉 being a Dutch native and all), the poster, pictures, etcetera, made me investigate and dig in much deeper into his work then ever before and then my ears became wide open to appreciate the man most people the world over consider a very bad nasal singer which they can’t stand and which lyrics they don’t get, because they never found an opening into the rich vaults which are there for all to find. Budokan to me was key, and I agree with Is Your Love In Vain being superb, but also Shelter as well as I Want You, I can listen to those two records until the day I die, but I appreciate all the rest I discovered afterwards thanks to that one. Conclusion: to all those of us who try to convince people to really make an effort listening to Dylan, because he is so great, but who aren’t able to convince that many, maybe it’s an idea to casually drop those two discs on your turntable (if you guys still own a device like that in this time of iPhone-applications and all). I hold all my vinyls very dear and sleep right next to them….as I do all my Steve Jobs-machines by the way 🙂
Hi again HANSinFRANCE,
I still own devices to play LP’s & CD’s but seldom uses them.. It’s great fun to play an old LP now and again though.
I think it is a good point you’re making.. maybe instead of forcing Blonde On Blonde on “ignorant non-Dylan people”.. we could start with Budokan. A tactic worth trying 🙂
Check the local newsprint archives for the area. If there were eyewitnesses to anything that went on I’m sure the media got ahold of them and got statements. I’d do it but alas I’m too lazy and settled down since my hardcore Dylanology days 😉 I do remember many a newsclipping about sightings of Dylan after the crash, as he recoup’d in Woodstock.
Slightly off-topic I know, but since somebody just mentioned the words motorcycle in combination with the name Dylan and that other word accident and since these words seem to keep coming back when discussing Bob in the Sixties and all, I was just wondering if there is anybody out there who has, maybe from personal observation or hearsay or whatever any real and reliable information on what really happened on that 29th of July in 1966? Some “lucky” ambulance driver or hospital nurse or doctor of cop out there, maybe, who could kindly fill us all in after all these years. Haven’t we all been patient enough?…and now that we live in the times of information overflow and openness on practically all topics out there, in the days after the Arabic spring and just before another personal summer on the Med, we as Mr. D-diehards clearly now have finally earned the right to know or so it seems to me at least……..please, climb out of your hay-stack hide-out and fill us in with your long overdue eye-witness revelations….we all deserve it I think!!!….Many thanks in advance from Hans in France…
Indeed.. If there is anyone out there.. enlighten us.
This is a rather small website.. with relative few visitors.. it is a long shot 🙂
I would have to disagree with Budokan as a runner up, though it is hard to come up with too many “bad” Dylan albums for me. They all seem to have some redeeming quality as does Knocked Out Loaded with Brownsville Girl. However as a runner up I would replace Budokan with World Gone Wrong or Good as I Been to You.
The rework of almost every song on Budokan alone makes it so interesting. Add to that the instrumentation (percussion, violin, sax, backup singers) and it is a wonderful album in my opinion. The versions of One More Cup of Coffee, Watchtower (closer to Hendrix’ version, which Dylan says could be the definitive version of the song) and Love Minus Zero are beautiful and have some nice instrument solos.
Thanks for the article. The comment section is very enlightening thanks to some articulate and intelligent comments.
Thanks for your feedback Phil,
Hallgeir (my partner @ JV) really likes Budokan, and would probably not list it as a “runner up”.
I like it, but as I wrote cannot listen to it in long bursts. One/two songs now and then can be a great listening experience.
I dig One More Cup off Coffee, but my fav is – Is Your Love In Vain.
Well, I would never (ever!) had brought up Boudokan in this sort of post. It was my first serious Bob Dylan experience, and i believe it is vastly underrated.
Very interesting discussion we have going here, and I hope everyone understands that even “bad” Bob Dylan is better than almost everything else.
I read somewhere in the comments that someone said, What the fuck is the point? Well the point is exactly this discussion, fellow Bob Dylan fans discussing “the Bob Dylan art project” and the position of some of his artworks in that context.
Of course there is no answer, we’re just tossing opinions in the air, and coming up with interesting questions and views.
Let’s stir the pot a little…I wonder why, out of his whole collection of released material, “Down In The Groove”, “Dylan And The Dead” and “Knocked Out Loaded” were given to us one after another 🙂
Good point Darkeyez!
Probably just a “brake”.. some breathing space.. like a motorcycle accident ?
like in 1966.. July 29..
Who knows, we can only speculate. as I have said Bob moves in mysterious ways…
Thanks for all the feedback.. a rather drunk Egil needs to rest 🙂
One difficulty with this is that Dylan sometimes has a concept for an album (e.g., Christmas) that many people just don’t like; so is that a successful production of what he aimed for or a minor disaster — or both? I tend to think both, for that one.
What I most want to defend, along these lines, is Pat Garrett, which I think is gorgeous, and if anything improves when you listen to the widely bootlegged outtakes, because someone (I presume Dylan, or at least with his approval) selected and shaped the album as a whole, allowing the songs (um, both of them, one classic) to arise from the overall sound. I play it with great pleasure when I’m in a particular mood. And I’ve always thought that Billy 7 was a not unfriendly Kristofferson take-off and one of the funniest things he ever did.
