The album is divided into an electric and an acoustic side. On side one of the original LP, Dylan is backed by an electric rock and roll band - a move that further alienated him from some of his former peers in the folk song community. Likewise, on the acoustic second side of the album, he distanced himself from the protest songs with which he had become closely identified (such as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall"), as his lyrics continued their trend toward the abstract and personal.
Bringing It All Back Home is often cited as the birth of folk rock, and one of the peak albums of Dylan's career.
The album reached #6 on Billboard's Pop Albums chart, the first of Dylan's LPs to break into the US top 10. It also topped the UK charts later that Spring. The lead-off track, "Subterranean Homesick Blues", became Dylan's first single to chart in the US, peaking at #39.
The album's iconic cover, photographed by Daniel Kramer, features Sally Grossman, the wife of Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, lounging in the background, while artifacts scattered around the frame include LPs by Robert Johnson and Eric Von Schmidt. Visible behind Sally Grossman is the top of Bob Dylan's head on the cover of Another Side of Bob Dylan. The album is usually reported to be the first Columbia LP release not to feature a list of the album's songs displayed on the front cover, a major departure from industry practice.
The cover artwork was also spoofed by Larry Norman for the pre-release of his album 'Something New Under The Son'. However, the artwork was changed for the official release.
Dylan spent much of the summer of 1964 in Woodstock, a small town in upstate New York. Dylan was already familiar with the area, but his visits were becoming longer and more frequent. Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, also had a place in Woodstock, and when Joan Baez went to see Dylan that August, they stayed at Grossman's house.
Baez recalls that "most of the month or so we were there, Bob stood at the typewriter in the corner of his room, drinking red wine and smoking and tapping away relentlessly for hours. And in the dead of night, he would wake up, grunt, grab a cigarette, and stumble over to the typewriter again." Dylan already had one song ready for his next album: "Mr. Tambourine Man" was written in February of 1964 but omitted from Another Side of Bob Dylan. Another song, "Gates of Eden," was also written earlier that year, appearing in the original manuscripts to Another Side of Bob Dylan; a few lyrical changes were eventually made, but it's unclear if these were made that August in Woodstock. At least two songs were written that month: "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" and "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)."
During this time, Dylan's writing became increasingly surreal. Even his prose grew more stylistic, often resembling stream-of-consciousness writing with published letters dating from 1964 becoming increasingly intense and dreamlike as the year wore on.
Dylan eventually returned to the city, and on August 28th, he met with The Beatles for the very first time in their New York hotel, a meeting which would bring about the radical transformation of the Beatles' writing to a more introspective style. Dylan would remain on good terms with The Beatles, and as biographer Clinton Heylin writes, "the evening established a personal dimension to the very real rivalry that would endure for the remainder of a momentous decade."
Dylan and producer Tom Wilson were soon experimenting with their own fusion of rock and folk music. The first unsuccessful test involved overdubbing a "Fats Domino early rock & roll thing" over Dylan's earlier, acoustic recording of "House of the Rising Sun," according to Wilson. It was quickly discarded, though Wilson would more famously use the same technique of overdubbing an electric backing track to an existing acoustic recording with Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence." In the meantime, Dylan turned his attention to another folk-rock experiment conducted by John Hammond, an old friend and musician whose father, John Hammond, originally signed Dylan to Columbia. Hammond was planning an electric album around the blues songs that framed his acoustic live performances of the time. To do this, he recruited three members of a Canadian bar band he met sometime in 1963: guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer Levon Helm, and organist Garth Hudson (members of The Hawks, who would go on to become The Band). Dylan was very aware of the resulting album, So Many Roads; according to his friend, Danny Kalb, "Bob was really excited about what John Hammond was doing with electric blues. I talked to him in the Figaro in 1964 and he was telling me about John and his going to Chicago and playing with a band and so on..."
However, when Dylan and Wilson began work on the next album, they temporarily refrained from their own electric experimentation. The first session, held on January 13th, 1965 in Columbia's Studio A in New York, was recorded solo, with Dylan playing piano or acoustic guitar. Ten complete songs and several song sketches were produced, nearly all of which were discarded. None of these recordings would be used for the album, but three would eventually be released: "I'll Keep It With Mine" on 1985's Biograph, and "Farewell Angelina" and an acoustic version of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" on 1991's The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991.
