Dylan: The lyrics and the music. “Foot of Pride.” There really ain’t no going back.


I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.    A list of the previous articles in this series appears at the end.

By Tony Attwood

Foot of Pride is a song of lyrics and atmosphere – it starts out sounding like it is going to be a 12 bar blues playing the chords we would all recognise of the standard blues format (in musical terms that means chords I and IV), but then suddenly it all breaks up with the line “There ain’t no going back”.

Played in B the chorus line has the chords of G#m, E, B, which are perfectly normal if playing in the key of B, just somewhat unusual as a chorus of a blues format song in B (which itself is a very unusual key to choose).

But the music is spooky, and repetitive, and hence mostly we focus on the lyrics – especially in the version above (Spring time in New York).  In fact the song is primarily about the atmosphere created by living in a world where everything is already doomed.   And here we can see (as I believe we often see) Dylan is not primarily about the lyrics, but is equally about the music which creates the atmosphere surrounding the lyrics.

And the point here is that this song is not about melody or chord sequence, but is about the way the music creates an atmosphere.   Indeed I would say that the atmosphere in the recording above is unique in Dylan.   (And I know I can often go wrong in my claims of uniqueness in Dylan but if it isn’t unique, it sure is unusual).   This really is music and atmosphere, atmosphere and music.

Certainly, the melody, although present, often gives way to recitation, and this recording makes me wish that Dylan had taken this notion of music as atmosphere further.  But then I guess you have to be pretty desperate in terms of your vision of the future of the race to be thinking this way.

This last recording is one that I have picked up before and highlighted several times, Lou Reed performing the song live.   I’ve also mentioned before Lou is actually reading the lyrics from the monitor, which is itself interesting.  Why choose a song that for which you have not learned all the lyrics?  Maybe Bob suggested it.  Maybe Lou fully understood the message and agreed with it totally.

So to return to the key point of this series of articles: what about the issue of the music AND the lyrics, which is after all the very heart of this series.

The fact is the music is little beyond the recitation of the lyrics plus the atmosphere created by the way the guitar is played; that is the key issue.  The music here is not about an interesting, or plaintive or memorable melody, it is about the repetition of our foolish, hopeless lives – how for many people life can go on being the same monotonous and tedious repetition of hopelessness over and over again.

And to do that without making any of the versions of this song monotonous and repetitive is a very clever trick to pull off. It works because for me at least the lyrics themselves are absolutely fascinating, just as I find the atmosphere created by the song fascinating.  What Dylan is doing is writing about contemporary life which can be the same dire situations and outcomes over and over again, and that is the antithesis of what most songs are about.

In contrasting this ceaseless beat and guitar accompaniment with lyrics such as

in these times of compassion 
when conformity's in fashion
Say one more stupid thing to me 
before the final nail is driven in.

he forces anyone who cares to think about the feeling that the music presents.  As a result anyone who can listen to the lyrics has to hear the music and hence is pushed toward understanding the thought that we are all being slaughtered by the tedious humdrum existence of working life and TV, that so many people are forced to take.

That line, “Conformity’s in fashion” is one of the keys to the song: we no longer value the new, the unexpected, the different, everything now has to be the same, which is what that pounding unending guitar accompaniment says.   And worse, “There ain’t no going back”.  We have created this and we are stuck with it.

In fact the lines are telling us our lives are now meaningless because life is just a repetition.  Consider

If you don't mind sleepin' 
with your head face down in a grave.

and remember the music at the same time.

Being an atheist myself (something that makes me virtually an outcast in today’s world – or at least I can feel like that in today’s Britain) I also appreciate what this song says about religions in general – for Dylan in this song is being quite clear that religion is part of the problem, and not in any way the solution.

They like to take all this money from sin, 
build big universities to study in
Sing "Amazing Grace" all the way to the Swiss banks

And all the while the music goes on and on the same, verse upon verse, ramming home the message that there is no way out for their ain’t no going back.

Of course such a powerful song needs a powerful ending and it has to come from the lyrics because the song itself is not going to, and indeed cannot, change.  So we get the ending…

Ain't nothin' left here, partner, 
just the dust of a plague that has left this whole town afraid
From now on, this'll be where you're from
Let the dead bury the dead. Your time will come
Let hot iron blow as you raise the shade
Well, there ain't no goin' back 
when your foot of pride come down
Ain't no goin' back

If you are going to write a song in which the last verse ends “Let the hot iron blow as you raise the shade” you really need music that is forcing itself deep into the audience’s mindset so that they ultimately feel the message: this world is screwed, there is no way out, there ain’t no going back” and we certainly get this.

No other music could fit this message.  Dylan, the extraordinary composer, once again has met Dylan the extraordinary poet.   And as so often we need both lyrics and music to make it work.

The songs reviewed from the music plus lyrics viewpoint…

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