"The Basement Tapes", a double album from 1975, was the first official release of recordings made by Bob Dylan and the Band in 1967, eight years previously. This double album is heavily flawed from a historical perspective, for reasons I will go to in depth in this review. The sessions were well known and eagerly anticipated, largely due to Dylan's status in the rock culture. Very few musicians are as heavily mythologized, academically analyzed, or held up as one of the great movers and shakers of rock and roll as Bob Dylan. The Beatles are one. Elvis Presley is another, although he is more an industry unto himself than a musician bearing the same weight in a strictly academic, university setting.
In terms of Dylan's career, the recordings do feel fill in the missing link between the cerebral, wildly surreal, acid drenched "Blonde on Blonde" and earthy, brown, extremely streamlined and economical songwriting approach used in the 1967 album "John Wesley Harding", which differed so drastically from the wild garage rock and Beatnik writing of his three pre-motorcycle crash albums of 1965-1966. John Wesley Harding" is arguably a founding document and a progenitor of Alt Country ushering in a roots rock musical approach that would command such force in the late 1960s, moving away from psychedelic song-craft, and represented a great divide not only in 1967 (the year of Sgt. Pepper and Their Satanic Majesties Request), but also Dylan's own studio ouever.
"The Basement Tapes" are essentially several hours of recordings made on home equipment in the basement (hence the name) of Big Pink that Dylan made with the band in 1967, after the 1966 motorcycle crash. These sessions were never meant for commercial consumption. In December 1967 (several months after he had finished recording "The Basement Tapes" with The Band), Dylan released his first studio album entitled "John Wesley Harding" since the epoch-making double album, "Blonde on Blonde", which was rock's first double album. However, none of the twelve songs were known to be recorded during "The Basement Tapes".
Over the years, people have called for a Basement Tapes Bootleg Series installment. While such an archival release is inevitable, we must be realistic: a lot of these recordings are very brief, fragmented, and commercially not viable for a mainstream release, so I don't think we will ever see them all released. After all, the recordings were not done in the premier conditions. Also, don't be surprised if Dylan and his management have some aces up their sleeves when it comes time to do a Bootleg installment of this material. Until the release of "Another Self Portrait", NO ONE publically, and I mean NO ONE, knew that "Minstrel Boy" originated during the Basement Tapes era, let alone that a BT recording even existed! From a recording sessions perspective is the single biggest revelation yet unveiled in "The Bootleg Series". There are some other known songs that aren't circulating, including some legitimate Band songs and at least two Dylan songs, one called "Wild Wolf" whose lyrics were published in the 1986 book "Some Other Kinds Of Songs" and one about going up and down stairs.
In 1968, Rolling Stone ran an article on the unreleased sessions, calling them Dylan's lost album and did a track-by-track analysis of the material that they knew about. What they were referring too was a fourteen song acetate* that Albert Grossman (Dylan's manager) began shopping around his contacts in the music industry of the new songs Dylan had written with The Band. Beginning in 1967, several major acts began recording these new songs and scoring commercial success, which is how the acetate came to the attention of the rock journalist industry. **
Traditionally, most Dylan aficionados will refer you to "A Tree With Roots", a four disk bootleg that encompasses all known recordings currently in circulation. As far as the researchers can ascertain, "A Tree With Roots" is arranged chronologically. The first two disks are largely cover songs from a wide variety of musicians, and the last two disks are the originals Dylan began writing at that time.
The rock press and Dylan's rabid fanbase has assigned complex "mythological" meanings to these sessions, chief among them that Dylan was taping into the great American zeitgiest as defined by Harry Smith's famed "Anthology of American Folk Music", perfectly exemplifying that "Old, Weird America" as found in pre-rock musical traditions that so defined Dylan's song-writing ethos. Greil Marcus wrote a rather rambling, often times incomprehensible 1997 book by that very title, exclusively devoted to "The Basement Tapes", along with extensive notes and source information for over the 100 recordings on "A Tree With Roots".
All in all, Marcus's reading is a pretty complex reading of sessions that were never even meant to be released, let alone endlessly studied by the fanbase and self-important rock critics. Equally interesting is that at the time of Marcus's book, roughly eighty percent of the material was (and, as of Fall 2013, still is) commercially unreleased, though widely available via bootleg and the Internet.
