Saturday, October 25, 2014

Bob Dylan, The #76 Artist of the Seventies*

Inside The Rock Era is featuring one of the most prestigious of our music specials, The Top 100 Artists of the Seventies*.  We've done some features on individual genres the last two months, but to be one of the elite members of this group, to say they are one of the best for the decade no matter what the genre, that says a lot.  We are saluting one artist per day, and this party is going to go into the new year!

This artist got his start in the 60's, and accomplished his greatest achievements in that decade.  Still, Bob Dylan was a force in the decade to follow, and makes The Top 100* here as well.

Dylan's songs "Blowin' In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" of the 60's are some of The Most Important Songs of the Rock Era*.  He began his career in folk music, because rock and roll songs "weren't serious or realistic enough for me".  Robert Zimmerman, as he was first known by his real name, performed his first shows at the Ten O'Clock Scholar, a coffeehouse near him in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

In 1960, Zimmerman changed his stage name to Bob Dylan, dropped out of college and later relocated to New York City.  There, he visited his musical idol, Woody Guthrie, who was seriously ill in the hospital.  Dylan began playing clubs around Greenwich Village.  It was a magical time and place to be, with a new generation finding new ways to express themselves, all under the larger Rock umbrella.

In fact, The Bitter End, one of the most famous of the Bleecker Street venues, is referred to as "the birthplace of Bob Dylan".  Be sure to spend some time there if you are ever in New York City.  Dylan gathered material from many folk singers around the Village, including Fred Neil and Odetta.  Later in the year, he played harmonica on an album by Caolyn Hester, which introduced him to producer John Hammond.

Hammond signed Dylan to Columbia Records in October of 1961.  But when Bob's first album sold only 5,000 copies in a year, some around Columbia referred to Dylan as "Hammond's Folly", and suggested dropping his contract.  But Hammond strongly defended Dylan, who was also importantly supported by labelmate Johnny Cash.

In 1962, Bob legally changed his name to Bob Dylan and hired Albert Grossman as his manager.  Dylan's second album was his breakthrough.  The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan contained "Blowin In The Wind", later made into a classic by Peter, Paul and Mary.  Dylan's masterpiece ushered in the era of the protest song and of socially conscious lyrics that had been absent in popular recorded music up to that time.

Fellow folk singer Joan Baez was instrumental in aiding Dylan's rise to international fame.  The pair became romantically linked, and Baez invited Bob onstage during her concerts.  Dylan made a bold and monumental move in 1965 with his album Bringing It All Back Home, his first with electronic instruments.  He then performed his first electric show at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival as the headliner.

Dylan continued as one of the most important performers of the 60's, with some even calling him "the voice of his generation".  In 1970, Bob released the album Self Portrait, which was scorched by critics, but has since gone Gold.  "Wigwam" from the album only reached #41.  Dylan had ended the 60's in brilliance, but he started the 70's with everyone scratching their heads.  But his Gold album later in the year, New Morning, was much better.  It included "If Not For You", which George Harrison included on his album All Things Must Pass, and was later a hit for Olivia Newton-John.
One of the better tracks on the album is "Went To See The Gypsy".  (Click on the "Play" Icon in the upper left-hand corner of the rectangle above...)

In 1972, Dylan recorded songs for the "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" Soundtrack and played a role in the movie.  While the film was a failure, the song "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" emerged as a hit, reaching #12.

The self-titled Dylan was his fourth consecutive album of the decade to sell over 500,000 copies and achieve Gold status.  But, unlike in the previous decade, Bob's songs did not resonate with the masses.   "A Fool Such As I" (at #55) was his best effort from the album.

When the Columbia Records contract expired, Dylan signed with David Geffen's label, Asylum.  In 1974, Dylan released the album Planet Waves with similar results--a half-million albums sold and what people in the music business call "stiffs" (releases that go nowhere), as "On A Night Such As This" stalled at #44.  For Dylan fans, "You Angel You" is another track worth checking out.  Bob utilized The Band as backing musicians for the album while preparing for a major tour.

