It is believed to be the first significant double album in rock music, its length forcing it to two LPs, although some digital reissues fit the album on one compact disc. It is notable for injecting Dylan's brand of blues rock, fully established on Highway 61 Revisited, with a more eclectic sound and even more surreal lyrics. Despite its uncompromising nature, it has come to be regarded as one of Dylan's greatest achievements, and "one of the greatest rock & roll albums ever made".
It also marked the end of an era for Dylan, who would soon be involved in a motorcycle accident (significantly changing his musical approach).
Recorded in Nashville, the album was produced by Bob Johnston. It peaked at #9 on Billboard's Pop Albums chart in the US, eventually going double-platinum, while it reached #3 in the UK. It is ranked as the ninth greatest album of all time by both VH1 and Rolling Stone.
It is unclear how Dylan came to this decision; he was familiar with the Hawks through John Hammond, Jr.'s So Many Roads, but it is possible his manager's secretary, Mary Martin, suggested their hiring, as well. (Martin was an avid fan of the Hawks.) Dylan actually auditioned and hired Robertson first, and backed by a preliminary four-piece band, began rehearsals at Carroll's Rehearsal Hall without Helm. After two weeks of rehearsing, "Robbie [wasn't] impressed with the drummer Bob was using and suggested he hire me instead," recalls Helm, who ultimately rehearsed with the band before securing his place as the new drummer.
The first concert was held on August 28 in New York's Forest Hills Stadium. The first half of the show was dedicated to a 45-minute solo acoustic set, which seemed to placate his older fans, but only "To Ramona" (from Another Side of Bob Dylan) predated his "newer" work. One song, the epic "Desolation Row", was taken from Highway 61 Revisited, which was not due to hit stores until two days later. After the set was over, Dylan had a brief talk with the band before beginning the second, full electric band set. According to Brooks, "We talked about just remembering the music and having a good time with it. Bob said, '...If they don't like it, too bad. They'll have to learn to like it.'"
With the exception of "Maggie's Farm" and "Like a Rolling Stone," the electric set was mostly unfamiliar to the audience; four songs had yet to see release on Highway 61 Revisited while new renditions of "It Ain't Me, Babe" and "I Don't Believe You" were radically changed, electrified versions of two songs better known in their acoustic renditions.
Though it is unclear what proportion of the audience was booing, they were fairly vocal. Dylan's friend Paul Nelson recalls, "There were very few people applauding the electric set. Some woman walked up to me and said, 'Joan Baez wouldn't sell out like this,' and I thought, 'Joan Baez? What's she got to sell out?'" (Baez herself would soon release her own records featuring electric accompaniment.)
Several days later, before flying to Los Angeles for the second concert, then-journalist Nora Ephron asked Dylan to respond to the audience's reaction at Forest Hills. "I thought it was great," said Dylan, "I really did. If I said anything else I'd be a liar." On September 3, Dylan and the band played an identical set at the Hollywood Bowl. The audience was considerably more friendly, and when Levon Helm expressed his relief, Dylan replied, "I wish they had booed. It's good publicity. Sells tickets." The Hollywood Bowl performance did get considerably less news coverage than the Forest Hills performance, which made The Village Voice's front page ("Mods, rockers fight over new thing called 'Dylan'").
In fact, Dylan held his first real American press conference the day after the Hollywood Bowl performance, giving a preview of the unpredictable press conferences and interviews that would be conducted over the next year.
Meanwhile, Dylan had three more shows scheduled later in the fall, and Al Kooper suddenly informed Dylan that he would not participate as the negative reaction from previous performances proved too much for him. Upon hearing this decision, Levon Helm approached Dylan's manager with a surprising ultimatum: "Take us all, or don't take anybody." Helm was more interested in reuniting his band, the Hawks, than touring with Dylan, but as it was, Dylan accepted Helm's proposal, and two all-night rehearsals were held before Dylan and the Hawks traveled to Texas for two concerts at the end of September. Those shows, as well as an October 1st show at New York's Carnegie Hall, were all well-received, but they were not without controversy. At the Carnegie Hall show, Dylan's friend Paul Nelson recalls that "most of the people from Sing Out made a point to leave at intermission." However, Helm adds that "at Carnegie Hall a couple of hundred people rushed the stage at the end, shouting for more ... [Dylan was] really beaming. 'Thank you,' he mumbled. 'I didn't think you'd feel that way.'"
As Dylan became more confident about the Hawks, the nay-sayers grew more hostile. More shows were scheduled in October, and they attracted a number of hecklers, shouting "Go back to England!" and "Get rid of the band!" It eventually took its toll on Helm, who soon left the band, citing the booing as the main reason. By then, drummer Bobby Gregg was available, and he was recruited as a replacement.
Even without Helm, Dylan still felt he had a potential band for his next album. On November 30, the Hawks (with Gregg still sitting in for Helm) accompanied Dylan at Columbia's Studio A to record Dylan's latest composition, "Freeze Out." Later retitled "Visions of Johanna," "Freeze Out" was an ambitious composition, a surreal epic approaching ten-minutes in some performances. Even with session players like guitarist Bruce Langhorne, keyboardist Paul Griffin, and Al Kooper standing by at the November 30 session, Dylan was unable to record a satisfactory performance of his new song.
