The Record That Can't Be Set Straight
I'll admit it, I'm a fool for Blonde On Blonde. After over thirty years of listening to it, I still find it a work of astounding quality and magnitude; and like all of Dylan's best albums it has its own unique and consistent character. I couldn't honestly argue that it was better than any of half a dozen or so of Dylan's undeniably great albums; it just caught me at the right time to sink in deeper.
But there's another, stranger reason why I've found this particular record so compelling, and that is the seemingly endless range of subtly different forms in which it has appeared. Certainly other Dylan albums have displayed some variety - Highway 61 Revisited with two different back sleeves and the "Buick 6" out-take, the quadraphonic albums, even Biograph with its bungled reissue - but none that can come near Blonde On Blonde for diversity. Look at what we've been given over the years:
And to cap it all, different permutations of these mixes, titles and photographs have been released in different countries at different times; I don't suppose anyone will ever document them all. Even now, five different versions of the music are on sale on official releases, and for most buyers it will be pot luck which one they end up listening to.
But which one is the real Blonde On Blonde? Maybe the blurred definition is part of the nature of the album, like the blurred cover photograph. It's as though it was all done in such a chaotic rush that it never got fixed, never got made permanent in the way that Dylan's other albums have. And this looseness of definition has seemingly given latter-day CD producers the licence to attempt to redefine the album themselves, in a way they wouldn't have dared to do with any other Dylan record.
What I want to do in this article is to identify and describe the main versions of the album which I have been able to find, in sufficient detail that any further significant variants can be identified with some confidence. Part I of this article outlines the album's release history, identifying these distinct versions as they have appeared. Part II details the differences between the versions, first noting any points which apply to the album as a whole and then going through the album a track at a time examining the ways in which the songs sound different in the various versions.
Nearly all of what follows is based on the versions of the album which have appeared in the United States and Great Britain; I haven't attempted to catalogue releases from the rest of the world. I'm assuming, until proved wrong, that all other countries had releases essentially the same as in either the US or the UK in terms of the musical content. I also haven't covered releases in different formats such as tape or mini-disc, or alternate mixes and remasterings of Blonde On Blonde tracks which have appeared on acetates, promotional releases or anthologies.
Comments, and in particular corrections and further
information, are most welcome - contact details are given at the end. By
publishing this article on The Bridge's Web site, I hope to carry on
improving it as more information surfaces - and maybe as more versions of
Blonde On Blonde are released.
Part I: History
The recording sessions for Blonde On Blonde have been very well documented by Michael Krogsgaard in the second of his series of articles in The Telegraph magazine; Clinton Heylin's book Behind Closed Doors is also worth reading on the subject.
In brief, one track ("One Of Us Must Know") was recorded in New York on January 25, 1966; the remainder of the album was recorded in two series of sessions in Nashville from February 14-17 and March 7-10, with a further overdub session on June 16. All sessions, according to Krogsgaard, were recorded on four-track tape; each track would generally have been used to record more than one instrument.
After the recording sessions Dylan played three dates in the Midwest, then spent a week or so in Los Angeles before his next set of concerts. Most of the mixing work on the album was probably done during this stay, allegedly under Dylan's direct supervision. A finished mix of the album was delivered to Dylan in acetate form while he was in Vancouver to play a show on March 26, but Dylan then postponed his world tour departure by a day to do some further work on the album around April 7. This last-minute effort could have included finalising the sequence of the tracks; one of the published photographs of Dylan in a European hotel listening to the Blonde On Blonde acetates clearly shows a side with two tracks on it, which does not correspond to any of the sides as finally released.
The focus of these March and early April production sessions was most likely the mono version of the album, which in 1966 would probably still have been Dylan's primary concern. It would be intriguing to know whether Dylan was involved at all with the mixing of the stereo album, as it sounds very different from the mono version - and not just in the obvious, stereophonic sort of way. There are tracks edited differently, changed instrumentation, altered tape speeds, and a very different overall sound. My guess is that the stereo mix was done later, probably while Dylan was away in Australia and Europe.
It is not clear whether Dylan did any final work on the album after returning to America at the beginning of June; one biography suggests that he did. And according to the Nashville studio records, an overdub session for one of the tracks ("4th Time Around") was held on June 16; however, since both mono and stereo versions of the album were apparently in the shops within two weeks of this, it seems practically impossible that the results could have been used.
