The Record That Can't Be Set Straight
Part II - The Versions in Detail
Part I of this essay reviewed the album's release history, identifying along the way the several distinctly different versions of the album which have appeared. This part looks in detail at the differences between these versions in terms of mixing, editing and overall sound. As with the first part, no claims are made for absolute completeness of the details or background information; it's largely what I've picked up by listening, supplemented by some research and discussion. Any corrections or further information will be gratefully received, and can be incorporated in future updates.
Before delving into a track-by-track analysis, it's worth making some general observations about the album versions; these will then not have to be repeated for each song.
Mono Vinyl (US and UK)
The most striking characteristic of the mono album, at least to ears accustomed to the stereo vinyl and CD versions, is the warmth, depth and solidity of the bass sound; this has to be heard to be believed. There were technical reasons why the bass was limited on the stereo vinyl versions (see below), but none that would have applied to the production of the much later CDs, unless the engineers were misguidedly trying to replicate the sound of the stereo vinyl mixes. Possibly the bass was deliberately boosted on the mid-60s mono albums in order to compensate for the inadequate bass response of the cheap record players typically used to play them. Needless to say, I find the best combination is the mono LP on hi-fi equipment.
All tracks except one, as detailed below, play at correct musical pitch. Unless otherwise noted, the UK version is identical to the US.
Original Stereo Vinyl
The stereo version had a much thinner, more boxy sound than the mono album; this divergence between mono and stereo had already arisen with Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Bass levels had to be limited on stereo records in the 60s, partly because the stereo disc-cutting heads were prone to distortion when fed with high amplitude bass signals, and also because most early stereo pickup cartridges could not track heavy bass signals without jumping. As with the previous two albums, the tracks are also generally slightly slower on the stereo version, at least on UK pressings; the only cause for this that I can think of is a speed error on one of Columbia's tape machines, but maybe someone who was a sound engineer in the 60s could provide a better explanation.
The drums, and often the lead guitar, are generally more prominent on the stereo album; perhaps whoever did the mix felt that with these instruments out on the left and right hand channels their volume could be lifted, so as to enhance the stereo effect, without drowning out the centrally-placed vocals.
Remixed Stereo Vinyl
The sound on this version (if the recent Dutch pressing is anything to go by) is even thinner than the original stereo mix, with decidedly less body in the vocals. At least a couple of the tracks have had some echo, or reverb, added to them.
Many tracks are again slightly slowed, but often to
different degrees than on the original stereo release. On average the slowing
down is slightly greater.
Standard CD (Abridged and Full-Length)
These two releases clearly come from the same mix; the only difference is in the editing of the ends of the tracks. The abridged version is really of little interest - the tracks were shortened for technical rather than artistic reasons, because of limits on the overall length of early CDs. Appendix A shows the number of seconds cut off each track.
The bass sound of the standard CD mix is better than on the stereo vinyl versions, though still nowhere near as full as on the mono vinyl. There is a slight reverb on the vocal and harmonica which for most of the songs isn't detectable on any of the vinyl versions; this is perhaps perceptible because of the startlingly better clarity of the CD version, especially in the high frequencies. While I find the reverb adds a nice ambience when listening on headphones, I don't like the effect so much on speakers - the vocal seems to sound slightly hollow.
The degree of general improvement in sound quality over the stereo vinyl releases implies that this standard CD version was at least mastered from uncompressed master tapes; but the number of new mixes which it contains suggests that this version was more likely remixed from the four-track studio masters.
All tracks run at correct musical pitch.
MasterSound Gold CD
As with the standard CD, the variations in mixing would in themselves suggest that this version was remixed from the four-track masters, and indeed the credits state that the album was remixed, as well as remastered, by Mark Wilder. The main overall difference between this and the standard CD is the lack of reverb on the vocals and harmonica; these are brought right to front centre, making them seem more focused. The down-side of this change is that it loses the sense of depth in the sound-stage which is present on the standard CD; the gold CD sounds close, but very flat. In this respect it is more akin to the original stereo vinyl mix than to the standard CD mix. It is probably this closeness of the vocals which gives the impression of improved clarity and definition when compared with the standard CD, more than the 20-bit Super Bit Mapping process used in the digital mastering. There has been a lot of debate about whether SBM brings any audible benefits, and the mixing differences here make it hard to tell. My own feeling is that the benefit on this type of music, with its limited dynamic range, is likely to be minimal.
All tracks play at correct musical pitch.
Bearing these generic differences in mind, let's now examine the individual songs in turn, to see how they are treated in the different releases. There's a lot to get through here, too much to digest at one sitting; I'd suggest maybe taking it a side at a time, as you might have done with the album itself in its original LP format.
Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35
Straight away, here's a curiosity: while the four stereo mixes of this track (two vinyl, two CD) are pretty well at true musical pitch (key of F), the mono mix is speeded up by about 2%, giving a noticeably faster tempo and a slightly sharp pitch. All the rest of the tracks on the mono version are spot on correct musical pitch, so it seems fair to conclude that this one was deliberately speeded up, presumably because Dylan (or producer Bob Johnston) felt that it dragged a little at the recorded tempo. This lends weight to my surmise that more care was put into the mono mix than the stereo, and probably by Dylan himself. Other theories are, of course, possible, but I can't think of a valid artistic reason why a track speeded up on the mono mix should not also be speeded up on the stereo mix.
The speeding up of this track is also evident on the edited mono version that was released as a single a month or two before the album's release, and on the French CBS EP 5660. Significantly, the accompanying edited version of "Pledging My Time" is at correct musical pitch on both of these releases.
The first and second stereo vinyl versions both appear to contain the same stereo mix, which is about 4 seconds longer on the instrumental fade than the mono version; the standard CD is longer again by a second or so.
The MasterSound CD is the same length as the stereo vinyl, but is faded later and faster.
Pledging My Time
This is the first of the tracks where the UK mono vinyl varies from the US release. The long instrumental fade - wonderful, incendiary harmonica playing by Dylan - is about 10 seconds longer on the UK version. Fortunately, this is the one digitally preserved on the Gold Standard bootleg CD, although it is taken from a vinyl copy rather than a master tape.
The original stereo mix on vinyl shortened this drastically: about 20 seconds off the US mono version, half a minute off the UK release - a travesty.
The version on the remixed stereo album largely restores that long, slow fade - only a couple of seconds short of the US mono version - but the whole track also sounds different, with a hefty dose of reverb which is particularly noticeable on the vocals. Especially on headphones, this gives it the sound of a band playing close-up in a basement club, which is just right for this great, degenerate urban blues. This alternate mix appeared first on the Dutch Greatest Hits Vol. III LP in 1967, a couple of years ahead of its appearance on the remixed Blonde On Blonde.
The standard CD reproduces this alternate mix, with the length marginally increased to equal that of the original US mono version.
The MasterSound CD remix falls gracelessly between two stools. It recreates the "flat" sound of the first stereo vinyl release - this isn't to my liking, though it may perhaps be considered more authentic by those who favour the original version and see the remixed album as an aberration. And while it at least restores the track's length to that of the remixed version, it completely misses the character and the point of the song's slow fade: it carries on at full volume almost to the end, and then suddenly shuts down in a couple of seconds. This mistake, more than anything else, lets down the MasterSound CD in my estimation.
Visions Of Johanna
This is one of the most complex stories to relate, with five different mixes and some very detailed changes.
The mono version has lots of punch, as always, and Robbie Robertson's lead guitar is very prominent in the later verses, fighting it out with Dylan's vocal for the available space.
The original stereo version has a curiously-devised mix, which places Dylan's acoustic guitar out on the left-hand channel and the lead guitar in the centre behind the vocal, giving the impression that Dylan is playing a vocal / lead guitar trade-off in the Albert King style, while someone else plays the acoustic. It works well, though, keeping up the tension between the lead guitar and vocal. The instrumental fade-out is a couple of seconds longer than the mono mix, including an additional lead guitar lick right at the end.
The alternate stereo vinyl mix places the guitars more logically, with the acoustic guitar behind Dylan's voice and the lead on the left; but this somehow gives Robertson's lead guitar too much space and makes his interjections seem more scrappy than on the original mono and stereo mixes. Also, the cymbal strokes during the choruses, which had been centrally-placed in the original mix, are now on the left, as though played by someone quite unrelated to the drummer.
These are the obvious differences in this remixed version, but it has also been observed that some careful editing has been done on the lead guitar track. Phrases, presumably judged less than perfect, have been cut out in the last verse, after "where her cape of the stage once had flowed" and behind "and these visions . . . "; and the extra lick added at the end of the track by the first stereo mix is gone, despite the fade-out being fractionally longer on this version. It's hard to imagine this sort of editing being done three years after the album's release; my bet is that these alternate mixes on the later copies of the album were done at the original mixing sessions in 1966, but mostly sat on the shelf until 1969-70, when someone decided they were better than the mixes originally released - or maybe just picked them up by mistake.
