Wilbury’s Seven Deadly Sins: the music, the meaning, the craving for something better

by Tony Attwood

Seven Deadly Sins is one of the songs on Travelling Wilburys Vol 3 that has the sound and feel of being a Dylan song.  Indeed the video (below) makes this quite clear in the way that it focuses on Bob from the start to  the finish.

Quite how the song was recorded and re-mixed, and how much time Bob spent with the band, is a little open to dispute, but in the absence of other evidence it is probably safe to go along with Heylin’s notion that all the rest of the band felt the whole thing was a good idea, but they didn’t really have too many songs ready for the occasion.  So Bob did his songs.

The word “cheesy” comes to my mind by which I mean, rather corny.  You only have to listen to the opening line to know that it is a tribute to a slow 1950s doo-wop type of music that might be associated with a B side of a 78rpm by the Platters or the Teenagers.

There’s no harm in a tribute to this type of music, but to my mind there is a lot of doo-wop that is far superior to this.  But then I guess if Bob was contemplating something more original he probably would have kept it for himself.   Starting out with “Seven, Seven, Seven” as a way of building the harmony is rather … ordinary.

I say this because normally that build up of the harmonies by a doo-wap group heralds a song about love, lost love or dance.   I am far from being an expert on doo-wap, so I am struggling for examples, but “At the hop” by Danny and the Juniors comes to mind as a faster song which builds the harmonies in the same way and then tells us

Well, you can rock it you can roll it
You can slop and you can stroll it at the hop
When the record starts spinnin’
You chalypso when you chicken at the hop
Do the dance sensation that is sweepin’ the nation at the hop

Danny and The Juniors – At The Hop (1958) – YouTube  (I love the way they made the guys dress up in suits in order to mime).

Anyway, Bob’s lyrics are probably as meaningful at the start as those of  Artie Singer, John Medora, and David White.

Seven, seven, seven–deadly sins
That’s how the world begins
Watch out when you step in
For seven deadly sins
Seven deadly sins
That’s when the fun begins
(Seven deadly sins)

But then there is the twist – because Bob isn’t going to tell us about the deadly sins from the Bible (envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath) but rather his own list…

(Sin number one) was when you left me
(Sin number two) you said goodbye
(Sin number three) was when you told me a little white lie

(Sin number four) was when you looked my way
(Sin number five) was when you smiled
(Sin number six) was when you let me stay
Sin number seven was when you touched me and told me why

So the lady gets it both ways – one set for leaving him and one set for coming back again with a PS for giving him an explanation.  And that is it.  It’s all right for a couple of plays, but I wonder has anyone played it over and over (as I most certainly did when I first heard “Where were you last night?”)

The problem is that the song has just one musical idea and one lyrical idea, and neither of them is strong enough to carry the song through into something that we want to hear over and over.  It’s a bit of fun.  Nothing wrong with that, but it is just a bit of fun.

The chord sequence in the chorus is the standard for slow doo-wap – in this case A, F#m, D, E (or to be very precise E6).

The verse also has a standard sequence for this type of music; the piece modulates in almost classical style from A to D and then off we go.

D, E, A, A7

D, B7, E, F#m, E7

The only other comment I can make is that I read one review of the song which suggested it is a waltz.  Maybe I am getting senile but I can’t possibly see how this is a waltz – to me it is in standard four time, plodding along at 1, 2, 3, 4 throughout.

Yes, its ok as a knockaround, but it is a shame that all this stupendous talent could not have spent a little more time and put together something more original, as they did on the first album, and as I have intimated, as Dylan did later on this album with “Where were you last night.”

If this turned up on the Basement Tapes it would be fine, but this was a supergroup and I just think they could have done better.

What is on the site

1: Over 390 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.


  1. I think the lyrics might have a little more going for them (though not much). Couldn’t the last four lines be taken as him coming back again, as you say, but also as continued deception on the woman’s part? That way they’d be sins in that the relationship ought not to be prolonged, but alternatively in that she’s still misleading him – including in the very last line in which she’s gently getting his attention before delivering the bombshell that she’s going.

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