Other people’s songs: Bob Dylan and “They killed him”.

Previously in this series…

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

Aaron: The idea for this series is to take a listen to the tracks Bob has covered on record over the years and compare his versions with those of other artists’ versions and decide: Who did it best?

I’ll provide the song and the different versions whilst Tony provides the commentary, with the normal rule that we have (just to stop Tony from rambling on for too long) that he has to write the commentary while listening to the track, and then stop.

Dylan’s version of this Kris Kristofferson track appeared on his 1987 album Knocked Out Loaded

Tony: There is so much to like about this song and this arrangement, but there is something that doesn’t quite work for me.  It is a beautiful piece, and an exquisite arrangement that Dylan uses, but somehow there is something here that jars with me.  The children’s chorus and the change in the style of adult chorus at the very end just don’t fit well for me.   But against this Dylan’s singing is superb.

However when we come to verse two the way the percussion (or if I didn’t know better I’d say it’s a percussion machine, or at least a recording of the three beats played over and over again) just doesn’t work.  In fact more than that, it is very off-putting.

And I suggest it might be a recording of the three beats (although that is so very un-Dylan) because getting that timing right against the singing is just about impossible.  I expect a Dylan song to be played in the studio by Dylan and the band in one go, this sounds like a production job, to me.

Normally playing off the beat as the percussion machine does at or just before the start of each line can be attractive, but there is so much else happening here that I really find it difficult to take.

And the children’s chorus … it just seems like one of those dreadful “Hey guys lets get a bunch of school kids to sing at that point, that would be real cool…”   No artistic integrity, just a promotional idea.

And then… even the fade-out is so un-Dylan.   I really don’t like it.

Aaron: Johnny Cash was so enamoured with the song he rush-recorded and released it as a stand-alone single in 1984 (his second last single for Columbia)

Tony: Johnny Cash takes a simpler approach but still can’t resist having that opening theme played over and again in the accompaniment.  But at least there is no percussion machine (if that is what it was in Dylan’s version).

I find this version more acceptable except that the beat is, for much of the piece, plodding.   I don’t want the complexity of the rhythms in Dylan’s version, but just the thump thump thump of the percussion that we get for much of this version is just as bad, but in the opposite way.   Just listen to the reprise of the opening verse.

Oh yes, and Johnny Cash brings in the children too.   Does it say in the right-to-record contract “you have to have children singing?”

Aaron: Kristofferson didn’t record his own version until his 1986 Repossessed album

Tony: Ok now I am getting really worried.   And what do we get?  A bouncy bounce rhythm after the opening lines.   OK, by now I have to accept the fact that these great musicians can’t be wrong, it must be me.  And I do like the guitar break, except that the bass goes into the plod-plod-bounce approach.

After the instrumental break it does get a bit better, and thank goodness there aren’t any school children singing.  It’s not that I am against school children singing, but rather it just seems too obvious.

I don’t know… maybe I just want simplicity for a song about Gandhi, with no effects, no bouncy rhythm.  Perhaps I want Dylan 1962, not Dylan 1987.  No production, just a song.  After all, Gandhi’s message was so simple, so shouldn’t the music be too?


Untold Dylan is written by fans of Dylan’s music.  If you would like to offer a piece for publication please do send the article, or details of the idea, to Tony@schools.co.uk.

You can find details of some of the series of articles we have published at the top of the page, and there are also some more details on the home page.

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