The Basement Tapes: Complete
The "Basement Tapes" are among the most legendary and mystifying recordings in the history of American music. In 1966, when Dylan crashed his motorcycle near his home in Woodstock, New York, he was at the height of his fame. He'd just cut what most consider to be his greatest studio album, Blonde on Blonde, with a group of Canadian musicians, formerly known as the Hawks but now going by The Band. He and The Band were coming off an exhausting tour of Europe and America, enduring the constant criticism of folk "purists" who saw his move towards electric music as a betrayal. A concert-goer in England famously shouted "Judas" during the opening chords of "Like a Rolling Stone," to which Dylan replied, "I don't believe you... you're a liar" before turning to his band and screaming, just audible through the mic to his back, "play it fucking loud." They obliged.
As the standard narrative goes, Dylan returned from this tour lost and exhausted with fame. The motorcycle accident seemed like exactly the excuse he was looking for. Just like that, one of the most influential musicians and counter-cultural figures in the world, matched only by Lennon and McCartney, withdrew from public life as completely as the world would allow him. The members of The Band gradually flocked to Dylan and a series of informal recording sessions was begun in the basement of a house called Big Pink, where several members of the band were living at the time. The recordings were originally intended either as demos for sale to other artists or simply as personal records of the musicians' more debauched experiments. Some of the songs written during this period did indeed emerge in versions by other acts. In both Manfred Mann's version of "Quinn the Eskimo" and The Byrd's version of "You Ain't Going Nowhere" (one of the first ever country-rock records, along with Dylan's own John Westley Harding and Nashville Skyline records) one can hear humorous results of the poor recording quality of the tapes and some of Dylan's more unintelligible vocals - at certain points the singers clearly made up new lyrics because they couldn't work out what the old ones were meant to be. The Band themselves went on to launch as their own act, largely on the strength of the material developed in this period, releasing their own versions of the basement Dylan compositions "Tears of Rage," "This Wheel's on Fire," and "I Shall Be Released" on their debut album Music from Big Pink (1968). This album would itself go on to have a huge influence on the emergence of the"roots rock" genre, inspiring Eric Clapton to form his short-lived supergroup Derek and the Dominoes.
Dylan did not release versions of almost any of these compositions himself. He re-emerged with the quite, country-tinged John Wesley Harding (1967), which stands in stark contrast to his previous electric album Blonde on Blonde but is also quite distinct from the intervening basement materials. He followed with the full-on country album Nashville Skyline (1969) and the infamous Self-Portrait (1970), which was made to fulfill contractual obligations and was at least to some extent intentionally bad. In the meanwhile, the basement recordings were gathering a legend in various bootleg forms, the most famous being called "Great White Wonder." In 1975, Columbia finally produced a general release, mixed, overdubbed, and selected by The Band under the direction of Robbie Robertson. This version was incredibly well-received and brought the recordings to a wide audience, but has since been criticised for a number of reasons. Most critics hold that Robertson excluded some of the best Dylan material from the period and added in Band material from later sessions in order to exaggerate The Band's creative role in the sessions. The later overdubs also detract from the raw original experience of the rough basement demos.
Later bootlegs brought much more material to light, culminating a six CD set called "A Tree With Roots." This added early Dylan takes of "Quinn the Eskimo," "I Shall Be Released," and the hauntingly inscrutable "I'm Not There." It was this bootleg that inspired rock critic Greil Marcus to write his now famous study The Invisible Republic (1997), also published under the title Old, Weird America, which argues that this period displays Dylan returning to his earlier folk roots after the wildness of the mid sixties and engaging directly with a certain lost vision of America created on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (1952).
Until now however, a general, well-produced, complete version of the extant basement recordings has been lacking. The goal of the two-part Bootleg Series Vol. 11, which was released on November 4th 2014, is to amend that situation. There are two levels to this release - a two-CD version dubbed The Basement Tapes "RAW" which distills the sessions and corrects the 1975 release by providing a more accurate picture of what went on in the basement that year, and, for the avid fan, the six-CD The Basement Tapes Complete, which sports remastered versions of all extant basement recordings, some available here for the first time ever, bootleg or otherwise.
This all is not to be confused with the "New Basement Tapes" project (released on November 11th) which was spearheaded by T. Bone Burnett, the master producer behind the Cohen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou and Inside Llewyn Davis. This entirely separate project has assembled a team of musicians, including Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), to write and record music for lyrics which Dylan wrote during the period but never himself set to music.
This new collection represents the definitive release of one of the most fascinating chapters of American musical history. We've received a sampler in the mail, so look out for these new recordings on upcoming Blues Hangover air!
If you'd like to find out more and hear samples of the many recordings, check out this four-part podcast promoting the release.