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The quest for completion: on Bob Dylan and the Basement Tapes

Bob Stanley explores two six-disc sets: Bob Dyland’s the Basement Tapes, released at long last, and a super-deluxe issue of The Velvet Underground’s eponymous third album.

Bob Dylan in London in 1966. Photo: Express Newspapers/Getty

In 1987 I had just started working at NME. A collection of Byrds outtakes called Never Before came out. It was horrible. David Crosby had apparently got hold of the master tapes, pushed his voice way up in the mix, and – worse yet – added clattery Eighties drums to the recordings. I thought it was unlistenable, thought it may as well have been a Ben Liebrand remix, but deputy editor Danny Kelly – who I had, and have, the utmost respect for – didn t seem bothered: “I’ve waited so long just to hear these songs”, he reasoned.

You got what you were given in the olden days, when the music industry was fat. In 1975, CBS released Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes, a selection of the legendary sessions recorded in a house called Big Pink in 1967. Coming across this album in the Eighties, I was confused by how Seventies they sounded, and nothing like the missing link I’d expected between Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding. That was because Robbie Robertson had tampered with the originals, finishing them off, turning them into an album – “improving” them, I’m sure he thought.

The full set of Basement Tapes just issued by Sony – every variation, every scrap – is quite the opposite. The Basement Tapes were recorded over a whole year, a lifetime in Sixties pop, the difference between “Then He Kissed Me” and “You Really Got Me”, between “Drive My Car” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”, between “Barbara Ann” and “Good Vibrations”. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there are six discs’ worth of recordings; what is quite shocking is that Dylan allowed himself to be so entirely cut off from pop’s contemporary progression that there is no real aesthetic, melodic or structural difference between the music recorded in March ‘67 to that recorded in March ‘68.

Unlike almost everyone else recording pop music in 1967, Dylan cherished a means of escape more than a way forward. He wanted to know how to get out of being “Bob Dylan”, the prophet, seer and sage. Partly he worked this out by playing at being other people – John Lee Hooker on “Tupelo”, Johnny Cash on “Big River” – but the magic of this all-encompassing set is that you can hear Dylan and the group formerly known as the Hawks working together, at first tentatively, through all of their influences until, several months in, they hit a peak on originals like “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “Tears Of Rage”.

It goes something like this: disc one is made up of pussyfooting demos cut at Dylan’s home; disc two sees them messing about at Big Pink with a load of stoned covers (“See You Later Alligator” recast as a tribute to Allen Ginsberg); then suddenly on the third disc, their visions flow into one another – “This Wheel’s On Fire”, “I’m Not There”, “I Shall Be Released”. Midway through the fourth disc they revert to pissing about – blues jam “Get Your Rocks Off” makes “Rainy Day Women” sound deep, and “Bourbon Street” is dull enough to put you off touching another drop. A run through some of Dylan’s greatest hits on disc five (“Blowin’ In The Wind”, “It Ain’t Me Babe”, “One Too Many Mornings”) suggests the sessions had reached their natural conclusion (the final disc is made up of the poorest quality audio recordings that have survived), though it ends on an extraordinary high with the soulful, Curtis Mayfield-like “All You Have To Do Is Dream” and two deeply atmospheric tracks, “Goin’ To Acapulco” and the previously undocumented “Wild Wolf”. I’m no Dylan omnivore, but I imagine that for a true devotee, a brush with “Wild Wolf” would be like hearing “Tangled Up In Blue” for the first time. 

