Blonde on Blonde

“Nobody has ever captured the sound of 3 a.m. better than that album,” is how [Al] Kooper sums up Blonde on Blonde.
– From Howard Soundes’ Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan

“I think of Blonde on Blonde as opening up for us a whole new imaginative world. These places he sang from were inside his head, somewhere else to be, separate realities. Later we took drugs, but perhaps it was Dylan’s poetry that first kicked us out of ourselves. the poety and the music, coming out of its special twilight: the voice, the band, the harmonica blowing it all away at the end”.
Charles Nicholl’s essay Just Like the Night included in collection The Dylan Companion

“You don’t have it? That is perverse. Don’t tell anybody you don’t own f%*king Blonde on Blonde.”
– lines spoken by Jack Black’s character in the movie High Fidelity


Most poets do their best work at a relatively young age. That is not to say that their later work is unimportant, but it doesn’t seem to burst forth with the same spontaneity and energy that it once did. Bob Dylan is no exception. Although he would go on to produce plenty of additional great works, that I personally dearly love, Blonde on Blonde was the last record that burns with the fire of unbridled, paradigm changing genius.

Blonde on Blonde was for the most part recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music, at the suggestion of producer Bob Johnston. (Click here to read his obituary.) It was an odd idea, but it worked. Johnston played a major role in assembling the band for the recording, which consisted mostly of Nashville studio musicians accustomed to backing country artists. The result is a more professional, polished sound. Dylan was satisfied with it. During an interview with Playboy:

The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. That’s my particular sound.

Later in the same interview he says that Highway 61 also had the sound he wanted, which is a little surprising, since the two records don’t sound much alike. Highway 61 is edgy, bluesy, very loose and powerful, almost out of control. With a few exceptions, Blonde on Blonde is a much cooler and restrained recording.

There is no doubt that the recording of Blonde on Blonde is professional, tastefully done. The obvious instrumental mistakes that can be heard on Highway 61 Revisited – out of tune guitars, missed notes, non-rhythmic rhythm guitar playing – are not present on this record. For all of that, I personally feel that the recording lacks the spontaneity and excitement of its two immediate predecessors. Tom Wilson may not have been as exacting as Johnston, but his loose and carefree style was very effective.

Blonde on Blonde was the first rock double album, although double albums had appeared much earlier in other genres. Although it is a double album, it only contains fourteen songs. However, Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands clocks in at eleven minutes and twenty seconds, taking by itself one entire side.

Maybe Blonde on Blonde would have been better if it had been a single album. By my count, the album has seven superior songs: Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35, Visions of Johanna, I Want You, Stuck Inside of Mobile, Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat, Just Like a Woman, and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Altogether these songs clock in at around 43 minutes, well under the running time of Highway 61 Revisited. Although there is not a weak song on the record, the others don’t match these seven classics. Blonde on Blonde would have been an incredibly powerful single album.

The title of the album is interesting in itself. Like the titles of several songs on the album – Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35 for example – the name is a bit mysterious. Some have argued that it refers to Andy Warhol – who had very light skin and a fondness for blond wigs – and his side-kick, the platinum blond model Edie Sedgwick. A more likely idea is that it simply refers to the design of the album cover, which was sort of a mix of various shades of blond. Dylan notes in Chronicles that he saw a play title Brecht on Brecht that influenced him greatly, so it’s certainly possible that the album title is a subtle reference to the play.

loreal-wild-ombre-blondeA posting on rec.music.dylan suggests that the hair products company Clairol produced a TV commercial that advertised a hair-coloring product named Blonde on Blonde. Clairol, although an American company, does use the British spelling “blonde” in its product names, so I suppose it’s possible. Not surprisingly, the title of the album has been used by the sex industry for a lesbian porn film.dvd_94173D1

The cover art of the album is intriguing. The photo on the outside shows Dylan standing next to a wall wearing a brown coat with a black and white scarf around his neck. He looks particularly gaunt, his long curly hair is in disarray, his eyes are piercing, his lips pursed. The picture is a little out of focus, which the photographer, Jerry Schatzberg, said in an interview for the Dylan fanzine On the Tracks was not an artistic choice but a result of he and Dylan shivering in the cold. Schatzberg was a friend of Dylan wife, Sara Lownds, which led to his doing a number of photo sessions with Dylan.

The photos on the inside covers have an interesting history (much of it documented by Roger Ford in the fanzine, The Bridge, and also on his web site). The original pressing included a picture of the actress Claudia Cardinale. Weirdly, she had nothing to do with the album. Schatzberg says that Dylan just picked the photo out of his portfolio. The photo was removed from later versions after Cardinale objected to its unauthorized use.

Original Blonde on Blonde Inner Sleeve
Original Blonde on Blonde Inner Sleeve

Another picture shows Dylan smoking a cigarette and talking with his manager, Albert Grossman, who has his back to the camera. A Schatzberg self portrait is included. Another shows Dylan holding a picture of an older woman and a pair of pliers. According to Schatzberg, Dylan loved to creatively play around with various props during the photo shoots, and this picture is the outcome of one of those.


More info:

Bob Johnson’s Book on making of Blonde on Blonde

Detailed article on the making of the record.

Link to article on making of Blonde on Blonde

 

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