When Bob Dylan entered Columbia Records' Studio A in mid-January 1965 and blew out an 11-song LP in three days, he didn't merely go electric, invent folk rock and transition from an acoustic troubadour to a boundary-pushing rock & roller. He conjured performances that would completely reimagine how pop music communicated – not just what it could say, but how it could say it. "Some people say that I am a poet," he wrote coyly in the prose-poem notes on the back cover. Now, he was ready to test the limits of what that meant, rewiring himself for a singularly revolutionary moment. The fallout-shelter sign in the cover shot was on point: Bringing It All Back Home was the cultural equivalent of a nuclear bomb.
"The thing about Bringing It All Back Home was his words," says David Crosby. "That's what Bob stunned the world with. Up until then we had 'oooh, baby' and 'I love you, baby.' Bob changed the map. He gave us really, really good words."
As Dylan put it in his memoir, Chronicles, "What I did to break away, was to take simple folk changes and put new imagery and attitude to them, use catchphrases and metaphor combined with a new set of ordinances that evolved into something different that had not been heard before."
Dylan had been considering his next artistic leap forward for some time – at least since early 1964, when he'd been bowled over by hearing the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" on the radio. "They were doing things nobody was doing," he recalled. "The chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and the harmonies made it all valid. You could only do that with other musicians."
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On January 13th, 1965, the first day of sessions for the album, Dylan recorded solo and entirely acoustic, just as he always had, with a guitar, harmonica and piano. Some believe the idea was to cut demos for an all-electric LP. But Dylan was clearly feeling out the best approach for each song. His instincts were shark like. "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream," "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," "On the Road Again" and a variant of "Outlaw Blues" were recorded on that first day, in versions that have since surfaced. Within the next 48 hours, all those songs would be recut electric for the final release.
That first session also included a run-through "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and the remarkably tender "I'll Keep It With Mine." The latter, which never made the album, was apparently written for Nico, the German actress and singer who, before her recruitment into the Velvet Underground, spent some quality time with Dylan in Greece. (She would record the song for her solo debut, while Dylan's outtakes would surface on later compilations.) That one of his greatest songs wound up in the outtakes pile is a sign of the fire Dylan was stoking. The next day, January 14th, producer Tom Wilson put together a group of musicians to take things to the next level, including bassist Bill Lee (father of filmmaker Spike Lee), who had played on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, drummer Bobby Gregg, pianist Paul Griffin and, at Dylan's behest, multi-instrumentalist Bruce Langhorne. (Langhorne was the owner of the outsize Middle Eastern tambourine that inspired "Mr. Tambourine Man," though he actually played electric guitar on the song.)
A month earlier, Wilson had tried unsuccessfully to overdub rock backing on three Dylan songs, including his version of "The House of the Rising Sun." The technique would create a Number One hit when Wilson added drums and keyboards to Simon & Garfunkel's folk-pop watershed "The Sound of Silence," later in 1965. For Dylan, playing with a live band worked better, and as the session got going, the songs coalesced quickly. Daniel Kramer, who took the iconic photo for the front cover of Bringing It All Back Home, later recalled, "Most of the songs went down easily and needed only three or four takes. His method of working, the certainty of what he wanted, kept things moving."
Dylan's growth as a lyricist is most visible on the largely acoustic "Mr. Tambourine Man" and the wholly unplugged "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)." Both show his verbal flow exploding into dazzling shards of fevered image and abstraction. Tucked into the LP's second side, "Mr. Tambourine Man" was likely the album's first composition; written partly in New Orleans, Dylan had debuted it at a Royal Festival Hall show the previous May.
