This is the post Nashville, pre-Christian period in the 1970’s, when Bob Dylan became a rock and roll gypsy.
This period was a bit of a roller coaster artistically and commercially for Dylan, who seemed restless after his re-emergence following his motorcycle accident. Remember the huge reception he got when he appeared at The Concert for Bangladesh.
Dylan’s journey through the 1960’s is well-known, from folk to electric to megastar. The 1970’s would prove to be equally transitional for Dylan, but in other ways.
Let’s briefly revisit the latter part of the 1960’s to see where Dylan was. Blonde On Blonde was released in 1966. It was recorded in Nashville and embraced about every type of modern music imaginable. Artistically, Dylan was at his zenith, many songs on the album are among his best. It was instantly hailed as a classic.
John Wesley Harding, released the next year was also recorded in Nashville. The songs did not vary in scope like his previous album. This album veered toward folk, although the classic, “All Along the Watchtower” emerged from these sessions.
Next up was Nashville Skyline which more fully embraces country influences. The album produced a couple of classics, “Girl From The North Country” and “Lay Lady Lay”. Self Portrait continues Dylan’s high-pitched country voice with many cover songs, instrumentals and a few originals. It was hard to know where Dylan was aiming. This defeat was quickly followed by New Morning, more of a return to his normal voice, but keeping his country feel, although it was recorded in New York City.
In 1973, Dylan accepted a role in the film, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, along with providing soundtrack music. This divides his prior country era with more of a folk/rock period. The soundtrack delves into Western/folk for the dusty biologue film, with “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” as one of Dylan’s best. Dylan would revisit this style over the next few years.
Dylan, released in 1973, after he left Columbia for Asylum. Dylan had nothing to do with the release, which featured leftovers from other sessions. His first new album for Asylum was Planet Waves, recorded in Los Angeles with The Band. Seen as very autobiographical, the album sold well and garnered positive reviews. “Forever Young” was the standout from the album.
Dylan toured in support of Planet Waves and the concerts with The Band was recorded and released as Before the Flood. The album, the last with Asylum (before he returned to Columbia), featured Dylan solo, with The Band, and The Band by themselves. The Band helped to support Dylan’s eclectic style of mixing folk, country, Western and rock into a tasty musical cocktail.
Next up was Blood on the Tracks (1975), the album with quite a musical history. Dylan recorded with different groups of musicians in New York and then recorded new versions of the songs in Minneapolis. The album includes songs recorded at both locations. This year (2018), a multi disc collection of different versions of songs from the album will be released.
Blood on the Tracks has a very commercial appeal for being very biographical. Dylan the lyricist is at the top of his game. It rose to number one on the Billboard chart and is ranked as one of the greatest albums by Rolling Stone magazine. The album yielded several classics including “Tangled Up in Blue”, “Idiot Wind”, “Shelter From the Storm” and “Simple Twist if Fate”.
The Basement Tapes was released the same year but is made up of songs recorded with The Band in 1967. Let’s skip this one.
In 1975, Dylan released Desire, one of his more remarkable albums. Different from Blood on the Tracks, Dylan blends folk, country and rock into a very soulful sounding set of story songs. This is definitely Dylan’s gypsy period. Desire may not be his greatest album but it may be his most evocative set of lyrics. Musically, Dylan takes advantage of backup singers Ronee Blakley and Emmylou Harris, and Scarlet Rivera on violin, which punctuates many of the songs. “Hurricane” is probably the most famous song on the album but there are many other interesting stories. The album was at number one for five weeks and sold two million copies.
Dylan was touring with what was called the Rolling Thunder Review, which in 1975, played 57 concerts. Some of those musicians played on Desire. Hard Rain, recorded in 1975, and released after Desire, the album was poorly received. For me, it felt the single album was simply a few songs released with no focus or presence. In 2002, Dylan released a two-CD set from the earlier concert on that tour as part of his Bootleg series.
Street Legal was Dylan’s next album, released in 1978. This album signals more changes in Dylan’s style as he abandons his earlier country/folk for something a bit more contemporary, keeping the background singers, but adding horns and more keyboards. Dylan was embroiled in a divorce at the time, and he was in post production with his Renaldo and Clara film. The biggest mystery for the album was the muddled sound produced, which years later would be remastered.
The ensuing tour, which produced the live album Bob Dylan at Budokan, ended the 1970’s.
The decade was arguably Dylan’s best, artistically he stretched his style and wrote some of his deepest, most personally revealing songs. He enjoyed numerous chart hits, sold a lot of albums, toured extensively, and got some of the best reviews of his career. He produced two classic albums, Blood on the Tracks and Desire. The Dylan of the 1960’s surprised with his folk emergence, his sudden electric shift, and the classic Blonde On Blonde collection. In 1970’s, Dylan didn’t sneak up on anyone but he continued to evolve and to mine riches of provocative stories and allegorical images of both despair, loss and fulfillment.