|Bob Dylan recording in the studio 53 years ago this week|
It happened 53 years ago this week. Bob Dylan would go into the studio and record a song that would profoundly change him and the music world forever. During the spring of 1965, the writing was on the wall and Dylan was seriously considering leaving the music world. He probably would have too if it wasn’t for that one recording session that produced Like a Rolling Stone. The song would spend 12 weeks on the Billboard charts and reach #2. While that fact shows success, maybe I should mention that Rolling Stone Magazine gave it the #1 position on its "500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” list!
The song started out quite different from the final version we are all familiar with and that story is fascinating and worth telling on this anniversary.
As mentioned above, Dylan was in a bad place during the spring of 1965 and Like a Rolling Stone started out as a rant of hatred written in verse. Dylan himself described it later as a “long piece of vomit, 20 pages long.”
Dylan and a handpicked troupe of studio musicians, including Mike Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on guitar, entered the studio to record the song on June 15, 1965. Bob Dylan played piano and the song actually started out as a waltz in ¾ time. There were five takes recorded that day and only the fourth (I’ll play it on Wednesday) made it through to the chorus. Dylan’s voice was going and they called it a day after one more take.
The following day, June 16, they took a different approach. Bob Dylan would abandon the piano and take up his Fender Startocaster guitar, an electric guitar, and Frank Owen would play the Hammond organ to replace the piano. While waiting for a couple of necessary people to arrive, they recorded an unofficial take in which you can plainly hear that the song is no longer a folk tune done as a waltz. With two electric guitars, an electric organ and now in 4/4 time, it had suddenly become a rock and roll song, literally overnight. It was an improvement but Dylan still knew it was missing something.
In attendance in the studio that day was a 21 year old session guitarist by the name of “Al Kooper.” (Not to be confused with Alice Cooper.) He was a guest and just there to observe. Before the first official take, there was another change made and Frank Owens was moved from the organ to the piano. With the organ vacant, Kooper saw his chance and asked Producer, Tom Wilson, if he could play the organ. He claimed to have an organ part in his head that would fit the song really well. Wilson began objecting, pointing out that Kooper was a guitar player and not an organist. Before he could say “no,” he was called away to take a phone call. Since Wilson hadn’t actually said “no,” Kooper sat down at the organ.
No one took him seriously. Wilson came back into the studio and didn’t bother to remove Kooper. After all, with each instrument recorded to a different track, it would be no problem just removing him from the final mix.
That first take only made it through the first chorus but as they played it back, Dylan noticed the organ and insisted it be turned up in the mix. There it was and despite the objections of Wilson that Kooper wasn’t an organ player, and despite the fact that Kooper had missed cues and was off in timing, Dylan insisted that it would remain. The song was now complete and had almost reached its final form.
I say “almost” because there was no written music, just ten pages of verse that Dylan had for lyrical reference. This led to each take being quite different and Dylan even varied the lyrics from take to take. It all came together on the fourth official take that day and they found a certain magic on that rendition. It was the first time they had made it all the way through the song. Even Wilson admitted, “That sounds good to me.” They would record eleven more takes that day but none compared to the magic of Take #4. Take #4 would be mixed down and become the master for the final finished song we all know and love. It was destined to make history.
|21 year old Al Kooper helps Dylan make history|
Like a Rolling Stone had gone from a folk tune, written as a waltz to an electric rock and roll tune. Furthermore, the twenty pages of vomit and hatred that had been its lyrics were now not belittling the listener. Instead, they were showing the subject that they were lucky and revealing unseen hope to them. Finally, Dylan has described this song and session as his breakthrough. He now wanted to move forward with his musical career. He would go on to make 30 more studio albums and release countless compilations, live albums, videos and more.
The story is far from over and the rollercoaster ride had just begun. Soon after it was recorded, Columbia Records cancelled its release. The song was just too “electric” for a folk artist. Furthermore, at a full six minutes in length, it broke the three minute rule. For a song to make money, it had to be played on the radio. Radio stations shunned playing songs over three minutes in length and this one doubled that.
