HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED

Part II: The Recordings in Detail

Overall Sound of the Different Releases

The original mono album seems the best benchmark for the comparison of other versions, since this is the mix that Dylan probably had the most involvement in. It has a solid, punchy sound, with plenty of bass and with the snare drum more prominent than on any of the stereo mixes. If it has any fault, it's a slightly tight and forced quality in the mid-range. Possibly this is an effect of the compression which was often applied to mono pop music recordings in the 60s in order to prevent the quieter moments from getting lost in the noise on AM radio.

I find the Sundazed mono vinyl reissue somewhat disappointing. Compared with the original UK CBS pressing, at least, it seems rather dull and lifeless. The 2010 mono CD, on the other hand, sounds to me almost too bright, and gets a little tiring over the length of the whole album. I have not heard the 2010 mono vinyl reissue, but I'm told it sounds practically identical to the CD.

All of the tracks on mono copies I've heard are slightly above musical pitch, Note and therefore sound slightly faster than on stereo releases; whether this was Dylan's intention (as it apparently was on Blonde On Blonde's "Rainy Day Women") is hard to guess. It could possibly be just an error introduced in 1965 at the mixing stage. Almost all stereo versions that I have heard run at correct musical pitch, whether on vinyl or CD; the one exception is the 2015 Mobile Fidelity hybrid SACD, which has the whole album a shade below true pitch and therefore also marginally slow. Whether this also applies to their 45rpm vinyl edition I do not know.

The unreleased rough mix tape that was apparently compiled for Witmark Sons is in mono, but it has a cruder sound than the released mono LP,  with the percussion much more prominent. All circulating copies appear to have an intrusive noise on several of the tracks, which sounds like mains-borne electrical interference; this was probably introduced during an amateur tape-copying operation. Note As presented on the Highway 61 Revisited Again bootleg CD the speed is slightly below true musical pitch, but since the tape had almost certainly been copied several times in analogue form before being bootlegged, nothing can be concluded from this. 

All of the released album’s songs except for “Like A Rolling Stone” were included in the set of acetates given to Emmett Grogan, which have since circulated on tape and in digital form.  These are, with one minor editing difference, the same mixes as on the released mono LP, and allowing for the wear on the acetates and some fidelity lost in the copying process, they sound very similar.  The set also contains mono mixes of “Positively 4th Street” and the better, more familiar take of “Can You Please Crawl Out You Window?"; these sound pretty much the same as the original 45rpm vinyl releases (in the latter case it was of course the mistaken release under the title “Positively 4th Street”).

Stereo vinyl copies of the album have always had a much weaker, thinner sound than mono copies, and the bass drum cannot really be heard on any of the tracks.  This is a common problem with 1960s stereo records –  see the article on mono versus stereo.

The original CD, which first appeared in 1984, gains some clarity over both mono and stereo vinyl, particular in high frequencies, but it is just as lacking in bass as the stereo vinyl.  The result is a very harsh, strident sound.  There is noticeable tape hiss in quiet spots, possibly because the CD was mastered from a tape several generations away from the original studio tapes.  The stereo imaging and presence is also poor, probably for similar reasons.

The remastered DCC gold CD sounds just right to me, with the same warmth and solidity of bass that the mono LP had, but with a greater clarity and a more natural, relaxed sound. The high frequencies are extended but without the harshness of the original CD, there is very little tape hiss and the stereo imaging is excellent. The one criticism that is sometimes levelled at this edition is the degree of sibilance in Dylan’s vocals. This, it seems to me, is a problem arising from the way Dylan's voice was recorded; it's evident in all editions of the album, to some degree. Possibly Dylan got too close to the microphone at times, and his louder S's gave rise to distortion; whatever it was, the 1965 stereo mix made it worse; it's less of an issue in the mono mix. Because the DCC mastering has the treble frequencies a little toned down compared with other stereo editions, the occasional distorted sibilants sound softer, maybe at times just a little fluffy. Don't let it put you off.

Greg Calbi's remastering for the 2003 SACD edition (and since 2004 used for the standard CD) is something else again, and demonstrates just how much control and choice there is in the digital mastering process. It's fair to assume it was mastered from the same original stereo mix-down tape as the DCC edition, but the sound is very different. Where Steve Hoffman gave the album a warm, natural sound, Greg Calbi's later effort makes it bright, hard and aggressive. It's decidedly more lively and dynamic than the old Sony CD, and has a little more bass; but it's still very much treble-dominated. The increased brightness gives you the distorted sibilants with full force, contributing to the over-bright sound. It seems to me that the two remastering engineers have responded to different aspects of the album's character: Hoffman to the richer instrumentation and the world-weary softness that had crept into Dylan's voice since the previous album, and Calbi to the caustic nature of much of the album's lyrics. It's like "It Takes A Lot To Laugh" versus "Tombstone Blues".

