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Music / The Basement Tapes

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"It's a wicked life but what the hell / Oh, everybody's
got to eat..."

"With Dylan, so much has been said about him, it's difficult so say anything about him that hasn't already been said, and say it better. Suffice it to say Dylan is a planet to be explored. For a songwriter, Dylan is as essential as a hammer and nails and a saw are to a carpenter. I like my music with the rinds and the seeds and pulp left in — so the bootlegs I obtained in the Sixties and Seventies, where the noise and grit of the tapes became inseparable from the music, are essential to me. His journey as a songwriter is the stuff of myth, because he lives within the ether of the songs. Hail, hail "The Basement Tapes". I heard most of these songs on bootlegs first. There is a joy and an abandon to this record; it's also a history lesson."
Tom Waits, who put The Basement Tapes in sixth place in his personal list of 20 favourite albums, The Guardian, 20 March 2005.

The Basement Tapes is the sixteenth studio album by Bob Dylan and the seventh studio album by The Band, released in 1975.

In the summer of 1967, Dylan had been on a haitus from the music business for a year since his fabled motorcycle crash following his world tour in 1966. (According to himself, he just really wanted to spend some time with his family.) When his former backing band The Hawks moved into a house down the road from him in Woodstock, New York, they soon started getting together in its basement for informal jams on old folk, blues, country, gospel and rock'n'roll tunes, and Dylan eventually started bringing newly-written material in the same vein. By the end of 1967, The Hawks had transformed themselves from a rowdy bar band to roots rock legends The Band, and Dylan had written dozens of songs including "I Shall Be Released", "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere", "Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood)", "This Wheel's On Fire", "Tears Of Rage", and "Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)".

As far as Dylan and The Band were concerned, these were demos of songs they might record in the future (The Band would indeed record several of them for their first album), but many of the songs were also circulated to record companies in the hope that other bands would cover them. Inevitably, these wound up in the wrong hands, and "the basement tapes", as they soon became known, wound up setting the pattern for bootleg recordings in rock music, being sold under the counter in countless record shops and even being reviewed in major magazines as "Dylan's lost masterpiece".

Columbia Records finally released an official version of The Basement Tapes in 1975 to general critical acclaim, though some reviewers were disappointed that a few of the best-known tracks were left off while others were "improved" with newly-recorded overdubs, and the album was padded with unrelated songs The Band had recorded (without Dylan) between 1968 and 1975. While the official release still held a lot of great music, the bootleggers didn't go out of business. In The '80s, fans got hold of a bunch of higher-quality reels, giving the jam sessions and song sketches their first public airings and leading to several highly-sought-after bootleg CD sets. Famed rock critic Greil Marcus even devoted a whole book to the then-unreleased recordings.note 

Over the years, The Basement Tapes — official and unofficial — have been regarded by many as some of the most influential recordings of Dylan's career, with the mix of old and new themes and styles anticipating both country rock and Alternative Country, while completely revamping his approach to song-writing. Even though many of the songs are simple and full of silly wordplay, they often contain dark undertones and play on old folk traditions — what Marcus called "the old, weird America".

The (essentially) complete basement tapes finally got an official release in 2014 as part of Dylan's ongoing Bootleg Series, both as a double CD of highlights and as a 6-CD, 139-song set.

For a complete list of all songs recorded at the sessions, see the other wiki.

Tracklist to the 1975 album:

Side One

  1. "Odds and Ends" (1:47)
  2. "Orange Juice Blues (Blues for Breakfast)" (3:39)
  3. "Million Dollar Bash" (2:32)
  4. "Yazoo Street Scandal" (3:29)
  5. "Goin' to Acapulco" (5:27)
  6. "Katie's Been Gone" (2:46)

Side Two

  1. "Lo and Behold" (2:46)
  2. "Bessie Smith" (4:18)
  3. "Clothes Line Saga" (2:58)
  4. "Apple Suckling Tree" (2:48)
  5. "Please, Mrs. Henry" (2:33)
  6. "Tears of Rage" (4:15)

Side Three

  1. "Too Much of Nothing" (3:04)
  2. "Yea! Heavy And a Bottle of Bread" (2:15)
  3. "Ain't No More Cane" (3:58)
  4. "Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)" (2:04)
  5. "Ruben Remus" (3:16)
  6. "Tiny Montgomery" (2:47)

Side Four

  1. "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" (2:42)
  2. "Don't Ya Tell Henry" (3:13)
  3. "Nothing Was Delivered" (4:23)
  4. "Open the Door, Homer" (2:49)
  5. "Long Distance Operator" (3:39)
  6. "This Wheel's on Fire" (3:52)

"Orange Juice Blues", "Yazoo Street Scandal", "Katie's Been Gone", "Bessie Smith", "Ain't No More Cane", "Ruben Remus", "Don't Ya Tell Henry" and "Long Distance Operator" are just by The Band without Dylan (though Dylan wrote the last two).