The standard CD release presents yet another mix which, as I suggested in Part I of this article, I think more likely to have been produced in 1987 as part of a general remix of the album for CD. Superficially this sounds like the second stereo vinyl version; the placing of the instruments is the same. But the vocal and harmonica are more prominent in the mix, and the volume of all the other instruments has been reduced - more folk, less rock. The most noticeable impact is on the balance between the lead guitar and Dylan's voice: the former seems decidedly subdued, as well as being stranded out on the left hand channel, so much of the tension is lost from the interplay between guitar and vocal. Another difference from the second stereo vinyl mix is that the lead guitar track is not edited, except the very end. The length is the same, but in place of the lead guitar lick we heard on the original stereo vinyl, here we have the start of an additional harmonica phrase!
The MasterSound CD also resembles the second stereo vinyl version in terms of the placing of the instruments, but as with the standard CD it appears to have been remixed from the four-track studio tapes. Again, the lead guitar has not been edited, but this time it is back up to the volume it had on the original mono and stereo vinyl releases. This applies to the other instruments, too: the vocal and harmonica are much less prominent than on the standard CD. So far, then, some marks for authenticity. But . . . the drum and organ track has been messed about with. Possibly in an attempt to make the organ stand out better, the treble frequencies have been boosted; this gives the drums a much more strident, edgy sound than on any of the other mixes, and makes them far too dominant. This version is also as short as on the first, abridged CD release, marginally shorter than the original mono mix; so we don't get to find out whether the harmonica or the lead guitar would have won in the extended fade-out.
One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)
This track was originally released as a mono single several months before the rest of the album, and the mono album release reproduces the single exactly. The full story of the mono mix, though, is only revealed by listening to the stereo versions.
Two widely observed differences were apparent in the stereo vinyl release: (a) it was almost faded out at the end, and (b) between the second and third verses there was a decorative organ phrase instead of vamping from the piano.
Close listening, though, reveals that this second difference isn't just a matter of the organ having been mixed down in the mono version; some splicing has been done on the mixed tape, so that the second instrumental break in the mono mix is actually a duplicate copy of the first. And in fact the edit extends beyond this passage. Both the second and third verses of the song begin with the words "I couldn't see . . .", and while on the stereo version Dylan sings these instances slightly differently, on the mono version they're identical, showing that the full extent of the edit is about ten seconds.
The available evidence reveals no obvious artistic reason for this edit, but there was clearly something Dylan didn't like in the original recording, as three attempts at recording an insert for the song were made on January 27, two days after the original session. The studio records seem to imply that the insert takes were not satisfactory, so maybe the splice we can hear was a last resort. However, all subsequent mixes on vinyl and CD have presented the apparently unedited original recording, with the organ line in the second break.
The reason for the faded ending of the original stereo mix isn't clear, either. Possibly it was to make life easier for typical stereo pickup cartridges of that time; tracking problems tend to be greatest near the centre of a record, and this was a very loud ending right at the end of the side.
Both of the stereo vinyl versions present the same mix of this track, though on my copy at least it is very slightly slower on the remixed album.
The 1987 CD issue brought us a very different stereo version of the song. First, the positions of instruments have changed: the organ and rhythm guitar, which had been placed centrally behind the vocal and harmonica, have moved out to the far left, trading places with the bass and the more noticeable, jangly electric guitar. Second, as with "Visions Of Johanna", the vocals have been made much more prominent and the instruments more subdued, reducing the track's surge of power and making Dylan's vocal performance sound quite plaintive. While this gives an interesting perspective on the song - almost like hearing an alternate take - I have to say I wouldn't have done it this way.
The ending of the song is back up to full volume, without a fade, perhaps supporting the notion that the stereo vinyl was faded for technical rather than aesthetic reasons.
The MasterSound CD, in contrast, presents very much the same mix as the stereo vinyl releases, only of course in much better, uncompressed sound quality. It sounds great. Unless my ears deceive me, though, the final chord is slightly faded, at least on the harmonica: a nod towards the original stereo vinyl?
I Want You
This is the second track where the US and UK mono releases differ, and again the UK version has the advantage, with an instrumental ending about 9 seconds longer than on the US release - the longest version of this track which has so far appeared.
The original stereo vinyl almost matches this, at 7 seconds longer than the US mono version. While it doesn't have the deep bass response of the mono mix, this first stereo version has a much warmer sound than is typical of the stereo LP. In terms of instrument balance, the repetitive lead guitar figure is much less pronounced here, while the piano is conversely more noticeable.
The second stereo mix has a much thinner, more trebly sound, with the lead guitar much more audible. The length is different again, at 4 seconds longer than the US mono version, and the track is fractionally slowed.
