Released: January 1974
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 21
Certified Gold: 1/22/74
I find there was real suspense in Chicago on the eve of the first performance of The Return of Bob Dylan, half the city apparently staying up all night in order to bate its breath and get an early start on reading in three of the city's four newspapers, "Can He Do It?" Could Dylan, that is, do what Ben Fong-Torres of Rolling Stone said the concerts were planned to do, "Show Dylan as a healthy, confident man at ease with all the identities and roles he has created and that have surrounded him and sometimes saddled him over the years: protest voice, radical poet, absurdist folk-rocker, romantic loser, country gentleman, family man." Perhaps he didn't do all that, but sock-boffo is still sock-boffo, a conviction Dylan and the Band easily reinforce with their new Elektra-Asylum album, Planet Waves.
In concert, he appeared to be all the Bob Dylans, one at a time, in a retrospective sort of program not terribly far removed from the "And Then I Wrote" format. He is somewhat retrospective in Planet Waves also, but the protest voice maintains its long silence. There are ten new songs, some folk-rockers, some verse that may very well be poetry and could be radical, and some schmaltz, but nothing very political. Perhaps it has to be so, for the times they have changed even more than Dylan has. He's got a million or so dollars he didn't have back in the old days, but what we've got is so infinitely complicated, compared to The Bomb and Selma, Alabama -- so intricately confusing, and so... business grey that perhaps it has become, after all, a job for Ralph Nader and not for folk singers. Still, it does smart a bit when, just before the end of the recording, our hero intones, "It's never been my duty to remake the world at large/ Nor is it my intention to sound the battle charge." Also shucked is the country gent role: Dylan's Nashville Skyline voice is heard possibly for the last time in a depressingly awkward attempt at camping up "Spanish Is the Loving Tongue" in his last album, Dylan. There are no country pies in Planet Waves; the voice is the New Morning voice, a natural-sounding development from the harsh protest voice and the sardonic, mocking inflections of Highway 61 and electricity. The album fits as a successor to New Morning, which, in God's way of numbering Dylan albums, it is, but it could just as well have been conceived as a "best of Dylan's (still operative) identities" collection. "On a Night Like This" quickly establishes a stylistic connection with New Morning, but then "Going Going Gone" is a slow ballad that -- somehow one just knows -- was written with electric accompaniment in mind, reminiscent of Blonde on Blonde or thereabouts, and "Tough Mama" is -- well, tell me if this makes it absurdist folk-rock or not: "Today out in the countryside, it was hotter than a crotch/ I stood alone upon a ridge, and all I did was watch/ Sweet Goddess, it must be time to carve another notch." "Forever Young" is done twice, straight and schmaltzy on side one, with The Band's Robbie Robertson nonetheless hitting some lovely Spanish guitar backup, and in Dylan's smug rock style on side two, where the schmaltz almost turns, Randy Newman-style, into irony. It falls short of that, but its tempo and attitude are a great boon anyway, providing contrast to set up "Dirge," a dark masterpiece not written so much as wrenched from wherever came those magnificent downers in John Wesley Harding. "Never Say Goodbye" seems likely to go relatively unnoticed until it crops up in the repertoire of every folkie on the stale beer circuit in Upstate New York, for it's a singer's song the way "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" was and still is; easy to do but not boring. "Wedding Song" is the only really lousy tune in the album, and it will have allowances made for it because any song with that kind of title is expected to be stylized and part of the stylization is mushy words and so forth.
- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 4/74.
