A Dylan Cover a Day: Too much of nothing

By Tony Attwood

Dylan clearly did not rate the song himself – and for me the version on the Basement Tapes is one of the worst things, if not the worst, I have ever heard from Bob.   The attempt to add the ascending chord sequence, the vocal harmonies… well, maybe there are many people who love it and still play it, but not in my house, please.

But the song was rescued (and yes that is exactly the right word) by Peter Paul and Mary in 1967 in a version which I raved over for many a year.  Indeed for a long time it was right up at the top of my favourite Dylan covers.

Listening now all these decades later I still enjoy it, but I’m not at all sure why I got so excited about the song.   What they did was get rid of that strange chord sequence, and give the song a bounce, and of course give us a lovely contrast between the verse and the chorus.   In short they took out Bob’s move into the avant-garde, which I really think was a terrible error, and turned it back into a straight pop song.  And yes straight pop songs can work sometimes.

In 2010 Grassmakers decided that Dylan could become something else, but in fact what they did was take the PPM version and add some fun violin.

And that seemed to remind people that there was actually an interesting song here as in 2011 Invisible Republic had a go at putting together a version based on the alternative version – the one with the rising chord sequence, which I find really, really horrible.  To me that rising sequence sounds like something a 10 year old being given her/his first lessons in musical compositions would do.

It is not so much that just going up the scale chord by chord is wrong, it just sounds horrible, and there is no reason to do it.   As the alternative versions shows, it is perfectly find song without jumping all over the place in terms of what key it is in.

So let us escape as fast as we can and venture backwards to 2001 for Felix Cabrera’s version which gives the song a reggae beat.  And although there’s not too much in this version to excite me it doesn’t have that horrible rising chord sequence.

Anyway, enough of that because we do have versions that give more than hints of what actually exists within this song.  For in 1970 Fotheringay used their undoubted ability to take us back to the song as it is – a fairly simple song of regret.   The singer is, after all, “on the waters of oblivion”.

True, the last verse reads

Everybody's doing something,
I heard it in a dream.
But when there's too much of nothing
it just makes a fellow mean.

But that is no excuse to try and make the music sound like a nightmare.

But less you feel I might stop here, no, because every time I came across a new version of the song I would always get it, in the desperate hope that they would make the song, something approaching what I always felt it could be.

And mostly I was very disappointed.   Now in this series, mostly I ignore versions of the songs that I really dislike, but I’m making an exception with Five Day Rain.  I think this is horrible… the the “la la” is utterly unnecessary, so is the dominance of the bass, and the change of the chord sequence.   In fact I am almost getting to the stage where I might have to make my own recording of the song (but don’t worry I won’t force it on the rest of the world – it’s just for my own sanity).

But please do listen to this version all the way through, including the very long coda in which the title is repeated and repeated, before a very fast instrumental fade out.  I’d love to be able to ask the arranger why he did that.   I suspect the answer would be “we wanted to make it longer”.

And so, and so, after all the torment, I have to come to Fairport Convention.  It’

Previously in the series



  1. Just because the analyst of “Too Much of Nothing” by Dylan does not get how the singer/writer emotes through the lyrics and music of the song the alienation wrought by the materialistic overload in modern western society does not make ‘Nothing’ a bad song for other listeners.

    Peter, Paul, and Mary make it into a ‘pop song’, but that’s not the writer’s original intention.

  2. Dylan’s performance of the songs lyrics and and music of “Nothing”captures the alienation wrought by the overload of materialist things in modern society.

    It’s fine as it is.

  3. My argument Larry would be that because Dylan re-wrote the music completely himself, his original intent is less of an issue.

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