Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published June 23rd 2020
Covering the Master masterfully
I recently reviewed the latest album by Bob Dylan and was stunned by the sheer beauty and scale of it in every sense, but especially the lyrics. The man is a Nobel Laureate for a very good reason – he is the finest poet (yes, poet) of the modern world.
However, what it did make me do was go back and listen to some of the Dylan I own. Some, although I own a reasonable amount. Guess what? A lot of the time the thing that lets Dylan down is Dylan's voice, which is why I guess Rough And Rowdy Ways was so magnificent – that rough voice worked.
Dylan's lyrics are great and often it seemed they just needed a better singer to convey them. And that got me thinking – many have covered Dylan. So… how about I do my favourites, in celebration of this latest album? These are the ones I like most, so, to me, they are the best. Simple. And, as is usual for these lists, a lot of these are going to be, shall we say, older songs. That's all there is to this: covers of Bob Dylan songs. How about some rules? 1) Dylan wrote and recorded the song. 2) One song per artist. 3) No more than 2 versions of the same song. 4) I have to like the cover version at the very least. 5) Studio album versions only – no live versions (just because that made it easier for me to get the list down to 20… but that does mean no 'Chimes Of Freedom' by Bruce Springsteen or 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door' by Cold Chisel. I hate it when my own rules mean I have to leave out awesomeness).
Some songs will be noticeable by their absence: I think Guns N'Roses overdid 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door', the Rolling Stones did okay on 'Like A Rolling Stone' but it didn't make it here, Eric Clapton underdid 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door', there's a Dylan song by The Byrds I prefer over 'Mr. Tambourine Man', and Peter, Paul and Mary's 'Blowin; In The Wind' is just a little twee. Disagree in the comments, but that's how I feel.
Let's hit this! 20 Dylan covers! 15 different songs! In title order!
'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' by Bryan Ferry (1973)
Ferry took this song and remade in the image of the prog-rock he would later perfect with Roxy Music. Ferry's smooth as silk voice, the jangling piano and layers of instrumentation are just mixed to perfection in a song that is just stunning. I am something of a fan of Mr Ferry, and this is wonderful.
'All Along The Watchtower' by The Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)
In quite a few lists and surveys back in the late 90s, early 2000s, this was regarded as the best cover version of a Dylan song. And – you know what? – you would be hard-pressed to argue. Hendrix completely makes the song his own. And when he plays it live… wow! It is a real departure from the original, and yet loses none of its impact for that. Hendrix's guitar is as powerful as Dylan's lyrics. What a track.
'All Along The Watchtower' by XTC (1978)
Before they came on board with the new wave pop thing, XTC were an experimental band that recorded some frankly bizarre music. Yet I can't help but love it. Reminiscent of Devo's cover of 'Satisfaction', this unusual take on the song is as far removed from Hendrix as you can get, and yet it is still the same song. Dylan was a genius.
'Blowin' In The Wind' by Me First And The Gimme Gimmes (2001)
Dylan wrote his first music as a folk muso. This track was one of those folk songs, and it's now become a folk standard. So what better way to record it than as a fun pop-punk rocker? This is off the first Me First and the Gimme Gimmes album I got (I now own 4), which I bought for a different song, but this is fantastic. Dylan can be translated so many different ways. And punk is just one of them.
'Desolation Row' by My Chemical Romance (2009)
From the soundtrack to the film Watchmen, this already angry song was made downright furious by the emo rockers. It appears over the closing credits (while Dylan himself sings 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' over the opening) and it really does suit. I bought the soundtrack just so I'd have a copy of this track. I do enjoy this version. Fun fact: Zack Snyder, who directed the film, also directed the video, using the same techniques and stylisations as the movie.
'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright' by Johnny Cash (1965)
While there is some doubt that Dylan wrote it from scratch, and didn't just adapt another artist's track, the fact of the matter is he is at least a co-writer, and Cash shows that he started doing awesome cover versions long before the American Recordings albums. My father was a fan of Cash, and so I heard this version long before Dylan's; in my mind, it's a Cash song. Those childhood impressions…
'Forever Young' by Audra Mae (2008)
Completely different to the song that shares this track's name from the 80s, Dylan's track is more emotional on a personal level. And this haunting version comes from the soundtrack of the biker TV series Sons Of Anarchy, which is where I first heard it. This is a stunningly beautiful version of the song.
'Forever Young' by Meat Loaf (2003)
And just to show how one song can be differently interpreted, here's Meat Loaf doing Meat Loaf things to the same song. I am a huge fan of Meat Loaf and I really enjoy this version. Even if he does go over the top at times. But Dylan's lyrics survive intact and it becomes a heart-rending wail.
