8 Contemporaneous Dylan Covers (besides Jimi’s “All Along the Watchtower”)

O! The Art of the Dylan Cover! Many have tried, few have succeeded. I can speak from experience: Back in my acoustic coffee shop cover band days, my singing partner and I did a version of “It Ain’t Me Babe” that I always assumed was modeled on the Dylan and Joan Baez duet version found on Bootleg Series Volume 6: Live in 1964. Meanwhile, my partner leaned more toward the countrified Johnny Cash/June Carter version. What were we playing exactly? The truth lay somewhere in my guitar strumming, which admittedly was a confused mish-mash of the two versions. The challenge of a good cover is to put your own spin on the performance of a song while staying somewhat true to the original melody. Only problem with covering Dylan is that you’re never quite sure what that ‘official’ version is meant to be. As Dylan himself put it in the 2005 Scorsese-helmed documentary No Direction Home, in the days after he laid down tracks for mass consumption in the studio, “the ideal performances of the songs would then come on stages throughout the world. Very few could be found on any of my records.” Oh well, at least there are some interesting interpretations out there for us to listen to, particularly the ones that were created during the young Dylan’s own time….

The Byrds, “Chimes of Freedom”

We take the sound for granted today, but before the Byrds released their cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1965, the idea of folk-rock — blending introspective lyrics to harmony-rich backbeat pop — seems to never have occurred to anybody. Though the group had many other strings to its bow, applying the folk rock formula to Dylan tunes would remain the Byrds’ bread and butter for years. “Mr. Tambourine Man” is probably the most famous example, but I think the band’s take on “Chimes of Freedom”, seen below in a live clip from the Monterrey Pop Festival in ’67, stands as the Byrds’ most successful Dylan cover.

Dylan version: here

Byrds version:

The Turtles, “It Ain’t Me Babe”

A lesser example of the Byrds folk-rock sound would be the Turtles’ take on “It Ain’t Me Babe”, also from ’65. As you can see by the ridiculous variety show clip, the Turtles were rather shameless Beatles impersonators and pretty out of school in capturing the subtly of Dylan’s wistful lyrics.

Dylan version: here

Turtles version:

Odetta, “Masters of War”

We look back today on Dylan’s abandonment of the “Voice of a Generation” label as a virtuous and necessary step in his artistic development. But for a couple years at least, Dylan’s songs of protest and justice truly did strike a nerve with a society in upheaval. Singer/activist Odetta thought so strongly enough to record an entire album of Dylan covers in ’65. (Sorry, can’t find a youtube of this track. Photo below links to a Lala popup that will play the song. Sign up for a free account; it’s a good service.)

Dylan version: here

Odetta version:

Them, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”

Before he was a solo star, Van Morrison fronted the Belfast garage-blues group Them. This cover of “It’s All Over Now” was included on the 1966 LP Them Again. You may recall the track as it was sampled by Beck  for his Odelay track “Jackass“.

Dylan version: here

Them version:

Manfred Mann, “Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn)” / Julie Driscoll “This Wheel’s on Fire”

In the spirit of the Turtles, 1968 saw the release of two more commercially successful Dylan covers by artists who had no real business covering Dylan in the first place: England’s Manfred Mann and Julie Driscoll. Add the fact that, at the time, “Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn)” and “This Wheel’s on Fire” were both nonsensical Basement Tapes songs that Dylan probably never intended to release, and you’ve got two very dated, Swingin’ London listens:

Dylan versions: here and here

Manfred Mann version:

Julie Driscoll version:

Fairport Convention, “Percy’s Song”

In contrast to the previous two misfires, Fairport Convention (the band pictured at the top of this post) proved that an unreleased Dylan song in the hands of a worthy group could have the power of an inspired original. On their 1969 LP Unhalfbricking, the band went to the Dylan well not once, not twice, but thrice. “Percy’s Song” is the clear winner, however, for Sandy Denny’s consummate lead vocal, Iain Matthew’s and Richard Thompson’s harmonies, and the group’s building, interweaving arrangement.

Dylan version: here

Fairport Convention version (unfortunately sub-par quality):

The Faces, “Wicked Messenger”

When frontman Steve Marriott left The Small Faces in 1969, the remaining members chose to replace him with not one but two blokes: guitarist Ron Wood and vocalist Rod Stewart. The new band, rechristened “The Faces”, went on to cut four LPs of glorious, sloppy-yet-blistering boogie rock. And what was the debut-album-opener that started it all? Why, a Dylan cover! A heavy, heavy, ass-kicking Dylan cover… (reminder: signup for a free Lala account! You have to hear this!)

Dylan version: here

Faces version:

…And to close, two later-day Dylan covers, ranging from the lilting…

Antony + Bryce Dessner, “I Was Young When I Left Home”

Dylan version: here

… to the ludicrous…

My Chemical Romance, “Desolation Row”

Dylan version: here

Dylan version: here

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