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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.

Scott Cresswell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Podcasting Down Under: Tom Wright on how Australia is innovating with audio

The ABC producer, formerly of the Times and The Bugle, makes the case for Australian podcasting.

In September last year, Ken Doctor wrote that “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Statements like this have been coming thick and fast since the first series of Serial dropped in October 2014. We’re either living through a golden age of podcasting, or the great podcast advertising boom, or the point when podcasting comes of age, or some combination thereof. For the first time, everyone seems to agree, podcasts are finally having their moment.

Except this isn’t the first podcasting gold rush. Tom Wright, now a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was there the first time media organisations rushed to build podcasting teams and advertisers were keen to part with their cash. Speaking to me over Skype from Australia, he said that seeing podcasts attain “hot” status again is “very strange”. “The first iteration had similar levels of excitement and stupidity,” he added.

In 2006, Wright left BBC Radio 1 to join the Times newspaper in London as a multimedia producer. The paper was “very gung ho” about using podcasts, he explained, particularly comedy and sport shows, as a way of reaching new audiences. There, he launched The Bugle with comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, The Game with football writer Gabriele Marcotti, and a number of different business shows. “This was ahead of the crash of 2008,” Wright noted.

The shows found large audiences almost immediately – “in my time, The Bugle had 100,000 weekly listeners,” Wright said – and The Game (plus periodic special podcasts pegged to the football, rugby and cricket world cups) brought in good sponsorships. Both podcasts and the videos that Wright also worked on were seen by the Times as “an add-on to the main deal” – ie, the paper’s news stories and features.

“Podcasts, especially in comedy, are still kind of seen as a marketing exercise for something else. . . My feeling is that a lot of comics – let's just pick on one country – in America, say, do a podcast and it's not particularly funny or good, but they flog their tickets for their tour relentlessly so you come and see the really good stuff.” Wright, however, saw the podcast form as something more than a marketing exercise. “My feeling was that we had this opportunity to do comedy, and maybe make it a bit more ambitious, you know?”

It all changed after the financial crisis of 2008, when the advertising money dried up. A new boss came in at the Times and Wright said the focus shifted to online videos and a greater emphasis on hard news. “Amazingly, they let The Bugle continue, which is fantastic,” he said.

(For long-term listeners of The Bugleof which I am one – Wright is a much loved presence from the first 100 episodes. He is referred to solely as “Tom the Producer” and used to chip in regularly to try and keep Zaltzman and Oliver to time, and to express his disgust for the former’s love of puns. Listeners used to write emails for the show straight to “Tom”, and he has his own section on the slightly bonkers Bugle wiki.)

Wright left the Times and moved to Australia in 2010. That year, the paper had introduced a hard paywall, and Wright said that he and other colleagues felt strongly that this wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to be writing or making stuff for 5,000 subscribers?” he said. “It was also a cost of living decision for me,” he added. “I'd been living in London for ten years with my wife, and we did the sums and just realised we couldn't afford to live in London if we wanted to have kids.”

Wright tried to keep producing The Bugle from Melbourne, a decision which he now describes as “insane”. “It was around 2am [Australian time] when they started recording,” he explained. “I was using my in laws’ Australian-speed wifi, and because I was uploading huge reams of data to the Times, they got stung with an enormous bill. I thought maybe this is a message that I should seek some local employment.”

Wright joined the ABC and went back to live radio, producing for a call-in programme on a local Melbourne station, before moving over to triple j – a station he describes as a bit like BBC Radio 1 in the UK. It was hard work, but a great introduction to life in his new country. “The best way to learn about Australian culture and the way of life was being at the ABC,” he said. “It's the most trusted organisation the country has, even more so I think than the BBC in relation to Britain, given all the scandals recently.”

After the success of Serial, he said he remembers thinking “are podcasts back now?”. “The Nieman Lab in America came out with a journalism survey about reader engagement, and it said the average interaction with a video is one minute, the interaction with a page is almost ten seconds, and with podcasts it's 20 minutes. That was just this eureka moment – all these people thought wow, that's an aeon in online time, let's try doing this.”

In Australia, Wright explained, as in the UK and elsewhere podcasts had been “just the best radio shows cut up to a vast extent”. But in 2014 publications and broadcasters quickly moved to take advantage of the renewed interesting in podcasting. He is now part of a department at the ABC developing online-only podcasts “that will hopefully feed into the radio schedule later on”. It’s a moment of unprecedented creative freedom, Wright said. “That sense of risk has been missing from radio, well media, for a long time. . . Like at the Times, we’re told ‘just go do it and come back with some good ideas’, and it's fantastic.”

Wright is focusing on developing comedy podcasts – as “Australian comedy is great and criminally underrepresented,” he said. One show that has come out of his department already is The Tokyo Hotel, an eight-part series following the inhabitants of an eccentric hotel in Los Angeles. It’s a great listen: there’s a lot of original music, and the fast-paced, surreal script feels at times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale. “It was hugely gratifying but immensely hard work,” Wright said. “It had its own score, numerous actors, a narrator who was Madge from Neighbours. It was quite literally a big production.”

The plan for 2017 is to bring out another, similarly ambitious production, as well as “a couple more standard ‘comedians chatting’ things”. Australians are already big podcast fans, and Wright reckons that enthusiasm for the form is only growing. “I think that Australia is a place that's not afraid to embrace the new in any way,” he said. “Podcasts are a new thing for a lot of people and they're really lapping it up. . . It's very curious because I think in Britain anything old is seen as valued, and the new is sometimes seen with suspicion. It's almost the exact opposite here.”

Five Australian podcasts to try

Little Dum Dum Club

Comedians Tommy Dassalo and Karl Chandler run a charming weekly interview show.

Free to a Good Home

Michael Hing and Ben Jenkins, plus guests, chat through the weird and wonderful world of Australian classified ads.

Let’s Make Billions

Simon Cumming and his guests aim to launch a new billion-dollar startup every week.

Meshal Laurie’s Nitty Gritty Committee

The commercial radio host shares the stories she’s been most surprised and moved by.

Bowraville

Dan Box, the crime reporter at the Australian newspaper, investigates the unsolved serial killings of three Aboriginal children.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.