Bob Dylan: Planet Waves – [Record 145]
Planet Waves is the fourteenth studio album by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, released on January 17, 1974 by Asylum Records in the United States and Island Records in the United Kingdom.
Dylan is supported on the album by longtime collaborators The Band, with whom he embarked on a major reunion tour following its release (documented on the live album Before the Flood) (the tour started a couple weeks before release–though Asylum did want the album out first). With a successful tour and a host of publicity, Planet Waves was a hit, enjoying a brief stay at #1 on the US Billboard charts—a first for the artist—and #7 in the UK. Critics were not as negative as they had been with some then-recent Bob Dylan albums (namely Self Portrait and Dylan), but still not enthusiastic for the album’s brand of laid-back roots rock.
The album was originally set to be titled Ceremonies of the Horsemen, a reference to the song “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, from the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home; the release was delayed two weeks when Dylan decided to change the title at the last minute. Another, earlier working title was Wedding Song.
1. On a Night Like This.
2. Going, Going, Gone.
3. Tough Mama.
5. Something There Is About You.
6. Forever Young.
7. Forever Young.
9. You Angel You.
10. Never Say Goodbye.
11. Wedding Song.
Artwork: The cover art is drawn by Dylan himself. Written on the right side of the cover image is the phrase, “Cast-iron songs & torch ballads,” apparently signaling Dylan’s own conception of the album. On the left side is written “Moonglow”, which is sometimes interpreted as a subtitle. The initial release also included an insert which reportedly set out excerpts from Dylan’s personal journals.
Recording sessions: In the summer of 1973, Robbie Robertson, lead guitarist of The Band, relocated to Malibu, California, not far from Dylan’s residence. According to Robertson, the idea of collaborating with Dylan evolved from a conversation that took place sometime after July 28, when The Band played to hundreds of thousands of people at Summer Jam at Watkins Glen in upstate New York. After much discussion about that experience, the idea of touring again “seemed to really make sense,” says Robertson. “It was a good idea, a kind of step into the past…The other guys in the Band came out [to Malibu] and we went right to work.”
Dylan had not toured since 1966, when The Band accompanied him as The Hawks. Since then, he had played with The Band on a number of occasions, including a New Year’s concert in 1971/1972; that was the last time Dylan had played with The Band, and it was warmly received by the audience. When Dylan joined The Band for a test run at Robertson’s home in September 1973, he was satisfied by the results, enough to proceed with touring plans.
“We sat down and played for four hours and ran over an incredible number of tunes,” recalls Robertson. “Bob would ask us to play certain tunes of ours, and then we would do the same, then we’d think of some that we would particularly like to do.”
Dylan left for New York in October to compose new material for album sessions scheduled in November. Dylan already had three songs (“Forever Young,” “Nobody ‘Cept You,” and “Never Say Goodbye”) which he had demoed in June, and when he returned to Malibu after twenty days in New York, he had six more.
On Friday, November 2, Dylan and The Band held a session at Village Recorder Studio A in Los Angeles, California. Engineer Rob Fraboni recalls the proceedings as fairly relaxed and informal, an opportunity “to get set up and to get a feel for the studio.” Drummer Levon Helm was not even present, as he was still in transit, on his way to Los Angeles from the East Coast. Nevertheless, the session was devoted to all three songs demoed in June, and Dylan and The Band succeeded in recording complete takes of “Forever Young” and “Nobody ‘Cept You” as well as the master take for “Never Say Goodbye.”
When Dylan and The Band reconvened at Village Recorder the following Monday, November 5, with Levon Helm now present, they made another attempt at “Nobody ‘Cept You.” Robertson abandoned the wah-wah pedal used during the November 2 session, and a satisfactory take was completed and marked for possible inclusion. Master takes for “You Angel You” and “Going, Going, Gone” were also completed.
“Forever Young” occupied a portion of the Monday session, and the results would not meet Dylan’s satisfaction. He would return to it for three more sessions, as it would prove to be the most difficult song to record.
On the next day, November 6, Dylan and The Band recorded master takes for three more songs: “Hazel,” “Something There Is About You,” and “Tough Mama.”