I also play Self-Portrait for pleasure more than some albums I’d have to concede are “better” — so are they really?
Thank you Pete!
I’m more of the “systematic” guys.. I play SP.. and most albums on my “worst list”.. sometimes, but I do play the albums I like best more.
Actually I play unofficial concerts the most.. these days.. There is so many fantastic Dylan concerts available.
i agree and disagree. tomorrow i will change my mind.
Humor is important! even on serious subjects!
Read all of your interesting comments and just want to add, that I think he did Christmas in the Heart, simply because he has Christ-mas in his heart. I think it really mattered to him to do that record and to me it made a statement. I think he did it seriously and with a lot of attention to detail, just like he did almost all his other work. There is a good mix of respect, but also humor on that record and I think he himself doesn’t consider it a mistake. He simply doesn’t care if you like it or not, if you get it or not, he simply had to do that record before he died. I’m totally convinced of that and I’ve studied Dylan for over 35 years now, seen 46 shows since 1981 in over 12 countries I think and own all his official output and have met him in person twice. Not that that makes me an expert, but I find just putting CITH aside as if Bob lost his mind a little bit too easy and very unlike the way he approaches what he does. Just my two cents, I know most won’t agree with me, and that’s entirely allright with me…. 😉
Thanks for your feedback.. HansINfrance,
Nice to hear from someone who enjoys CITH. I Don’t.. but respect your opinion.
Bob surely moves in mysteriously ways.. and we like it!
HansInFrance: Another album that fits your description is Under The Red Sky. If you don’t think about that in terms of “children’s songs” it’s a weird mess of an album. Understanding the context, it’s an interesting failure, but not as horrible as it first seemed (although nothing will ever make me like “Wiggle, Wiggle.”).
Comments on the comments and the post:
First, Dylan didn’t decide to put out “Dylan” for contractual obligations, Columbia had the material and could do it. The artist had less to do with this record than any other in the catalog. But I’d say in the end it’s fair to list as his album since Bob decided to keep it in the catalog rather than delisting it as he could have done on returning to Columbia. To me, Lily of the West is far and away the best song on the album, I love it. I like the whole period starting with John Wesley Harding through Pat Garrett, including Bangladesh. It’s not the most even, but it’s a great period for Dylan’s singing and voice.
Dylan and the Dead: agreements and disagreements with what’s been said. I went to three of the six shows and enjoyed them all. Remember, that’s all there were. Its takes a while to settle in, but tremendous things happened at each. The last two, Oakland & LA were quite different but great shows, both. The album is the textbook example of how artists aren’t always the best judge. Overall, Dylan’s judgment has been stellar, and we’ve had several occasions to judge it ourselves, but in this case not. He and Jerry picked the songs and decided this album, there’s nowhere else to point the finger. I could easily pick a different set from those six shows and people would have had a different reaction.
The Isle of Wight songs alone should remove Self-Portrait. For me, everything from the beginning through Slow Train is safe. It’s after that the candidates start cropping up. The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar should not be credited to Saved, that was a Columbia afterthought in later years. So I’d at least replace “Dylan” and Self Portrait with Knocked Out Loaded and Saved. Last, no way does Empire Burlesque make it into that border category!
Thanks for your input Geoff!
.. but Saved has good songs that really blossomed in his “Gospel Tour”.
What’s your criteria then? That the album worked itself, or that it contributed songs to the canon that would develop further? From Self-Portrait for example, are at least three covers that he would later do fantastic versions of: “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” “Let It Be Me,” and “Gotta Travel On.” Many songs throughout the catalog would improve with time, with the original serving as a starting point.
The criteria is the album itself.. has to be.
But listening to Saved.. like listening to Empire Burlesque.. even though the sound/production is bad.. the songs shines through.
The “Gospel Tour” in 79/80, especially Nov 79 was fantastic. And songs from “Saved” (often dismissed by “Dylan authorities”) really blossoms.
Best Dylan Tours:
By the way, I’d love to see you do a five-most underrated Dylan list. Mine would start with the staggering masterpiece that is Infidels. I honestly believe that’s one of the 10 best records of the 80s–by anyone–and its almost never discussed.
Would love to do such a list.. and will do.
I’ve put it on my “list” of things to do 🙂
btw.. it’s a rather long list.
Yes, it would be. New Morning, Street Legal and World Gone Wrong are all woefully discounted. Although Infidels, as I’ve said, is just a mind-blowing masterpiece to me. Had he include “Blind Willie…” and “Foot of Pride” it would have matched BOOT and Highway 61 for me. (And, perhaps, excluded “Man of Peace.”)
I would add Planet Waves and Shot of Love to that list.
To go from the emotional lows of a song like “Dirge” to the statement of love of “Wedding Song” on the same album is completely mind blowing. not many could pull that off as Bob does.
Shot of Love has some beautiful songs on it. Every Grain of Sand, In the Summertime, Heart of Mine and Lenny Bruce come to mind as stand outs.