On the standard CD the sound balance is generally similar to the second vinyl mix, but with the bass response somewhat restored, and in generally higher fidelity. It also has a couple of seconds extra on the fade.
The theory that Mark Wilder was trying to recreate the sound of the original stereo version when he mixed the MasterSound edition gets further support here: the sound is very much warmer and more bass-heavy than on the standard CD - excessively so, I think, in relation to all the other tracks. The lead guitar, though, is stronger than on the original stereo mix. The length is the same as on the standard CD, but the fade is later and more abrupt - again, typical of Wilder's editing.
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
There's remarkably little to say about this long track; it varies less than any other. The song comes to a definite conclusion rather than being faded, so there are no differences in length. The only variations are those which are generally characteristic of the different releases - strongest bass on the mono mix, the second stereo vinyl version running very slightly slow, a hint of echo on the vocal on the standard CD, and so on.
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
The third and last of the tracks where the mono releases differ, this one has the UK release 6 seconds shorter than the US mono version.
The first stereo version is the same length as the US mono, but has the drums higher up in the mix.
The alternate stereo mix found on later copies of the album is the same length again, but has a radically different sound. The equalisation boosts the treble frequencies, and reverb has been applied to the rhythm and lead guitars, both of them on the left channel, with a distinct echo of the lead guitar appearing at centre stage. The vocal and piano are more distant, and overall the track has a sort of acidic, hollow sound; maybe appropriate in a way to the character of the song, but quite bizarre to ears accustomed to the straight original mix.
This alternate mix is reproduced, with the same length, on the standard CD.
The MasterSound CD again opts for the mix and sound of the original stereo vinyl, though the ending is a second or so shorter and faded much more abruptly.
Just Like A Woman
Things go pretty much according to pattern with the various releases of this song. As on many other tracks, the 1987 remix for CD introduced a slight reverb on the vocal; this is taken away again by the MasterSound mix, which presents the vocal close-up and completely flat.
This song was one of those most badly cut on the first, abridged release of the standard CD; while the song is one of the few that comes to a firm musical conclusion, here it was actually faded out during the final harmonica verse, 12 seconds short of the end.
Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine
On vinyl, there are just two versions of this song: the mono and the stereo (both original and remixed copies of the latter). The stereo mix has the drums more prominent, and is about 5 seconds longer on the fade-out.
The standard CD, though, has a completely different stereo mix, and its anyone's guess as to whether this dates from the original mixing sessions or is a 1987 concoction. The three electric guitars (and the cymbal!) have moved around, with the result that the lead guitar and the more strident rhythm guitar (the one that plays on the off-beat all the way through) are placed behind Dylan's vocal and are less noticeable. This is accentuated by the fact that the track containing the vocal, harmonica, bass and trumpet is mixed higher. Personally, I prefer it this way, though no doubt this is a heretical viewpoint. This is also the longest version of the track, extending about 10 seconds beyond the mono mix.
As usual, the MasterSound gold CD recreates the sound of the first stereo vinyl release, but in higher fidelity. The only appreciable difference is that the faders go down faster at the end, cutting about a second off the length of the original mix.
Temporary Like Achilles
Here the mono vinyl mix is the shortest version, and the original stereo mix the longest, with a difference of nearly 20 seconds. The stereo mix offers a complete verse of harmonica at the end of the song, but Dylan's playing here is less inspired than on, say, "Pledging My Time" or "Just Like A Woman". Characteristically, the drums stand out more in the stereo mix, and with them the second keyboard - probably an electric piano.
The second stereo vinyl version is a practically identical mix, but fades much sooner, at only a second longer than the mono release.
Yet another fade-out point was chosen for the standard CD - this time 4 seconds longer than the mono. While the instrument positions are the same as in the stereo vinyl versions, the central vocals, harmonica and guitar are all mixed louder in relation to the other instruments to left and right; but for once there is no noticeable echo on the vocals.
On the MasterSound mix the drums and second keyboard on the right are much louder again. Surprisingly, Mark Wilder chose not to reproduce the full length of the original stereo version, but instead edited the track to the same length as the second stereo release - 18 seconds or so shorter.
Absolutely Sweet Marie
On this song the first stereo mix makes the electric rhythm guitar in the centre more noticeable than on the mono version, but the fade is the same length. The second stereo vinyl release is possibly a slightly different mix: the central rhythm guitar seems less prominent, and the electric guitar which plays the scratchy rhythm on the left channel seems more noticeable. These effects could just be caused by different equalisation during the mastering or cutting processes, though. The length is again unchanged.
