Columbia Records announced Tuesday that it will release in October two Bob Dylan multi-CD collections that will also be available on vinyl—the latest in a long string of new collections of old Dylan recordings. Apart from the pleasures of the music itself, they are important documents in the history of modern musical culture. Together, they trace fundamental changes in the structure and priorities of the music industry in the 1960s. Among those changes was a revolution that Dylan instigated—the demise of what had been the traditional, Tin Pan Alley world of American commercial songwriting and publishing.
With an artist as committed as Dylan is to sounding live and spontaneous in the studio, the mono versions might well come closer to what he was hearing inside his own head.
The Bootleg Series, Volume Nine: The Witmark Demos, 1962-1964, is the newest of Dylan’s so-called official bootlegs of previously unreleased material. Compared to the earlier ones, The Witmark Demos seems odd, a collection of informal tapes that Dylan made for his music publisher (actually, two of them) in the early 1960s, and were never intended for the general public. The two-CD set includes Dylan’s first recordings of some of his classic songs—including “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Mr. Tambourine Man—as well as some lovely numbers, based on traditional folk themes, that never made it on to Dylan’s studio albums, among them "Seven Curses” and “Farewell.”
The back story makes these spare, compelling performances all the more interesting. Shortly after he’d recorded his first album in 1961, Dylan signed on with the veteran music publisher Lou Levy, whose Leeds Music plugged songs that wound up as hits for singers ranging from Frank Sinatra (“All or Nothing at All,” “Strangers in the Night”) to the Everly Brothers (“Let It Be Me”). That was how Tin Pan Alley worked: Songwriters recorded demos for their publishers, who fed them to specific performers. Dylan duly made his demos, and they made the rounds—only he also released his own records of the songs he wrote.
In 1962, Dylan’s new manager Albert Grossman helped wrangle Dylan out of his contract with Leeds and sign on with M. Witmark & Sons, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers that had originated as an independent publisher in 1885. Guided by the song-spotter Artie Mogull, Dylan’s songs eventually found their way on to recordings by the likes of Elvis Presley as well as Judy Collins—and, of course, on to Dylan’s own albums. But Dylan’s effects proved devastating.
“Bob Dylan almost single-handedly eradicated Tin Pan Alley,” Mogull recalled years later, “because he was the first artist who could record an album of 10 or 12 songs and be the writer and publisher of all the songs. Previous to that, if Nat Cole recorded an album of 12 songs, 12 different writers and 12 different publishers wrote those things. In Bob's case, he wrote these great original songs, and we [and him] owned all the publishing and all the writing. It was the beginning of the end of what used to be known as Tin Pan Alley.”
The 47 demos in the new collection (eight of which were for Leeds, the rest for Witmark) also trace Dylan’s early maturation as an artist. We can hear Dylan hitting the limits of topical song and then, as Colin Escott’s informative and perceptive liner notes observe, merge the wonders of traditional melodies with his own inner visions and vibrations, on songs like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” The trick in this new release will be in how the remastering sounds. Dylan, turning out songs at an astonishing clip, sometimes recorded on excellent equipment, but not always. It will be interesting to hear how, in their inevitable variation, the remastered demos actually turn out.
The sound is everything on the second collection, The Original Mono Recordings, which consists of restored monaural renderings of Dylan’s first eight albums, through John Wesley Harding. This is how most of those old enough to buy albums at the time actually heard them, and part of the collection’s charm is its function as a kind of aural time machine for listeners of a certain age. But that’s really the least of it. This music was recorded with mono in mind, even as the recording companies had begun aggressively marketing stereo as something closer to the true listening experience. The music sounds much less diffuse in mono than in stereo, with fewer of those distractions that arise when every bit of accompanying instrumentation comes through distinctly and loudly. For Dylan’s early music, monaural re-release eliminates what can sound like a bizarre fracturing, where Dylan’s voice comes in through one ear and his guitar comes in through another. In mono form, the tone is unified, and the sound is more enclosed and less precision tooled.
How do Dylan’s rock masterpieces, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, sound in mono? Greil Marcus, in his discerning liner notes, writes that the effect varies from song to song, sometimes sounding ferocious and other times sounding scarily confined, and it’ll be fun to listen. Certainly, though, the mono remastering is no gimmick. It is more like an anti-gimmick, undoing the gimmickry of often clumsy stereo effects. It reintegrates Dylan’s recorded music. With an artist as committed as Dylan is to sounding live and spontaneous in the studio, the mono versions might well come closer to what he was hearing inside his own head.