The 2015 Mobile Fidelity hybrid SACD, mastered by Shawn Britton and Rob LoVerde, gives even greater top-end clarity; this makes some of the instruments sound hyper-real (for better or worse, according to taste); but the vocal sibilants are even harsher, and with the bass end no better than on the 2003 Sony remastering, I can only describe the overall sound as unpleasantly shrill. For me, the 1992 DCC release is still an easy winner.

However, it has to be said that all of these remastered versions of the 1965 stereo mix now sound rather two-dimensional compared with the much newer mixes of Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde On Blonde; there's too much dead space in between the instruments, and a consequent lack of unity to the overall sound.

The album's individual tracks were remixed for inclusion in the 18-CD Collector's Edition of The Bootleg Series Vol.12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966; but while these mixes by Steve Addabbo have their own points of interest, they don't fill the vacancy for a good new commercial mix of the album. The Cutting Edge mixes are deliberately 'raw', with very narrow stereo and little or no post-production polish; so they sound quite flat in comparison with the finished album cuts. On the up side, Addabbo has made the best job yet of taming the problematic vocal sibilants, and the tracks that were faded out on the album (all but "Desolation Row") are in some cases allowed to run on for longer than on the original mono and stereo mixes of the LP. Appendix B gives details of track lengths for all the different mixes.

The Tracks in Detail

In the following notes, what is referred to as the stereo mix is that which can be heard on all official CD and stereo vinyl releases;  the only exception is that noted for From A Buick 6.  The mono mix is the one which can be found on all mono LP issues. The remastered stereo editions are only mentioned where they display particular features not covered in the general comments above. Otherwise you can assume that the comments on the stereo mix apply equally well to all stereo editions. The 2015 stereo mixes for The Cutting Edge will always be identified separately.

Side 1

Like A Rolling Stone

The stereo mix provides a longer version of the track than the original single or the mono LP, fading out around 8 seconds later.  The rough mix on the Witmark tape continues for a further 20 seconds, until the players run out of steam with a final organ chord from Kooper. 

Many stereo issues of the album (including all CD releases) display a sonic fault in the first verse of this song: as Dylan sings . . . bound to fall, you thought . . ., his voice shifts towards to the right hand side and back to the centre.  According to engineer Steve Hoffman, who remastered the album for the DCC gold CD, It's just a drop-out on the original tape. Some Columbia tape copies don't have this drop out; they were made before the dropout occurred due to tape wear. Some tape copies do have this drop-out; they were made after the drop-out occurred. Note

A slightly different mono mix of the song appeared on early Columbia acetates; in this mix it is Bloomfield’s lead guitar, rather than the piano, which dominates the opening bars.  Two of the three acetates concerned are double-sided 45 rpm discs, with the song split into two parts.  This suggests that the radio station promo single, which was similarly split into Parts 1 and 2, may also have used this mix;  but I have yet to hear a copy.

The remix for The Cutting Edge is unfaded, like the 1965 rough mix, and even runs on a second or two longer; that sounds good, says someone. With hindsight, that seems something of an understatement. In addition to this new stereo mix, both the 6-CD and 18-CD editions of The Cutting Edge provide the individual 'stem' tracks of the four-track studio master. You can listen to these individually, though to me only Mike Bloomfield's guitar track really proves enjoyable in isolation; more interesting is that with suitable audio editing software such as the freeware Audacity you can import these four stem tracks and make your own mix of the song.

Tombstone Blues

This track is another showcase for Bloomfield's guitar playing, and the stereo mix gives us another three seconds or so of his wired-up blues soloing on the fade-out.  The rough mix made for Witmark continues for a further 16 seconds, but Bloomfield goes slightly off the rails and then drops into less inspired riffing before the whole thing falls apart, with the pianist the last to give up.

The early mono master reel which surfaced on the Emmett Grogan acetates (see Appendix D) contains the normal mono mix of this song, but faded out 14 seconds later than on the released mono LP. The 2015 stereo remix for The Cutting Edge is unfaded, and runs on for just as long as the rough mix.