Street Legal? Very underrated. Changing of the Guards, Senor and Where are You Tonight are truly unbelievable masterpieces of lyric, rhyme and rhythm in my opinion.
New Morning is a masterpiece and marked the return of Bob after Self-Portrait. So many wonderful songs. Gypsy, Locusts, If Not for You, New Morning, the list goes on.
It would be hard to make a top 5 underrated Dylan albums.
Better make it top 20.
I rather like Real Live and in context, I think its quietly an important album. Dylan hadn’t toured in 2-3 years, and hadn’t done a true rock tour since the so-called Alimony tour (on which Budakon, which, full disclosure, I periodically find enthralling…even though I don’t touch it for years at a time).
The raw, back-to-basics structure of his band on Real Live was a precursor of the GE Smith-led three and four piece configurations that would mark the beginning of the Never-Ending Tour in ’88, and his Paris (I believe) performance of “Tangled Up in Blue” on Real Live is worth the entire disk on its own.
My bottom five would be (with 1 being worst):
1. Down In The Groove
2. Knocked Out Loaded
3. Under The Red Sky
5. Together Through Life (just couldn’t get into the weezy swamp sound, and I thought the writing was oddly flat other than “Forgetful Heart.” )
As noted by another poster, I don’t consider the album Dylan to be fair game, as it was a revenge release by his then-former label, and not one he intended to release.
There’s a few others that are hard for me to quantify because while they fail as albums (example: Shot of Love) they often have 2-3 masterpieces on them (example: “Shot of Love” and “Lenny Bruce”). The reason the five I listed are at the bottom is they all, to me, only have 1-2 good songs at best.
Thanks for you’re feedback Matthew,
Tangled from Real Live is from the Wembley concert (july 7), not from Paris. The Paris version is way better.. actually FANTASTIC. That’s the one he should have included.
Like you’re list… even though I have some different choices.
I do have the Paris show. Just listened to the Tangled there, and…both are just fantastic. It may be that the Wembley recorded better. Hard to guess with Bob. I could never figure out why they released some of the worst Rolling Thunder performances on Hard Rain…but SHOWED some far better ones on the TV special, for instance. Dylan has always been his own worst critic. (Think: not putting “Blind Willie McTell” on Infidels… releasing “Heart of Mine” as a single…you could go on for days with those kind of inexplicable decisions.)
Bob Dylan’s “5 worst albums”? That’s like listing Picasso’s 5 “worst” paintings. WHAT’S THE F*****G POINT? All of Picasso’s paintings are important because as a whole they form an oeuvre which is towering above almost everything else in 20th century art.
I am sick and tired of always seeing the same Dylan albums on people’s “best” and “worst” albums lists. What about an original point of view? Or as the man said “If there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now.”
For starters here’s an alternative view of “Down In The Groove” as published in “ISIS” magazine in the UK about a year ago:
GOT LOVE IF YOU WANT IT
An in-depth look at the original version of “Down In The Groove”
“Down In The Groove” stands alone as probably the worst received studio album in Dylan’s oeuvre. Many critics (and many fans) lump it together with “Knocked Out Loaded” and see those two records as the “nadir” of his recorded output. Few take the time and really listen to the albums in order to appreciate what is there. Most slag off the records for not being what they want them to be. Compare the albums with an open mind and the first thing you realize is how different they really are. “Knocked Out Loaded” was put together from sessions that took place in studios in New York, Los Angeles and London over a period of 22 months involving a large number of musicians. Dylan lined up several over-dub sessions to give the basic tracks their unique atmosphere and a unison in sound. Special mention must be made of the great use of the backing singers and the horns. Especially the Tejano tones in the brass give the album a highly individual sound. Do yourself a favour, get the album on vinyl and play it loud. The production and the mix will make sense and you will appreciate the huge and very rich sound created by Dylan on that record.
“Down In The Groove” on the other hand is something completely different. The original version of the album was recorded in Los Angeles over a short period of time (4 weeks in April/May 1987), with a small group of musicians. The sound is very basic and “earthy” with minimal over-dubs.
In 1987 Dylan’s label Columbia Records was still owned by CBS (CBS was sold to Sony in January 1988) who at the time were totally in thrall to their two “flagship” artists: Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson. Both had new albums due for release in 1987 (“Tunnel Of Love” – Springsteen, “Bad” – Jackson). Both artists’ previous studio albums had been monstrously successful (“Born In The USA” – Springsteen, “Thriller” – Jackson). To say expectations for their new albums were running high at CBS would be a grave understatement. Jackson was seriously aiming at shifting 100 (!) Million copies of “Bad”. Expectations for Springsteen’s new album were going through the roof, too. Also under contract to CBS at the time were The Rolling Stones (plus Mick Jagger as a solo artist). Jagger’s second solo album, the ambitious “Primitive Cool” featuring several big name guests was due for release in the summer of 1987. At the same time Walter Yetnikoff – president of CBS from 1975–1990 – was in the process of sinking into his own personal hell of alcoholism and cocaine addiction (he checked into rehab in 1989 and managed to turn his life around). It was in this climate that Dylan quietly finished his new LP of mostly cover versions of “obscure” songs from the 1950s and 1960s. When the record company people did take the time to listen to the master authorized by Dylan in August 1987, the album they heard consisted of:
1. Let’s Stick Together
2. When Did You Leave Heaven?
3. Got Love If You Want It
4. Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street)
5. Sally Sue Brown
1. Ugliest Girl In The World
3. Important Words
5. Rank Strangers
Over the years there have been conflicting reports as to which version of the album is the first version. The emergence of an acetate dated August 7, 1987 carrying the above songs proves that the above version actually is the first – check the great searchingforagem.com for details. The record simply was nothing like the albums a major record company had come to expect from their megastars at the time. Still CBS did prepare a promo cassette which was distributed in November 1987. This original version of the album was previewed quite favorably in UK music weekly Melody Maker in March 1988. CBS meanwhile instigated changes to the track list and pushed back the release date. Some people think that Dylan himself was behind the changes. I think he simply grew tired of arguing about his work with CBS and at some point threw up his hands and let CBS do what they thought they had to do. Over the following months (late 1987/early 1988) CBS changed the track list TWICE and designed the cover and promo artwork using old photos of Dylan from 1985/86 (one had even been used before), Dylan apparently having withdrawn all cooperation on the project. An early version of the cover artwork (to go with Dylan’s version of the album?) had a photo of what looks like a Californian landscape complete with palm trees on the front. In regard to the musical content CBS first went back to the sessions directly preceding “Down In The Groove”, extracting “The Usual” from the “Hearts Of Fire” soundtrack and taking “Important Words” off the album. This version of “Down In The Groove” was given out as a promo cassette in February 1988. In Argentina the master of this second version of the album was used accidentally for the first run of “Down In The Groove” LPs. After that the release date was pushed back once more. The running order of the tracks was changed, “Got Love If You Want It” and “The Usual” were taken off the album and replaced with “Had A Dream About You, Baby” (a remixed version of the “Hearts Of Fire” recording) and “Death Is Not The End” (an “Infidels” outtake). With a Dylan tour starting in June 1988 CBS/Sony refrained from further changes to the album and finally dropped the LP onto the market in May 1988. The critics had already made up their minds about the record in the run-up to that date – the internal quarrels at CBS about getting the album finished and released were taken up by the reviewers with malicious relish: They branded the album “a failure” and “a disaster”. I always liked the album even if “Had A Dream About You, Baby” and “Death Is Not The End” (great as it is) really sit quite awkwardly among the other tracks. To me the record always seemed like a puzzle that had been put together the wrong way, with pieces from another puzzle thrown in. I always thought there was more to this record than what you hear on the official version. What shines through and what can be made out by those who want to hear it, is of course the original version of the record. Luckily copies of the first promo cassette carrying that version survived and have been circulating for years. The differences between the first promo and the official version seem small (two different songs, different running order) but they change everything. What many critics called a “random collection of throwaway cover versions” makes perfect sense on the original version of the record where the songs hang together quite beautifully. To me the original “Down In The Groove” is one of Dylan’s most important records, recorded as it was in the watershed year of 1987. It foreshadows everything that followed. It is a carefully constructed, well thought out record with a beautiful, organic sound and great vocals.
III. The music behind “Down In The Groove” – a shadow history of Rock ‘n’ Roll
At his shows in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and North America in 1986 Dylan played a fairly large number of songs from the 1950s. Songs by Billy Riley, Ricky Nelson, Ray Charles, Warren Smith … Songs he must have known since he started his first bands in Hibbing. The songs that first started him off as a musician. As he has said repeatedly he carries “that other time, the 1950s” with him. And in the Spring of 1987 he took the sounds of that era into the studio with him in the form of the material he was going to record. Songs from the 1950s and early 1960s. If you take a look at the artists and records Dylan chose to cover on his version of “Down In The Groove” a world of forgotten artists, obscure 45s, rare B-sides and all the musical styles that Dylan draws from opens up. You encounter Rockabilly, Rhythm & Blues, Blues, Country, Bluegrass, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Jazz, Traditionals, Standards and Movie Soundtracks. You come across labels with names like Sun, Excello, King, Fury, Vocalion. Code names from an era when a record could change your life. You also meet people like producer Bobby Robinson – a trailblazer who changed the way we listen to music today.
Like no other record in Dylan’s catalogue the original version of “Down In The Groove” is like a peek into his Minnesota/pre-New York era record collection. It is all there – “down in the groove”. If you are willing to take a look at the records behind the record and if you connect the dots, the original “Down In The Groove” is like a doorway into Dylan’s universe of song and sound.
The songs and their sources:
1. Let’s Stick Together – Wilbert Harrison (released on Bobby Robinson’s Fury Records, 1962)
Wilbert Harrison himself re-recorded the song as “Let’s Work Together” (Sue Records, 1969). That later version was recorded by many other artists and consequently is well known. Dylan on the other hand faithfully covers the original super-rare* 1962 version.
