Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Top 10 Greatest Dylan Rip-Offs.

Bob Dylan is generally considered rock's finest songwriter & deservedly one of the most revered--& covered.

But what about those songs that aren't covers but adapt his unique characteristics--the bending voice, the wheezing harmonica, the complicated lyrics--for their own use, in varying levels of love & theft & parody?

It struck me that there were just enough decent examples of this to make a Top 10 list, as you find here. I decided to go with contemporaries or at least members of Dylan's own generation, as you could argue that entire artists have built a career out of ripping off his style. I also avoided direct parody--namely, "Weird Al" Yankovic's 2003 song "Bob," which used his 12-bar-blues early electric sound to unfurl a series of non-sequitur palindromes when viewed on cards a la Dylan's own video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues"--although some of these definitely court parody, even if they are not novelties in & of themselves.

Additionally, I stuck to ripping of the sound of Dylan in his classic mid-1960s era; I was very tempted to put on Dire Straits' "Sultans Of Swing," which is a rare Dylan sound-alike that evokes a later period of his music, but ultimately decided it was too much its own thing. Finally, I excluded any songs by Bob Dylan himself; hence no "Tweeter & The Monkey Man" (which itself is technically more of a Dylan-writing-Springsteen-in-turn-ripping-off-Dylan than a Dylan rip-off, per se, but I digress).

At any rate, here they are:

10. A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara'd Into Submission) by Simon & Garfunkel

Paul Simon has always been the Bob Dylan-lite version--well-studied in both folk music & poetry, he took Dylan's style & made a kinder, gentler version for the masses to consume. Like so many others (including many of the people on this very list), Simon is unimaginable without Dylan. Simon seemed to acknowledge as much in this bizarre parody of the then-newly electric Dylan, spouting stream-of-conscious, name-dropping rhymes, wheezing into a harmonica, & even working in a few Dylan song titles while he was at it. But best of all was the disorganized ending in which Simon-as-Dylan croaks, "I dropped my harmonica, Albert," referring to Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman. A loving parody that probably sounded dated from the moment it was released.

9. Thrasher by Neil Young

Bob Dylan is the master of lifting other people's melodies & making them his own (a talent he in turn gleaned from Woody Guthrie), so here Neil Young returns the favor. On the first acoustic side of Rust Never Sleeps--the second side was electric, which itself seemed to mirror Dylan's first-side-electric-second-side acoustic 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home--Young strums and plays harmonica on this winding ballad, which lifts the melody from "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," which was released on the above-mentioned Dylan LP. At one point, Young sings "On the sidewalks & in the stations," which again mirrors Dylan's like "In the dime-stores & bus stations" in "Love Minus Zero." One could interpret this as either a knowing wink to Dylan's original (like how Young had previously admitted to stealing the melody of The Rolling Stones' "Lady Jane" in his own aptly-titled "Borrowed Tune") or just evidence of how lodged Dylan's classic music was in rock's collective unconscious.

8. Catch The Wind by Donovan

Donovan has spent much of his career telling anyone who will listen that he wasn't influenced directly by Bob Dylan, but by the same people who influenced Dylan, namely Woody Guthrie & Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Whatever. The fact is, when Donovan's first hit single came out in 1965 (once Dylan had already moved onto more electric things), "Catch The Wind," it not only sounded like Dylan's earlier acoustic music, but it seemed to lift the melody from Dylan's own "Chimes Of Freedom"; furthermore, the title to Donovan's song seemed to riff off of Dylan's "Blowing In The Wind." Donovan would find something closer to his own voice when he went electric the following year, but in the meantime, the "Dylan vs. Donovan" hype of 1965 has been recorded (with a showdown towards the end!) in D.A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back" for all posterity to see.

7. Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street? by Bruce Springsteen

By the 1970s, it seemed that every third white guy with an acoustic guitar was being hailed as "The New Dylan." (For a definitive document, check out Greil Marcus's list of "New Dylans" in Dave Marsh's classic Rock Lists book; Bob Dylan himself makes the list about half a dozen times.) But no "New Dylan" was greater-hyped--or more initially disappointing--as Bruce Springsteen. Initially signed by legendary Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond (who had previously discovered Dylan), the label wanted a folk debut & Springsteen wanted it to be more rock. Thankfully, the album mostly goes Springsteen's way (as it's most tedious song, the acoustic ballad "Mary Queen Of Arkansas" is perhaps the worst Dylan rip-off in rock history); when it was released, Lester Bangs marveled it had more words in it than any other album that year. "Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?" is the most ridiculous of the lot, but at the same time, it's a loving use of Dylan's winding verses & surreal rhymes that ends in Spanish Harlem, the site of Dylan's own "Spanish Harlem Incident."

6. Song For Bob Dylan by David Bowie

On David Bowie's third album & first masterpiece, Hunky Dory, he performs three ritualistic killings of the father, in the songs "Andy Warhol," "Song For Bob Dylan," & "Queen Bitch" (about Lou Reed). His one for Dylan captures both Dylan's "voice of sand & glue" as well as the refrains, which find Bowie railing against a female subject in the second person, as many of Dylan's songs did as well ("It Ain't Me Babe," "Like A Rolling Stone," "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" etc.) A master mimic & trained theatrical actor, Bowie even hangs on words like Dylan & plays it straight where his other songs show off his voice's range. All is a fitting tribute, from someone who claimed to have been in the audience of Dylan's "Royal Albert Hall" concert in which someone shouted "Judas!"--a rare turn of one of rock's great center-stage performers placing himself in the audience seats. Now hear this, Robert Zimmerman, indeed.

