Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Some Are Mathematicians

A timely tweet from friend of Debris Slide Andy Greene reminds us that not only is Slow Train Coming a terrific album, easily the best of Dylan's three Christian records- which may not sound like it's saying much, but we're fond of all three - but it was very popular at the time. Street Legal, released in June 1978, had only gone gold and peaked at Number Eleven on the Billboard album charts, but Slow Train, which came out in August 1979, went platinum and climbed all the way to Number Three. It would be Dylan's last Top Five album until "Love and Theft" made it to Number Five in 2001; since then, in a time of greatly reduced album sales, both Modern Times and Together Through Life have peaked at Number One.

"Gotta Serve Somebody," Slow Train's first single, was also a big hit, relatively speaking, going to Number Twenty-Four on the Hot 100. With the marginal exception of "We Are the World," "Gotta Serve" will almost certainly be Dylan's last-ever Top Forty hit. The closest he's come since then is... come on, go ahead and guess.

For the record, Dylan never had a Number One album in the Sixties, but he had three in the Seventies: Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks and Desire. Planet Waves? Really?

Anyway, the closest Dylan has come to the Top Forty since 1978 was in 1984, when "Sweetheart Like You" went to Number Fifty-Five. But you knew that. Didn't you?


  1. I don't know from sales, but I love love love Planet Waves.

    I always viewed the Big Three as untouchable (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde), with the rest of Dylan's career--much as I loved most of it--somehow always serving as prelude or epilogue to that classic period.

    But now, perhaps due to a combination of my advanced years and the way those 3 sound in painfully clear digital nakedness, I find them sort of an aberration. They're brilliant, but clattery and often sloppy in a bad way. And the lyrics were brave and trippy, but he got better.

    So I find myself turning to others, esp. Planet Waves, Under the Red Sky, Another Side, Times They Are A Changin', the Basement Tapes, Infidels, hell, even Knocked Out Loaded, much more than those 3. Maybe I just know them too well.

  2. "Planet Waves" is awesome, but "Knocked Out Loaded"? That's pretty deep. Not for nothing is the title of that album a reference to shooting dope. (From the New Orleans r&b song "Junko Partner.") The title of "Slow Train Coming" is reference to a old blues lyrics about fucking ("your love is like a slow train coming"). Man has a sense of humor.

    Pretty much all Dylan albums are sloppy, and "Bringing It All Back Home" is kind of unbearable, or at least "Gates of Eden" is. But try the mono CDs. They sound pretty great. Also, "Heart of Mine" from "Shot of Love" (another God album title that references sex!) is totally, mind-blowingly great, and credits no fewer than three drummers, one of which is Ringo on rototom. (That's a drum set with no shell. Roger Taylor used rototoms extensively on Duran Duran's debut in 1981. Thanks, Wikipedia!)

  3. I'm still a relatively uninformed sucker for "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and "I Shall Be Released."

  4. Well, that's why I said "sloppy in a bad way." Planet Waves is loose but wonderful. "Like a Rolling Stone" is only listenable because the song and the vocal are so good. The drummer sounds like a crazed toddler. And it's really made much clearer/worse on CD. I'll try hear the mono ones, though; thanks for the tip.

    To be honest, I only put on Knocked Out Loaded for "Brownsville Girl," which I think is sublime.

    (Rototoms are just toms with no shell, not a hole drumset. You could spin them to change the tuning. Very 80s.)

  5. Damn you Wikipedia for not having pictures! But thanks — I've always wondered why Ringo was just playing the rototoms, and now I have a clearer visual of that moment.

    I'd say that "Planet Waves" is loose and that "Like a Rolling Stone" is sloppy. I love the stories out of that session — Al Kooper wanted to be on the track so bad he jumped at the chance to play organ, despite the fact that he didn't really know how!

  6. Well, I have a lot to respond to here, so I'll just do it piecemeal: To me the genius of "Like a Rolling Stone" is that it's so sloppy but somehow manages to stay on the tracks as it barrels along for seven-plus minutes. You think the whole thing is going to fall apart at any second, but it never does. Greil Marcus' book on that record lists all the takes, and demonstrates how easy it was for the song to self-destruct at any instant, but the one take where they made it all through is just miraculous.

    It's sloppy like "Louie Louie" is sloppy. That's not always a bad thing.

  7. "Heart of Mine," as you probably know, was the lead single from "Shot of Love," although it was quickly (and to my mind, justly, although what do I know) forgotten when people realized that Dylan had put the great non-album track "Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar" on the B side. You'd think it would be hard to leave off entirely what would have been the best song on an album, but Dylan managed to do it twice in a row, both with "Shot of Love" and then by omitting "Blind Willie McTell" from "Infidels."

  8. As far as "Planet Waves" goes, I'm mostly agnostic (I'm listening to it again today, although I doubt that will give me anything insightful to say about it). I'm just surprised that an album could go to Number One in 1974 without any hits on it. The single was "On a Night Like This," which is fantastic but didn't make the Top Forty, peaking at Number 44.

  9. Yes, yes, that crazy Dylan, leaving the good songs off the records! But "Heart of Mine" is one of those forgotten bits of greatness (find the Herman Dune cover!), and "Groom Still Waiting at the Altar" has aged badly -- at least for me. It's a blues readymade, no big deal, and sounds overdriven today — too much stomp, not enough subtlety. Of course, it sounded pretty good playing on the jukebox of the pizza place that was the only place I heard it at the time.

    Regarding your point about number one albums: When did AOR actually take over? Because it's certainly possible "On a Night Like This" got played, just outside Top 40 radio. Also, the album charts were notoriously subject to juicing in the pre-SoundScan era. Also, "Plant Waves" was recorded for David Geffen's Asylum -- Geffen had an interest in showing Dylan and Columbia records that he could deliver.

    And think it over — there hadn't been a proper Dylan album since "New Morning" four years earlier. Geffen forced Dylan to cut "Planet Waves" in a matter of days to get it out in time to take advantage of the tour dates he had booked with the Band — an accepted strategy that seems to have been more innovative then. So the Dylan audience — primed by the kick-ass tour documented on "Before the Flood" and excited for new product — buys a new album!

    Of course, Dylan didn't like David Geffen and apparently made so much money on the tour that he went back to Columbia and changed his whole strategy to one where the albums became afterthoughts and the tours were the thing.