2. When Did You Leave Heaven? – Henry “Red” Allen (Vocalion, 1936)
The original version by Tony Martin from the movie “Sing, Baby, Sing” also came out in 1936. Over the years countless artists have covered the song. Dylan probably knows a large number of those recordings. His vocals and the structure of his interpretation closely follow Henry “Red” Allen’s 1936 version. The song is the kind of standard that Dylan has probably been aware of ever since he was a child. Other interesting versions are by Big Bill Broonzy (solo acoustic, Vogue, 1951), Little Jimmy Scott (a genre unto himself, Savoy, 1955), Charles Brown (smooth and relaxed blues version, East-West, 1957), Smiley Lewis (New Orleans R&B, Imperial, 1957, released in 1986), Louis Armstrong (based on the Henry “Red” Allen version, but lavishly arranged, Decca, 1957), Percy Mayfield (fast R&B version, Specialty, 1960) and Johnny Guitar Watson (almost abstract and very slow piano blues version, Chess, 1964).
3. (I’ve) Got Love If You Want It – Slim Harpo (Excello Records, 1957 – the original version) AND Warren Smith (Sun Records, 1957)
A song that I think is essential to understanding the album as it points to two important sounds driving Dylan. The “Excello” sound and the “Sun” sound. He spoke about the importance of a label’s SOUND in the 1950s/early 1960s on “Theme Time Radio Hour” # 43. Harpo and Smith have been referenced many times by Dylan over the years. He has covered Smith’s “Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache” in concert and on record and played the original on his radio show. Lanois has quoted Dylan as saying that he wanted “Time Out Of Mind” to have the sound of Harpo’s Excello records. Dylan’s recording of “Got Love” cleverly merges elements of both Harpo’s and Smith’s version.
4. Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street) – Hank Snow (RCA, 1963)
Hank Snow, an important early influence on Dylan with his song “The Golden Rocket”. Dylan also played Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” in concert and covered “A Fool Such As I” on record and played it on “Theme Time Radio Hour”.
5. Sally Sue Brown – Arthur “June” Alexander (Judd Records, 1960) [Judd Records was owned by Sam Phillip’s brother Jud and like Sam’s Sun Records operated out of Memphis]
The A-Side of Arthur Alexander’s ultra-rare* first single. The B-Side “The Girl That Radiates That Charm” is pretty cool, too. Alexander himself released a new version of “Sally Sue Brown” on his great 1993 album “Lonely Just Like Me”.
6. Ugliest Girl In The World – Dylan/Hunter original based on Boogie Woogie Country Girl by Big Joe Turner (Atlantic, 1956)
Dylan also covered the Big Joe Turner song on a 1995 tribute album to songwriter Doc Pomus. And Big Joe Turner is mentioned in the song “High Water”, of course, “looking east and west from the dark room of his mind”.
7. Silvio – Dylan/Hunter original based on Smokestack Lightnin’ by Howlin’ Wolf (Chess, 1956)
The musical template provided by “Smokestack Lightnin'” also served as the basis of Dylan’s song “Isis”. The live version of “Isis” from the unreleased Clearwater film of “Hard Rain” vividly illustrates the fact that both songs share the same source.
8. Important Words – Gene Vincent (Capitol Records, 1957, B-Side of “Crazy Legs”)
Vincent re-recorded the song in the early ’60s. Dylan follows the rare* 1957 recording. He probably had it on vinyl ever since it first came out. According to Dylan’s Hibbing era friend and sometimes band member John Bucklen Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps were of major importance to them when Dylan started his first bands in Hibbing. At one point they even got blue caps like the ones worn by The Blue Caps on the covers of Vincent’s first two albums. The 1994 soundtrack album to the movie “Natural Born Killers” includes a new Dylan recording of Gene Vincent’s version of “You Belong To Me”.
9. Shenandoah – Spider John Koerner (Red House, 1986)
There are many different versions of the old traditional song “Shenandoah” (aka “(Across) The Wide Missouri”). Most artists do the song as a slow ballad. Dylan took the springy rhythm and the entire set of lyrics straight from Koerner’s recording, which came out a year before Dylan recorded “Down In The Groove”. It can be found on Koerner’s LP “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Been” (January 1986), which was re-released on CD in 1992. The inclusion of a version of Spider John Koerner’s interpretation of the song can be seen as a nod to Dylan’s Minneapolis/St. Paul coffeehouse days in 1959/60. It was during that period that Dylan first met and became friends with Koerner who became an important early influence.
10. Rank Strangers – The Stanley Brothers (King Records, 1960)
Dylan of course played MANY Stanley Brothers tunes in concert in 1997–2002 and also recorded “Lonesome River” with Ralph Stanley in 1997.
*One has to remember that “Down In The Groove” was recorded BEFORE the CD boom and WAY BEFORE the downloading craze. Most of the songs Dylan chose to record were out of print at the time of the “Down In The Groove” sessions and therefore very difficult to get hold of. He probably sourced all of them from his personal collection.