So what does all this backstory have to do with the 1975 compilation? Several things, and not all of them good. The most defining (and frustrating) facet of the official release is there is a bit of sleight-of-hand going on.
First, as well noted, the 1975 official album features EIGHT Band tracks that were all recorded Post 1967, and are not original to the sessions. According to Robbie Robertson, The Band's guitarist, these songs, while not themselves strictly from the sessions proper, fit well into the lo-fi intrigue and musica feels and had thematic unity with the material recorded in Big Pink in 1967. While such an argument can be made***, bottom line is that these eight recordings did not belong at all and served little more than to push Robertson's own ego, with the rest of The Band taking a strangely silent approach to the release. Some work and overdubs were being down on The Band songs as late as 1974.
Secondly, "The Basement Tapes" was the first indication that were a lot more to the tapes than we knew about pre-1975. The 1975 released featured 16 genuine Basement Tape recordings, comprising twelve of the original songs from the acetate, along with four new recordings which were completely unknown (these being "Odds and Ends", "Going to Acapulco ", "Clothes Line Sage", "Apple Sucking Tree"). Of these four recordings, "Going to Acapulco" was (rightfully) haled as a major revelation about the artistry of Dylan and The Band during 1967.
Third, there were three omissions from the fourteen song acetate. Columbia released Take 1 of "Too Much of Nothing" instead of the more well-known second take on the acetate (personally, I far prefer the second take). We then have two simply STRANGE omissions, on the level of withholding "Blind Willie McTell" from the 1983 "Infidels" and "Girl from the Red River Shore" on the 1997 "Time Out of Mind LP". They did not include "Quinn the Eskimo" and "I Shall Be Released". Oddly, an Eskimo even appears on the cover, which is supposed to represent several different characters from Bob's songwriting.
Please understand, these two songs are NOT minor omissions. Both were massive hits and incredibly famous, and in the ensuing years, "I Shall Be Released" has become not only one of the most famous songs from the Basement Tapes era, but also one of Dylan's most renowned in general, which is saying a lot given the tremendous pedigree of his song-writing canon. Dylan would not release the Basement Tapes recording of "I Shall Be Released", one of his most famous songs, until a staggering twenty four years later, on the 1991 "The Bootleg Series Vol 1-3". He did re-record three Basement Tapes songs in 1971 and included them in "Greatest Hits Vol 2" (these being "Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood)". "You Ain't Going Nowhere". and "I Shall Be Released"). He also released a live rendition of "Quinn the Eskimo" form the 1969 Isle of Wight concernt on the critically panned 1970 double LP, "Self Portrait".
All in all, five other recordings have been released as of 2013: "Quinn the Might Eskimo" on the 1985 boxset "Biograph" and in 2000 on "The Essential Bob Dylan", the afreomentioned "I Shall Be Released" and "Santa Fe" on "Bootleg Series 1-3", "I'm Not There" on the 2007 soundtrack to the film of the same name, and "Minstrel Boy" on "Bootleg Series 10".
Fourth, as more material has become available in the intervening years, the 1975 compilation appears more and more lacking for the sheer amount of worthwhile songs simply unavailable, including some defining songs and undeniable highlights that have long been noticeably lacking official release. These songs include several unreleased covers and key tracks (such as "Sign on the Cross" and probably the most highly regarded outtake of Dylan's career, "I'm Not There (1957)". There were some Johnny Cash covers ("Folsom Prison Blues", "Belchazaar) that are fantastic. The lack of covers lack representation on what was really happening at Big Pink. "Young But Daily Growin'' and 'The Banks Of The Royal Canal" were on the master reels for official release but did not make the final cut.
Fifth, and this has always bugged me (The Red Album from The Beatles, and several other older releases, have the same problem), although a double album in the vinyl days, the 1975 release is just under 77 minutes long, which could easily have fit on a single CD. Instead, Columbia makes you pay for two disks. Dylan's "Greatest Hits Vol 2" also has the same problem.
On August 27th, 2013, Dylan released "Another Self-Portrait," too which I wrote a long, protracted essay. Someone responding to that review said that it felt rather ridiculous I would have composed such a long review over what was essentially an archival release from one of his most critically despised albums and felt my review was disproportionate to the actual compilation of outtakes.