The standard CD mix has a sound characteristic somewhere between the first and second stereo vinyl versions, and is again a very similar mix. The ending is a second or so shorter, though.
The sound on the MasterSound CD remix is decidedly drier and flatter than on any of the other stereo versions, especially on the vocal. The length is as on the three vinyl versions.
4th Time Around
By Blonde On Blonde's standards, the mono version of this song has a fairly sparse instrumentation: apart from Dylan's acoustic guitar and harmonica, there are just bass, drums and a pair of Spanish guitars playing that distinctive plinketty riff.
The original stereo mix, as has been noted from time to time, has an additional instrument playing simple chords throughout the song. The most popular view has always been that this is a bass harmonica, played by Charlie McCoy; and indeed Michael Krogsgaard's notes on the sessions say that McCoy played bass harmonica on the twenty takes of the song. However, it certainly doesn't sound like a bass harmonica; it sounds like a pump organ - a harmonium - and Al Kooper has recently confirmed that he played organ on this track, and that Charlie McCoy did not play bass harmonica, at least not when Kooper was around.
The organ is on the right hand channel in the mix, along with the drums; and what do you know, this is a different drum performance from the one on the mono version. If you want to check it out, there are noticeable differences in the drum patterns played at several places in the song, including those where Dylan sings "It was then . . .", "So I forced . . ." and "Her Jamaican rum . . .". The vocal and all the other instruments are from the same take as the mono version, as far as I can tell.
The plot thickens further when we listen to the alternate stereo mix of the song which is on later copies of Blonde On Blonde; this first appeared on the same 1967 Dutch Greatest Hits Vol. III album as the alternate mix of "Pledging My Time", and is much closer to the mono version. It has almost as full a bass sound as the mono mix, likewise has no organ, and it has the same drum performance. However, the drum track enters the mix earlier than in the mono version, with Kenny Buttrey apparently getting his sticks ready during the guitar intro, then playing some tentative cymbal strokes behind Dylan's harmonica, before finally easing into the drum pattern just before the vocal begins. The placing of the instruments is also different in this mix, Dylan's steel-string acoustic guitar trading places with the Spanish guitars.
The way the instruments have moved around between the mixes will actually help us work out what's gone on during the recording and mixing of this track, so it's worth noting down at this point the positions of the instruments in these two stereo versions:
Original stereo mix:
Alternate stereo mix:
We know from Michael Krogsgaard's research that the original recordings were made on four-track equipment, so we can now work out how the instruments must have been assigned to the tracks on the tape. The first three are easy, but the fourth presents a problem:
Al Kooper recalls that while he played organ on this song at the original session, either it was erased or just not chosen for the mix (the original stereo LP, then, must have used the version with the organ by mistake). However, if the organ was recorded on the same tape track as the drums, it wouldn't be possible to mix it out or erase it without also losing the drums; this must be the reason for the different drum performance being grafted onto the mono and later stereo versions.
Now, Kooper also maintains that they didn't do any overdubs at the original sessions - and indeed no overdub takes are shown on the studio log - so when was the replacement drum track recorded? The studio records do show that there was an overdub session later, on June 16, 1966, at which Kenny Buttrey and Charlie McCoy just did four takes on "4th Time Around", the first three being incomplete. According to the session records, Buttrey played drums and McCoy a harpsichord, which was apparently rented for the occasion. The harpsichord, of course, is not audible on any of the released mixes, but could the drum track from this session have been used? If the date given is correct this seems practically impossible, as the album was pressed, distributed and in the shops two weeks later; and Krogsgaard does indeed say that the overdubbed take from the June 16 session was never released.
Barring an earlier overdub session which failed to get recorded in the studio logs, there's only one other possibility I can think of. Two other complete takes of the song were done at the original session, and if one of these was done without the organ, or with the organ recorded on a different track, then after the event the drum track could have been lifted and dubbed onto the take chosen for release. Any difference in tempo between the takes would complicate things, but a drum track could be speeded up or slowed down as necessary without the change in pitch being noticeable.
One more thing about that June 16 overdub session, though: if the album was already finished and in production, then what was its purpose? The only possibility I can think of is that "4th Time Around" was being considered for release as Dylan's next single, and the harpsichord overdub was to add some pop gloss - 1966 was the year when exotic instruments became fashionable. This possible single release has never even been hinted at anywhere else, though, and it certainly doesn't sound like it would have been Dylan's idea. Bob Johnston, please enlighten us.