While Dylan took a day off from recording (on August 3, 1965), the Chambers Brothers were brought in to record a vocal overdub on the choruses of “Tombstone Blues”.  This was of course not used for the released album, but the composite recording was put onto an acetate, and a recording of this has long circulated among collectors. Note  Bob Johnston can be heard introducing it as “Tombstone, Number 3 overdub”, and offering to play it back to the singers at the end.  Other than the added vocals on the choruses it is the standard mono mix, though with the ending extended as on the rough mix tape. This third and final overdub take saw an official release on the 2014 Michael Bloomfield box set, From His Head To His Heart To His Hands, in a rather murky stereo mix which – not surprisingly – brought Bloomfield's lead guitar to centre stage; here it faded before the final piano riffs. A better stereo mix appeared a year later on the Collector's Edition of The Cutting Edge (which rather over-generously included all three of the vocal overdub takes).

It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry

This lovely song displays the biggest difference, length-wise, between the mono and stereo mixes, with the stereo version nearly 40 seconds longer.  While this was a marvellous novelty on first hearing the stereo LP, I don't find it much of a gain in artistic terms.  The mono version fades out at a logical point, on completion of the instrumental verse, and wisely leaves you wanting more;  the stereo version continues with Dylan (on harmonica) and the band falling into a jam that seems to lose the shape of the song's verse pattern for half a minute or so, until the final repetition of the descending chord sequence.  Dylan seems particularly short of ideas for the harmonica on the 'flat' stretch, and the only justification I can think of for its inclusion is that the chugging groove is maybe suggestive of the train in the song's title.  The rough mix tape gives us a further 8 seconds before it finally fades out. The version on The Cutting Edge does the same, but this mix sounds unusually lame in comparison with the original stereo mix; this is at least partly because the acoustic guitar practically disappears after the first entrance of the vocal.

From A Buick 6

Concentrating first on the standard take of the song, the stereo mix adds 9 seconds to the end of the mono version.  There is in fact no rough mix of this track; the version on the tape made for Witmark is actually the final mono mix, apparently added to the end of the tape from a 33 rpm acetate. The Cutting Edge mix adds a further 25 seconds of instrumental playing beyond the stereo LP mix, but it is still finally faded.

The alternate, earlier take on the Japanese and early US and Canadian LPs is a decidedly weaker performance of the song.  It starts off with a solo harmonica introduction, then settles into a faster tempo than the normal version; but it is saddled with an insistent and uncharacteristically weedy guitar riff from Bloomfield, and has an overall sound which is thin even in comparison with the other stereo vinyl tracks. The drumming is also decidedly rickety.  On the plus side, it does have one or two word changes, most notably She comes running down the thruway / With her dynamite and her thread.  In overall length this version is just a few seconds shorter than the stereo mix of the standard take.

While this alternate take has only been officially released in stereo format, a mono mix was made, and surfaced some years ago on the Emmett Grogan group of acetates, though it was not on the discs derived from the mono master detailed in Appendix D.  Characteristically, the mono mix is more compact, faded out 17 seconds earlier than on the stereo cut.

The new stereo mix of this alternate take made for The Cutting Edge gives it a lot more punch than the original wide stereo mix, and it has a warmer sound with more bass; it also adds a couple of seconds to the fade-out. This version can be found on the 6-CD Deluxe Edition of The Cutting Edge as well as on the limited 18-CD Collector's Edition.

Ballad Of A Thin Man

Here the stereo mix extends the song by 6 seconds over the mono version, allowing us to hear at full volume the curious moan Dylan makes before he gets down to some glissando work on the piano as the track fades.  The rough mix tape has a further 5 seconds which reveal Dylan chuckling, perhaps at what he's doing on the piano, before the tape finally cuts.

The most interesting thing about the rough mix of this song, though, is what it reveals about the released mono and stereo versions: that they both contain a spliced-in section at the end of the penultimate verse. On the rough mix tape we hear the original unedited Take 3, in which the reason for the splice is apparent: organist Paul Griffin plays an ill-judged chord at the start of Dylan's line Give me some milk or else go home.  In the released composite version the re-recorded insert runs from the start of this line through to the end of . . . Mr Jones in the chorus which follows. The Collector's Edition of The Cutting Edge confirms that an insert was recorded following the final complete take, and includes both the original Take 3 and the whole of the insert take. Sadly, the remix of the original take is barely any longer than the 1965 stereo, so it misses most of the extra that the rough mix gave us. On the plus side, the unedited overdub take has Dylan singing the whole of the one-eyed midget verse and chorus; only the last part was actually used to make the insert into the master take.

