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Let’s re-issue some more old stuff Revisited

 

by Russell Blatcher

 

I expect you are all, like me, eternally grateful to Sony/Columbia for their re-release of 15 of Bob Dylan’s  (in their view) best albums. After all it is only, what, 20 years since the CD medium gained a firm foothold, and only 40 years since much of this material was first released. Looking back on the period when I first started buying CDs I can well remember the frustration at how long it took for some of my favourite albums to be released on CD, but now we can only wish the record companies had been even more cautious, as some reach their third or fourth re-releases of the same albums (David Bowie is the best example here I think). 

So the fact that some of the remixed, 24 bit, SACD etc etc re-releases have been significantly improved is not, in itself an excuse, although, to be fair, advances in technology have created new possibilities not available on the first release. Even so, the benchmark is often still the original vinyl release, and this is not always just nostalgia. The one notable exception to this trend is Neil Young’s stand on holding back the release of several of his albums, until the CD quality was good enough to justify it. The most reprehensible blunder was the release of many CDs using incorrect source tapes, not because the Masters were lost, but through sheer laziness and incompetence. They are always the first to congratulate themselves in the sleeve notes when they finally correct this error. Just try looking at the history of a couple of Miles Davis releases Miles Ahead and Kind of Blue. One common place error was to issue a CD using the tape which has been equalised for vinyl. Because the frequency response from vinyl was not level, it was necessary to boost the levels for some frequencies on the Master tape. If you then use that version of the master tape for a medium with an essentially  flat frequency response, such as CD the listening results are very poor indeed. 

Another aspect of the CD revolution was the lack of attention to cover art. The first disadvantage is the change in scale. If, like me you no longer have any vinyl in the house, next time you are in a shop which sells it, have a look at the cover of an album which you own on CD, and you will be shocked at the impact which the sheer size of the cover art has. This was unavoidable I suppose, but what was not is the slapdash approach to the original CD back catalogue. The worst offenders in this regard that I have seen were Island who used a completely uniform design for the back cover of all their CDs. Even worse, their proof reading was non existent, so for example they had one of the tracks on Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief as “Tim Lin”. Such an error fairly reflects the devotion which these companies lavish upon their treasured copyright possessions. So I find it insulting when they now trumpet re-issues with “original cover-art”. Oh! Well done lads! 

To return to Dylan, many have complained that the current re-issues do not include out-takes and early versions. In this case I have to say they have got it right (though I assume this was Dylan’s decision since from a marketing point of view it reduces the package’s attraction). If, as many of us would maintain, these are near perfect examples of the rock album, how can you now add to them, and second guess the original creators. 

With all these considerations at the front of my mind, I resisted manfully the immense temptation these “new” Dylan albums presented. Again and again I stood in HMV and Virgin closely examining them, but escaped with my credit card unscathed. Were the remasters really “spectacular[]”? Could I really live without them? If I did buy any could  I stop myself from getting all 15 (£180 worth)? But in the end, my resistance crumbled, and I bought Bringing It All Back Home. My first choice would have been Blonde On Blonde, but since I have the excellent Gold Disk version of that, I didn’t really think it could be improved on that much. 

One aspect of this game is very subjective. You have just shelled out £11.99 for an album you already own, and you WANT to believe it was worth it. I no longer make the mistake of trying a-b comparisons (after all I have been through all this with, to name just a selection: Spirit; The Byrds; The Band; Miles Davis; John Coltrane). 

But I think I can truly say that the album did indeed sound radically different. After all I know it better than almost any other I own, so to find my head swinging from speaker to speaker as I was jolted by instruments emerging from the mix which I had never noticed before was a shock. I listened straight through twice and then played it constantly each day for a week. Of course, after the first time the shock starts to diminish, but I still feel that the experience is enhanced. The sheer clarity of Dylan’s voice itself, still jumps out at me every time. 

Even the packaging has won me over, they look and feel as close as something of CD size can to a vinyl sleeve (US type not the horrible glossy Clarifoil English ones – can you still remember how US vinyl imports looked and smelled when you first pulled the wrapping off?) 

So the inevitable has happened, I crept back into the record shop last Friday and picked up two more, Highway 61 Revisited and Blood On The Tracks. Highway 61 I found just as “spectacular” as Bringing It All Back Home, but Blood On The Tracks, while significantly improved was not as big a step, mainly I think because the original production is much simpler than on the other two. 

The main feature of having these new albums is that they attract rather than repulse me. The original CDs, with their flat muddy sound, and banal regimented packaging drove me to the bootlegs every time, so that I never played my favourite albums as often as you would expect. I fear that the rest of the £180 will be leaving my wallet over the next few months, unless the shops have overbought and they appear in the next lot of sales (as happened thankfully with The Band re-issues). 

So if you are still wavering, and want an opinion, I would say yes, you should try your favourite Dylan album re-issue as a sampler.

 
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