The original stereo version of the song, with the organ, misses 7 seconds of the instrumental section at the end, while the second stereo vinyl version is the same length as the mono mix.
The standard CD gives us pretty much the second stereo vinyl mix, complete with drumstick fumbling in the introduction; but the vocal and harmonica have been lifted slightly in volume, as on many other tracks. The length of the ending is as on the mono and second stereo vinyl versions.
The MasterSound CD, which as a rule generally stays close to the original stereo album, has in this case also avoided the version with the organ, and gives us a mix practically identical to the second stereo vinyl album. The ending is the same length again, but faded slightly later.
Obviously 5 Believers
This track is one of the marvels of the mono album. The bass is thunderous, especially on the final verse, and the song absolutely rocks.
On the original stereo vinyl mix the maracas and the organ (which plays an unusually low-pitched sort of boogie riff throughout) are much more noticeable. This is the longest version of the song, adding 6 seconds to the mono cut.
The mix on later stereo vinyl copies is distinctly different. Although the instrument positions are the same, the two electric guitars on the left-hand side are mixed much higher, and with more reverb. Also, the vocal is more distant, and the net effect is to give the track a curiously hollow sound. This version is just a couple of seconds longer than the mono mix.
Whoever mixed the track for the original CD release decided to stick closer to the sound of the first stereo vinyl version, but lifted the level of the vocal slightly; they also cut a couple of seconds off the fade-out.
For the MasterSound release, Mark Wilder likewise opted for the sound of the original stereo vinyl mix, but with no lift to the vocals. He too cut the ending, this time by 3 seconds.
Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands
The mono version of this final song, as usual, still sounds tremendous, with a wonderfully rich tonal balance that suits this song maybe more than any other.
The original stereo vinyl mix is a real horror: the bass is all gone, and even worse, the high frequencies have been drastically attenuated, so that Dylan appears to have a lisp. The relative boost in the mid-range accentuates the hi-hat which marks out the song's rhythm, but the cut in high frequencies makes it sound as though it has a pillowcase over it. The final indignity is a two-second cut at the end of the song, which means it falls just short of completing that lovely descending chord sequence in the instrumental fade.
The sound on later stereo vinyl copies is maybe even less dynamic, but I suspect that the same basic mix has been used; the fade-out is identical. The difference in sound could be attributable to other factors in the vinyl mastering process.
The standard CD, though, gives us a completely different mix, which once again could be based on an alternate mix done in 1966 or could be a 1987 invention. On the previous stereo mixes the only instrument on the left-hand channel was a high-pitched steel-string guitar, with a lot of instruments piled in the middle behind Dylan's vocal and harmonica. On this CD mix, things are better distributed, with the Spanish guitar and piano giving some weight out on the left, and the high steel-string moving to the middle. The bass drum on the choruses, which must have leaked onto the track used for piano and Spanish guitar, now also appears on the left channel. The bass response is somewhat restored, and the problem with the filtering of high frequencies has gone. On the full-length CD the ending of the track is just as on the mono album, but on the first abridged edition nearly 40 seconds of the closing harmonica verse was removed - a piece of butchery to rival the fading out of "Just Like A Woman".
Lastly, the MasterSound CD. Once again, Wilder has gone back to the
original stereo vinyl mix in terms of the instrument positions; sadly, he has
also copied the slightly truncated fade-out. On the positive side, the high
frequencies are presented correctly, and the vocal is brought slightly more to
the fore than on the standard CD. There's more bad news, though: the engineer
has also made the bass drum more prominent, and in doing so has managed to
introduce some distortion which is clearly audible during the third chorus,
just before "Should I leave them by your gate . . .". This seems an odd mistake
to have made on a production aimed at the audiophile market.
So, after sifting through all of this historical and aural evidence, which of the half dozen versions should we think of as the real Blonde On Blonde? Here is one of Dylan's most important albums, and we seem to be faced with the difficult thought that there might be no version which can be seen as definitive.
I think it's clear that both of the currently available CD versions, while giving us wonderful clarity of sound, have deviated quite significantly in content from any of the LP releases, and that the widely-praised MasterSound edition is only slightly closer to anyone's definition of authenticity than is the standard CD.
Could either of the stereo vinyl versions really be considered definitive? Take the original: should the organ really have been left in the mix on "4th Time Around"? Or the later version: could Dylan possibly have intended "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" to sound like it was being played through a pair of tin cans?
The mono mix has to be the least contentious, the best representation of how Dylan meant the album to sound in 1966, and I believe Sony have a real historical duty to reissue it in the best possible sound quality on CD; I only hope they still have the master. There is the minor question of the divergence of a few track lengths between the US and UK versions, but there's an easy answer: just take the longer version of each track.