Side 2

Queen Jane Approximately

This is one of the songs which was most extended in the stereo release: it outlasts the mono mix by nearly half a minute, during which we have to endure some fairly strained harmonica playing in addition to the notoriously out-of-tune electric guitars.

The rough mix of this song provides just another three seconds, then comes to an abrupt stop. The 2015 mix for The Cutting Edge sounds as though it's going to be similarly extended, but then suddenly fades a couple of seconds short of the original stereo album version.

Highway 61 Revisited

Here the eleven seconds of extended play-out in the stereo mix do at least give us a little bit more singing by Dylan - a sort of hummed blues riff in between his blasts on the police car whistle, plus a shout just as the track fades. The rough mix adds another eleven seconds, including some nice guitar runs from Bloomfield, and then cuts out. On The Cutting Edge, the remixed track ends a second or so short of this, cutting just after Bloomfield's last note.

Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues

Once again the stereo mix adds substantially to the harmonica-led instrumental section at the end of the song - around 18 seconds this time, with the rough mix continuing for a further 7 seconds before fizzling out. The remix for The Cutting Edge finishes in exactly the same spot, but is faded more gradually. The song sounds absolutely gorgeous in this new mix, Paul Griffin's piano better integrated into the sound stage and a real delight to listen to.

Desolation Row

The final song of the album, this is the only track which isn't faded out;  yet still the ending of the mono and stereo mixes are different.  If you listen closely to the very end of the mono version you can hear Dylan give a laugh, presumably in relief at having got through the take. This is much harder to hear in the stereo mix, even with the volume turned all the way up.

On the 21st century remasterings by both Sony and Mobile Fidelity the clarity of this track is astonishing, and Charlie McCoy's steel-string guitar sounds remarkably solid; but you have to put up with noticeable tape hiss at the start, and obtrusively hissy S's in Dylan's vocal.

The rough mix tape does not provide a valid comparison for this song, as the tape was evidently compiled before the final album version was recorded. Instead it contains the very dark first take recorded several days earlier, on 29 July 1965. This version, with the famous boiled guts of birds line, saw its first official release on 2005's Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home. The 4 August remake that was used on Highway 61 Revisited appears twice on the Collector's Edition of The Cutting Edge. First we hear the original track recorded by Dylan with Russ Savakus on double bass; then we have the same recording with Charlie McCoy's wonderful guitar overdub. On both of these the ending is so tightly edited that there is no trace of Dylan's laughter to be heard. The bass is rather over-strong, and McCoy's guitar on the overdubbed version is surprisingly low in the mix. But in another respect the track demonstrates how the whole album could benefit from a modern remix: this particular track had some of the worst cases of distortion on Dylan's S's, particularly in the original stereo mix; working instead from the multi-track recordings, Addabbo has largely been able to tame them.

Conclusions

The story of Highway 61 Revisited is very much simpler than that of Blonde On Blonde, at least as far as the music is concerned. There are really only two versions which could claim to be definitive: the original mono mix and the corrected 1965 stereo mix containing the standard version of "From A Buick 6". 

Personally I find the more concise endings of the mono version give the album more pace and impact, and I'm sure this reflects Dylan’s original intentions regarding the album’s editing; so it's good that this version continues to be available from Sony in a choice of formats. Yet the grandeur of the music – a big step up from the rough and ready guitar jumble of Bringing It All Back Home – cries out for the expansiveness of stereo.

The old 1965 stereo mix has now been digitally mastered four times for different editions. The original Sony CD is easily dismissed: it really has nothing in its favour. The DCC edition is the one I like best, for its warm, unforced sound and good bass end – but it is now rare and expensive to obtain. Failing that, the post-2004 standard CD edition is a worthwhile upgrade from the old Sony CD; just don't be afraid to turn the bass up and the treble down a little. The Mobile Fidelity remastering may possibly appeal to SACD enthusiasts.

However, all the stereo CD editions are based on a primitive and poorly edited 1960s stereo mix which really doesn't do the music justice. I hope that before too many more years have passed, Sony and Dylan's organisation will acknowledge that the way the 1960s albums were mixed for stereo (really wide, and mostly with the drums out on one side) just isn't good enough as the standard representation of the music. Then the next time they reissue his catalogue they might have these albums remixed in a sensible style, Note and edited to mirror the original mono versions. They've already done this with Dylan's first album, so there's some cause for optimism. We'd have to buy the albums yet again (how many copies is that now?), but it would be worth it.

 

Last updated November 2017

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