As you can see the original record as it stands not only covers all the musical styles that are cornerstones of the Rock ‘n’ Roll era, it also references many important record labels of that period of time. Furthermore it literally maps out the Rock ‘n’ Roll and pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll landscape of the United States by touching upon sounds, record companies and protagonists from all relevant regions. It does so by avoiding the obvious and by spotlighting a kind of shadow history of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It is obvious that a lot of research and careful planning went into the conception and construction of this record.
In addition the album not only shows the way to the hidden treasures of the music of the 1950s and early 1960s. It also lays out the steps Dylan was about to take during the “Never-Ending Tour”-years. In the studio and on the stage. And on the radio: The source material plays like a lost edition of “Theme Time Radio Hour”.
IV. “Down In The Groove” and the “Never-Ending Tour” years
The atmospheric ambience of tracks like “When Did You Leave Heaven?”, “Ninety Miles An Hour” and “Shenandoah” points to the great soundscapes Dylan and Lanois created for “Oh Mercy”. With its sparse and echoy sound and throaty, deep vocals “Shenandoah” especially sounds as if coming straight from the “Oh Mercy” sessions.
The direct references to 1950s/early 1960s Blues, Rock ‘n’ Roll and R&B on “Down In The Groove” also inform “Under The Red Sky” on which “Unbelievable” quotes the intro of Billy Riley’s “Rock With Me Baby” (1956), “Wiggle Wiggle” is basically Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil” (1954) sped up and “Cat’s In The Well” reworks Wolf’s “Shake For Me” (1961) and Smiley Lewis’ “Bumbity Bump” (1955).
Songs like “Shenandoah” and the Stanley Brothers “Rank Strangers” lead directly to the archaic blues and traditionals on “Good As I Been To You” and “World Gone Wrong”. Furthermore the Stanley Brothers greatly influenced Dylan’s in-concert sound and repertoire from 1997–2002.
“Down In The Groove” also finds Dylan successfully capturing the sound of the ROOM the band is playing in as opposed to tracking single instruments and piecing the songs together from various takes. The technique of trying to capture the sound of the room – background, foreground and ambience – was a characteristic of many classic records of the ’50s and early ’60s.
Dylan’s briefing for Lanois before the “Time Out Of Mind” sessions was to create that kind of sound. On “Down In The Groove” and later on “‘Love & Theft'”, “Modern Times” and especially on “Together Through Life” Dylan created that kind of sound by producing the records himself (uncredited on “Down In The Groove”, under pseudonym “Jack Frost” on the other records).
Seen in this light the original “Down In The Groove” seems like a blueprint for all that followed. Like a conscious presentation of the musical palette Dylan works from. A new starting point, a new approach to recording just like the concerts took a new direction in 1987/88. “Down In The Groove” is the first presentation of what can now be seen as “classic” Dylan as heard on stage and on record during the “Never-Ending Tour”-years. Dylan is always in control of the material, the songs and his on-stage sound but starting with the original “Down In The Groove” he also assumed control of his sound in the recording studio.
V. Summing up
A close examination of the album’s sources and the history they carry with them surely deepens the impact of “Down In The Groove” in its original version. The album must be seen as a very personal piece of work by somebody who started out in popular music in the Rock ‘n’ Roll era of the 1950s – almost like a snapshot of one Rockabilly cat’s record collection and at the same time a panoramic portrait of “Americana” music in general.
Another undeniable quality of the record is that its sound stood the test of time. Just compare it to other records from the ’80s. It still sounds fresh and vibrant. Maybe even more so today than in 1987/88. A timeless piece of work.
One wishes Sony would release a remastered and reconstructed version of “Down In The Groove” with the songs and their running order intact again (“Had A Dream About You, Baby” could go on a future collection of “official rarities”, “Death Is Not The End” could be re-released on a future edition of “The Bootleg Series” – “The ‘Infidels’ Sessions”).
Finally the record is unique in Dylan’s catalogue as an album that focuses on songs he must know from the time before he became famous himself. Later “cover albums” include many songs that Dylan picked up after he had become a recording artist. The original “Down In The Groove” is a very important work as it spotlights the music that shaped Dylan when he started out in music. It presents the songs, the music and the sounds that originally inspired him to step out on stage and sing.
Thanks for your view Mr. Echo!
Worst or least favorable.. as I have commented on earlier.. just a way of framing.
BTW I am a huge Picasso fan.. and arts in general. But I do like some pictures of Picasso better that others, and that’s my point.
It must be OK to point out that not every artwork of our fav artist is equally good.
I like the ISIS article you put out.. Did You write it ? Good stuff..
We could at least agree.. to disagree 🙂
Thanks again for you’re long and informative feedback
Thanks, your views on Down In The Groove are revealing, to say the least. I’ve never disliked it, but now I’ll see it through new eyes and will see whether I can check the original version out. Thank you.
Glad you agree, and we’re on the same page. Some of Dylan’s best work is on bootleg versions of rehearsals and out takes. For him, there’s not much difference between a rehearsal and a performance. It all depends on how he’s feeling at the moment.