There is a need for a stereo version as well, though, partly because that's what the market requires, and partly because stereo separation really does let you hear more detail, especially on headphones. So the question remains: what should the stereo version be?
I think we have to accept that there is no definitive stereo version which could be reproduced, that the record can never be set straight from that point of view. It should be possible, however, to produce a stereo edition that's significantly better than any of the previous attempts. (This was presumably the intention in producing the MasterSound version, but it wasn't done well enough: too much attention to the number of bits and gold karats, and not enough attention to the music.) If Dylan would let them, Sony could get out the four-tracks again and have one more go at it, with someone who really knew and loved Blonde On Blonde in charge of the project. Personally, I'd nominate Steve Hoffman, who did such an excellent job with the gold CD of Highway 61 Revisited.
Because the mono album is almost certainly the closest to Dylan's original intentions, the engineer who gets the job should carefully model the editing, track speeds, equalisation and instrument balance on those of the mono mix, but with stereo separation of the instruments and vocal. If you were to listen with one ear, the mono and stereo versions should sound the same. The arrangement of instrument positions could be kept broadly as on the existing stereo versions; just those few tracks where the positions have varied would require a sensible judgement to be made in each case.
When both mono and stereo versions have been remastered, I think the best approach to marketing would be to sell them together as a single package for the price of a single album. This would avoid a great deal of confusion for retailers and casual purchasers; and on standard aluminium CDs the cost for the double could be less than the price of the gold MasterSound edition.
And the sleeve photographs? The fold-out in the compact MasterSound package is quite nice, but surely after all these years Claudia Cardinale could be persuaded to relent and allow Dylan's original layout to be reproduced? Regarding that problematic song title - well, that's a tough one, but on balance I think they should go back to "Memphis Blues Again".
Having got this new standard edition sorted out, Sony could then put some serious effort into a special edition for basket-cases like me: the ultimate Blonde on Blonde, on multimedia DVD. This would of course contain the original unedited four-track studio tapes for each song, with a 1960s mixing desk presented in the style of the recording studio in Highway 61 Interactive; using this console you could have the exquisite pleasure of mixing and editing your own version of Blonde On Blonde. Do we deserve anything less?
Back in the real world, given that CD recorders have become pretty commonplace, it's not difficult to fix yourself up with a copy of the album that's more satisfactory than any of Sony's editions to date. First, borrow or steal a copy of the mono album or bootleg CD, and make a copy of the real Blonde On Blonde for general listening purposes. Then for headphone use, to catch the nuances of Dylan's voice or to marvel at the work of the Nashville musicians, make a composite CD-R which takes most of the tracks from the (full-length) standard CD, but drops in "One of Us Must Know" and "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" from the MasterSound version. And turn up the bass!
Appendix A: Details of the Abridged CD Version
The following table shows the approximate number of
seconds by which each track was cut on the early abridged version of the
Blonde On Blonde CD in order to bring the whole album in under the
72-minute mark. The comparison is with the full-length standard CD,
rather than with the MasterSound edition, which was created later as a separate
exercise. UK readers should note that the abridged version (CDCBS 22130) seems
still to be the standard issue here, and should look out instead for a European
copy (Columbia 463369 2); this contains the full-length standard mix,
and can sometimes be found in UK record shops.
|Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35||
|Pledging My Time||
|Visions Of Johanna||
|One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)||
|I Want You||
|Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again||
|Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat||
|Just Like A Woman||
|Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine||
|Temporary Like Achilles||
|Absolutely Sweet Marie||
|4th Time Around||
|Obviously 5 Believers||
|Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands||
Appendix B: Discography of Blonde On Blonde Releases
The following are the vinyl and CD releases of the album
that I know about which have been at some time on regular sale in the US and
|1966||US||Columbia||C2L 41||Mono Vinyl (US version)|
|1966||US||Columbia||C2S 841||Stereo Vinyl (original mix) - original mix sides appear to have matrix numbers including -1 or -2.|
|1966||UK||CBS||DDP 66012||Mono Vinyl (UK version)|
|1966||UK||CBS||SDDP 66012||Stereo Vinyl (original mix)|
|1969?||US||Columbia||C2S 841||Stereo Vinyl (remix) - remixed sides appear to have matrix numbers including -3 or higher.|
|1982||UK||CBS||22130||Stereo Vinyl (remix)|
|1987||US||Columbia||CGK 841||Standard CD (abridged) - matrix number ends with -1.|
|1987||UK||CBS||CDCBS 22130||Standard CD (abridged)|
|1988?||US||Columbia||CGK 841||Standard CD (somewhat less abridged) - matrix number ends with -2.|
|1989||US||Columbia||CGK 841||Standard CD (full length)|
|1989?||Europe||Columbia||463369 2||Standard CD (full length)|
|1992||US||Columbia||CK 53016||MasterSound CD (12" x 6" package)|
|1994||US||Columbia||CK 64411||MasterSound CD (jewel case reissue)|
|1997||Holland||Columbia||66012 1||Stereo Vinyl (remix)|
|1998?||Europe||Columbia||480417 2||MasterSound CD (jewel case reissue)|
|1999||UK||Columbia||MILLEN15||Millennium Edition CD in card sleeve (MasterSound mix)|
Appendix C: Notes on methods and source materials
Some tolerance has to be allowed when comparing vinyl discs; earlier pressings tend to sound rather better, and the quality of the vinyl used may vary. After allowing for these factors, it is sometimes hard to tell whether the same or different master tapes have been used for vinyl versions.