The Newport Folk Festival
Back in 1965, the acoustic folk guitar was sacrosanct to folk music. Dylan was going to break with tradition and create a great controversy with his song that Columbia relegated to the trash bin. It was five weeks after the recording session when Bob Dylan did something never done by an artist at the Newport Folk Festival. He took to the stage with an electric guitar and two musicians from that recording session were among those on stage with him. Mike Bloomfield also had an electric guitar and now keyboardist, Al Kooper, sat at an electric organ. They played Like a Rolling Stone to both cheers and boos and many Dylan fans were appalled. Bob Dylan had sold out… Bob Dylan had gone electric!
|Dylan goes electric at Newport, July 25, 1965|
And from the Ashes, the Phoenix Doth Rise
There was one executive at Columbia Records, Shaun Considine, who felt Like a Rolling Stone deserved a chance. At about the same time as Bob Dylan was pissing off legions of folk music fans at Newport, Considine rescued a discarded acetate of the song. An acetate is a metal disc with hot vinyl applied to one side and after being pressed, it makes a one sided record. The entire unit, metal platter and all, can be used temporarily until the official release.
One weekend, he took this acetate to a popular club in New York City and got the DJ to play it. It was a big hit and the crowd insisted that it be played many times that night. Soon radio stations were getting requests to play it and it was the radio stations that insisted that Columbia release the song. Columbia did something that had never been done before. It broke the rules and immediately released a six minute single. (see below)
Bob Dylan went from being a folk singer to being a rock star. The rest is, as they say, history.
|The six minute single that broke the rules|
What you will hear on Wednesday
To say you will experience a metamorphosis is an understatement. As mentioned above, the song starts out as a folk music waltz with a rant of hatred as lyrics. Through the process of the musicians adlibbing each part and other changes made intentionally, you will hear it transformed to what is arguably the most critically acclaimed songs in music history. The list below looks like a lot to listen to but it really isn’t. Most takes don’t make it beyond the first chorus and a couple last only 15-20 seconds each. However, through this you will hear the amazing change. Here is the list:
June 15, Take #4
June 16, Practice Take
June 16, Takes #1-3
Like a Rolling Stone (Final Release; June 16, Take #4)
Without playing the final version, the remainder of the list only takes about 6 ½ minutes to play. It really isn’t a lot but I hope you find the changes throughout fascinating.
June 15 Take #4
This take has Bob playing piano and is done as a waltz.
June 16, Practice Take
While waiting for others to show, some musicians do a practice take. Bob is now on electric guitar along with Mike Bloomfield and Frank Owens is on organ.
June 16, Take #1
Frank Owens is moved to piano and Al Kooper now plays organ. This is the take where Dylan realizes he has found what was missing.
June 16, Takes #2 & 3
Both only last 15-20 seconds each.
Like a Rolling Stone
I will play the final release which was produced from that magic Take #4.
Fun Fact #1: On June 24, 2014, Sotheby’s sold Bob Dylan’s original hand written lyrics for Like a Rolling Stone for a record 2 million dollars.
Fun Fact #2: In the choruses, Dylan makes many rhymes with the word “stone.” Like “complete unknown,” or “direction home.” At one point he considered lines using “Al Capone.”
Fun Fact #3: The song originally started out in the key of “A” before changing into the key of “C” in the studio.
This is a song that broke all of the rules and really never should have been. Despite being too long, it managed to get a lot of airplay and even charted at #2. It was a song by a folk artist that broke the rules of his genre and went electric. It defies categorization. It is undoubtedly a folk tune but no one would deny it is one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded. In it you can also hear doses of country and the blues. Top it all off with an organ that gives it a gospel revival touch. Not only did it save Bob Dylan from quitting music, it changed the course of music history forever. No longer were artists fettered by an industry demanding conformity. This song took the British Invasion and tore it up and stuck it back in the faces of the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Join me this Wednesday, June 13, as we watch a plain lump of coal get subjected to such great societal and industrial pressures until all that can emerge is the most beautiful of diamonds. Join me as we bear witness to greatness being born before our very ears.
“When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose.
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.
How does it feel?”