Melody Maker | Info Freako | 7 January 1995
A friend recently made me a tape of Bob Dylan's "The Basement Tapes". It has some great songs on it, but I don't understand why most hardcore Dylan fans hold this album in such reverence. My friend says it's because it didn't come out until 10 years after it was recorded, although he doesn't know the reason for the delay. Can you shed any light on this?
Huw Jenkins, Gloucester
The background story to "The Basement Tapes" begins during the summer of 1966, with Bob Dylan's withdrawal from the public gaze following a motorcycle accident near his home in Woodstock, New York. Contrary to initial reports, his injuries were not particularly serious, but the crash gave him a perfect excuse to take a breather from the punishing work schedule that had produced half a dozen albums in just three years. He later said it was "the Great Spirit telling me, 'You need a rest'."
Although Dylan remained out of the spotlight for a good 18 months, he was not inactive for the whole of this period. From July until November 1967, he spent almost every day at Big Pink, a huge house in Saugerties, just down the road from Woodstock, which had recently been bought by Rick Danko of The Band, Dylan's live backing group since mid-1965. Installed in the basement of the house, Dylan and The Band played together for hours on end, recording songs on rudimentary equipment as and when the mood took them.
A selection of the tracks were subsequently sent out to other artists, most notably Manfred Mann, who recorded "Quinn The Eskimo" as a single in early 1968 under the title "The Mighty Quinn" (Fontana). Around the same time, some of the tapes fell into the hands of bootleggers and seven of the cuts surfaced on an illegal untitled double LP said by many to be the first ever rock music bootleg. Released in a plain white cover and with no track listing and no label information other than a catalogue number (GF 001/2/3/4), the record quickly became known as "The Great White Wonder".
The huge demand for "The Great White Wonder" over the next few years led to the LP being re-pressed by several different bootlegging companies, including Contra Band and the prolific Trademark Of Quality label. Because sound recordings were not subject to American copyright protection laws until 1972, the albums enjoyed much wider distribution than today's bootlegs. Some estimates suggest the overall sales of the various different versions of "The Great White Wonder" were in excess of 250,000 copies.
It's not known precisely how much material Dylan recorded at Big Pink during 1967, but 16 tracks were finally granted an official release in mid-1975 as "The Basement Tapes" (CBS), together with an additional eight tracks by The Band on their own. The fact that the Dylan songs were nearly 10 years old did not dampen the response of either the critics or the public. The record was generally recognised as one of the year's best albums and reached the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic.
The recess that followed his accident inspired a new creative spirit in Dylan and, believing the material would never appear on vinyl, "The Basement Tapes" reveals the singer at his most relaxed. The LP boasts an incredible range of musical styles, including country, blues and even Cajun, and the lyrics are equally broad in tone and subject. While songs such as "I Shall Be Released" and "Tears Of Rage" pick at old, poignant wounds, the likes of "Quinn The Eskimo" and "Open The Door, Homer" veer on surreal comedy.
Bob Dylan's hibernation period ended with a show at the Carnegie Hall in Newark at the beginning of 1968. The Band were called upon to add their weight to the proceedings and continued to team up with Dylan over the next few years, most notably at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969. The singer was a special guest at The Band's farewell concert, which took place at the Winterland in San Francisco in 1976 and was the subject of Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz" documentary film.