Last night I dreamt I revisited Highway 61 again - and it was good

No one has heard Bob Dylan properly for decades, says Nick Coleman. So how does it feel to be on your own with Bob on SACD?
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The Independent Culture

It is said to be one of the great artworks of the second half of the 20th century. It contains "Like a Rolling Stone", "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry", "Ballad of a Thin Man", "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Desolation Row". It marks the point of no return for seriousness in pop - after this you could never really pretend that pop was wholly disposable again. On paper it's one of my favourite records. Trouble is, I've never heard it.

Well, I've heard it. But not how it should be heard - in mono on a Dansette, while clothed in a spotty shirt and shades and fortified by the certainty that phoniness is the most virulent symptom of spiritual corruption in post-war Western society. Nor even as a stereo mix on recycled vinyl through a Seventies Japanese hi-fi. At 43, and a relative latecomer to the works of Bob Dylan in general - and Highway 61 Revisited in particular - I'm far too young to have heard the music as it was intended to be heard. I've only heard it on compact disc, which is no way to hear it at all.

The CD version of Highway 61 should not be numbered as the worst act of vandalism committed during the commercial digitisation of music in the Eighties (that honour goes to Motown for what they initially did to the back catalogues of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye), but it's right up there. Highway 61 has gone virtually unaddressed by my ears since I bought it a dozen years ago, during one of my occasional bouts of resolution to tackle my Dylan blank spot. I acquired the thing earnestly, knowing it to be a key element of the cloud-busting Dylan trilogy of LPs in 1965/6, one of the great rock 'n' roll sunbursts of all time.

What I got was a nasty clanking, shrill, hissy simulacrum of period music; a reproduction in the worst sense of the word: a thing that leaves you exhausted as it leaves you unedified as it gives you a headache. Track two, "Tombstone Blues", actually sounds like a binary read-out. I've always imagined that this particular song is the model of what Dylan meant when he described his sonic grail: "that thin, wild mercury sound". It's a pell-mell of barely rehearsed blues licks, hustled into shape with a panel-beating back-beat, played slightly too fast for comfort and flaring with weirdly cold fire: the spirit of Sun-sessions Elvis pressed through the hyper-articulate Dylan cool-filter (with Mike Bloomfield in the role of Scotty Moore). What you get on the CD is a tin tray of metallic bits bouncing down an escalator - no coherence, no focus, no substance, no weight, no feel. Not thin, wild mercury music. Unlistenable music.

When compact disc appeared in the Eighties we bought it on the basis that its extended dynamic range and distortion-free "cleanliness" meant that, firstly, we'd never have to put up with disfiguring scrunches in our music again and, secondly, that the entirety of the sonic palette would be heard in coruscating new detail: that we'd hear everything.

Accordingly, remastering engineers got to work ensuring that toppiness, zizziness, snittiness (the sonic ciphers signifying "bright", "new", "clean") were aggressively EQ-ed into the digitised back-catalogue, irrespective of the balance of the original master tape - because that was what the market demanded. Even more problematic were the inherent limitations of CD resolution. In simple terms, contrary to what we were led to believe at the time, basic compact disc technology did not permit sufficient information to be encoded onto each disc. Stuff had to be left out: stuff that, in theory, we can't actually hear, like overtones, undertones, harmonics, the weird meteorology of sound in a studio that isn't being deliberately made by musicians but arises anyway when musicians play. One of the reasons Highway 61 sounds so ropy on CD is that it isn't all there. It's an etching of the original oil.

The "etching" effect arises primarily from the digital silence that attaches an "edge" to sounds that, in nature, shade into the shadings of other sounds. Highway 61, being an edgy record anyway, is all edge on compact disc and no body. It feels no more substantial than the computer-generated monsters you see in films - amusing, clever, ultra-clearly defined but not real.

As you're probably aware, the music industry is starting to punt its next software solution to the eternal question of how to make music sound better in exchange for more revenue. It's called Super Audio CD. SACD is not to be confused with DVD-A (a different thing altogether) or indeed "super-bit mapping" CD or any of the other worthy attempts made over the years to make music not originally recorded digitally sound as if it was. SACD is a new thing. It looks like CD; in "hybrid" format it can be played on ordinary CD players; but it isn't actually the same thing at all. I won't bore you with the technical details.

The most notable hybrid-SACD re-release project embarked on thus far was last year's Rolling Stones Decca back catalogue reissue. The project was initially met with scepticism but turned out to be hugely successful. For we ordinary mortals with decent-ish CD players at home (and turntables lazily gathering dust under skyscrapers of compact discs), a whole tranche of old music became easily accessible again. And the Stones sounded much more musical than they had done for ages, less like an etching - though obviously not as good as they would have done in mono on a Dansette (while one chokes down amphetamines in preparation for a night out on the pull with one's mates in Richmond). But you can't have everything.

And here comes the Dylan back-catalogue, elegantly repackaged by Columbia (how cheap and nasty the original CD packaging was; how disrespectful to both artist and listener), the first batch a judicious selection from three decades-worth of material, all of it hybrid, some of it re-tooled - irrelevantly in my view - for 5.1 "surround sound".

I head off to Strongroom studios in the East End of London so I can hear the "new" Highway 61 Revisited. I've already established at home that the conventional CD half of the hybrid sounds warmer, smoother, less edgy, less knackering. But I don't have an SACD player and Strongroom's Rob Buckler has plenty (they specialise, inter alia, in doing "5.1 mixing for SACD, DVD-A and DVD-V").

"Basically," says Buckler, "SACD gets us back to where we were 20 years ago, with decent vinyl played on a good turntable." Which is to say, less obtusely, that 20 years of toweringly expensive digital progress means less crackles.

How does Highway 61 sound? It sounds magical, like a great work of art. It sounds smooth, real, thin and wild (it will never be massive). You can hear the space the music is in, and the way the music fills it. Mike Bloomfield's guitar now emerges from a sonic context instead of sounding like it's been punched in by an elephant; you hear the music as a union of parts instead of an uncontrolled splatter; and Dylan's voice and diction, the songs themselves, reach you without pause. Bam. You get it. You hear without listening. And the best thing is, it's not like sitting in front of expensive hi-fi - it's like sitting in front of music.

But before I get carried away, I should like to point out that it is still always better to hear Highway 61 in mono on a Dansette wearing a spotty shirt and shades. That goes without saying.

The first 15 Dylan hybrid-SACD remasters, including 'Highway 61 Revisited', 'Blonde on Blonde' and 'Blood on the Tracks', are out now on Columbia