Friday, November 6, 2015

Rubber Soul vs. Blonde on Blonde


By all rights, the matchup should be between Rubber Soul and Highway 61 Revisited, and not simply because they were released in the same year (Blonde on Blonde was released a year later, in 1966).  If Highway 61 Revisited was Dylan's first all-out electric, rock'n'roll LP (Bringing It All Back Home was only half-electric, on the first side), then Rubber Soul was the first Beatles album to demonstrate the clear influence of Dylan (and the Byrds).  But the numbers simply didn't add up - 11 songs vs. 14 songs.  So BoB will have to do: 14 songs here from their generation's most significant folk singer to match up with the 14 on the Beatles' greatest folk-rock LP.  You may object that the pieces still don't quite fit, as Dylan's set consists mostly of lengthy tracks (one exceeding 11 minutes) to pad out what was one of rock's first double (that's 4 sides of vinyl, kids) LPs, while the Beatles' LP is filled with short, snappy 3 minute pop ditties.  Well, I wanted some sort of showdown between Bob and the Fabs at some point, and this was the best compromise I could do.  This should be interesting, at the very least.

P.S. I'm using the original U.K. track listing for the Beatles LP, not the shuffle-butchered U.S. track order.

1. "Drive My Car" vs. "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" - "Everybody must get stoned!" vs. "beep beep beep!"  Each album leads with its stupidest and most childish song, and while my attitude towards the Dylan tune has softened over the years (due in great part to my ears' extended hiatus from Classic Rock Radio, where for obvious fratboy reasons this was the sole Dylan song to be ground into the dirt via overplay), I still don't enjoy it very much.  Forced fun never works as well as musicians assume it will when the listener is not drunk, and in the light of sobriety, it's just annoying.  But the Beatles tune isn't even fun as a drunken singalong.  It's Paul's idea of '50s rock'n'roll for 4th graders.  Plus, the 'boozy-woozy dirty carnival' sound of "Rainy Day" is rather unique.  So score 1 point for Bob, even if I truly like neither.

2.  "Norwegian Wood" vs. "Pledging My Time" - Did I hallucinate this or don't CD editions start off with "Norwegian Wood"?  I must have mis-remembered.  Anyway, this is no contest by a Scandinavian mile - John's bittersweet, deceptively offhand tale of a failed one-night stand burns down Bob's homage to John Lee Hooker-style Chicago blues.  There are ten thousand bands writing and playing songs like "Pledging My Time" as we speak.  Not many writing Lennon-ish sitar-folk tunes, and it ain't for lack of trying.  Score is now tied.

3.  "You Won't See Me" vs. "Visions of Johanna" - The ghosts of throwaway pop ditties howl in her face like infinity on trial, and if you have no idea what that means, neither do I, or most likely Bob himself.  I knew in advance without looking at the track listing that any Beatles song wouldn't stand a chance against "Johanna", my personal favorite of Dylan's 7+ minute epics (and he's had, oh - a few).  Fine as Paul's tune is, it's like pitting a Seinfeld episode up against The Seven Samurai.  Dylan 2, Beatles 1.

4.  "Nowhere Man" vs. "One of Must Know (Sooner or Later)" - Oh dear, this is the first serious dilemma of this contest.  I'm attracted to both equally for different reasons and find myself humming the choruses to each from time to time -- the lyrical subject matter of both have seemed to speak to my life at different times for different (if not entirely unrelated) reasons.  So which should I choose, the blonde or the moptop?  (Weren't the Beatles all brunettes?)  On the other hand, I adore the Byrds, and this is as close as the Beatles ever got to a straight-up homage to McGuinn & Co., so now the score is tied again.

5.  "Think For Yourself" vs. "I Want You" - In Beatles evolutionary terms, this is the finest George song yet.  But he'd improve considerably in short time.  With its almost Appalachian swirl of Nashville fiddles, the Dylan tune is the most conventionally 'musical' and perhaps interesting on BoB, and precipitates the sound of Desire a decade ahead of schedule.  So now Bob takes the lead again, 3 - 2.

6. "The Word" vs. "Stuck in Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" - Sorry, but lyrics do matter, and those have always been the Fabs' Achilles heel.  Catchy as it is in ways that Bob couldn't even begin to attempt, the sentiments are trite hippie rubbish.  Bob's down'n'out ruminations on dead grandfathers, French girls palling around with Shakespeare, railroad men smoking eyelids and drinking blood like wine, bad drinking experiences brought on by mixing Texas medicine and railroad gin, seductive burlesque dancers who know what you need but give you what you want -- this one's easy-pleasy.  Dylan 4, Beatles 2.

7.  "Michelle" vs. "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" - Another pair of songs that do even less for me than the opening cuts of their respective LPs.  One's just another unimaginative Chicago blues foot-stomper, and the Paul tune sung partially in French is goofball MOR rubbish.  So, yeah, give me an authentic take on Chicago blues over fake Jacques Brel any day.  I'm American that way.  Besides, the line about how the hat balances as well as a wine bottle on a mattress is genuinely funny.  Dylan 5, Beatles 2.

