Classic album: Blonde on Blonde Bob Dylan

‘Blonde on Blonde’ is the third in Dylan’s mid-60s trilogy following on from ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. The trio were recorded in less than a year and a half and came hot on the heels of the famed ‘Dylan goes electric’ moment at Newport Folk Festival in July 1965. By the time ‘Blonde on Blonde’ was released a year later as arguably the first double LP (The Mothers of Invention released their double LP ‘Freak Out!’ at almost exactly the same time), there was no doubt that Dylan’s electrified sound was no fleeting fancy. Fifty-five years later, it’s now clear that the album was ground-breaking and a career highpoint that cannonised several elements of Dylan’s sound.

Opening with a woozy horn march on ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’, that during the recording sessions was likened to a Salvation Army band, it is clear from the get-go that ‘Blonde on Blonde’ cowed to no notion of tradition, style, or commerciality.

Initial recording for the album began in New York with members of Dylan’s touring band The Hawks but little headway was made. After some negotiation it was decided to take up new sessions at Columbia Records’ studio A on Nashville’s Music Row at the behest of producer Bob Johnston. Featuring a new backing band of key Nashville sessioners as well as Robbie Robertson and Al Kooper from the New York sessions, the new location and players acted as impetus for Dylan to enter a short prolific period of writing.

Through the mists of time the exact timeline of when sessions occurred and when tracks were finalised has been muddied, but by all accounts, in a matter of days several tracks were written and performed across several takes before final cuts were selected to Dylan’s liking. Adding into this, Dylan spent his days in the studio or his hotel room writing lyrics and melodies while the band played cards and otherwise wasting time until the wee hours when it became time to lay down on tape.

The resulting album has variously been described as abstract, chaotic, and ambiguous. As its cornerstones are Dylan’s observational character studies and a recurring sense of place. While tracks like the geographically titled ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’ would appear to be the most obviously rooted in place, it is instead tracks like ‘Visions of Johanna’ that are most firmly localised. Considered by many critics, fans and scholars as one of his most literate and finest tracks, ‘Visions of Johanna’ recounts a mournful, wishful, sorrowful valediction for a previous lover that is rumoured to be about Joan Baez. While the eponymous Johanna is marked by her lack of presence, Dylan instead unpacks the visions he has of life going on outside his window. It’s this same lack of place that plays at the heart of the aforementioned ‘… Memphis Blues Again’; Dylan wants to be somewhere that isn’t Mobile and to show that he paints a vivid picture of… Mobile.

This use of negative space to provide focus on his scene setting and characterisation continues on ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’. Like ‘Visions of Johanna’ Dylan is again cast as the ex-lover, this time unable to truly excoriate the subject of his infatuation. Instead he focuses on her attention-grabbing headwear all while documenting the places she goes and the new lovers she takes, the hat slowly morphing into a straw man for his ire.

The combined effect plays into the mythology of Bob Dylan as wanderer, unbound from context and place and riffing freely. The reality is that many of these tracks evolved out of drawn-out writing sessions with multiple takes and rewrites as ideas came and went and new asides were amalgamated into each track. The result is what really makes people love this album in particular but also so much of Dylan’s work, his finely crafted, heavily worked observations feel effortless and free-associative rather than rehearsed.

On ‘Blonde on Blonde’ Dylan provides observations of everyday characters and scenes while providing a hint of the left field in his details and nuance. His imagery is crafted in a way that leaves the listener with a sense of uncanny familiarity almost to the point of “I thought of that”. Where he really shines, however, is by using negative space to create a sense of movement, characters without physicality or backstory to suggest past and future with only Dylan and the listener existing in the present. Of course, the counterpoint is to suggest that it would be impossible for Dylan to ever provide flesh for his characters when his songs are, for the most part, about himself.

Ultimately, ‘Blonde on Blonde’ changed Rock music by showing Nashville session musicians could turn out more than Country, a former Folk musician could produce eclectic, intimate vignettes by marking where places and people were not and do so in a Rock ‘n’ Roll style that would captivate audiences for decades. As a Blues and Country based Rock album, ‘Blonde On Blonde’ foreshadowed an explosion in the style through the latter part of the 1960s and into the next decade. As a Bob Dylan album, ‘Blonde On Blonde’ marked the peak of an exceptional spell of song-writing that would soon be ended with a retreat from public view thanks to the onslaught of touring life.

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