Other songs and sketches recorded at this session: "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream," "She Belongs To Me," "Sitting On A Barbed-Wire Fence," "On The Road Again," "If You Gotta Go, Go Now," "You Don't Have To Do That," and "Outlaw Blues," all of which were original compositions.
Dylan and Wilson held another session at Studio A the following day, this time with a full, electric band. Guitarists Al Gorgoni, Kenneth Rankin, and Bruce Langhorne were recruited, as were pianist Paul Griffin, bassists Joseph Macho, Jr. and William E. Lee, and drummer Bobby Gregg. The day's work focused on eight songs, all of which had been attempted the previous day. According to Langhorne, there was no rehearsal, "we just did first takes and I remember that, for what it was, it was amazingly intuitive and successful." Few takes were required of each song, and after three-and-a-half hours of recording (lasting from 2:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.), master takes of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Outlaw Blues," "She Belongs To Me," and "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" were all recorded and selected for the final album.
Sometime after dinner, Dylan reportedly continued recording with a different set of musicians, including John Hammond, Jr. and John Sebastian (only Langhorne returned from earlier that day). They recorded six songs, but the results were deemed unsatisfactory and ultimately rejected.
Another session was held at Studio A the next day, and it would be the last one needed. Once again, Dylan kept at his disposal the musicians from the previous day (that is, those that participated in the 2:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. session); the one exception was pianist Paul Griffin, who was unable to attend and replaced by Frank Owens. Daniel Kramer recalls "the musicians were enthusiastic. They conferred with one another to work out the problems as they arose. Dylan bounced around from one man to another, explaining what he wanted, often showing them on the piano what was needed until, like a giant puzzle, the pieces would fit and the picture emerged whole...Most of the songs went down easily and needed only three or four takes...In some cases, the first take sounded completely different from the final one because the material was played at a different tempo, perhaps, or a different chord was chosen, or solos may have been rearranged...His method of working, the certainty of what he wanted, kept things moving."
The session began with "Maggie's Farm": only one take was recorded, and it was the only one they'd ever need. From there, Dylan successfully recorded master takes of "On The Road Again," "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," "Gates Of Eden," "Mr. Tambourine Man," and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," all of which were set aside for the album. A master take of "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" was also selected, but it would not be included on the album; instead, it was issued as a single-only release in Europe, but not in the U.S. or the UK.
Though Dylan was able to record electric versions of virtually every song included on the final album, he apparently never intended Bringing It All Back Home to be completely electric. As a result, roughly half of the finished album would feature full electric band arrangements while the other half consisted of solo acoustic performances, sometimes accompanied by Langhorne, who would embellish Dylan's acoustic performance with a countermelody on his electric guitar.
The album opens with "Subterranean Homesick Blues," a romp through the difficulties and absurdities of anti-establishment politics that was heavily inspired by Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business." Often cited as a precursor to rap and music videos (the cue-card scene in Dont Look Back), "Subterranean Homesick Blues" became a Top 40 hit for Dylan.
"Snagged by a sour, pinched guitar riff, the song has an acerbic tinge...and Dylan sings the title rejoinders in mock self-pity," writes NPR's Tim Riley. "It's less an indictment of the system than a coil of imagery that spells out how the system hangs itself with the rope it's so proud of."
"She Belongs to Me" extols the bohemian virtues of an artistic lover whose creativity must be constantly fed ("Bow down to her on Sunday / Salute her when her birthday comes. / For Halloween buy her a trumpet / And for Christmas, give her a drum.")
"Maggie's Farm" is Dylan's declaration of independence from the protest folk movement. Punning on Silas McGee's Farm, where he had performed "Only a Pawn in Their Game" at a civil rights protest in 1963 (featured in the film Don't Look Back), Maggie's Farm recasts Dylan as the pawn and the folk music scene as the oppressor. Rejecting the expectations of that scene as he turns towards loud rock'n'roll, self-exploration, and surrealism, Dylan intones: "They say sing while you slave / I just get bored."