Granted, sometimes he ain’t feeling all that inspired. Nobody can be inspired all of the time. But you have to admit, he has often thrown himself body and soul into diverse contexts and genres, like no other artist I know. From folk to rock to country to gospel to disco to blues, and he is damn good at all of them.
I somewhat agree about Pat Garrett Egil, it is a very cool album to listen to. I basically meant about it only having a few songs with lyrics on it…stacked up to all the other albums it just, to me, is found wanting. It was actually being recorded when I was born so I have a special place for it, just in Dylan’s bulk of material it being the one with the least lyrics I put it on the list. Billy and even Knockin’ are two very good songs, and I enjoy the instrumentals on it very much.
And yes I run into a lot of people that single out Queen Jane on “Dylan & The Dead”…it is a nice document of that time period but I just think the mixture of Dylan and the Dead live is a horrid ordeal. I much prefer the huge bootleg “The French Girl” which is the studio rehearsals of Dylan and the Dead….he pulled out the stops in both performance AND song choices.
Yes the Letterman band haha! Europe in 84 could’ve been SO much more…but alas we get what Bob gives us I guess. As live albums go, stacking it up against Flood and Budokan, it just can’t hold a candle. Budokan, with it’s somewhat genius reworkings of classic songs, has that in itself to make it an interesting listen.
Yes, a bad Bob Dylan album is usually still better than a good radio-top-10 album. Burlesqu was cheesy in it’s production (as for the time period of the 80s) but there are some beautiful songs on it…I’ll Remember You, Dark Eyes, and When The Night Comes Falling.
As for further grinding into the Dylan & The Dead saga…let’s face it, they are two comPLETELY different style of live performers. I absolutely love The Grateful Dead, been collecting their music for years as well, but they’re too “good” at what they do. They’re a seasoned live jam band who knows eachother (by that time) like next-of-kin musically. They create beautiful MUSIC together but stick pretty much anyone in front of them, let alone Dylan, and you’re gonna have problems. I remember reading about Dylans rehearsals with them…they wanted to dig out all these old songs that Dylan hadn’t sung in years, and of course Bob didn’t remember most of them. He got pissed off and left during the sessions and came back later with a book – that had all the old songs in it, and he gave them run throughs (hear the before-mentioned bootleg). When you take that into account you see that initially Bob wasn’t comfortable, then get him out on stage with a band that plays as tight as Muzak and Bob can’t do what he does best, improvise. I think these things came across well in the album, and definately in the bootlegs and unauthorized videos from the tour. His vocals seemed like he didn’t know HOW to sing with them, so he did his usual lyric spitting. Like I said, I love Dylan AND The Grateful Dead but I just think it was a mistake, and I also think the only reason the tour AND the album were released was because of the huge explosion of the Deadhead culture in the 1980s youth (I myself included). On the flipside of the coin, the GD with their HUGE following during their whole touring years, were after that tour ready to embrace Dylan as one of their own. I remember when Jerry died in the 90s, all the sudden all these Dylan shows had an explosion of Deadheads, wannabe Heads, and 60s-generation people. It was like they were lost and somehow Dylan gave them something to follow again, even incorporating various GD songs into his set, and the lax of stage security in the 90s (my then-GF had got on stage and dance beside/touched Dylan). I think if Bob had never done the Dylan/Dead tour, and released that record, that it wouldn’t have been like that – they all wou’d’ve eventually migrated to jambands like Phish and Moe.
Thanks again for an insightful comment!
I’m not much of an GD man. But I do like American beauty & Workingman’s dead.
Enjoyed reading your GD / Dylan stuff.
.. right now I’m listening to Dylan’s 84-Paris concert – GREAT concert!
The ’84 Paris show was amazing. Along with the ’80 New Orleans show, it’s one of my two favorite bootlegs. I wished Columbia would do a Bootleg Series of that “retrospective” show from ’80 with improved mixing. It’s just insanely good.
I would love to get a Live 79/80 concert out on Bootleg series.. preferably a November 1979 concert.
Didn’t he do a week long residency at the Filemore West that fall (’79)? I was thinking that he did a song with Bloomfield, but I may be misremembering. One of those shows screams Bootleg Series.
Check out Olofs files:
If you think “Real live” is among the 5 worst Dylan albums, you gotta be deaf. What about “Knocked out loaded”? Didn´t make it to the final 5? It should be Nº 1 by far…
Thanks for your feedback Josè,
Have you listened to the 84 Barcelona or Paris concert ? Please do.
KOL is a really bad album.. except a brilliant Bownsville Girl.. thats why..etc..
I agree with your list more or less, but the genius of Bob Dylan isn’t in making albums, which are after all a commercial product. Dylan’s life work is all of a piece – the good the bad and the ugly – each part related inextricably to every other part.
The greatness of Dylan’s work comes from its integrity. Its deep and transparent honesty. Dylan is a master of improvisation – nearly everything he’s ever done has been improvised, on the spot, one take. When he’s good he is astoundingly good, and when he’s bad he is merely human.
Some of the albums you list as being his worst are (I think) deliberate attempts to demonstrate exactly that – that he is completely human, not god-like. Imagine an artist being so good, he has to go out of his way to prove that.