The official Dylan web site, bobdylan.com, gives the original US release date for the album as May 16, 1966, while Dylan and The Hawks were touring England; this date has also been quoted by others in the past, so presumably it must be held as such somewhere in Sony's records. Other evidence, though, suggests that the actual release was probably somewhat later. As Clinton Heylin has remarked, the album didn't enter the US charts until the end of July - an extraordinary delay, given Dylan's popularity at the time. In England, the album was released in August, and entered the NME chart the same month. This too would have been an unusually long delay - three months between the US and UK releases; with Bringing It All Back Home it had been two months, with Highway 61 Revisited only one. More evidence comes from a Columbia press release proclaiming the innovative nature of the album's packaging ("Columbia Records has introduced a marketing innovation in the teen-age field with the release of the new, two-LP set "Blonde on Blonde" by Bob Dylan . . .") - this is dated June 29, 1966. These factors suggest a release date around the end of June, and this has been confirmed by personal recollections of fans who were awaiting its release at the time.
The stereo version of the album was released unchanged in England, but the English mono album was inexplicably different from the US mono version. While the mixing was the same, two of the tracks ("Pledging My Time" and "I Want You") were longer, while one ("Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat") was shorter. Why this should be is anyone's guess. Maybe the mixing sessions produced two tapes, and the wrong one was sent to CBS in England. Whatever the reason, the UK mono version includes music at the end of those two tracks which still can't be heard on any US release of Blonde On Blonde.
Those, then, are the initial 1966 releases, at least in the US and Britain, and that's the way it was for a while. Then, after two or three years, things started to change. The mono versions were deleted, probably in 1968 in the US, 1969 in the UK. And a little while after that, the US stereo release seems to have begun to mutate, a side at a time; each new side, as it appeared, presented tracks in different mixes and lengths. This process appears to have been completed by the early 1970s.
Presumably the staggered appearance of the revised album sides arose because the original matrixes (from which the manufacturing stampers were made) wore out after a few years, and as they were replaced one by one, different sets of tapes were used for cutting the new matrixes. Quite possibly there was more than one set of matrixes - assuming Columbia had more than one pressing plant - and these might have been replaced in different orders. This could account for the apparently large number of variant versions of the album which appeared in these years. I've seen it claimed that there are at least ten different vinyl versions of Blonde On Blonde, but I suspect they're all different permutations of the original and remixed sides. I could be proved wrong, of course.
The resulting revised version of the album is often referred to as the "70s remix", but the fact that two of these remixed tracks ("Pledging My Time" and "4th Time Around") appeared as early as 1967 on the Dutch Greatest Hits Vol. III LP suggests that they were produced much earlier, quite possibly at the same time as the originally released stereo mixes. The detailed nature of some of the changes points more to revisions made by interested parties when the project was new, probably before the album's release. Who would come along three years later and delete specific phrases from Robbie Robertson's lead guitar playing on "Visions Of Johanna", for example? It's quite possible that multiple mixes were made of many of the tracks at the original mixing sessions, maybe some during Dylan's absence in Europe, maybe some when he got back; perhaps some of the wrong ones got onto the original stereo release and were then replaced at the first convenient opportunity, when the matrixes needed re-cutting. (The evidence presented in Part II of this article suggests that this was the case with "4th Time Around", at least.)
Another possibility is that by the time the matrixes needed renewing, the original stereo mix tapes had been lost, so the album had to be mixed again from scratch. However, it seems hard to believe that no safety copy would have been taken; and even if the original US master copy was lost, copies sent to other countries could have been retrieved - as indeed they were for a recent UK vinyl reissue.
What I'd find hardest of all to believe is that Dylan himself would have instigated a remixing of the album in 1969 or 1970; by then he was in a different world both domestically and musically. Maybe Michael Krogsgaard's researches at the Sony archives will one day reveal who did the mixing, when, and perhaps even why.
In the US the revised version of the album seems to have remained the standard issue until the album's fairly recent deletion in vinyl form. In the UK, as often, things lagged somewhat, and the complete original stereo mix was used until the album was reissued in CBS's budget series in 1982. The Japanese edition of the album gained a reputation in the 70s for containing alternate mixes, but in fact it just contained the original stereo mix. (This of course was most confusing for UK collectors, who sought out Japanese copies and found they contained nothing new at all; what they should really have been looking for was American copies!)
Both of the stereo vinyl versions have been reissued recently, and are still available at the time of writing. A 1997 issue from Sony in Holland has all of the remixed sides, while a 1999 audiophile pressing from the English company Simply Vinyl has made the original stereo mix available once more.
