Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home”

Album cover for Bringing It All Back Home

For this week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s fifth album “Bringing It All Back Home” from 1965. He had been listening to rock music and visiting with The Beatles. The first side of this record, an electric band backs Dylan; while the second side remains acoustic and without drums. “Bringing It All Back Home” came out in March with “Highway 61 Revisited” following just five months later.

Between these two album, Dylan infamously performed at the Newport Folk Music Festival with electric instruments. The folk music crowd expressed disgust immediately; they wanted the old Dylan back, not this traitor to folk music. Considering “Highway 61 Revisited” introduced me to Dylan in the early 1990s, the shift from acoustic folk to folk with electric seems rather quaint to me. Granted, he did perform this (what we could call) stunt at a festival for folk music. I also feel that while electric guitars are being used, there’s still plenty of acoustic guitar, and the songwriting is still deeply rooted in folk.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

The album opens with acoustic guitar strumming, then an electric guitar plays an upward glissando to get the motor started. These guitars are joined by two basses, a second electric guitar and drums. The songs rolls at a determined pace. The bass pounds on down-beat, the guitars jangling and improvising driving of the accompaniment along like a full-steam jugband. The chord progression follows a vaguely blues pattern: I7-I7-I7-I7-IV7-I7-I7-V7-I7-I7-I7, which is an unusual 11 bars.

Almost immediately, Dylan’s vocals launch into a continuous stream of lyrics with a paranoid cutup of the sociopolitical climate. Lyrics like these undoubtedly had influence on many later musicians like Beck, whose “Loser” immediately earned him Dylan comparisons in the 1990s. The promotional film with lyrics on cards has been imitated countless times.

He takes brief breaks between verses to play the harmonica. One wonders his lung capacity, especially since he was a considerable smoker at the time. Each verse has 17 short lines run together in an almost monotonous rhythm. The famous opening line tells us where the song is headed immediately:

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government

And of course the song ends with one of the most memorable lines, by anybody: “The pump don’t work, ‘cuz the vandals took the handles.” This rhymes with the earlier lines “Don’t wear sandals, Try to avoid the scandals.” This nonsense set of admonitions about keeping in line remind me also of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier.” Seems like the vandals might be having more fun, even if they’ve ruined our chances of using the pump, which I assume to be a water pump, but maybe it’s gasoline?

Love Minus Zero/No Limit

This week introduced me to the song “Love Minus Zero,” which I don’t believe I’ve heard before. I hear roots of some of the songs on the Velvet Underground’s debut album here. The song features acoustic guitars, a clean electric guitar, bass guitar, and drums. The performance and chord progression give the song a ballad feel. Like a repeating cycle telling a tale, or in this case, perhaps, more a vignette. He sings about his love, but in praising her qualities he also implies criticism of society in general.

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

Mr. Tambourine Man

At this point, I’m more familiar with the Dylan version, but I knew the Byrd’s recording of “Mr. Tambourine” first. It definitely has more of the rectangle eye-glasses psychedelic feel than the original. I’ve also enjoyed William Shatner’s unique kitschy take, which sounds like it was recorded in front of Laugh-In’s joke wall. “

Many have covered “Mr. Tambourine Man.”: The song even became subject of literary interpretation in the movie “Dangerous Minds” from 1995. I admit I’ve never seen the full movie, but I have seen that clip. In the scene, the teacher suggests that the titular Mr. Tambourine Man is a drug dealer. This is a common, and commonly disputed, interpretation. It’s not difficult to see the possibility, and it’s certainly difficult to unsee it. We cannot trust Dylan to talk about his songs either.

Dylan plays the song in the key of D, which I think tends to sound ballady or jangly. I like that the song break into a chorus which start with the dominant (V) chord of G, rather than the typical tonic(D). Dylan’s voice jump directly into the opening “Hey!”; He sounds caught in the middle of a melody and he’s grabbing the listener into it.

The chord progression for the chorus is V-IV-I-V-I-V-IV-IV for the first two lines, which is unresolved. That resolution to the tonic comes at the end of the last two lines of the chorus. Those last two lines follow the same progression, except finish with the tonic D chord instead of extending the subdominant A.

