Beautiful Obscurity Subterranean Homesick Blues.

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

This is our celebration of the best, and the more unusual, cover versions of Dylan’s music.  Some of the earlier articles from the series are included here.

In this series Aaron in the USA selects the cover versions and sends them to Tony in the UK with only the occasional note or two, leaving Tony to try and write a commentary as the track is playing, without pausing for thought or repeats (as undoubtedly becomes apparent).

Aaron: Let’s listen to some interesting covers of Subterranean Homesick Blues.   First up it’s Tim O’Brien. It’s from 1996 and I loved this one!

Tony: I really don’t like pretend conversation introductions – sort of 1930s but without the style – but the musical intro on the banjo really excites me – this is certainly going to be different.  The only feeling I had was that it would be even more interesting to have some accompaniment playing in some of the verses.

But the vocalist handles the lyrics brilliantly, and the whole track is fun.  I loved the instrumental verses too – wow to be able to play like that.  I was really sorry when it faded out at the end.

What a fantastic piece of musical imagination to re-think a song that we all know so well, in this way.  And my criticism above about no accompaniment at any time to the singing, well, that was just a reaction on first hearing.

Aaron: Next up it’s Harry Nilsson – from the Pussy Cats album, produced by John Lennon with Ringo on drums!!

Tony: I actually have this album as an LP, and was a Harry Nilsson fan for a number of years although I absolutely don’t remember it sounding like this.   I do have memories of Harry Nilsson going off the rails, of him having a brilliant, amazing voice but then spending his time shouting rather than singing.   However by the rules of this series, I don’t have time to look it all up.

I don’t recall hearing this track at all – but I must have done, having got the album, and maybe I just played it once and thought this really isn’t for me.  Because that is what I feel now.  While the first track today really gives me some new insights and actually sounds like it is worth listening to, this just does nothing for me.  I don’t get any insight, any pleasure, nothing.

The guys sound like they are having fun, and of course Lennon in particular could get away with anything he wanted.  I just wonder why he wanted to do this.

Aaron: Now it’s Terrace Boylan – from his debut 1969 album “Alias Boona”. The link below is actually the whole album but the Dylan cover is track one, so no need to skip ahead. Rumour has it Boylan disliked the album so much he tried to have it withdrawn and even tried to buy back every copy!

Tony: Now you are really trying to mess with me!   This must be Terence Boylan – I’ll let you off this time Aaron!

Again, I’m not that inspired, although it is an interesting idea to put a whole series of chord changes, in essence keeping the lyrics but changing all the music.  But I am not sure it really adds too much to my enjoyment of the song.  And the repeating of the “Look out kid” line just seems rather false.   Worse, the following instrumental section is uninspired.

I think the key thing I am hearing here is that people who have tackled this song have started from the premise that aside from the lyrics everything must be changed.   And with a song this well known that is quite a challenge.  I did let the video run on to the second track, which certainly has interesting lyrics.   I don’t have time to look it up, but I wonder who wrote that.  But moving on…

Aaron: Tom Watts – Yes, this is the actor who played Lofty in Eastenders in the mid-80s, backed by members of New Order and The Fall on a minor hit single from 1986. The video is a riot, although it’s no surprise he’s never been invited on to Strictly Come Dancing!

Tony: This makes much more sense to me within the context of the lyrics.  It’s fun, as you say the video is a scream (although come on, it’s hard enough for me to write a commentary while the music is playing, let alone watch the video at the same time.  It is fortunate that during my early years of writing I learned how to touch type – so I’ll let you off Aaron).

And I do love “cos the vandals took the andles” just as the dancing commences.

By far the most enjoyable of the versions so far, and also the only one I’d suggest to people they ought to listen to.   Maybe they could have done more with the long epilogue instead of just having “pump don’t work” over and over, but yes, I’d recommend this as a great bit of fun.

Aaron: Sizzla – from the most excellent “Is It Rolling, Bob? – A Reggae tribute to Bob Dylan” album

Tony: More fun – I’d never have thought of using this reggae type rhythm (sorry don’t know the correct term for this rhythm) on this song – while copying what I remember of Bob’s original video.

So as I say, this is fun – just as the Tom Watts version is.  Each of them has enough novelty in the video while retaining the essence of the song to give that balance of entertainment and novelty along with a sense of “yes I know this”.  The song is meant to be a laugh, or at least that is how I see it, and this version like the previous one, keeps that element.

Aaron: Several other big names have attempted this one, Mountain, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stereophonics and Dave Stewart to name just a few but I thought I’d finish up with one from Bob’s old Greenwich Village friend.

Dave Van Ronk – from his 1994 album “To All My Friends In Far Flung Places”

Tony: The boogie woogie accompaniment on the piano is a terrific idea – it works perfectly – except I am not sure the balance of the lead guitar and the piano is right.   The piano is so beautifully played in the boogie style it sometimes feels as if the lead guitar is fighting the piano to be heard.  I know van Ronk was a pianist as well as a guitarist – is that him on the piano too.  If so, he’s brilliant.

Indeed, I wonder what it would sound like without the lead guitar at all, because that pianist really knows this style and you have the harmonica doing yet more interesting things.   I think maybe the producer just felt it needed a whole collection of instrumentalists fighting each other to realise the meaning of the lyrics.

But oh… I love the last two seconds, as the piano concludes the piece and changes key.  That is so funny.  Worth hearing again just for that.

There are indexes to some of our series both at the top of the back under  the Dylan picture and on our home page.


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