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

Bringing It All Back Home was the record where most of us encountered Dylan electrified for the first time, dropping the needle onto the run-in track and hearing for the first time the strum of Dylan’s acoustic guitar rapidly joined by the electric guitar, bass and drums that drive the hard-rocking ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. It was a revelation.  It was a revolution, says Richard Williams marking the 50th anniversary of the recording in today’s Guardian.

Dont Look Back subterranean 1

The version of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ that we all heard on Bringing It All Back Home was recorded on 14 January 1965.  But on the previous evening, in a three-hour session at Columbia Records’ studio A at 799 Seventh Avenue, Bob Dylan had recorded 14 songs, including a solo acoustic version of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’.

Dylan at the first BIABH session

Dylan at the first BIABH session, 13 January 1965

That session was the first one of three over three consecutive days in the New York studios. None of the versions that Dylan recorded that evening, accompanying himself on guitar or piano and playing harmonica, were used on Bringing It All Back Home. Some were later released officially: ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ was included on Biograph, and the solo version of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and ‘Farewell Angelina’ are on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. You can hear them all here, on a Grooveshark playlist, including a beautiful account of ‘Love Minus Zero’.

Look out kid
It’s somethin’ you did
God knows when
But you’re doin’ it again

Dylan at the second BIABH session

Dylan at the second BIABH session, 1 January 1965

Actually, this wasn’t Dylan’s first foray into recording amplified music.  As early as autumn 1962, he produced the frantic ‘Mixed Up Confusion’ that had been released as single.  But, in the intervening two years, a lot of water had flowed under many bridges in the music world. The Beatles had invaded America, while in the previous summer The Animals’ version of ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ (which Dylan had recorded on his first album in traditional folk style) had been released as a 5-minute single. The Geordie lads had taken Dylan’s arrangement and given it the full electric rock treatment, dominated by Hilton Valentine’s electric guitar and Alan Price’s surging organ sound. Dylan later said that when he first heard The Animals’ version on his car radio, he was so overcome that he ‘jumped out of his car and banged his head on the fender’.

The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the D.A.
Look out kid
Don’t matter what you did

Bob-Dylan-manuscript-subterranean-blues

Bob Dylan’s original draft of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’

For the second recording session, producer Tom Wilson had assembled a group of musicians to record with Dylan. They were: Al Gorgoni (guitar), Kenneth Rankin (guitar), Bruce Langhorne (guitar), Joseph Macho Jr. (bass), William E. Lee (bass), Bobby Gregg (drums), Paul Griffin (piano), John Sebastian (bass) and John Boone (bass).

Don’t follow leaders
Watch the parkin’ meters

In Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan Volume 1, Clinton Heylin quotes Dylan as saying that ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’

Didn’t sound right on guitar. I tried it on piano, harpsichord, harmonica, pipe organ, kazoo.  But it fit right in with the band.

As Heylin rightly says, the acoustic version ‘sounds just fine’, but it doesn’t have the punch of the final electric version.  Looking back in 1977, Dylan said:

I couldn’t go on being the lone folkie out there, strumming ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ for three hours every night.  I hear my songs as part of the music, the musical background.

In Clinton Heylin’s words, at the second session on the following  afternoon, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ ‘acquired a kick like a mule’.

Dylan at the final BIABH session

Dylan at the final BIABH session, 15 January 1965

Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows

Several commentators have highlighted the debt owed by ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ to Chuck Berry’s 1956 single, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’. In No Direction Home, Robert Shelton writes that Dylan borrowed from Berry, ‘simple, basic ensemble blues-chord structure, use of the voice as a prominent instrument, sarcastic lyrics, bright mood, and tripping tempo’.  While Clinton Heylin notes some lyrical plagiarism as well :

A close examination of the original Berry lyrics suggests ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ took a scintilla more than ‘a bit’ of Berry’s teen anthem. Dylan even changed one typed line, ‘Says he’s got a bad bill,’ to, ‘Says he’s got a bad cough,’ in order to blur one particular debt found in verse one of the Berry original: ‘Runnin to and fro, hard workin’ at the mill / Never fail in the mail, yeah, come a rotten bill!’ Likewise, it is hardly a leap from, ‘Same thing every day, gettin’ up, goin’ to school / No need for me to complain, my objections overruled,’ to, ‘Twenty years of schoolin’ / And they put you on the day shift’ – great slogan that it assuredly is.

Robert Shelton notes another influence:

The lyric structure, with short, punchy phrases, owes much to skip-rope rhymes. Blues and R&B often use this traditional form, known to every kid who ever played on an American street. Guthrie and ‘Paul Campbell’ (a Pete Seeger pseudonym) used this device in ‘Taking It Easy’:

Mom was in the kitchen, preparing to eat,
Sis was in the pantry looking for some yeast,
Pa was in the cellar mixing up the hops,
And Brother’s at the window, he’s watching for the cops.

Shelton adds that the ‘Subterranean’ lyrics, with their ‘fast-forward images of cops, government men, and district attorneys in a silent-movie slapstick chase’, tell the story ‘in a few deft strokes’ of someone who is always just one jump ahead of failure. He quotes Ralph J Gleason who summed up the song this way:

Dylan hit on the mindless drive to blame the young, the new, and the different, and on the true hypocrisy of the American dream.

Dont Look Back subterranean 2

From the opening sequence of DA Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back

Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid

In an alley behind the Savoy hotel in London, during his British tour four months after the recording sessions that produced Bring It All Back Home, Dylan was famously filmed  – in what might constitute the first pop video – singing  ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ whilst discarding sheets inscribed with the lyrics.

It became the opening sequence of DA Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back, that documents Dylan’s 1965 tour of the UK. In the scene Dylan displays and discards a series of cue cards bearing selected words and phrases from the lyrics (including intentional misspellings and puns) while Allen Ginsberg lurks in the background.

Dont Look Back subterranean 3

 From the opening sequence of Don’t Look Back (Alan Ginsberg to the left)

When we finally got hold of the LP containing ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ we found something else that was new: a record cover that kept information to a minimum, and which was adorned with a brilliantly staged and mysterious colour photo. It had been shot by Daniel Kramer and  featured Dylan and Sally Grossman, his manager’s wife. On the back were photos of Dylan with various friends of the time – Joan Baez, Peter Yarrow, and Allen Ginsberg.

BIABH cover

Using an edge softened lens, Daniel Kramer had photographed Dylan sitting in a room full of LPs and magazines. Behind him Sally Grossman stares defiantly into camera. To Dylan’s right, LPs by Eric Von Schmidt, Lotte Lenya, Robert Johnson, Ravi Shankar and The Impressions lay scattered, a suggestion of the many influences – blues, soul, folk and the lyrics of Bertholt Brecht – on his work. Dylan’s previous album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, is stuffed beneath a cushion behind Sally Grossman’s back.

Extraordinarily, during the seven months that followed those Bringing It All Back Home sessions in January 1965, Dylan would record both Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, creating not only his three greatest albums but also transforming the music scene.

The pump don’t work
’Cause the vandals took the handles

Dont Look Back Official Trailer

Dont Look Back: commentary on the ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ clip

See also

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One thought on “50 years today: On the pavement, thinking about the government

  1. I first saw Don’t Look Back as a student at the Art College in Plymouth in the early 80s. I had listened to Dylan before that, but this made me a lifelong fan. Shame that all promo music videos aren’t so appealing.
    Thank you for sharing this, though managed to transport me back 30 years rather than 50.

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