Principal Members:

  • Rick Danko - bass, mandolin, backing and lead vocals
  • Bob Dylan - lead vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano
  • Levon Helm - drums, mandolin, bass, backing and lead vocals
  • Garth Hudson - organ, clavinet, accordion, saxophone, piano
  • Richard Manuel - piano, drums, harmonica, backing and lead vocals
  • Robbie Robertson - guitar, drums, backing and co-lead vocals

These tropes are on fire, rolling down the road:

  • Added Alliterative Appeal: "Crash On The Levee"
    Well, it's sugar for sugar and salt for salt
  • Alliterative Title: "Ruben Remus".
  • ...And 99¢: "2 Dollars and 99 Cents".
  • Answer Song: "Clothes Line Saga", a response to Bobbie Gentry's "Ode To Billie Joe".
  • Break-Up Song: "I'm Not There (1956)", to the extent that you can decipher the words, seems to be about a Relationship Revolving Door that the narrator finally gives up on, with some regrets.
  • The Cover Changes the Gender: Averted in "Young But Daily Growing".
  • Cover Version:
    • Dozens and dozens in the complete version, ranging from medieval ballads to Johnny Cash to Curtis Mayfield. They even make a not-remotely-serious stab at Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight Of The Bumblebee".
    • Several of the songs became hits for other bands long before the original versions were released, including "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" by The Byrds, "Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)" by Manfred Mann's Earth Band, "Too Much Of Nothing" by Peter, Paul And Mary, and "This Wheel's On Fire" by Julie Driscoll (also used as the Real Song Theme Tune of Absolutely Fabulous).
  • Decon-Recon Switch: The album often manages to sound ancient and brand new at once, incorporating centuries-old folk themes and brand new grooves at once. As one critic put it:
    While the rock world vented its spleen on parents and leaders, Dylan was singing privately about parental fidelity. While George Harrison was testifying that life went on within and without you, Dylan was taking his potatoes down to be mashed. While Mick Jagger was 2,000 light years from home, Dylan was strapping himself to a tree with roots.
  • Drunken Song: "Please, Mrs. Henry".
    Well, I've already had two beers
    I'm ready for the broom
    Please, Missus Henry, won't you
    Take me to my room?
  • Dumb and Drummer: Several songs poke fun at drummers, partly because they had to make do without a proper drummer since Levon Helm wasn't present for most of the original sessions.
    Pull that drummer out from behind that bottle! Slap that drummer with a pie that smells!
  • Either/Or Title: "Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)", "Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood)", "Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast)", "One Single River (Song For Canada)". "I'm Not There (1956)" is a weird example, as nobody's quite sure what "(1956)" is supposed to signify.
  • Epic Rocking: "Sign on the Cross" (7:21) is the longest song on the complete tapes. Except for a handful of other songs over five minutes, the sessions averted this.
  • The Generation Gap: "Tears Of Rage", notably for a song recorded during the "summer of love", sympathizes with the parents of a teenage daughter who no longer understands them.
  • The Great Flood: "Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood)":
    Well, that high tide's risin'
    Mama, don't you let me down
    Pack up your suitcase
    Mama, don't you make a sound
    Now, it's king for king
    Queen for queen
    It's gonna be the meanest flood
    That anybody's seen
  • Morality Ballad: "Be Careful Of Stones That You Throw".
  • Mundane Made Awesome: "Clothes Line Saga" is an epic tale about bringing in the laundry.
  • New Sound Album: Well, old sound album, but in a new way.
  • Non-Appearing Title: "Open the Door, Homer". The chorus says "open the door, Richard".
  • The Not-Remix: The 1975 version tacked on some overdubs, most noticeably on "Too Much of Nothing" (with Levon Helm adding drums and backing vocals when he wasn't on the original recording at all), "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" (Robbie Robertson, who played drums on the original, adding guitar) and "This Wheel's on Fire" (Robertson adding an Epic Riff to the song). The 2014 version returns to the original takes, but in vastly improved sound quality.
  • One-Woman Song: "Bessie Smith", which is named after the blues singer of the same name.
  • Parody: "Clothes Line Saga" spoofs Bobbie Gentry's "Ode To Billie Joe".
  • Rearrange the Song: An interesting little mini-session on the complete box set has Dylan doing full-band takes on a few of his older songs, with the others backing him in a similar fashion to how they did on his 1966 world tour. The most unexpected one is a 6 and a half minute rendition of "Blowin' in the Wind" that slows it down into a Jimmy Reed-esque Blues Rock song.
  • Retraux: The 1975 album collapses the original stereo tapes to mono, with some additional filtering as well, apparently to make them sound more grungy and homemade. Also, many of The Band's songs on that album were new 1975 recordings of songs they'd worked on in 1967.
  • Revisiting the Roots: The album marked Dylan returning to his origins.
  • Rock-Star Song: "All American Boy".
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Open the Door, Homer". The "open the door, Richard" line is a reference to a novelty song from The '40s.
    • One line of thought about the chorus of "Too Much of Nothing" ("Say hello to Valerie, say hello to Vivian") is that it's referencing the two wives of T. S. Eliot, Vivienne Haigh-Wood (who was committed to a mental hospital) and Valerie Fletcher.
  • Something Blues: Doubled with "Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast)".
  • Step Up to the Microphone:
    • Robbie Robertson sings co-lead vocals on "Bessie Smith".
    • Richard Manuel sings the first verse of "One Too Many Mornings" before Dylan takes over.
  • A Storm Is Coming: "Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood)":
    Crash on the levee, mama
    Water's gonna overflow
    Swamp's gonna rise
    No boat's gonna row
  • Stylistic Suck: Several examples, especially "I'm Your Teenage Prayer", a hilarious send-up of 50's teenager ballads.
  • Take That!:
  • Wanderlust Song:
    • "Goin' To Acapulco"
      There are worse ways of getting there
      And I ain't complainin' none
      If the clouds don't drop and the train don't stop
      I'm bound to meet the sun.
    • "Lo And Behold!"
      Lo and behold! Lo and behold!
      Lookin' for my lo and behold.
      Get me out here, my dear man.
  • Word Salad Lyrics:
    • Either for comedic effect or as place-holder lyrics. Notably, though, they're completely different in style from the Word Salad Lyrics he was writing seriously just a year or two earlier.
    • The alternate take of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" from the Complete set is a particularly bewildering example.
      Just pick up that oil cloth, cram it in the corn
      I don't care if your name is Michael, you're gonna need some boards
      Get your lunch, you foreign bib
      You ain't goin' nowhere