Thanks for the great feedback!
I agree! He surely is not an “album artist”.. He is a live performer.. that’s why he usually played live in the studio.
What about his performance on jan-15 1965… nailing master versions of Mr. Tambourine Man, It’s all right Ma & Gates of Eden in “one” take… unbelievable.
I like your point about he might just have put those albums out to appear human 🙂
As someone who loved Dylan’s collaboration with the Grateful Dead, I have to disagree with your inclusion of ‘Dylam & the Dead’. While the sound isn’t perfect, just listening to them being together is worth it. Who knows, I may like it for the sheer fact that it captures a tour I was unable to attend….
Thanks for your feedback Kevin!
I disagree, but appreciate your opinion.
In my opinion there are no bad Dylan albums. If I had to pick the five that were sub-par to his relative output I would say Groove, Pat Garrett, Real Live, Dylan & The Dead, and Xmas In The Heart. Groove being an album of half-baked covers, Pat Garret being an album of mainly instrumentals, Real Live (with the exception of the two outstanding acoustic tracks) is just completely forgettable, Dylan & The Dead being an album that shouldn’t even have been released, and Xmas being his biggest joke SINCE Dylan & The Dead lol.
Albeit “Dylan” was released to complete contractual agreements when Bob went to Asylum, it still has some great catchy songs on it, and some decent covers like Taxi and Fool. What differs it from a cover album like Groove is that Dylan seemed to really dig singing these songs – whereas Groove just sounds thrown together.
Dylan & The Dead is just crap though, they never should’ve toured and definately never should have released an album. Sloppy and second rate in both performance and track selection….Joey for christ’s sake, really?? I have a feeling this was meant to be a moneymaker for Columbia and I’d be surprised if Dylan actually agreed with it’s release.
Self Portrait is, albeit with its low points, a fantastic album to just relax to. The Isle of Wight tracks are bonuses set on a backdrop of songs that Dylan holds close to his heart. I don’t believe Bob when he says he released this albums just so people would leave him alone, I think he has more respect for himself and his art than to do that. There was also a lot of consideration into putting this album out, the rough texture of the cover that feels like canvas, the fact that it’s TWO albums and not just one like Groove, and the stories about Dylan showing up at Columbia showing this huge self portrait painting (the cover) to executives on the hood of his car.
Real live’s electric stuff just makes me cringe, I NEVER listen to it – and I’m a diehard fan. The acoustic stuff is the only reason this album ever comes out of it’s sleeve. There’s no value for me in the rushed, hectic, uninspired delivery of the band material.
Like I said, there’s really no “bad” Dylan album, just some you like less than others. To call ANYthing Dylan has done his “worst” is just showing misunderstanding of the mans evolution and talent. Sure it sucks, sure we never listen to them, but it’s still Bob Dylan.
Thanks for your extensive & insightful feedback Darkeyez!
I must say I agree on most of your comment.
* I don’t think Pat Garret belongs on the list.. it’s a good soundtrack to a GREAT movie.
* “Dylan”.. yeah it is a Columbia-revenge album.. but some songs are not that bad.
* Dylan & The Dead – horrible versions of most songs.. but I like QJA
* Self Portrait carries some good songs.. as I have listed
* When I’m in the 84-Dylan-Live mood I usually listen to the Barcelona concert.. or Paris. What a shame he didn’t take the “Letterman” band with him to Europe!
and what about “Tangled Up In Blue” from Paris ? Fantastic version!
* and calling my post “The 5 Worst Dylan Albums” was on some part just to provoke and get some feedback 🙂 If you have 1000 unique visitors reading your post… there is usually 0-1 feedback comments.
AND as I wrote: a bad Dylan album is usually a good album.
Thanks again for your feedback.
I agree about PG&BtK. It’s a solid bluegrass record on its own merit. Because there’s so few great songs lyrically its not among his best, but by no reasonably definition is it “bad.”
you are very wrong about Real Live.
Thanks for the feedback,
I like H61, TB & MOW. Don’t like the rest. I’ts a shame because he played many great concerts on this “mini” Europe tour.. had he picked material from Barcelona or Paris (great bootlegs available) it could have been a fantastic live album. What we’re left with is a bit frustrating in my opinion.
Dylan really isn’t fair game as it wasn’t a release Dylan authorized, and is less of a Dylan album then Christmas In The Heart. Down In The Groove is one of my favorite “car” cds, a guilty pleasure for sure, but one I love to turn up and sing along with. Worst for me are the ones I don’t listen to much or at all. That would be Budokan (by far), Real Live and the Pat Garrett soundtrack. I can’t find one redeeming song on Budokan, while Real Live and Pat Garrett have their moments for sure.
Thanks for the feedback,
Always interesting to hear other Dylan fan’s opinions.
I know about “Dylan” being released as a Columbia “revenge”, and did consider excluding it… but it is a Dylan studio album.. so I included it. I don’t get CITH.. and had to make a point… of some kind.
What about “Is Your Love in Vain” on Budokan ? I like it 🙂
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