Dylan would not hold another session until after New Year's; on January 21, 1966, he returned to Columbia's Studio A to record another long composition, "She's Your Lover Now." Accompanied by the Hawks (this time with Sandy Konikoff sitting in on drums), the session failed to yield a single complete take of "She's Your Lover Now"; Dylan would not attempt to record this song again, but a recording from the January 21 session would ultimately appear on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991. (Columbia reportedly issued the most 'complete' take from that session, as it breaks down at the start of the very last verse.)
Failing to realize two potential songs for his planned album, Dylan grew disillusioned about using the Hawks for studio recording. He held another session at Studio A on January 25, but this time he was backed by drummer Bobby Gregg, bassist William E. Lee, pianist Paul Griffin, and Al Kooper on organ; Robbie Robertson also played at this session, and several members of the Hawks may have been present too, but their presence is uncertain due to the lack of documentation. Regardless, two more new compositions were recorded on January 25: "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" and "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)." Only "One of Us Must Know" was successfully realized, and a master take was later selected for the final album.
Another session was held on the 27th, this time with guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, Al Kooper, and drummer Bobby Gregg. "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" and "One of Us Must Know" were recorded again, but Dylan was still unable to realize the former and performances of the latter did not supplant the master take that was ultimately taken from January 25. A rough performance of "I'll Keep It With Mine" was also recorded at this session; though it doesn't appear to be a serious attempt at realizing the song, the recording was ultimately released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991.
Meanwhile, the shortage of new songs and the sessions' slow progress contributed to Dylan's decision to cancel three more recording sessions he had already scheduled. Dylan would later meet with critic Robert Shelton in March and admit that "Oh, I was really down. I mean, in ten recording sessions, man, we didn't get one song ... It was the band. But you see, I didn't know that. I didn't want to think that."
However, Dylan never forgot Johnston's suggestion. A session was actually scheduled for November 1965, but it was cancelled at the last minute. With his current situation, Dylan decided to give Nashville a try. "It wasn't me pressuring him in any way," recalls Johnston. "I took him to Nashville later because he'd said, 'Let's go down there.'"
On February 14, 1966, Dylan held his first recording session at Columbia's Music Row Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. In addition to Al Kooper, Dylan and Johnston recruited noted harmonica player, guitarist and bassist Charlie McCoy, guitarist Wayne Moss, guitarist and bassist Joe South, and drummer Kenny Buttrey. Charlie McCoy recalls, "When [Dylan] first came in ... he asked us if we'd mind waiting a while. They had stopped at an airport in Richmond and he didn't have a chance to finish his material. ... So we all went out and let him have the studio to himself. He ended up staying in there [writing] for six hours."
Three songs were recorded at that first Nashville session, with "Fourth Time Around" and "Visions of Johanna" receiving successful renditions that were ultimately chosen for the album. Further attempts at "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," however, were deemed unsatisfactory. (Guitarist Jerry Kennedy and pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins attended this session, playing only on "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.")
The next day, Dylan held an extended session that lasted through the early morning hours of February 16th. However, studio logs indicate that no actual songs were recorded until 4 a.m. on the morning of February 16. It was during this session that Dylan recorded another epic composition, "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." Ken Buttrey recalls, "[Dylan] ran down a verse and a chorus and he just quit and said, 'We'll do a verse and a chorus then I'll play my harmonica thing. Then we'll do another verse and a chorus then I'll play some more harmonica, and we'll see how it goes from there.' ... we were preparing ourselves dynamically for a basic two- to three- minute record because records just didn't go over three minutes ... If you notice that record, that thing after like the second chorus starts building and building like crazy, and everybody's just peaking it up 'cause we thought, Man, this is it ... This is gonna be the last chorus and we've gotta put everything into it we can. And he played another harmonica solo and went back down to another verse and the dynamics had to drop back down to a verse kind of feel ... After about ten minutes of this thing we're cracking up at each other, at what we were doing. I mean, we peaked five minutes ago. Where do we go from here?"
Another session, held at 6 p.m. on February 17, was dedicated to yet another epic composition, "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again." A master take was successfully recorded and later included on the final album.
Dylan left Nashville to play a handful of concerts, backed by the Hawks, but he returned in March to resume sessions at Columbia's Music Row Studios. This time, he came prepared with eight songs to record. According to Al Kooper, Dylan would spend much of his spare time in his hotel room, refining these compositions. "He had a piano in his room at the hotel and during the day I would go up there and he would teach me the song," recalls Kooper. "I would play the song over and over on the piano for him. This served a double purpose. One, he could concentrate on writing lyrics and didn't have to mess with playing the piano; two, I could go to the studio early that night and teach it to the band before he even got there, so they could be playing the song before he even walked through the door."
