I recently read Bob Dylan considered Elvis Costello, David Bowie and Frank Zappa to help produce Infidels. Costello would be the most interesting to see at the helm – he might have given Infidels a more folk-style approach. As such, Infidels holds up extremely well in large part due to the addition of Mark Knopfler – whose tasteful production and guitar work are everywhere throughout the album.
For the 80s it was contemporary sound – but it doesn’t hold itself as an 80s album (something that can’t be said of some of his other albums from that era.) Dylan reportedly hired Knopfler, in part because he didn’t know the new production technology. Still though, its an album that has been trimmed of the fat and excess. “Jokerman” might be the most well-known song, but its reggae isn’t not representative of the album. There’s a punch on many songs – “Man of Peace” “Neighborhood Bully” – and Dylan lashes out the lyrics with a renewed vigor not seen since Desire.
Infidels might be Dylan’s first secular album after a trio of Christian inspired albums, but the Bible and its themes are everywhere. Interestingly though, it’s the Old Testament and Judaism that occupies his thoughts. “Jokerman” name-checks Leviticus and Deuteronomy, Sodom and Gommorah. Elsewhere, “Neighborhood Bully” has often been interpreted as Dylan’s support of Israel, due to the inclusion of Israeli historical events. The penultimate song, “I And I” borrows its title from a Rastafarian practice of saying “I and I” when referring to one’s self to include the speaker with the presence of the Almighty in every day situations. Taking this as cue, Dylan uses the song to refer to the Hebrew God, whose name can’t be uttered by the observant. It’s also worth noting that the front cover photograph was taken by Sara Dylan, at a hotel in Jerusalem.
Among critics, Infidels has been seen as something of a lost opportunity for Dylan. The exclusion of “Foot of Pride” and “Blind Willie McTell” has left many shaking their heads for decades. The familiar demo version of “Blind Willie McTell” (though apparently there’s a full-band version that was recorded) while brilliant, probably would have overshadowed the rest of the album’s quality.
As you probably know I’m pretty excited about the remaster of Exile on Main St, along with the previously unreleased tracks that accompany it. Usually I’m a bit wary of this type of thing, as most unreleased tracks by artists are unreleased for a reason. If the recently released single “Plunder My Soul” to promote the remaster is any indication, the rest of the tracks will be high quality. So here are few my other favorite “previously unreleased” tracks from the vaults.
Bob Dylan – “Blind Willie McTell” (The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3). Arguably the greatest unreleased track ever, and one of Dylan’s finest songs. Originally from the Infidels sessions, the haunting “Blind Willie McTell” finds Dylan on piano backed by Mark Knofler on guitar. Named after the great American blues singer Blind Willie McTell who developed a rag-time finger picking style which he played on a then unpopular 12 string guitar. He is noted for never playing a song the same way twice. (A feat which Dylan is sometimes known for on his “Never-Ending Tour”). Dylan gives one of his best vocal performances, as he traces American history though references to slavery and music. At the end of each verse he tells us that “no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell”. Well, no can write a rock song like Bob Dylan. (I might actually try to really write about the song at some point.)
The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” (Demo Sequence) (The Anthology Vol 2.). This one might be cheating, since “Strawberry Fields” is an official track. Much has already been discussed about “Strawberry Fields” and its influence on music, but I find that the demo sequence gives an added depth to the story. The studio version of “Strawberry Fields” is usually noted for its psychedelic sound, but the lyrics reflect on John Lennon’s childhood, loneliness, and self-doubt. The demo sequence with just Lennon on acoustic guitar, peels away the wall of sound and reveals the sadness that is at the heart of “Strawberry Fields”. (Thanks to Ned for bringing my attention to this one.)
Van Morrison – “Wonderful Remark” (The Philosopher’s Stone). “Wonderful Remark” was a song that originally released on the soundtrack to The King of Comedy, and then released on 1990’s The Best of Van Morrison. This version while of high quality, like most of Morrison’s songs in the late 80s and early 90’s borders on adult contemporary. The version on Philosopher’s Stone is the one to beat – and like the demo version of “Strawberry Fields” strips away the excess – with just acoustic guitar, drums, and flute. Ranks up with “Madame George” as one of Morrison’s best.
Elliot Smith – “A Fond Farewell” (From a Basement on a Hill). Really any song from this posthumous album could be included since Smith was one of the finest songwriters of his generation. “A Fond Farewell” would be remembered for its beauty if Smith were still alive, but his suicide has made the song even more memorable. Looking back it’s hard to tell if Smith was talking about himself or an actual friend.
What are your favorite previously unreleased tracks?