The six-disc set comes with a hardback photo book containing Elliot Landy’s pictures that resulted in the Nashville Skyline cover, as well as intriguing paraphernalia like acetate labels, picture sleeves of cover versions by everyone from Julie Driscoll to Jonathan King, and press releases. Everything, in fact, except a song by song breakdown. For that, you need to buy the two-disc edited version, though this lacks the essential “Wild Wolf”, and – of course – it only talks about the highlighted songs. Sid Griffin’s main essay furrows my brow, too: of 1967, he says “The hit parade showed a popular music full of incense, peppermints, tea parties with the vicar, white rabbits, grandly orchestrated musical backdrops fraught with ruffles and flourishes.” This is the kind of conservative sniffiness that led to cat-calls when Dylan dared to introduce strings and black female backing singers on Self Portrait in 1970. Griffin’s notes use words like “truth” and “passion”, rather like Mark Hughes discussing Stoke City’s footballing philosophy. By 1967, he gasps, “even Buck Owens had bought a Moog synthesiser”. Good God! Where’s Pete Seeger’s axe when you need it? Call me a closet librarian, but I’d love to have an idea – even a rough one – of when the songs were recorded and in what order, rather than one man’s assassination of psychedelia and progressive pop. No matter. This is an essential, and surprisingly undersold, set.

It has always felt like something of a cop-out to say that the Velvet Underground’s third album is your favourite; it suggests you prefer the easy melodic charms of “Femme Fatale” to the abrasion and darkness of “Heroin”, or that the now-departed John Cale had been somehow problematic. Then again, you’re always going to get the grit and dissolution of “Waiting For The Man” on first listen – whatever terrors of loneliness might lurk behind Mo Tucker’s breezy barstool piece “After Hours” are more subtle but no less dark, nor is the album’s gently delivered opening couplet: “Candy says I’ve come to hate my body/And all that it requires in this world.”

The super-deluxe issue of The Velvet Underground’s eponymous third is another six-disc set, another major excavation, though it throws up less surprises and variation than The Basement Tapes. Here’s one thing, though – I might be very late to the party, but I never knew that there were two totally different takes on “Some Kinda Love”, depending on which pressing you owned. One has a characteristically bored sounding Lou Reed explaining how some kinds of love are “like a dirty French novel”, but the eager, breathing-in-your-ear version I knew from my mid-Eighties vinyl copy was apparently part of the rarer “closet mix” of the album. This is how the album was originally released, a version of the album on which Reed had pushed the vocals higher in the mix than they were on producer Val Valentin’s first attempt. There are no other alternate versions but the difference between the “Val Valentin Mix” and the “Closet Mix” is pronounced enough that both are given a disc each on this new set, as is a promotional mono mix.

The real treat for Velvets nuts is that the 1969 session tapes – the bulk of which were first issued as VU in 1985 – have been revisited on disc four. These fourteen songs would have been the basis of their fourth album had they not been dropped by incoming MGM president Mike Curb (he went on to become Republican Lieutenant Governor of California in 1979. Hardly surprising he dropped them, really). Like the ‘75 Basement Tapes, someone with clown gloves on had remixed these in ‘85 – for the first time we now get to hear “Foggy Notion” as it was originally mixed in 1969, without the perceptible mid-Eighties studio air that thinned out the VU version. Better still is a new mix of “I Can’t Stand It”, another one-chord wonder that was rendered unrecognisable as a product of the Sixties by an engineer whose guiding light was presumably Bob Clearmountain. The gated snare and orange-grey air of the VU mix is gone, leaving something that sounds rattier, but much more in keeping with late ‘68.

It’s odd to note the influences coming through, post-Cale. “She’s My Best Friend” shares the vocal descent of the Beatles’ “All I Gotta Do”. Elsewhere, I hear the lust of Buster Brown’s” Fannie Mae” and, more surprising, the almost ghostly but very white and suburban harmonies of a trio called the Fleetwoods. One of the earliest covers on The Basement Tapes (and a surprise, given Dylan’s poo-pooing of Fifties teen pop) is the Fleetwoods’ 1959 US number one “Mr Blue”. There may have been a desire amongst both the Band and the Velvet Underground to cut through the undergrowth and find a clearing in 1968, but there was also the pull of music from their teenage years, not so long ago, when things seemed less complicated. The Fleetwoods as an influence – it’s a surprising, and very sweet coincidence.

Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.