Other people’s songs: Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

This series looks at and listens to Bob Dylan’s performances of songs written by people other than himself.  Aaron in the USA selects the tracks and Tony in the UK then tries to write something vaguely meaningful about each performance, but with the agreement that he has to finish the commentary by the time the track stops playing.  Although rambling is allowed.

Today it’s “90 miles an hour down a dead end street.”  A list of previous articles in this series is given at the end of the piece.

Aaron: 

Time magazine had this song in their list of “The 10 Worst Bob Dylan Songs”

They had this to say: “An overwrought metaphor for a relationship between two people who each belong to another, Dylan’s delivery is strained, forgettable and, worst of all, unconvincing. An instantly forgettable track.”

Written by Don Robertson and Hal Blair, it was first recorded by Hank Snow in October 1963, and it reached No. 2 on the country charts.

Tony: I have two problems here – and as ever with these little commentaries of mine these are very personal observation.  For me (an ex-motorcycle rider, although I sold my last bike just before my first daughter was born), songs about motorbikes are generally not that interesting – and I know as I’ve been there and to a small degree done it.   But there is one exception, and if you have read my ramblings before on the subject you might know it, but I’ll repeat it at the end. Any excuse to play the recording.

However, Bob’s 90 miles an hour… no not for me.  I don’t like slow songs where the instrumentalists are just told to fill in the gaps, because they invariably just end up making a noise, and that is what happens here.  Just listen to the recording and focus on the band and I think you might hear a bit of a mess.

The title line is really powerful, but it is never done justice in this version of the song in my view (although please do keep reading because they are not all like this).  I think the song was a filler – but then, it is Bob and he knows what he is doing.

Aaron: Hank Snow…

Here is another early version, before we move on to some more recent covers

Tony: This actually makes more sense as a parable – something that I find is lost in Bob’s version and now the metaphor makes sense – although what the girlie chorus is doing here I really am not sure, as least from a musical point of view.  And ok, we’ve now got the image, and I am still wondering how a producer could drop in the “Ah ha” from time to time.  

Moving on…

Aaron: Don Robertson

Tony: Of course what I generally don’t know is what Aaron actually thinks of these recordings himself.   And I guess if I did do, that would change what I’d write.   Do you like this Aaron?   If so please tell me why.

It is for me an interesting notion, comparing a relationship to a motorbike ride.  At least I have always heard this as a motorbike ride – but maybe I’m the only one who has that image.   Maybe it’s just me.

Aaron: Ashley Hutchings -ex Fairport Convention bass player

Tony: Ok, now this is cheating.  Bringing Ashley Hutchings in like this!   And I should explain: Aaron and I have written about Ashley Hutchings before and included some examples of his wonderful music – if you don’t know it, please follow that link – and see also what Bob said about it.

Anyway, this is, of course, the getting on for being perfect example of the song, because, well, that is what Ashley can do.  As it says on the Ashley Hutchings website, quoting Bob Dylan, “Ashley Hutchings is the single most important figure in English folk rock. Before that his group Fairport Convention recorded some of the best versions of my unreleased songs. Listen to the bass playing on Percy’s Song to hear how great he is.”

And yes, for me, all the previous versions we have had above, including I am sorry to say, Bob’s version, are just nothing.   Listen to Ashley, and you know what the song is about.  It is perfectly arranged, perfectly sung, perfectly recorded, and makes me want to play it again.

But back to the topic:

Aaron: John Berry – complete with, if I’m not mistaken, a Bob Dylan impersonation around the 2:15 mark

Tony: OK, this is good, and it works because the harmonies fit with the whole notion of the piece, which has a coherence of its own.  And it is this version which makes me want to go on.

If you want an example of Richard Thompson and Ashley Hutchings together, try “Who knows where the time goes.”  Which is as a good a way of understanding what Bob meant when he spoke about the greatest bass player…

But I won’t stay with Fairpport, because I am, once more, going to force something else upon you.  The greatest motorcycle song of all time.  And that after all is where Ashley started.

Besides if you don’t know this you are in for a treat and a half. And then some.  And then some more.  And if you do, you probably won’t mind listening again.

Incidentally Dylan did perform this once – and we have a recording of that here.

Footnote: Aside from this blog, Untold Dylan also has a very active (and excellently moderated) Facebook page.  If you don’t know it just go to your search engine and type in Facebook Untold Dylan.

Previously in this series…

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2 Responses to Other people’s songs: Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street

  1. John C says:

    I have to politely disagree – Dylan’s version has a sense of urgency and impending disaster that none of the others come close to. ‘We went right on’, ‘that warning voice’, ‘thunder’, ‘flashing’ , ‘disaster’ – the phrasing is immaculate (with special mention for Madelyn Quebec’s duet vocal). No need to get caught up in the motorbike thing – the message here is stark and moralistic, that casual dabbling leaves you at the mercy of destructive forces you cannot control. Thanks for the other versions too, but the Dylan/Quebec version for me has a guilt and terror that move it to a different level altogether.

  2. jack c says:

    sense of urgency and impending disaster .. well said

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