The verses repeat a similar pattern, though Dylan sings the verses a little lower and more restrained than the chorus. Here the verses repeat the V-IV-I-V-I-V which open the chorus, then deviate with I-V-IV. He plays this twice before returning to the chorus.

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you

John Lennon’s “Imagine”

Album cover for John Lennon's Imagine

This week, I’ve been listening to John Lennon’sImagine” from 1971. “Imagine” was Lennon’s second solo album after leaving The Beatles. My friend Mike Frost in High School listen to this CD a lot. He frequently played “Oh Yoko” for me, because it was my favorite. That was a couple decades ago, so I’d actually forgotten much of the album.

I was at first excited to get back into it, but on the first day I was underwhelmed. It seemed this album was overrated just because it was by John Lennon. The overly long “I Don’t Want To Be a Soldier” and the generic blues of the cheeky “It’s So Hard” failed to impress me. I mostly skipped the song “Imagine” simply because I’ve heard it a million times. Shame actually, because it’s an amazing song.

At the end of the week I was still saying the album was overrated, but realized upon reflection that I was wrong. The majority of the album is very good, even if there are some duds. It was actually difficult to narrow down which song I would focus on here. I opted to exclude “Jealous Guy” even though it is a beautiful tune; I also did not include Oh Yoko!” despite that fact I’ve loved it for years. Much of what I’d have to say about it can also be said about “Crippled Inside”

“Crippled Inside” dances like a jaunty country-western pace on a vaudevillian stage. The song opens with finger-picked dobro guitar with slap-back delay, somewhat consistent with the delay Lennon often uses on his vocals. After that melodic intro, the guitar is joined by drums, honky-tonk piano, upright basses, acoustic guitar and slide dobro.

The verses follow a I-I7-IV-IV7-I-VI7-II7-V-I progression; simplified this is a I-IV-I-VI-II-V-I. The bass walks down that VI7 – II7 change to descend with the lines “One thing you can’t hide”, which is answered with the gently ascending “Is when you’re crippled inside.”

Each verse has the couplet refrain rhyming “hide” and “inside”. The first two lines of both verses rhyme “hymn/skin” and “face/race” and the third line has a long I vowel (“tie” and “die”) for a slant-rhyme with the refrain “hide/inside” rhyme.

The melody lines of the vocals are continued by trills on the piano and slide guitar. These keeps a constant flow going through the track while maintaining that country-western feel. I really love the sound of that dobro and piano combination.

The vitrolic track “All I Want Is Some Truth” jumps into Lennon protesting hypocrisy, politicians, critics, and bigotry. Or really, just about anything that grinding his gears. They’re well-written, pointed, lyrics; though, I can imagine an on-the-street interview with a young person on the streets in 1971: “Why you are gathered here today?” ” I’ve had enough of reading things by neurotic psychotic pigheaded politicians. All I want is the truth; just give me some truth.” And that’s part of why the song is so perfect for it’s time. I also really like Lennon’s vocal delivery, which has the same bitterness to it as the words.

The music however gets tiresome as it repeats the same short phrases over and over. The vocals are really what carry this song, with the accompaniment providing a beat and mood. That’s the basic job of accompaniment, but I feel it should provide more. The best part is the slide guitar, which was played by former Beatles bandmate George Harrison.

George Harrison also plays on the best song on the album that’s not “Jealous Guy”: “How Do You Sleep.” It seems odd to me that Harrison would play on a McCartney diss track. While it’s wholly inline with Lennon’s personality, it doesn’t seem like Harrison’s style.

As with the rest of the album, we’re hearing traditional rock instruments: drum, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric piano, and vocals. There’s also some unobtrusive strings providing background padding, and occasionally between vocals lines giving some Indian motifs. For the most part, these instruments are with very minimal effects. There’s a little overdrive and reverb, plus some tight delay, but otherwise a very clean sound.

