Bob Dylan 'bootleg' album to feature 20 alternative takes of Like a Rolling Stone

One of the 18 CDs that makes up the upcoming 'The Cutting Edge 1965-1966' will be devoted to the epic

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The Independent Culture

How does it feel, to be on your own…listening to twenty alternative takes of Like a Rolling Stone. 

Christmas will come early for Bob Dylan obsessives with a new box set containing one disc that consists entirely of minutely-differentiated studio versions of the same classic song.

Among the 18 CDs gathered for The Cutting Edge 1965-1966, the latest in a series of authorised Dylan “bootleg” recordings, is one devoted to repeated iterations of the ground-breaking song, named the greatest of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.

Recorded in June 1965 for the Highway 61 Revisited album, Like a Rolling Stone marked Dylan’s transition from folk troubadour to visionary rocker, building from its whipcrack snare drum intro to an organ-led, six-minute epic, driven by a sardonic, impressionistic lyric.

Rock historians agree that the song, which Dylan himself acknowledged was his best, is worthy of deeper analysis. The acclaimed writer Greil Marcus published a book about its cultural impact.

Now Bobcats can trace every stage of its genesis, including a master take isolating the drums and the organ, on the CD compiling each attempt at the song, recorded at the Columbia Records studio in New York by Dylan and a handpicked session band. 

The first takes reveal how the song was originally composed in a ¾ waltz time, with Dylan playing piano. One of rock’s most serendipitous moments occurs when guitarist Al Kooper spots an opportunity to try out an organ part which Dylan approves of, ordering what becomes a signature gospel-inflected swirl to be turned up in the mix.

By the fourth take on the second day of recording, Dylan and his band nailed the song. But they still rifle through 11 further takes, each contained on the new CD, which were all unusable because the band’s galloping pace was too fast.

The opportunity to hear 20 consecutive versions, including “Like a Rolling Stone - Master take - lead guitar isolated track”, will be seized upon by fans, said Michael Bonner, associate editor of rock magazine Uncut. “There is a fascinating counter-factual here – what if they had released take five? How different would the history of popular music have been? Would Dylan’s career have been derailed?”

Bonner added: “There will be fans who will listen all the way through. It’s interesting from an archaeological point of view to hear the song stripped back to its component parts and to hear that organ part isolated.”

Like a Rolling Stone justifies such treatment but not all of rock’s back pages can bear such scrutiny. “Twenty versions of Coldplay’s Yellow would be terrifying,” Bonner said. “There is a danger that when you are ushered behind the curtain to see how the levers operate you can lose the mystery of a song.”

The 18 CD Dylan set, released in November through the musician’s website, is limited to a worldwide pressing of only 5,000 copies and promises to include “every note recorded during the 1965-1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric.” It includes rare Dylan hotel room recordings made at the Savoy Hotel in London (May 4, 1965) and the North British Station Hotel in Glasgow (May 13, 1966). The “Rolling Stone” disc is also available in a 6 CD version, which Sony will make widely available.