8.  "What Goes On" vs. "Just Like a Woman" - Well, it's a Ringo sung tune, and John/Paul rarely tossed him the first-rate.  But it's alright, ma, he's only talk-singing in a flat monotone because that's the best he can do without a little help from his friends.  As for the Dylan song (he's already won again, 6-2, no surprise there), the lyrics are in general a bit below his usual standards, even if melodically and hookily the tune is a bit above Bob's usual standards.  "She fakes just like a woman" could almost be a line of dialogue from a porno - dunno, always sounded a bit icky to my ears.  Not too deep or subtle of a chorus, but the verses in general make up for the overall air of callowness.

9. "Girl" vs. "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine" - Ah, misogyny.  Bob's kissoff to Joan Baez or whoever he'd broken up with in the past (if any specific woman at all) advances the sleazy carnival sound of "Rainy Day Women" with a considerably darker-hued tune in terms of both atmosphere and lyrical attitude.  Interesting musically speaking, but not all that memorable of a song - the chorus isn't particularly strong.  Lennon's bitter (not particularly sweet, just bitter) folk-pop sigh of exasperation and exhalation is one of the strongest on Soul.  And the 'drag on a cigarette' vocal hook is pleasantly novel.  Dylan 6, Beatles 3.

10. "I'm Looking Through You" vs. "Temporary Like Achilles" - One of Paul's stronger tunes on this particular Beatles LP, its strummy bounce makes for a snotty kiss-off anti-love-note almost as worthy of anything Dylan ever wrote (or Lennon, for that matter).  "....Achilles" is, well - sigh, just another generic electric blues number, except only weaker this time: a sloth-y stroll-paced slow blues that lacks energy, hooks, focus.  Easily the worst song on Bob's double LP.  Dylan 6, Beatles 4.

11.  "In My Life" vs. "Absolutely Sweet Marie" - The Dylan track picks up some of the energy dissipated by "Achilles" and sets matters aright again, and "to live outside the law, you must be honest" is one of Zimmy's most quotable lines.  "In My Life", on the other hand, is the one Beatles song that you'd like played at your funeral.  And I bet you didn't realize that until I just mentioned it now.  Dylan 6, Beatles 5.

12. "Wait" vs. "4th Time Around" - Despite the line "gallantly I handed her my last piece of gum", this is minor Dylan -- not quite a throwaway, and the Spanish guitar pleasantly flows along with gallant troubadour flamenco flair, but after the tune ends, all that is solid melts into air.  The Beatles tune itself is such a throwaway that I can't even tell quite for sure if it's a John or Paul written song (probably Paul's), but the jagged proto-Revolver guitar hook and tension-build dynamic in the chorus make it much more memorable.  6-6 - it's a tie again.

13. "If I Needed Someone" vs. "Obviously 5 Believers" - I don't mind fast rockabilly, but like the Chicago blues, it does have the tendency towards the perilously generic as a genre, and bands usually cut numbers like this when they want to rock out but are bereft of ideas.  The Harrison tune is no Lennon/McCartney but the kid's improving all the time.  Beatles take the lead for the first time, 7-6.

14. "Run For Your Life" vs. "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" - Once again, I knew without even glancing at the track listing that this was a foregone conclusion.  As much wholesome fun as a bit of homicidal Elvis-inspired misogyny may be if you're in the mood for that sort of thing, Lennon himself said that he didn't much care for the tune.  "Sara Lownds" (it doesn't even work as an anagram, Bob!) is - well, what exactly is the precise term for anti-misogynistic?  And no, "love song" just won't do, and neither will "putting her on a pedestal" - those cliches don't quite do justice to this eleven and a half minute ode to joy, a religious hymn to the sensation of falling in love in your mid-20s with the (first) woman you intend to marry.  It drones on and on, hypnotic if you're in the mood (or in a similarly smitten emotional situation as Bob was), and just droney and repetitive if you ain't.  An easy knockout for Dylan.  7-7

Well, that was exhausting.  Took me an entire listen of Blonde on Blonde to type the whole thing (like most normal people, I have all of the Beatles songs memorized by heart, so no need to replay Rubber Soul for research purposes).  A tie seems fair enough, and not particularly surprising.  As an overall album experience, however - well, it's still a tie, on reflection.  The Beatles work with a broader and more varied musical palette, with Dylan hemmed in by technical limitations (in both musicianship and songwriting) to 12-bar blues, generic '50s rock'n'roll, and traditional folk music forms.  Yet within those narrow (relative to the Beatles' eclecticism) parameters, Zimmerman creates his own, unique universe.  And Dylan cuts deeper, both lyrically and emotionally,  This is adult music for adults, not adolescent kiddy stuff.  The Beatles could, as I said, sometimes be a bit shallow.


  1. Great analysis. I'd never compared the two albums, but your final score is convincing. I don't know if this would tip the scales, but "4th Time Around" is just a jokey knockoff of "Norwegian Wood". Then again, Blonde On Blonde has "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands"... Who knows.

  2. Like many others: great written tract. Good and funny thoughts. Worthy of the two great artists.