Saturday, July 12, 2008

First thought, best thought

Yesterday my iPod came up with Bob Dylan's "I Pity The Poor Immigrant". I think it's one of my favourite records of any sort. I've played that one song about five times since and even tooled about with the chords on the guitar. Last night I looked out the album "John Wesley Harding" and played it all the way through.

I love the words - particularly that line about "his gladness comes to pass". You can't separate that from the singing, which is his most restrained and precise. He hits a frequency here that he never quite hit again. But there's something more than that. "John Wesley Harding" stills falls upon the ear as a blessed relief.

It was 1967. He'd written the songs in Woodstock that summer. He recorded them in Nashville. But that doesn't tell the whole story. I read here that he recorded the whole album in just three sessions of three hours each. That's what a union session was in those days. Three hours. Most of the time there were just two other musicians in the studio, drummer Kenny Buttrey and bassist Charlie McCoy. They don't really play like a rhythm section, not as we've come to understand it. Buttrey is accenting the songs rather than driving them.

Between the second and third sessions Dylan asked Robbie Roberston and Garth Hudson to think about overdubbing the tracks. They listened and couldn't hear a way they could be improved. So they were left alone. Forty years later it's still the most persuasive argument for the view that records increase in quality in inverse proportion to the amount of time spent recording them.

If you want to hear "Immigrant", it's here.


  1. Writer Clinton Heylin points out that Dylan took the same amount of studio time to record his entire output up to and including 1975's Desire as The Beatles did to record Sgt Pepper. John Wesley Harding, Planet Waves, the original acetate of Blood On The Tracks: all knocked out in less than a week apiece.

  2. Anonymous1:04 pm

    And my ears tell me Sgt Pepper is the better album.

    Dylan is often better covered than in the original. Obvious examples being Hendrix's All Along the Watchtower - is there a more exciting guitar intro in rock? Even Axl Rose brought a Exorcist-voiced energy to Knocking on Heaven's Door.

    Maybe Dylan should have spent more time in the studio making his unquestionably good song-writing actually sound better?

  3. Anonymous1:43 pm

    Some great music is made in the studio (Ok Computer, Dark side of the moon etc) some is rawer and more natural. Theres no point comparing them.

    As Duke Ellington said, theres only two types of music: music you like and music you dont like.

  4. One of the great Dylan albums. I never tire of JWH. Its just intriguing on so many levels.

    When you listen to all the "basement recordings" leading up to the recording of this album there is not a hint of what is to come on JWH.

    The economy of language in the lyrics, touched with biblical references throughout, that make the songs seem like parables.

    The fact that there is not one chorus on the whole album (the songs don't need any).

    The bass & drums performed with a deftness and lightness of touch that doesn't need to brag.

    Haven't a clue how this alchemy comes together when it fails so many other times but I suppose that's what makes music interesting.

    And, in my personal opinion, for all its (apparent) simplicity, a far greater album than Sgt. Peppers.

  5. JWH is a great album.

    I agree broadly with the point about the quality = 1/time spent in studio relationship, but I think there are bands like Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd who are exceptions.

    The first 2 Black Sabbath albums apparently took, respectively, 3 days and 2 weeks to record, yet they created a whole genre. By the time Ozzy left at the end of the 70s, they were spending months in the studio and sounding increasingly like Supertramp.

  6. Anonymous7:33 pm

    certain albums could never have been made anywhere but the studio. Pet Sounds being the most obvious example. A much better album than Sergeant Pepper in my opinion, and as highly influential as any of the later Beatles albums. Love Bob Dylan also and his low-tech approach, but I feel need to compare them. It might make for an interesting journalistic exercise, but in my view, beyond that, has little purpose. Like those top 100 programmes.