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Published: 2010/10/27
by Brian Robbins

Bob’s Got Mono: Listening To The New Dylan Box Set

There are times when boxed sets of a musician’s work are nothing more than a way to appeal to two potential buyer groups. First, there are the just-starting-out-and-wanting-to-jumpstart-the-collection buyers who see it as a crash-course in their new interest’s catalog. And then there are the borderline obsessive-compulsive completists who will wade through 50 songs they already have on the original albums just to lay hands to the one never-before-released track that’s tucked on the end of the boxed collection. In the end, the question oftentimes begs to be asked: other than sales numbers, what’s the point?

In the case of Columbia/Legacy’s newly-released box set Bob Dylan – The Original Mono Recordings, the answer is clear: this is the way this period of music was meant to be heard. From Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut album released in 1962 to 1967’s John Wesley Harding, the studios were simply the canvas, not a brush or a color. There were no Electric Ladyland sessions exploring the realms of sonic redesign. The original monaural recordings of Dylan’s first eight LPs were documents of the music, plain and simple.

The recordings were captured in single-channel mono – any stereo manipulation of the sound was a matter of dissecting the event as it happened and rearranging history. (And in the case of just the young Mr. Dylan and his guitar, if you’re faced with concocting some stereo separation, what else can you do but put the vocal here and the guitar over here?) They were intended to be heard in mono: through the single cluster of holes in the dashboard, the transistor pressed to the ear, or the record player’s self-contained speaker. (They weren’t called turntables back then, boys and girls – they were record players.)

Think of the sound of Dylan’s early music as a cone: on the far end – the receiving end – the sound would prove itself to be as big as the whole world. But what needs to be remembered is that the small end of that cone was no bigger than perhaps a foot-and-a-half in diameter – whatever the distance was from the treble strings of Bob Dylan’s guitar to his mouth. That was it. The harmonica sat just inside that same circle, waiting to be employed as needed.

When the number of players increased, so did the size of that sonic cone’s point of origin – but it was still a single point, a defined sonic source, a solid punch. To bust the presentation apart for the sake of stereo separation is to change it. Ultimately, you’ve altered the message.

The Original Mono Recordings represents the first time these albums have been available on CD in their original mono form. In addition to the two titles already mentioned, the box set includes The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), The Times They Are A-Changing (1964), Another Side Of Bob Dylan (1964), Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde On Blonde (1966). Note those original release dates, folks (the actual span is from March of ’62 for Bob Dylan to December of ’67 for John Wesley Harding) – those were the years when Dylan was becoming Dylan and the evolution expressed itself in prolific song.

Rather than a cut-by-cut re-review of material that has been written about constantly for 40-something years, let’s take a look at the albums included in The Original Mono Recordings, focusing on one key moment from each that represents the power and immediacy of the mono presentation.

It’s hard to believe that the young lad on the cover of Bob Dylan – all pinchable-cheeked and doe-eyed – was the owner of the road-weary voice contained within. Of course, he really wasn’t – he was just borrowing it. Woody Guthrie was young Bob’s hero and the hobo zenmaster’s presence is felt all over the album. There are glimpses of what lay ahead for Dylan, however – even the harsh world of rock and roll. And the mono presentation only adds to the drama.

“Highway 51” on Bob Dylan is more than a rearranging of an old Curtis Jones blues tune – it’s absolute pure punk. Seven years before Ron Asheton’s fuzzed-out guitar welcomed in “I Wanna Be Your Dog”; fifteen years before Johnny Rotten snarled his way through “Anarchy In The UK”, Bob Dylan – corduroy cap, sheepskin jacket and all – growled and banged his way through “Highway 51” with a vengeance. He may have come into town on a path cleared by Woody, Cisco Houston, and Sonny Terry, but this performance shows that Dylan was planning on blazing trails of his own. The mono mix concentrates the fierceness of his attack on the song, from the driving, pounding, dead-nuts-on bass string runs to his wild-sounding rhythm flails. In stereo, the song’s delivery is spread out and softened; here, you’re looking Dylan straight in the eye – and he stares right back at you.

His second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released a year later. By then, Dylan was starting to show more of himself; where his debut included only two originals, eleven of Freewheelin’s thirteen tunes are his.

“I Shall Be Free” jumps up and kicks its heels in all its slapstick glory in mono. The concentration of the sound intensifies the tightrope walk of Dylan’s performance: you think he’s going to lose it, trying to drive home way more words and syllables than there’s possibly room and time for – but just as it seems that the song is going to crash, he catches it and keeps it spinning. This is total Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin teetering-on-the-edge-of-disaster slapstick combined with wordsmithery that tosses out big questions left and right.

Offered in mono, “I Shall Be Free” is as colorful and playful as a big ol’ R. Crumb cartoon – dig Dylan’s imaginary conversation with President Kennedy (“my friend Bob” and “my friend John”) and his “Mr. Football Man” on TV (a predecessor to the Stones’ man who “comes on to tell me how white my shirts can be”?) – but you can feel the intensity of the real message right beneath the surface. The stereo mix doesn’t allow for proper appreciation of how hard he’s working the guitar or the little squalls of rhythmical harp between verses. Mono invites you in.

There are no cartoons, though, on The Times They Are A-Changin’ – and there’s no subtlety, either. The album’s songs all belong to Dylan and they are observations of a world overrun with hate, racism, and poverty. These performances are all the more powerful in the stark mono setting.

Particularly hard-hitting is “With God On Our Side”, whose lyrics question the holier-than-thou-of-course position adopted by any and all sides throughout history. Beneath the words, Dylan lays down a steady but impossible-to-count-off foundation on his guitar. In mono it’s easy to hear how the guitar’s rhythm is constantly changing behind the vocal. Sometimes there is a moment of almost 3/4-time waltz, other times there’s a charging beat, pounding home the message being sung. It’s hard to imagine that what you’re hearing is being performed live by a single person – and the mono presentation makes it all the more remarkable.

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