On March 8, master takes of "Absolutely Sweet Marie," "Just Like A Woman," and "Pledging My Time" were all recorded. A final, all-night session ran through the evening of March 9th into the early morning hours of March 10th, producing master takes of "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)," "Temporary Like Achilles," "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," "Obviously Five Believers," "I Want You," and "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," all of which would be included on the final album.
Dylan was very pleased with the Nashville sessions, and when he supervised the final mix of Blonde on Blonde in April in Los Angeles, he had enough material for a double-album.
"The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album," Dylan would later say in 1978. "It's that thin, that wild mercury sound. It's metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. That's my particular sound. I haven't been able to succeed in getting it all the time. Mostly I've been driving at a combination of guitar, harmonica, and organ."
The track "Sara" from Dylan's 1976 album Desire features the line, "Staying up for days in The Chelsea Hotel/Writing 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' for you". In addition to the similarity between the word "Lowlands" and his wife's maiden name Lownds, it seems that the final track on Blonde on Blonde was inspired by his Sara.
Salon.com critic Bill Wyman praised Blonde on Blonde for its songs and performances, writing that "[Dylan's] singing alone is a catalog of the human emotion genome, excepting perhaps mercy. Dylan swaggers, brags, sighs, loves, loses, smiles, grieves, pleads, lusts, swoons and trips — and that's just on 'Pledging My Time' and 'Visions of Johanna.' The album contains "Just Like a Woman", a love song so elegant and confused it's not clear today, nearly 35 years later, whether it is insufferably condescending or startlingly loving. The album ends with a song that took up an entire album side back in the vinyl days, a love song to Sara Dylan, "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", more feverish and disturbed than even Van Morrison's Astral Weeks."
"Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" opens Blonde on Blonde with "a Salvation Army sound," as Dylan describes it. Wyman referred to it as a "stoner anthem" due to its drunk atmosphere and the continual use of the words "stone" and "stoned" ("They'll stone you when they say that it's the end ... But I would not feel so all alone / Everybody must get stoned"), but as Clinton Heylin writes, the song generated "some controversy among those unconversant with Proverbs 27:15." ("A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.")
Heylin wrote that "Visions of Johanna" was perhaps "his most perfect composition. The song's imagery is bone-chillingly precise, even as its subject matter, the omnipresent yet physically absent Johanna, hovers nebulously out of reach." NPR's Tim Riley writes that "'Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again' may be rock's grandest costume piece, balancing displacement and alienation with the offhand hatchet job (Shakespeare hitting on a French girl, the preacher 'dressed / With twenty pounds of headlines / Stapled to his chest')." Saturday Evening Post writer Jules Siegel (who was traveling with Dylan while writing a cover story on him) was present in Dylan's hotel room in Vancouver, British Columbia, when Albert Grossman brought him what was probably the first acetate dub of Blonde on Blonde. According to Siegel, after playing "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", Dylan said, "Now that is religious music! That is religious carnival music. I just got that real old-time religious carnival sound there, didn't I?
The following outtakes were recorded during the Blonde on Blonde sessions. "Tell Me Momma" also was played live during the 1966 concerts.
The following songs were also recorded in a hotel room during the same time Blonde on Blonde was being recorded.
"A sprawling abstraction of eccentric blues revisionism, Blonde on Blonde confirms Dylan's stature as the greatest American rock presence since Elvis Presley," writes Tim Riley. Critic Greil Marcus wrote that Blonde on Blonde is "the sound of a man trying to stand up in a drunken boat, and, for the moment, succeeding. His tone was sardonic, scared, threatening, as if he'd awakened after paying all his debts to find that nothing was settled."
In August 1995 Blonde on Blonde placed number 8 as the greatest album of all time in a poll conducted by Mojo Magazine. In 1997, it placed at number 16 in a "Music of the Millennium" poll conducted by HMV, Channel 4, The Guardian and Classic FM. In 1998, Q magazine readers placed it at number 47.
Soon after handing the final mixes of Blonde on Blonde over to Columbia Records, Dylan flew to Hawaii for the first of many concerts scheduled in a two-month tour. The album would not be released until mid-May 1966, and until then Dylan had a series of concert engagements to attend.
Despite their disappointing performances in the studio, the Hawks were far more successful on-stage. Though some fans remained unsatisfied with Dylan's new musical direction, the Hawks would eventually become Dylan's most celebrated touring band. That reputation would be secured with the upcoming tour and eventually documented in The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert. Following his motorcycle accident and withdrawal from public life in June 1966, Dylan worked with the Hawks again the following year in upstate New York, recording and developing songs which would eventually released as the Basement Tapes.
Interestingly enough, Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary No Direction Home (which covers Dylan's life from birth to 1966, with an emphasis on Dylan's metamorphosis from smalltown youth to folk sensation to world-renowned folk-rock popstar) offers virtually no specific insight into either the making of Blonde on Blonde, or its contents. Furthermore, there is apparently no visual record of the actual Blonde on Blonde recording sessions themselves, with no extant photographs or film directly attributable.