"Love Minus Zero/No Limit" is a low-key love song, described by Riley as a "hallucinatory allegiance, a poetic turn that exposes the paradoxes of love ('She knows there's no success like failure / And that failure's no success at all')...[it] points toward the dual vulnerabilities that steer 'Just Like A Woman.' In both cases, a woman's susceptibility is linked to the singer's defenseless infatuation."
"Outlaw Blues" explores Dylan's desire to leave behind the pieties of political folk and explore a bohemian, "outlaw" lifestyle. Straining at his identity as a protest singer, Dylan knows he "might look like Robert Ford" (who assassinated Jesse James), but he feels "just like a Jesse James."
"On the Road Again" catalogs the absurd affectations and degenerate living conditions of bohemia. The song concludes, "Then you ask why I don't live here / Honey, how come you don't move?".
"Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" narrates a surreal experience involving the discovery of America, the cast of Moby Dick and numerous bizarre encounters. It is the longest song in the electric section of the album, starting out as an acoustic ballad before being interrupted by laughter, and then starting back up again with an electric blues rhythm. The music is so similar in places to Another Side of Bob Dylan's "Motorpsycho Nitemare" as to be indistinguishable from it but for the electric instrumentation.
Written sometime in February 1964, "Mr. Tambourine Man" was originally recorded for Another Side of Bob Dylan; a rough performance with several mistakes, the recording was rejected, but a polished version has often been attributed to Dylan's early use of LSD, although eyewitness accounts of both the song's composition and of Dylan's first use of LSD suggest that "Mr. Tambourine Man" was actually written weeks before. Instead, Dylan said the song was inspired by a large tambourine owned by Bruce Langhorne. "On one session, Tom Wilson had asked [Bruce] to play tambourine," Dylan recalled in 1985. "And he had this gigantic tambourine...It was as big as a wagonwheel. He was playing, and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind." Langhorne confirmed that he "used to play this giant Turkish tambourine. It was about [four inches] deep, and it was very light and it had a sheepskin head and it had jingle bells around the edge - just one layer of bells all the way around...I bought it 'cause I liked the sound...I used to play it all the time."
A surrealist work heavily influenced by Rimbaud (most notably for the "magic swirlin' ship" evoked in the lyrics), Heylin hailed it as a leap "beyond the boundaries of folk song once and for all, with one of [Dylan's] most inventive and original melodies." Riley describes "Mr. Tambourine Man" as "Dylan's pied-piper anthem of creative living and open-mindedness...a lot of these lines are evocative without holding up to logic, even though they ring worldly." Salon.com critic Bill Wyman calls it "rock's most feeling paean to psychedelia, all the more compelling in that it's done acoustically."
"Gates Of Eden" builds on the developments made with "Chimes of Freedom" and "Mr. Tambourine Man."
"Of all the songs about sixties self-consciousness and generation-bound identity, none forecasts the lost innocence of an entire generation better than 'Gates of Eden,'" writes Riley. "Sung with ever-forward motion, as though the words were carving their own quixotic phrasings, these images seem to tumble out of Dylan with a will all their own; he often chops off phrases to get to the next line."
One of Dylan's most celebrated and ambitious compositions, "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" is arguably one of Dylan's finest songs. At fifteen verses long, it is also one of his most verbose. Clinton Heylin wrote that it "opened up a whole new genre of finger-pointing song, not just for Dylan but for the entire panoply of pop," and one critic said it is to capitalism what Darkness at Noon is to communism. A fair number of Dylan's most famous lyrics can be found in this song: "He not busy being born is busy dying"; "It's easy to see without looking too far / That not much is really sacred"; "Even the president of the United States / Sometimes must have to stand naked"; "Money doesn't talk, it swears"; "If my thought-dreams could be seen / They'd probably put my head in a guillotine." In the song Dylan is again giving his audience a road map to decode his confounding shift away from politics. Amidst a number of laments about the expectations of his audience ("I got nothing, Ma, to live up to") and the futility of politics ("There is no sense in trying"; "You feel to moan but unlike before / You discover / That you'd just be / One more person crying"; "It's easy to see without looking too far / That not much / Is really sacred", Dylan tells his audience how to take his new direction:
"So don't fear if you hear / A foreign sound to your ear / It's alright, Ma, I'm only sighing."