The point this person was trying to make was that it appears every single album/project Dylan does gets a scrutiny simply not there for so many others, and he cited "The Basement Tapes" as an example. According to this person Dylan simply wanted to be a song and dance man, and not the second coming (or third or fourth, who's counting?) so many people want him to be. While his fanbase may contribute any number of wild theories to his music, sometimes I think we overanalyse Bob. When he heard that the 1975 release was doing well, he was surprised: he thought everyone had them by that point. That tells you that Bob keeps moving forward, and while we may assign different mythic meanings to different eras in his career, often times Bob is simply making the music he wants to make from his own artistic skill, and not channeling an "Old, Weird America" or any other such abstract nonsense!
For all the flaws of the original 1975 release, sometimes we get so lost in all the legend and backstory that we fail to concentrate on the music itself as simply that: music. While widely imperfect, regardless the 1975 "The Basement Tapes" features a key period in Dylan's musical evolution. But for once, and this is hard, put all your preconceived notions of the mythology of the Basement Tapes away, and instead just focus on the music. There's some great stuff there! And throw away Greil's book, at least for a little while! :)
(As far as the 1975 original release and the 2009 remaster, there's not too much difference, as these recordings very lo-fi to begin with!)
*The 14 Song Acetate:
1. Million Dollar Bash (Take 2: Officially Released)
2. Yea Heavy and a Bottle of Bread (Take 2: Officially Released)
3. Please Mrs. Henry
4 Down In the Flood (Take 2)
5. Lo and Behold (Take 2)
6. Tiny Montgomery (Take 2)
7. This Wheel's On Fire
8. You Ain't Goin' Nowhere (Take 2)
9. I Shall Be Released (unreleased)
10. Too Much of Nothing (Take 2, officially unreleased)
11. Tears of Rage (Take 3)
12. Quinn the Eskimo (Take 2, officially unreleased)
13. Open the Door, Homer (Take 2)
14. Nothing Was Delivered (Take 2)
**Taken from Wikipedia: "Peter, Paul and Mary, managed by Grossman, had the first hit with a basement composition when their cover of "Too Much of Nothing" reached number 35 on the Billboard chart in late 1967. Ian & Sylvia, also managed by Grossman, recorded "Tears of Rage", "Quinn the Eskimo" and "This Wheel's on Fire". In January 1968, Manfred Mann reached number one on the UK pop chart with their recording of "The Mighty Quinn". In April, "This Wheel's on Fire", recorded by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity, hit number five on the UK chart. That same month, a version of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" by The Byrds was issued as a single. Along with "Nothing Was Delivered", it appeared on their country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released in August. The Hawks, officially renamed The Band, recorded "This Wheel's on Fire", "I Shall Be Released" and "Tears of Rage" for their debut album, "Music from Big Pink", released in July 1968. Fairport Convention covered "Million Dollar Bash" on their 1969 album "Unhalfbricking"."
***In 2001, I wrote an extensive review about "The Basement Tapes", arguing that essentially the two disk 1975 double album, while flawed from a strictly historical, archival standpoint, flowed together wonderfully as a celebration of that "Old, Weird America" that Greil Marcus wrote about. While I still think the argument is valid, there is certainly a very real, almost tangible frustration with the way Dylan's management (and probably Dylan himself) handled that release as evidenced by my already extensive review from 2013. At risk of already extending the breathtaking length of this published review, I am including my original 2001 text as bonus content, with the understanding that I no longer hold these views, but I still think it's a compelling alternate view to of the official album.
Original Review: September 26, 2001 "Historical criteria murders this otherwise flawless album"
"The Basement Tapes' central problem, and here I speak of the official, double disc 1975 album is presentation. If the reader will read very many of these reviews he/she will keep coming to those who talk about the historical inaccuracy of this record and why, with so much (still unreleased) music in the vaults, it only makes this album all the more flawed. I will not go into detail on the historical inaccuracies other than what is immediately relevant to my own review as other reviewers have covered this topic quite thoroughly (given the review word limit). Alexander G. Lynn's review (7-1-01) is an excellent introduction into the various historical inaccuracies.
