Beautiful Obscurity: the covers of Like a Rolling Stone

Links to some of the earlier articles in this series are given at the end of the article

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

In this series Aaron in the USA selects videos for Tony in the UK to write about, based around one song of Dylan’s.  Just for the hell of doing something different, the rule is that Tony is only allowed as long as the recording lasts, to write his article.  So no pontificating, and no looking stuff up.

The Rolling Stones

Aaron: This was a big hit for the Stones in 1995 (UK #12/USA #16). I know Tony usually doesn’t like music videos but I really liked this one (audio only versions are available if you’d rather!)

Tony: It’s not that I don’t like music videos per se but rather that most of them seem to be made by film makers who think that cut and paste is an art form and that context, insight or artistic ability has nothing to do with making a video.  (Cue ex-theatrical walking around waving his arms shouting, “I’m an artist darling I can’t possibly work in these conditions”.)

This video (which I can watch as I type, having bothered to learn how to touch type when attempting to make a living as a journalist) is indeed one of the worst in my views as I got the message in the first 20 seconds and the rest is mere repetition.

As for the music, the one thing that stands out for me is the harmonica playing – so very different in style from Dylan’s but still interesting and insightful.    The trouble with the music is that it is so close to Dylan’s original in terms of accompaniment and Jagger is Jagger, being as shouty as ever.  So not much new to learn here.

Does this add anything to my understanding of the song?  No, not at all.

Bob Marley and the Wailers

Aaron: I believe Bunny Wailer is on lead vocals here.

Tony: now from the off I am encouraged because this doesn’t sound remotely like the original, and for the very first time in this long series of articles I actually stopped and wondered if Aaron had made a mistake and sent me over the wrong video.

And this is where our routine is almost going to break down – to do a proper review of this I will need to hear this again.   On this one listen while typing I am not even sure that the verse is a verse from Dylan’s original – have they added something new and just used the chorus.

That is really interesting.  I won’t cheat and go back, but I do hope you have a good listen to this if you don’t know it.  Really interesting.  I’ll certainly come back to it when my scribbling of these notes is over.

Mick Ronson (with David Bowie on lead vocals) – from Ronson’s album “Heaven and Hull)

Tony: OK a rock version using the famous chord sequence at full tilt.  I am not really overly impressed, although I can see what they are up to.  I get the impression that someone just said, “OK let’s see how fast we can do it.”

By the second verse, it is making a bit more sense, but really, I am not at all sure I will want to play this again.  It is just Rolling Stone played fast.  Even the guitar two-note counter-melody running through the chorus is not very interesting.   Nor is the shouting.

OK it improves when the frantic instrumental break ends, but I just get the impression of everyone trying too hard to be too frantic.   Indeed why do you have to be so frantic? (to quote Bob himself).

Jimi Hendrix

Tony: I feel a complete outsider now, as I didn’t know this Hendrix version before – and I am sure that as ever, everyone else does.   But here we are listening to a master at the height of his game, knowing exactly what he is doing, secure in the knowledge this is going to be a work of substance and insight, even though he hasn’t quite thought it through yet.

And it is.  We all know what he can do with the guitar, so that’s not the issue.  The issue is simply what is he going to do with the lyrics?  Of course, it is different, and he even manages to find a new melody for the first “How does it feel?”

I must admit that as it goes on, it is for me, not the most inspired Hendrix outing, but the way he can knock out the riffs in between the lyrical lines is just so extraordinary.

There is a problem, and I think this is a problem that anyone trying to record this song faces – it is what to do with the “How does it feel” lines of the chorus.  I don’t know how many times they turn up in the piece, but it is a lot.  In the original Dylan includes them as a relief from the avalanche of lyrics in each verse, and that worked wonderfully because we didn’t yet know every line off by heart.  But now we all know all the lyrics inside out, and so “How does it feel” has lost its function.  The singer has to give it a new point, and that’s what I feel Hendrix does to some degree – but only some degree.   When he was performing this of course it mattered far less, but now, all these years on, it is an issue.  For me at least.

Aaron:  Lastly, following all the legends of rock mentioned above I wanted to finish off with this one from 1967 :

Sebastian Cabot

Tony: Oh what a scream.  Everything about this is wonderful.  The musical background, the recitation, the tone colours in the voice.  Even the way he says, “Thought they were all kidding you.”   This is the first time in goodness knows how many years some of these lines have brought to me a new insight into the lines.

Just listen to “never compromise” and the way he says “vacuum of his eyes”.  Oh I do hope that you don’t just listen to a few lines and think, “that’s not right” and turn off.   This man brings extra meanings even after all these years.   Even the “how does it feel” lines get a new treatment.

This recording, even after hearing the song so many many times, gives me a new feel for the song, by taking out all the rhythm that Dylan put into it and replacing it with something new.  That is the one track from this selection I’m going back to play, and almost certainly not just the once – although I do want to hear Bob Marley again, now I come to think of it.

Magic.  Thanks Aaron.  I owe you for that one.

Beautiful Obscurity – comparing the cover versions

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2 Responses to Beautiful Obscurity: the covers of Like a Rolling Stone

  1. Chris Burton says:

    Spirit do a very different take from Dylan, we’ll worth a listen!

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    Turning a double-edged song Like A Rolling Stone into what sounds like a surfer freedom hymn lacks the tension of the original – for me anyway….but to each his own.

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