"It's Alright Ma," a tirade on poisoned culture, appeared on a Philadelphia stage in October. Dylan asserts that both songs were deeply influenced by Robert Johnson's blues lyrics and the twisted Brecht/Weill narrative song "Pirate Jenny" – in fact, an album of Brecht/Weill songs and a Johnson LP are among the records pictured in Dylan's room on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home. "It's Alright, Ma" is arguably the songwriter's greatest and darkest political song, and one of his last. Dylan wrote it in the summer of 1964 in Woodstock, New York, while folkscene peers Joan Baez and Richard and Mimi Farina were his houseguests. In the studio, he knew it needed nothing but voice and acoustic guitar, and he nailed it quickly. Dylan had never sharpened his anger to greater effect, taking aim at loathsome consumer culture – "everything from toy guns that spark/To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark" – advertising, propaganda, preachers, teachers, political parties, lemmings, functionaries, money, moralizing old-lady judges and the president of the United States. Yet, this was no finger-pointing jeremiad. It was the sound of Dylan transitioning from the political writing that made him a generational prophet to a broader, more resigned vision: "There is no sense in trying ... it's life, and life only."
With its talk of "a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship" and of "disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind," the heady, loping "Mr. Tambourine Man" was pegged as a drug song (in 1964, Dylan had introduced the Beatles to pot in a New York hotel room). But that's a shallow reading of a song that is, at its core, a hymn to the power of music itself. "He was singing some things that until then had just been confined to the pages," says Dylan's Minnesota friend, folk musician Tony Glover, "and it was kind of hair-raising."
The Bringing It All Back Home version of the song came after he ditched an earlier one cut the previous June for Another Side of Bob Dylan, although a new West Coast group called the Byrds heard that outtake and recorded their own abbreviated, electric version. ("It was pretty awful," says Crosby of the Dylan outtake, "we were able to take it and make a really great rock & roll record out of it.") Ironically, the cover became Dylan's first Number One pop hit when it was released in May 1965.
"He came to hear us in the studio when we were building the Byrds," recalls Crosby. "After the word got out that we were gonna do 'Tambourine Man' and we were probably gonna be good, he came there and he heard us playing his song electric, and you could see the gears grinding in his head. It was as plain as day. It was like watching a slow-motion lightning bolt."
But if the Byrds' tidy vision of folk rock launched a radio-ready subgenre, Dylan had much bigger ambitions. The boozy, sneering electric-blues spiel of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" – borrowing flows from Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business" and "scat songs of the Forties," as Dylan admits – would open the record with a blast of R&B swagger and a fire-hydrant outpour of verses. It was an immediate line in the sand ("The first rap record," says Glover). But that was just the start. "She Belongs to Me" and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" are shimmeringly intimate love songs; "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" and "On the Road Again" brilliantly funny lyrical bug-outs; "Outlaw Blues" a raw blues with a wink of autobiography. "He had a lot of balls," recalled Kenny Rankin, a guitarist who played on the album. "[It was] quite a thing just for Dylan to pick up an electric guitar."
On the final day, Dylan and the musicians were in the zone. They knocked out "Maggie's Farm," a raging protest-rocker, in one take, and he did the same, solo, with "Gates of Eden," a song at once baffling and undeniable. "I'm not even sure what the song was about," Glover says. "But I like the way it feels."
Dylan also got final takes of "Mr. Tambourine Man," "It's Alright, Ma" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," one of the finest kiss-off songs ever recorded and a contender for Dylan's prettiest song. "Baby Blue" reads as a barbed fare-thee-well to a lover, but also to Dylan's old core audience. It was an acoustic song, just guitar and harmonica, excepting the beautiful forward-tugging countermelody played on electric bass by Bill Lee. But its heart was rooted in the rock & roll. "I had carried that song around in my head for a long time," Dylan said. "When I was writing it, I remembered a Gene Vincent song. Of course, I was singing about a different Baby Blue." Another instant classic, it would be covered by the Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, Bryan Ferry and many others.
Decades later, in Chronicles, Dylan would reflect on the writing of "Gates of Eden" and the other songs of this era: "[They] were written under different circumstances, and circumstances never repeat themselves. Not exactly. I couldn't get to those kinds of songs [anymore]. To do it, you've got to have power and dominion over the spirits. I had done it once, and once was enough."