In a time when all the most prestigious music, even what passes for funk, is coated with silicone grease, Dylan is telling us to take the grease and jam it. Sure he's domestic, but his version of conjugal love is anything but smug, and this comes through in both the lyrics and the sound of the record itself. Blissful, sometimes, but sometimes it sounds like stray cat music -- scrawny, cocky, and yowling up the stairs. A-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Even with a new record company (this release originally was Dylan's Geffen debut, commencing a brief absence from Columbia, which ultimately required the rights to the master), and a reunion with The Band (clearly the finest backup group with which he has been associated), Planet Waves was greeted somewhat apathetically commercially and critically. Those that denigrated it were probably afflicted with unreal expectations because of the legendary Dylan/The Band chemistry (The Basement Tapes being then the most notorious and coveted bootleg about). Time reveals a recording concerned with simple domestic involvements that yield enduring pleasures. It's no masterpiece, but it's far from the secondary product it is too often perceived to be. If anything, it has a somewhat unfinished quality about it, but that's not a foreign element in much of Dylan's work. While Planet Waves is best known for "Forever Young" (performed both up- and downtempo) and "You Angel You," it is not the individual tracks, but the sophisticated picture of loving and relationships that encourages repeated listenings. The sound quality is only fair; the whole seems unnaturally bunched together, and Dylan's vocals and harmonical flirt with edginess throughout. A-
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
A companion work to its predecessor, New Morning, this first album to be recorded with Dylan's backup group, the Band, mixes pronouncements of marital and familial contentment with severe criticisms of the singer himself and others. Contains "Forever Young." * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
By the mid '60s, Bob Dylan had become the most influential singer-songwriter of the rock era. His songs were covered by Peter, Paul & Mary, and his work had influenced such rock icons as the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Yet despite the admiration of his peers and the acclaim of rock critics, more than a decade into his career, Dylan had yet to top the album chart. He had come close, though -- Highway 61 Revisited, his landmark 1965 album, had reached number three, and John Wesley Harding, his 1968 "comeback" album, spent four weeks at number two, but was unable to top the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour or Paul Mauriat's Blooming Hits.
By the time Dylan's contract with Columbia Records expired in 1973, he had amassed eight top 10 albums. With Dylan freed from Columbia, record executive David Geffen quickly made a verbal deal with the singer-songwriter to record for his Asylum Records label. The album would be Dylan's first recorded collaboration with the Band, Dylan's former backing group, a star attraction in its own right with three top 10 albums.
Planet Waves, which would be Dylan's first new recording in nearly three years, came together quickly. Initially, Dylan and the Band were rehearsing in Malibu, California, for a forthcoming tour, when they decided to go into the VIllage Recorder in West Los Angeles and cut an album. "The guy that was managing the studio was also one of Dylan's accountants," says engineer Rob Fraboni. "He offered them a secrecy situation where nobody would know that they were there. Based upon that, they came in." Fraboni, the chief engineer at the studio, was scheduled to work on another project, but found the combination of Dylan and the Band too much to resist.
Although the liner notes that that the album was recorded on November 5, 6, and 9, 1973, the sessions actually began on November 4 without the Band's drummer, Levon Helm. "On the first day they came in and did a bunch of songs like 'House of the Rising Sun,' which didn't make the record," says Fraboni. "The only one that made the record was 'Never Say Goodbye.' Then Levon came and three days later, that was the whole record.
"It was striking to do something that powerful that quickly," Fraboni adds. Dylan wrote "Wedding Song" while lying on his back in the control room. The album was mostly recorded live in the studio. "There were only two overdubs," Fraboni adds. "One piano overdub and one harmony vocal." Initially, Dylan attempted to overdub part of his vocal on "Going Going Gone." Says Fraboni, "After trying one overdub he just stopped and said, 'I could do this all day long and I don't eve know if it's the right thing to do.'"
The sessions were conducted in an extremely loose and improvisational manner, with the Band naturally following Dylan's lead. "They had been rehearsing together before, but when they went into the studio, the Band ably only knew about four of the songs," says Fraboni. "What was incredible was that they were so in tune with Bob, such great musicians, and so intuitive, they were able to basically just watch Bob's hands on the chord changes and play along. It might have taken a take or two for them to learn the songs, but these were songs that they had never played before."
One such song was "Forever Young," which appears on the album in two different versions. "Bob said to me that he had carried this song around in his head for several years and he had never written it down, and now he wasn't quite sure how to record it," Fraboni says. As a result, five different versions were cut. The slow version, which ended up closing side one of the album, was recorded in one take. Ken Lauber played congas on the track, although he is not credited on the sleeve. "I remember sitting behind the board thinking, 'My God, I've never witnessed anything like this in my life,'" says Fraboni. "the sheer, emotional intensity and musicianship was amazing." After the track was complete, all of the musicians, including Dylan, piled into the control room for the playback. "At the end, no one said a word and everyone kind of wandered out of the control room," Fraboni says.
In spite of the sheer brilliance of the performance, Dylan considered leaving the track off the album during the mastering phase, but Fraboni convinced him to keep the track.
Planet Waves entered the chart on February 9, 1974, at number 19. A week later, it shot up to the top, finally giving Dylan that elusive Number One.
- Craig Rosen, The Billboard Book of Number One Albums, 1996.
Main Page | Readers' Favorites | The Classic 500 | Other Seventies Discs | Search The RockSite/The Web