Comparing track lengths is particularly difficult. I have ignored the timings printed on album sleeves and labels, as these are very unreliable; and instead of comparing total track lengths, I have concentrated on timing the length of additional music in the longer of two versions; doing it this way, any error will be much smaller. For playing vinyl discs, the turntable speed was set stroboscopically.
Working with analogue tape copies of albums is of course prone to introducing considerable speed errors. I have had a proper vinyl or CD copy of each of the major different versions of the album, with the exception of the US mono LP. It is therefore possible that there is a speed difference between the US and UK mono releases, but I think this very unlikely.
All comparisons were made using the following recordings:
US mono vinyl mix: first generation tapes of two copies (Columbia C2L 41), though neither a first pressing.
UK mono vinyl mix: first pressing original copy (CBS DDP 66012); reproduction on bootleg CD of Blonde On Blonde and Highway 61 Mono Mixes (Gold Standard BN-339).
Mono 45 r.p.m. releases: UK single Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35 / Pledging My Time (CBS 202307); French EP Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35 / Pledging My Time / One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) (CBS EP 5660)
Original stereo vinyl mix: UK pressings circa 1975 and 1981 (CBS Sddp 66012); first-generation tape of early "360 Sound" US pressing (Columbia C2S 841); tapes of original sides of US "hybrid" copies from late 60s / early 70s; tapes of 70s and 80s Japanese copies (CBS/Sony 40AP 274-5); CD-R of 1999 UK Simply Vinyl reissue (SVLP 063).
Revised stereo vinyl mix: 1997 Dutch reissue (Columbia 66012 1); tape of US 80s copy, and tapes of remixed sides from US "hybrid" copies (Columbia C2S 841).
Standard CD mix (abridged): UK edition (CBS CDCBS 22130).
Standard CD mix (full-length): US "Nice Price" issue (Columbia CGK 841); European edition (Columbia 463369 2).
MasterSound CD mix:
original issue (Columbia CK 53016); first generation tape of Japanese
20-bit CD reissue (Sony SRCS 7905); UK Millennium Edition (Columbia
Books and Publications
Information was drawn from the following:
Michael Krogsgaard, Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions, Parts 1 & 2, in issues 52 & 53 of The Telegraph, 1995 (these can be seen online at http://www.punkhart.com/dylan/sessions-1.html and http://www.punkhart.com/dylan/sessions-2.html )
Rod MacBeath, Looking Up Dylan's Sleeves, Part 1, in issue 50 of The Telegraph, 1994
Clinton Heylin, Dylan: Behind Closed Doors, Penguin, 1996
Clinton Heylin, Dylan: Behind The Shades, Viking, 1991
Michael Gross & Robert Alexander, Bob Dylan: An Illustrated History, Elm Tree, 1978
Terry Hounsome & Tim Chambre, New Rock Record, Blandford Press, 1981
M. C. Strong, The Wee Rock Discography,
In addition to the written sources quoted above, I'm indebted to all those who've posted contributions on the subject to rec.music.dylan over the past few years. My particular thanks to Al Kooper, Richard Batey, Peter Stone Brown, Andrea Falesi, Richard Feirstein, John Jones, Andrew Russ, Bob Stacy and David Whiting for information, opinion and encouragement, and to the nameless American collector who very generously provided me with tapes of numerous US vinyl copies of Blonde On Blonde.
Last updated November 1999
This is part 2 of the Blonde On Blonde article which was published in Issue 3 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 Three Part One of Blonde On Blonde by Roger Ford