Again, one of the best parts of the song is Harrison’s guitar playing. You can watch him play in recently released outtake footage on Youtube. The bass played by Klaus Voorman, especially during the chorus, gives the song great movement and bounce. Each of these instruments are interacting with each other in a united conversation. The conversation goes back and forth, each reacting to the other.

There are some incredible tracks on this album, but overall I think it is a little week, especially in the middle. It opens with three great songs and closes with three great song, then there’s four songs in the middle that I could mostly do without. Oh well.

The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul”

The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" album cover

I dedicated this week to listening to The Beatles‘ sixth album “Rubber Soul” from 1965. Of course, I’m well aware of the Beatles. My tastes, especially since a teenager, was for their later work from 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper” on. I thought I wasn’t quite so familiar with “Rubber Soul,” but some of my favorites are on this album as well. With so many great songs, it’s difficult to choose only a few songs to focus on.

One of the most noticeable things about “Rubber Soul” on a whole is the hard-panning. During this period, albums often saw both a mono and a stereo release. The mono mix was given more care and attention, often bands like the Beatles were present and involved in the mono mix. The stereo mix was considered by some to be unnecessary, a slight variation of the mono, or worse, a gimmicky trend. 

I’ve seen two main reasons given for the Beatles stereo mixes using hard panning (each track (instrument) is completely in the left, right, or center.) Limitations of the studio equipment provided the first reason. Up until the late-60s, mixing consoles had a three-position switch for panning: Left-Center-Right, or LCR.

Another reason came from concern of playback equipment and what might happen if the stereo record was played on mono equipment. This second reason lead to the Center position being avoided. One “Rubber Soul” everything is either Left or Right. So, if the two channels were summed together as mono, the mix levels would be preserved.  That separation ccan sound nice in a room with wells-spaced speakers; However, it’s a very strange feeling in headphones to have the center be a void and everything is right in one ear or the other.

The album’s second track “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” is a slower folk-rock song in ¾ time with Indian influence. Not only incorporate influence from music of India, it was also the first rock song to feature an actual sitar rather than just imitating the sound with guitars. George Harrison had a genuine interest in Indian music and culture, which had an influence on much of his work.

Lennon’s lyrics about a less-than-satisfying love affair perhaps don’t reflect any sort of connection to the Indian flavor. Though there is a sense of exotic strangeness to the girl’s house, which can be like being a stranger in a foreign land. Apparently the last verse is about burning her house down, but it’s so vague it’s difficult to say. Though, knowing that Lennon has used the phrase “Norwegian wood” to refer to cheap wood paneling helps a little.

And when I awoke I was alone

This bird had flown

So I lit a fire

Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

The intro and verse probably have no real chord progression, but rather stay in the I chord continuously. At the very least a chord progression of I-v7-IV is implied by the melodic riffs. In this way, the accompaniment further imitates drones heard in Indian music. The sitar plays a riff in the left channel, which doubles the melodic portion of finger-picked acoustic guitar in the right channel. The same melody is almost completely followed by the vocal melody.

I have loved the Beatles “Nowhere Man” as long as I can remember, so definitely since I was a young child. It’s one of those songs that can be appreciated at any age. Gershon Kingsley recorded a great instrumental version of the song using Moog synthesizers that I have adored since first hearing it about 15 years ago. I love the sounds Kingsley has designed for the song, but I also really like the melody of this song. Again, the focus of most Beatles songs is the melody and the accompaniment supports that melody. 

The Beatles keep the instrumentation pretty simple on this track. In the left channel, we have drums, bass, acoustic and electric guitar. The acoustic guitar strums through a I-V-IV-I-ii-iv-I-I chord progression for the verses and iii-IV-iii-IV-iii-ii7-ii7-V7 for the chorus. I especially like that sound of the iii-IV-iii-IV part of the chorus. Still, though this is not a common chord progression, the acoustic guitar strumming pattern definitely is. The bass guitar, as I’ve noticed in several Beatles songs, plays the most interesting part of the accompaniment. McCartney gives the music a groovy counterpoint to the vocals. 

