By Tony Attwood
There are two fundamental traditions in western music.
One is the classical-romantic tradition in which music was written down, and then played as the notation dictated. There were and are of course differences between performances, for example at the behest of the orchestral conductor, not least because some of the instructions as to performance were vague. The time (in terms of number of beats per minute) for example was not always indicated, and the volume marks (ranging from ppp for very soft up to fff for very loud) were to say the best, vague.
The other tradition was folk music which was normally only written down by collectors such as Cecil Sharpe who travelled the country writing down the songs he heard. That writing down solidified the songs to a degree, but even so variations in terms of speed, volume, emphasis etc continued. And indeed the whole tradition of folk music was that the songs would change according to the singer, which is why the same song would turn up in so many different variations across the country.
So two traditions. One more precise than the other, but both subject to variations.
Then along came recording technology and gradually the notion that what was on the record was how it was meant to be – at least for popular music. And that notion took on a stranglehold, in all sorts of ways.
For example, on TV shows (in the UK it was “Top of the Pops”, and I think from looking at old film recordings there were similar programmes in the USA) artists would mime to their recordings. Sometimes they were forced to perform live, because of agreements between the BBC and the Musicians Union in the UK, but in so doing the performers would endeavour (with greater or lesser success) to perform the song as it was heard on the record. The record in short became the definitive statement of what the music should sound like. It was agreed, “Rock Around the Clock” should sound like the Bill Hayley version on the 78 rpm record. Most artists attempted to perform it as the Comets laid it down.
But Bob Dylan’s interests and the tradition of music that he followed were not those of popular music dominated by record companies. He was interested in the music as music, and knew perfectly well that songs changed over time. And indeed that songs would often exist in various forms. And although a recording was seen by most people as the “definitive” version which laid down the sound for everyone, Bob’s view has been that this is now how it has to be. Nor in fact how it should be.
So in my view, Bob came to music with the concept of variation inside him, and the track that he laid down when making an album was simply how each song sounded that day.
Initially of course he did sing the songs he recorded in the way he recorded them, not least because there is a limit to the ways in which a song can be changed when all you have is an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and your voice. But when a band is added, the possibilities open up.
Of course, we should be very careful of considering what Bob did in changing his own songs as a revolutionary step. Bands would often try out their songs in different ways before settling on a version that would become the record. But what Bob did was to carry on making the changes AFTER he had made the recording. And in doing this he was just continuing the tradition of the blues and folk singers he so admired.
However, this vision was completely at odds with the pop music industry which at its heart had the top 20, or top 40, depending on where you lived. The charts were lists of recordings that were fixed. “Please Please Me” by the Beatles was heard multiple times day after day on the radio, record players and juke boxes and it always sounded the same. If a cover artist wanted to perform the song, he would perform it as the Beatles did it.
So what made Bob want to merge part of the tradition of a thousand years of folk music and the more recent tradition of the record being the definitive fixed version of the music. As I have suggested, the folk tradition with its endless changes, and different versions by different performers influenced him, of course. And I suspect so did his personality – he comes across to me as a man who loves change, who doesn’t want the same routine. He wants to record, he wants to tour, he wants to paint, he wants to create art in other forms… of course a personality like this would never just want to play the same song in the same way over and over again.
Which raises the question: what can be changed?
Dylan could of course change the lyrics, the chord progression, the melody, the tempo. And later he could change the instrumentation as well. And in turn this meant changing the musicians on tour with him. And when Hendrix turned “All along the watchtower” upside down, Bob realised and indeed admitted that just because he, Bob Dylan, did a version first, that didn’t make it definitive.
But to do all this changing, three things were needed. One was a staggering level of creative inventiveness. The second was the stamina and desire to be out there, performing these variations. And the third was a desire and willingness to take the most almighty risks.
And I’ll deal with those, if I can, next time.