Dylan went on a coast-to-coast North American tour with tTe Band, Bob's first tour in seven years.  It was a huge success, and Dylan also released his first live album in 1974, Before The Flood, which became his seventh Platinum album, but the first of the decade.

Meanwhile, Columbia made a major push to get Dylan back.  And Bob was miffed that despite the successful tour, Asylum had only sold 700,000 copies of Planet Waves.  So he re-signed with Columbia.

But really, it wasn't the record label but the material.  After the tour, Dylan and his wife were publicly estranged.  Bob jotted down his thoughts in a small red notebook about relationships and splits.  He quickly went to work on a new album, but delayed its release so he could re-record half of the songs at Sound 80 Studios in Minneapolis.  His brother, David Zimmerman, assisted with production.  When completed, Dylan had returned to the form he showed in the mid-60's with the album Blood on the Tracks.  That project included two of his greatest songs.  "Tangled Up In Blue" peaked at #31.

Critics at the time dismissed the album, but now have reversed course (which is why people, especially artists, should never listen to critics).  Bill Wyman writes in

'Blood on the Tracks' is his (Dylan's) only flawless album and his best produced; the songs, each of them, are constructed in disciplined fashion.  It is his kindest album and most dismayed, and seems in hindsight to have achieved a sublime balance between the logorrhea-plagued excesses of his mid-1960s output and the self-consciously simple compositions of his post-accident years.

Novelist Rick Moody called Blood on the Tracks "the truest, most honest account of a love affair from tip to stern ever put down on magnetic tape."

Blood on the Tracks became just the second album in Dylan's career to sell over two million copies.  It had nothing to do with the record label; it was far superior to Planet Waves.   One of the great tracks on the album is "Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts".
Another solid track is "Simple Twist Of Fate".
Another song popular with Dylan fans is "You're Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go" .

Another song worth checking out on the album is "Shelter From The Storm".

That summer, Dylan visited boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who had been imprisoned for a triple murder in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1966.  Dylan wrote the song "Hurricane", making a case for Carter's innocence, which he released as the first single from the album Desire.  At eight minutes and 32 seconds, extremely long for a radio station to play, "Hurricane" still made it to #33 in the United States.

Dylan embarked on the Rolling Thunder Revue, a tour featuring over one hundred performers from a resurgent Greenwich Village, that included Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Roger McGuinn.  "Isis" is another top track on Desire.

Desire also sold over two million copies, Dylan's last studio album to achieve that figure.  The last half of the tour was documented in the television special and album Hard Rain.  "Mozambique" peaked at #54.  

The tour also spawned the four-hour film Renaldo and Clara, complete with concert footage and reminiscences.  The movie was ripped by critics and had a very limited run at the box office.

In 1976, Dylan appeared along with other guests at The Band's "farewell" concert.  The Last Waltz, a chronicle of the show which included about half of Dylan's set, was released in 1978.

In 1978, Dylan performed 114 shows in Japan, the Far East, Europe and the United States to about two million people.  Concerts in Tokyo were recorded and released as the double live album Bob Dylan At Budokan.  The tour grossed more than $20 million.

Dylan then rented rehearsal space in Santa Monica, California to record the album Street-Legal.  It was praised as one of his finest albums of the decade, but featured poor sound recording and mixing, the result of Dylan's imperfections as a studio artist.  One track that stands out is "Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)".
In the late 70's, Dylan became a born-again Christian, and released one of his strongest albums of the decade, Slow Train Coming, in 1979.  It included his biggest hit since "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" in 1973, the single "Gotta' Serve Somebody".  The latter reached #24, but is another of his Top Unknown/Underrated Songs of the Rock Era*.

Another amazing track on the album is "Precious Angel".

Dylan failed to find the Top 10 in the Seventies, despite 20 single releases.  But as pointed out, he had several underrated songs and top-notch album tracks, and his 70's albums have sold 10.5 million copies.  And as the success of his tours in the decade showed, he was still a major force in the music business.

Dylan has been inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  In 2008, Dylan received a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize jury for his "profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.  In 2012, Bob received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from U.S. President Barack Obama.

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