The electric guitar in the left channel mostly plays small melodic riffs during the short pause between verses. Another electric guitar in the right channel plays a solo after the first chorus. Backing vocals are also in the right channel, going ‘ahhhh, ahhhh, la la la’ during the choruses and doubling the lead vocal during verses.

I recognized during the week that one of my favorite tracks “I’m Looking Through You” sounds the most like a Monkees song, and I do love the Monkees. The bit after the chorus gets my attention. Right after they sing “I’m looking through, you’re not the same!” The organ and electric guitar pick up in energy getting a little louder and driving. The organ hits two chords along with the guitar and then guitar continues with a pattern of rapid notes. This interaction adds great energy to the song.

The percussion for the song consists mostly of Ringo tapping his fingers on a box of matches. There’s a few instances of tambourine, which seem to have perhaps been played in the background and picked up by another microphone. During the post-chorus sections, Ringo also plays a minimal but effective pattern on the drum kit. 

“Rubber Soul” deserves more praise among Beatles albums. I liked this album far more than “Revolver.” But, I also like “Abbey Road” more than “Sgt. Pepper“. Anyway, this was definitely another great album and one I’m glad I’ve gotten to know better. I’ll continue listening to this one for years, I’m sure.


The Beatles’ “Abbey Road”

The Beatles' "Abbey Road" album coverI’ve devoted the past week to the Beatles‘ 1969 album “Abbey Road” for what I can learn to improve my own craft as a songwriting musician. This album has long been my favorite Beatles album, though I must admit I’m not familiar with all of them yet. I’ve been looking forward to this week. It would be a challenge to keep it short, but it’s also been a busy week for me otherwise; I haven’t had a lot of time to write

As with the two Beatles albums I’ve already spent a week with, melody drives these songs. The band plays interesting accompaniment throughout, but it’s usually in support of the vocals. Between vocal lines, some other instrument often follows the melody path tying parts together. These songs provide a lesson in the importance of melody and focal point.

Come Together” starts the album with a classic bassline. This paired with percussion that rolls across hi-hats and toms creates cyclic coming and going groove. The effect is engaging, groovy, somewhat bluesy and even a little sinister. I can almost see the motion created by this rhythm. It’s one of the most rock n roll songs on the album. The verse are in a common rock I-V-IV progression performed in a blues style. Then the chorus hits with a vi#-IV- V that builds in intensity to drop back to the opening tonic bassline groove. I really enjoy the lyrics; I can’t say they mean much. It’s rock n roll injected nonsense.

Here Comes the Sun” bears a bright open optimistic feel appropriate to the lyrics. The song accomplishes this even with several moments of descending glissando on accompanying instruments. My favorite part of the song is probably the middle eight, which begins exactly at the mid-point of the song. I like the combination of use of the Moog synthesizer with very nature sounding handclaps.

I find the lyric to be a bit too cheerful hippie-dippy; Yet, I do appreciate the pastoral quality of lines like “Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter. Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here: Here comes the sun.” They sidestep excess elements of human society and modern life to focus on a basic and enduring fact of nature: the change of the seasons.

My favorite part of the album is the medley of songs that make up most of side two: “You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Sun King,” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Polythene Pam,” “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End.” I’ve always had a thing for songs with multiple sections and side 2 of Abbey Road more than qualifies.

These were apparently unfinished songs written by the Beatles, therefore worked together to form a whole. Somewhat of an exception is “Golden Slumbers”, a song largely based on “Cradle Song” by Thomas Dekker. This poem from the 17th century read:

Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise;
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby,
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.
Care is heavy, therefore sleep you,
You are care, and care must keep you ;
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby,
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

The main difference in the Beatles song is the addition of the lines “Once, there was a way to get back homeward. Once, there was a way to get back home.” which draws out the melancholy latent in the original. This beautiful tune with theatrical qualities leads into the burst of a ending march “Carry That Weight.” “Carry That Weight” repeats the melody of “You Never Give Me Your Money.” This ties the medley together. The lyrics then makes what I believe to an inverse reference to “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On” with “I never give you my pillow, I only send you my invitations.”