Essentially, the eight Band songs present are not legitimate but recorded later by The Band. The commonly agreed reason (well backed with evidence) is Robbie Robertson's ego. Historically this release paints The Band as being nearly as active during as Dylan, which simply isn't true. Dylan was the clear domineering force in the sessions, although that should not alone be reason enough to discount the worthwhile contributions that The Band brings to these recordings. Dylan and The Band fed off each other's energy.
My main gripe with the presentation of "The Basement Tapes is this blatant deception by Robertson, for the unimportant reason of feeding his own ego, totally throws this otherwise flawless album into the gutter simply because it entails all the wrong criteria to judge this work. From a historical viewpoint, this record needs an incredible amount of work. Eight tracks passing for "The Basement Tapes when they were not even recorded at the sessions do indeed have no business here (from the historical standpoint, that is, though not necessarily a musical, ascetic standpoint). Not only that, these eight tracks were made to sound lo-fi to fit more into the official release. It is bad enough to include tracks not recorded at the sessions, but to tamper with them makes it even worst.
We now come to the crux of the matter: the wrong criteria (from an ascetic point of view) is used (and must be, because of the method of presentation) in judging this work. With the release of "The Basement Tapes, everyone came at this work from a historical vantage point. This is still prevalent, and it is not unreasonable. Because this criteria is used, "The Basement Tapes are often viewed as deceptive and a botched opportunity (which, again, this release is indeed guilty of historically). To be fair, it would have been unprecedented for Columbia to release the complete Basement Tapes recordings. The five CD-set, with the extended time length unavailable to vinyl records, would be a massive set unparalleled with anything else in 1975. Box sets were not established as commercially viable until the mid to late 1980s with the publication of Dylan's BIOGRAPH and Clapton's CROSSROADS. This is important facet for my view of this album, because without this facet the view I am about to state would be damnably undermined.
If you strip this album away from the mindset of "This is "The Basement Tapes," and instead approach it with "This is Dylan and The Band reinventing Americana," suddenly the problems with this album just melt away. All of the music here is brilliant, including the eight Band songs.
What would make this album a success would be had it been released not as "The Basement Tapes, but a double album utilizing parts of "The Basement Tapes and Band songs that had not been officially released to give us a chronicle of their reinvention of Americana. From that standpoint, this album becomes an absolutely smashing success. Had this approach been adopted, the historical inaccuracy would not exist for the fact there were songs included that were not Basement Tapes would simply not be an issue because they were not being presented as Basement Tape tracks.
The reason why the establishment of Box Sets had not been included was because there would be the very reasonable question of WHY didn't they just release all of them? My answer, had it been presented properly, would be they found an official reason to release the songs. As it stands, the entire body of recorded Basement Tapes songs give us the same feeling: this is Americana at it's wildest, weirdest, and, oddly, most modern, yet because of the fact that had not been established, instead they give us this double album.
If this was presented as a study in Americana, this would be fully appreciated as the wonderful album it is. In his 2001 release "Love and Theft"*, Dylan does much the same with taking old musical traditions, letting them retain their traditional feel to it, yet giving us uniquely modern music based on traditional song structures and breathing new life into them. The reason "The Basement Tapes are so famous is because Dylan does the same here*. In a time when psychedelic was at its most prominent, Dylan and The Band was recording music that were at great odds with the musical community. CCR is the only comparable band during this time frame that engaged in the same sort of musical rebellion, and although they have a string of must-have albums, they do not reach the brilliance here. Their music was recorded for release whilst this was not.
Another thing this ascetic way of approaching this album has going for it, while historically a travesty, the eight Band tracks provides a context for Dylan's wild and extremely loose approach to these sessions, as AMG points out.
Bottom line: From a historical viewpoint, a botched opportunity. From the viewpoint of a study in Americana, this stands as one of the best albums ever issued. ...Dylan synthesized older traditions into music for our day and age. ... Dylan could not have accomplished this without burying himself in traditional songs and the older music of an era long ago. "The Basement Tapes of the 1960s and "Love and Theft" of 2001 have so much resonance because of Dylan's presentation of the older style of music in a distinctly modern approach, creating a tension that would not otherwise be there.