Blonde On Blonde was first issued on CD in 1987, on both sides of the Atlantic. This offered sound quality which was a dramatic improvement over at least the stereo vinyl releases, but it was a different album again. Some of the tracks were only subtly different from previous mixes, but others were quite noticeably different in mixing terms from anything that had appeared before, including "Visions Of Johanna", "One Of Us Must Know", "Most Likely You Go Your Way" and "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands". It is, of course, possible that these new mixes were yet more try-outs from the 1966 mixing sessions, lying around since then on two-track stereo tapes; but it seems more likely that a decision was made to go back to the four-track masters and remix the album from these for the CD.
It's not clear why Blonde On Blonde was given so much attention; the CD releases of Dylan's other 60s albums appear to have been thoughtlessly remastered from the compressed tapes used for cutting vinyl releases (with the honourable exception of the DCC gold CD of Highway 61 Revisited). I suspect that whoever got the job of remastering the album was so baffled by the number of different Blonde On Blonde mix-down tapes in the vaults that they thought they might as well start again from scratch. It's that looseness of definition that I talked about earlier.
The 1987 CD release presented what had been a double album on a single CD, but several tracks were significantly curtailed in order to keep within the then-prevailing limit of 72 minutes for a single CD. The two tracks worst hit were "Just Like A Woman", which was faded out for the first time, and "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands", which lost over half a minute of the final harmonica solo.
Complaints about the editing, coinciding with technical advances which were extending the total playing time of CDs, resulted in Columbia issuing a revised version in the US; this at least restored the end of "Just Like A Woman", but still left "Sad Eyed Lady" short. Then in 1989 a third pressing finally presented all the tracks in what could be considered full-length versions.
In the UK, though, the first, heavily edited version, complete with the now long-obsolete CBS logo and label, still remains on sale. The Austrian pressing plant must have made several million of these and consigned them all to the UK, as the same factory has now for some years made a full-length version, on the Columbia label and with the CBS logo removed from the cover; this is presumably sold in the rest of Europe, and can sometimes be found in UK records shops. I can't believe they'd still be making an inferior version just for the British market.
In 1992 Sony in the US brought out a new CD edition of Blonde On Blonde as one of the first releases in their MasterSound audiophile series. It came in a fancy 12" x 6" box, had a 24-karat gold reflective surface and was digitally mastered using a new 20-bit process which Sony called Super Bit Mapping (SBM). Much more significant than all this, though, was the fact that it was yet another remix, this time almost certainly from the four-track studio masters. For the first time, the packaging identified the person responsible: "Remixed and Remastered by Mark Wilder, Sony Music Studios, New York". Wilder is presumably a Sony staff engineer; his name has appeared on remastered CDs from numerous other Columbia artists, including Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills, and indeed he is credited with "digital editing" on Dylan's recent Live 1966 release. In general, Wilder seems to have tried to get closer to the original stereo vinyl mix, but with improved sound quality - a worthy idea from the point of view of authenticity, even though the original stereo mix wasn't all that good to begin with. His efforts are let down, though, by what seems like careless editing, with very abrupt fade-outs at the end of many of the tracks. Rumour had it that Dylan's office was not pleased to learn that Wilder had taken the liberty of remixing the album.
In 1994 this MasterSound gold CD edition was reissued in the revised MasterSound series packaging - a jewel case inside a cardboard sleeve, with an open-out insert.
At the end of 1995 Sony in Japan issued a limited edition 20-bit CD of Blonde On Blonde in a paper gatefold sleeve, and it was suggested that this was a different remastering than the US MasterSound edition; it is in fact the Mark Wilder production again. It's not clear whether Wilder did his analogue-to-digital conversion before or after remixing the album; if the latter, then it's just possible that the Japanese release used a better 20-bit conversion.
Most recently (October 1999), Sony in the UK have released a limited Millennium Edition of Blonde On Blonde in a cardboard replica of the original sleeve. This again sounds identical to the MasterSound version. Given that the packaging makes no particular mention of remastering or SBM technology, this could indicate that Sony is now treating this as the standard version, and that the 1987 mix will soon be a thing of the past. On the other hand, they might just have picked the tape at random.