'I'll Be Your Baby Tonight' by Robert Palmer with UB40 (1990)
Turning a love song into a cod-reggae track, and yet it works well. This track did well on the charts here in Australia and it is just something so different from Dylan's delivery. Strange version, I think, but I really like it.
'It Ain't Me Babe' by Nancy Sinatra (1966)
Sung with sultry vocals, punctuated by a brass section, Sinatra takes a song of a brush-off and turns it into something almost sexily evil in its intent. This is off her Boots album, which I inherited from my father. Did he have great musical taste or what? Again, I heard her version before Dylan's, and I always associate it with her.
'It Ain't Me Babe' by The Turtles (1965)
From sexy to rock, The Turtles started their charting career with this Dylan cover. So different to the Sinatra version, and yet it still works. I like the two lead singers' harmonising voices and the way they really push the rock and roll of the time onto the song.
'It's All Over Now Baby Blue' by Echo And The Bunnymen (2000)
This band is one of those that started in the 80s and sort of continued on under the radar for years. I heard a few of their singles, but probably nowhere near as much as I should. And this synth-led, retro 80s sounding version with wonderful vocals is a really good version of a great song. It should be noted, they first recorded a live version in 1985, but their studio version came 15 years later.
'It's All Over Now Baby Blue' by Graham Bonnet (1977)
This is close to the original Dylan version, but with Bonnet's better vocal delivery and interesting guitar effects. I first heard this version on one of those compilation albums so popular "back in the day" (are they still a thing?) and I didn't realise it was a Dylan track for years. Again, to my mind, this is a Bonnet song.
'Knockin' On Heaven's Door' by Heaven (1985)
Now, before I get slaughtered in the comments and on Twitter, I am the first to admit that this is very much a personal taste item. I admit that. But there is something about the 1980s hair metal version of this song that I really, really like – the heavenly choir, the 80s drum, the over-wrought singer, the mandatory guitar solo, the cheesy video clip. This is my favourite version of the track (sorry, Cold Chisel), and I have been known to scream along to it too often. Like just now, listening to the song on the video. I fully understand if this ends up being liked by me and me alone – I don't care. Because this is great.
'Maggie's Farm' by The Specials (1980)
Another angry Dylan track turned into a strange sort of percussion-driven lament. Again, different from the original, and I am not sure why I like it. But the fact The Specials recorded it as part of their ongoing protest against Maggie Thatcher's war against the poor and disenfranchised means I reckon Dylan would have loved it.
'Masters Of War' by Roger Taylor (1984)
Another track that Dylan may have appropriated, this time from an English folk ballad. Maintaining the anger of the original, but with an updated sound, Taylor (the drummer for Queen) does a remarkable version. The eerie synthesisers and his emotional vocals give it a sense of timelessness that is the hallmark of Dylan's genius.
'Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)' by Manfred Mann (1968)
If there is some deeper meaning to this song, it is lost on me, but Manfred Mann make it into such a jolly sing-along that you can't help but, well, song along. I might not know exactly what it means, but I really enjoy this song. (For what it's worth, Dylan said in his Nobel speech that understanding lyrics does not matter so long as they have an impact.)
'My Back Pages' by The Byrds (1967)
There were so many Byrds tracks I could have chosen; it seems they spent the first part of their career as a Dylan cover band, which is very unfair, but that was how it seemed. In the end, though, I went for this track, with it's "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now…" refrain. Not sure what it is about this track, but I think it is the sentiment in Dylan's magnificent lyrics. He speaks to many people, and the Byrds interpret him so magnificently. Love this song.
'My Back Pages' by The Ramones (1993)
And not for the first time, we go punk, this time with one of the original punk bands. In stark contrast to the Byrds harmonious version, this track is all guitars and drums and almost atonal singing. The Ramones were always good value, and this track is no exception. And, yet again, Dylan can be translated in so many different ways.
'Tangled Up In Blue' by The Whitlams (1998)
And we finish with Australia's own The Whitlams doing a pretty straight forward version of this rather sad song. I really like Tim Freedman's voice, and have seen the band in concert a few times, so when I heard this song twenty-odd years ago, I knew I had to grab it. They do a remarkable job and it is the perfect way to cap off this list.
I think what this list proves is that Dylan didn't just write songs. The fact his music can be translated in so many and varied ways, and yet the lyrics remains as potent and meaningful as ever shows that he really is a master of the form. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, there were some who thought it ridiculous. But how can it be anything but a perfect recognition for some-one whose music speaks to so many through so many styles across so many generations?
Dylan is a master. Long may he continue to create music.