The album closes with "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", described by Riley as "one of those saddened good-bye songs a lover sings when the separation happens long after the relationship is really over, when lovers know each other too well to bother hiding the truth from each other any longer...What shines through "Baby Blue" is a sadness that blots out past fondness, and a frustration at articulating that sadness at the expense of the leftover affection it springs from." Heylin has a different interpretation, comparing it with "To Ramona" from Another Side of Bob Dylan: "['Baby Blue' is] less conciliatory, the tone crueler, more demanding. If Paul Clayton is indeed the Baby Blue he had in mind, as has been suggested, Dylan was digging away at the very foundation of Clayton's self-esteem." However, the lyric easily fits in with the main theme of the album, Dylan's rejection of political folk, taking the form of a good-bye to his former, protest-folk self, according to the Rough Guide to Bob Dylan. According to this reading, Dylan sings to himself to "Leave your stepping stones [his political repertoire] behind, something calls for you. Forget the dead you've left [folkies], they will not follow you...Strike another match, go start anew."
Van Morrison and his band, Them, released their own version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" in 1966; a dramatic re-arrangement featuring a repeating, low-key Mellotron pattern, it's often hailed as one of the best Dylan covers ever recorded. Another underground version was famously done by Roky Erikson's 13th Floor Elevators on their 1967 album Easter Everywhere.
The raunchy "If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got To Stay All Night)" was issued as a single in Europe, but it would not be issued in the U.S. or the UK until The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991. An upbeat, electric performance, the song is relatively straightforward, with the title providing much of the subtext. Fairport Convention recorded a tongue-in-cheek, acoustic French-language version, "Si Tu Dois Partir," for their celebrated third album, Unhalfbricking.
"I'll Keep It With Mine" was written before Another Side of Bob Dylan and was given to Nico in 1964. Nico was not yet a recording artist at the time, and she would eventually record the song for Chelsea Girl (released in 1967), but not before Judy Collins recorded her own version in 1965. Fairport Convention would also record their own version on their critically acclaimed second album, What We Did on Our Holidays. Widely considered a strong composition from this period (Clinton Heylin called it "one of his finest songs"), a complete acoustic version, with Dylan playing piano and harmonica, was released on 1985's Biograph. An electric recording exists as well - not of an actual take but of a rehearsal from January 1966 (the sound of an engineer saying "what you were doing" through a control room mike briefly interrupts the recording) - was released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991.
"Farewell Angelina" was ultimately given to Joan Baez, who released it in 1965 as the title track of her album, Farewell, Angelina. The Greek singer Nana Mouskouri recorded her own versions of this song in French ("Adieu Angelina") in 1967 and German ("Schlaf-ein Angelina") in 1975.
"You Don't Have to Do That" is one of the great "what if" songs of Dylan's mid-1960s output. A very brief recording, under a minute long, has Dylan playing a snippet of the song, which Dylan abandoned midway through to begin playing the piano. It shows great promise, and if Dylan had finished it would have been a strong song.
"Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence", first recorded during this album's sessions, would later be revisited during the Highway 61 Revisited sessions. It is one of the Highway 61 takes that was issued on The Bootleg Series Vol 1-3.
The release of Bringing It All Back Home coincided with the final show of a joint tour with Joan Baez. By now, Dylan had grown far more popular and acclaimed than Baez, and it would be the last time they'd perform together in a very long time. (She would accompany him on another tour in May 1965, but Dylan would not ask her to perform with him.) The timing was appropriate as Bringing It All Back Home signaled a new era.
One of Dylan's most celebrated albums, Bringing It All Back Home was soon hailed as one of the greatest albums in rock history. In 1979 Rolling Stone Record Guide, critic Dave Marsh wrote a glowing appraisal: "By fusing the Chuck Berry beat of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles with the leftist, folk tradition of the folk revival, Dylan really had brought it back home, creating a new kind of rock & roll [...] that made every type of artistic tradition available to rock." Clinton Heylin later wrote that Bringing It All Back Home was possibly "the most influential album of its era. Almost everything to come in contemporary popular song can be found therein."
Before the year was over, Dylan would record and release another album, Highway 61 Revisited, which would take his new lyrical and musical direction even further.
In 2007 a book called 'Bringing It All Back Home' by Ian Clayton (ISBN 9781901927337) was described by Record Collector magazine as 'One of the best books about popular music ever written.'