Blonde On Blonde has had a varied history in terms of its packaging, too. Rod MacBeath gave a very good account of it in his series on Dylan's record sleeves in The Telegraph a few years ago, but here again are the main points, with one or two updates:
The first issues in both the US and the UK had nine photographs inside the gatefold sleeve, four on the left and five on the right; these included a large portrait of the actress Claudia Cardinale, and another smaller photo of a still-unidentified female (a fan? a journalist? not Edie Sedgwick, anyway) bending over and speaking into Dylan's ear. After the first print run the layout was changed on the right hand side of the US edition; Claudia Cardinale had objected to the use of her photo, so this was removed, replaced by an enlarged and slightly fuller version of the photo of Dylan with the white scarf. The picture with the other woman was also dropped, quite possibly just because it was hard to fit into the revised layout.
This change took a long time to cross the Atlantic, though, and the original photos stayed on the UK sleeve until around 1980, when the revised seven-photo layout took over. The final UK vinyl edition from Sony had a cheap single sleeve with no inside photos at all. The recent Sony pressing from Holland, surprisingly, came in a gatefold sleeve with the original nine-photo inside spread, despite having the "remixed" version of the music. Perhaps the revised photo layout never reached the Netherlands at all. The new reissue of the original mix from Simply Vinyl in England also uses this first version of the sleeve.
The booklet of the standard US CD has a reproduction of the revised seven-photo layout from the LP's inside sleeve, very much reduced in size. The UK and European CDs, on the other hand, have a more substantial booklet containing seven larger monochrome photographs, mostly on separate pages; these have clearly been taken from the original nine-photo LP spread, and include the one of the girl speaking into Dylan's ear. The pictures of Claudia Cardinale and Jerrold Schatzberg are omitted. Several of the photos have been cropped to make more economical use of the page space.
The MasterSound CD editions both show - in much reduced size - the full-length colour photo from the outside of the LP's gatefold sleeve, and reproduce the two halves of the later seven-photo inside layout in something approaching full size.
The 1996 Japanese limited edition reissue came in a gatefold paper sleeve which reproduced in miniature the later album sleeve with the seven-photo inside spread. The recent UK Millennium Edition, however, has a cardboard gatefold sleeve which reproduces the original nine-photo inside layout.
That song title
The original US and UK albums, mono and stereo, listed Side 2, Track 2 as "Memphis Blues Again". The Dwarf Music songbook for Blonde On Blonde, however, gave the song the complementary title of "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The", which I always took to be the song's intended title, a particularly fine example of Dylan's perversity in naming his songs in those days. Slightly later UK pressings attempted to amend the title accordingly, but hilariously corrupted it to "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With Thee" - either it was read out over the phone, or someone just couldn't believe it ended with "The". Nonetheless, this became the standard title on UK copies until the inside sleeve layout was changed to the seven-photo version in the early eighties; at this point the song once more became "Memphis Blues Again". Back in the USA, Columbia hedged their bets: some later copies had "Memphis Blues Again" on the sleeve, but "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The" on the record label.
Now whether all this confusion arose because of indecision on Dylan's part as to what to call the song, or whether the two halves of the title got separated by some clerical accident such as a page break, I doubt whether we'll ever know. Whatever, when Greatest Hits Vol. II came out in 1971, compiled and mixed by Dylan himself, it contained the full "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again", and this is how it's been ever since - in Writings And Drawings, on Hard Rain, and on all regular CD releases of Blonde On Blonde. Refreshingly, though, recent European reissues both on vinyl (Dutch and English) and CD (English) have reproduced the old gatefold sleeve, so that as well as having Claudia Cardinale's photograph, they also have "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With Thee" among the song titles.
These, then, are the principal facts in the history of Blonde On Blonde - so far, at least. What we are left with, in terms of musical content, is five essentially different versions, two of them with minor variants:
1. Mono Vinyl (US and UK releases)
2. Original Stereo Vinyl
3. Remixed Stereo Vinyl
4. Standard CD (abridged and full length versions)
5. MasterSound CD Part II of this essay, in the next issue of The Bridge, will look in detail at the differences between these versions in terms of mixing, editing and overall sound, and finally revisit the question of whether there is one of them which we might consider to be the real, the definitive, Blonde On Blonde.
References, Acknowledgements and a Blonde on Blonde Discography are included at the end of Part II of the article.
Last updated November 1999
This is the first part of the Blonde On Blonde article which was published in Issue 2 of The Bridge. However, Roger has since updated the article a more current version of which can be seen on Roger's site Electric Dylan
Back to Issue Two Part Two of Blonde On Blonde by Roger Ford