Bob Dylan: The Mono Recordings

I haven’t yet acquired the newly released box set, Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings, but I’ve been listening to the single CD The Best of The Original Mono Recordings. I’ve been a little out of the usual circulation lately, so I don’t even know what other people are saying about these releases, but I’ll offer my reaction based on what I’ve heard.

By the way, the “Best of” includes Positively Fourth Street, which the box set does not, as that track was originally released only on 45 and does not appear on the albums included in the box. This seems kinda lousy, and of-course compels completists to get the “Best of” as well. Reader Joe H. pointed this out in an email and also made the excellent point that Mixed Up Confusion is completely missing from the whole shebang. That of-course was Bob’s very first 45 rpm single, and proved that he had a rock & roll heart long before Newport ’65. And furthermore, I must ask Sony/Columbia this question: Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?

But quibbles like this aside, I would have to say that on the strength of the “Best of,” the complete box set does seem something like an obligatory acquisition to this listener.

How to express it? That old line on how writing about music is like dancing about architecture certainly rings very true when you’re trying to convey the difference between these mono recordings and the various stereo and remastered versions that most people would already be familiar with. Yet if I were a true audiophile I suppose I’d have the right terms to describe the distinctions. As it is, I’ll just say this: the difference is instantly striking. The music is right there, immediate, urgent and real. It is present and tangible in a way that I think makes other versions seem distant or distracted to one degree another. The promotional line that these are the recordings “as they were meant to be heard” seems not to be an overstatement.

Dylan has more than once described how in “the old days” he could go into the studio with a band and do the songs and what came out on the record was the same as what happened in the studio. He noticed this changing a long, long time ago now. I think that what’s audible on these recordings is likely about as close to that notion as one is going to get. (And, no, I don’t detect that there is any of that excessive dynamic range compression garbage that I’ve previously ranted about at length.)

Put another way: It’s just beautiful stuff. If you’ve never heard the music this way, I think you really should.

I imagine that the real audiophiles are arguing over whether these recordings really sound exactly the same as the original mono vinyl releases. And then whether the new vinyl versions of these recordings are better than the CD versions. I think that those are much finer points with which they can amuse themselves, and it’s good for those people to keep themselves busy.

Of-course, all of this raises a kind of ethical question to launch at the record company. If these — the recordings as originally released in the 1960s — are so clearly the superior ones, than what on earth has Columbia and Sony/Columbia been doing ever since then except selling inferior product to its customers? It’s a logically inescapable conclusion. You can laugh and say I’m naive or dumb to even raise the issue; you can say, accurately, that the record companies have always adjusted their product to suit what they think the market is demanding. Their interest has always been maximizing sales above all else, and that, after all, is the name of the game. However, on another level, music is the business that the record companies are in. And just as one expects IBM to know about computers, and to keep improving them rather than to sell inferior models versus what they sold thirty years ago, so one can ask why there has been such a terrible failure to offer the paying customers the music as it was meant to be heard, all these long years, in favor of any number of reissues and fiddly remasters (as recently as just 2003 in the case of Dylan!). I ask the question only to satisfy my itch, expecting no answer, and expecting no refunds from Sony/Columbia. Such is the nature of things in this fallen world.

Still, to end on a positive note, kudos are due to those involved in getting these new releases out. In the age of iPods and mp3s, it’s no small thing to make this kind of thing available for those who can appreciate it. There should be more of it, for all the many other artists whose work has suffered from tampering after the fact.

I notice, by the way, that you can purchase these tracks as individual mp3s on Amazon and probably elsewhere. I have no idea how they sound that way, and how they sound through earpods. I find it hard to imagine that the same dramatic difference is discernible that way, versus listening to the full resolution recording coming out of real speakers, and feeling the breath and the vibration of the music on your skin and in your bones. If you want to listen to the music as it was released in the old fashioned way, then I think you really ought to do your listening in the old fashioned way too. But don’t tell your neighbors that it was me who said it.

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