5. Who's Driving Your Plane? by The Rolling Stones

Although Dylan & The Rolling Stones seemed to be very different forces in '60s rock--& beyond--they shared a kindred spirit of the blues. More than any other major white rock band, the blues was the touchstone of The Stones, & Dylan pulled the impossible trick of inspiring psychedelic rock without actually making it himself; he always stayed true to his roots, which means that once he plugged in, he would always come home to the blues. So while a song like "Jigsaw Puzzle" might be the more obvious choice for a list like this, I've always preferred the absurd, sexy "Who's Driving Your Plane?," an obscure B-side to "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow?" which finds The Stones absorbing Dylan & meeting him on his (& their) own turf. & unlike their other psychedelic music of this period, The Stones tap into the stoned overdrive of the blues, pushing it into something more fierce--& timeless--than most of their other work during this time.

4. Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out) by The Hombres

The Hombres were a garage band from Memphis, Tennessee, that took the sound & vocabulary of Dylan & stretched it to its limits in this near-lampoon of a sound-alike. Like Dylan himself, they weren't afraid to borrow freely from other sources--the record's bizarre opening promise of "A preachment, dear friends, you are about to receive on John Barleycorn, Nicotine, & the temptations of Eve" was lifted from Red Ingle & His Natural Seven's 1947 novelty hit "Cigarets, Whuskey, & Wild, Wild Women." The Hombres' song that followed these words did well enough to make #12 on the national charts upon its release in 1967, & lead to an LP & a slew of follow-up singles, none of which would chart. The band members went their separate ways & in 2012, lead singer & organist B.B. Cunningham Jr. was shot & killed as a security guard in his hometown of Memphis.

3. Death Of A Clown by The Kinks

Kinks' leader Ray Davies' kid brother Dave Davies stepped out of the shadows to pen & sing "Death Of A Clown" on their 1967 LP Something Else By The Kinks. Lifted as a single, the song was a smash hit in the UK, where it made the Top 3 & opened the door for future singles by Dave Davies, only one of which, "Susannah's Still Alive," would chart. (Worth seeking out are his non-charting B-sides & fascinating obscurities like "Mindless Child Of Motherhood" & "This Man He Weeps Tonight.") But as a hit-maker, "Death Of A Clown" was Dave Davies' first, last, & greatest hit. He adopted the acoustic strum, the raspy croon, & even the carnival atmosphere of Dylan songs like "Desolation Row" to craft his song, which was brought down from any heights of pretension by its earnest vocal & brother Ray's perfectly sour harmonies.

2. Run For Your Life by The Beatles

Perhaps no one ripped off Dylan more than The Beatles (which makes sense because electric Dylan wouldn't exist without their gauntlet). "I'm A Loser" has the confessional lyric & wheezing harmonica & "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" has a tempo so familiar Dylan himself reclaimed it as "4th Time Around" & "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" finds them taking the hallmarks of Dylan & remaking it into their own vision. So why "Run For Your Life"? Honestly, it could have been any of these--or another. But "Run For Your Life" appeals for a few solid reasons: (1) It was the finale of both the UK & US album Rubber Soul, which found The Beatles "going folk" (especially in the US version) & seems to end the LP with a hat tip to the mentor; (2) it's the closest The Beatles would get to Dylan melodically, which seemed appropriate for the well-studied tunesmiths of Lennon & McCartney (just check the swooping of "Well, you know that I'm a wicked guy..."); (3) it begins with a direct lift of a line from Elvis's "Baby, Let's Play House" ("Well, I'd rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man"), which finds The Beatles literally picking up where Elvis left off. It speaks to a sort of shared trinity between Elvis, The Beatles, & Dylan while following the folk tradition of borrowed verses--a tradition on which Dylan literally built his songwriting career.

[Unfortunately, The Beatles don't allow their stuff to remain on YouTube for more than a millisecond so the closest I could get was this VASTLY INFERIOR alternate take of the song, but please, ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTES & track down the original anyway; anyone who loves rock enough to make it through this list should have a copy of Rubber Soul anyway.]

1. A Public Execution by Mouse & The Traps

If initiation is the sincerest form of flattery, perhaps no song was more flattering to Bob Dylan than Mouse & The Traps' 1965 song "A Public Execution." Released within six months of Dylan's own "Like A Rolling Stone" & within four months of Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, Mouse & The Traps got to the Dylan-imitation game early & did it the best. Clearly modeled after "Like A Rolling Stone," "A Public Execution" takes all of the various elements we've seen so far & packed them into one succinct punch--he careening imitation vocals, the unusual & pretentious song title, the winding lyrics focused on the caustic put-down of a female in the second person--& puts it into a song that actually sounds not too far off from Dylan's own Highway 61 Revisited-era sound, if a bit more deliciously ragged.

A major hit in their native Texas (Mouse & The Traps hailed from Tyler, TX), it did well enough nationally to make #121 on Billboard's "Bubbling Under" chart & lead to a string of follow-up material, most of which, like "A Public Execution," were regional hits with little action nationally.

Their song reached rock immortality when Lenny Kaye put it on his seminal 1972 garage rock compilation Nuggets: Original Artifacts From The First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, along side B-level soundalike hits like The Knickerbockers' Beatles rip-off "Lies" & The Standells' Rolling Stones rip-off "Dirty Water."

In other words, "A Public Execution" did one thing that the girl in "Like A Rolling Stone" could never do: It found a home.