They reconvened two days later, on November 8, performing three takes of “Going, Going, Gone” before recording “On A Night Like This.” Attempts at the former would not replace the master take from the 5th, but a master take of the latter was successfully recorded. The session would then end with “Forever Young.”
After several false starts, Dylan and The Band executed what would ultimately be one of two master takes for “Forever Young.” However, Dylan nearly rejected the performance after hearing some disparaging criticism from one particular visitor.
“We only did one [complete] take of the slow version of ‘Forever Young,'” recalls Fraboni. “This take was so riveting, it was so powerful, so immediate, I couldn’t get over it. When everyone came in nobody really said anything. I rewound the tape and played it back and everybody listened to it from beginning to end and then when it was over everybody sort of just wandered out of the room. There was no outward discussion. Everybody just left. There was just [a friend] and I sitting there. I was so overwhelmed I said, ‘Let’s go for a walk.’ We went for a walk and came back and I said, ‘Let’s go listen to that again.’ We were like one minute or two into it, I was so mesmerized by it again I didn’t even notice that Bob had come into the room…So when we were assembling the master reel I was getting ready to put that [take] on the master reel. I didn’t even ask. And Bob said, ‘What’re you doing with that? We’re not gonna use that.’ And I jumped up and said, ‘What do you mean you’re not gonna use that? You’re crazy! Why?’ Well,…during the recording…[Dylan’s childhood friend] Lou Kemp and this girl came by and she had made a crack to him, ‘C’mon, Bob, what! Are you getting mushy in your old age?’ It was based on her comment that he wanted to leave [that version] off the record.”
Fraboni would defend the recording, and when he refused to relent, Dylan reconsidered and allowed him to include it on the album. Fraboni also convinced Dylan to do his first vocal overdubs for the album. (While The Band had three regular vocalists in Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Helm, none of them sing on the album.)
On November 9, Dylan held what he intended to be the final session for the album. From Fraboni’s perspective, Dylan already had a perfect take of “Forever Young” from the previous day, but Dylan still attempted a different, acoustic arrangement, which was ultimately rejected. Dylan would tell Fraboni that afternoon, “I been carrying this song around in my head for five years and I never wrote it down and now I come to record it I just can’t decide how to do it.”
The last song recorded on the 9th was a new composition titled “Wedding Song,” which Dylan had completed over the course of the sessions. “Nobody ‘Cept You” was originally planned as the album’s closing number, but without a satisfactory performance, it would be omitted and replaced by “Wedding Song.” (The November 2 recording of “Nobody ‘Cept You” was eventually released in 1991 on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.)
Though there was enough material to fill an album, Dylan decided to hold one more session. On the 14th, The Band was called back to record two songs. The first was another arrangement of “Forever Young,” this time with Helm on mandolin and Danko on fiddle. This new version of “Forever Young” would create the second of two master takes for the song, and both of them would be included on the album.
The second song recorded on the 14th was “Dirge” (or “Dirge For Martha” as it was marked on the tape box). “Bob went out and played the piano while we were mixing [the album]. All of a sudden, he came in and said, ‘I’d like to try ‘Dirge’ on the piano.’…We put up a tape and he said to Robbie, ‘Maybe you could play guitar on this.’ They did it once, Bob playing piano and singing, and Robbie playing acoustic guitar. The second time was the take.”
Songs: Critic Bill Wyman described Planet Waves via Salon.com as “a spare but twisted collection of songs.” As a whole, they deal with domestic themes with a few tracks seeming like straightforward love songs, particularly the opener “On A Night Like This” and “You Angel You” (which Dylan dismissed in 1985 as having “dummy lyrics”). However, as music critic Tim Riley notes, many of the songs take on darker overtones, with lyrics suggesting “death (‘Dirge’), suicide (‘Going, Going, Gone,’ a song that doesn’t toy around with the idea), and the brick wall that love collides with when possessiveness curdles into obsession (the overstated contradictions of ‘Wedding Song’).” Unlike the “settled-in homilies” of Nashville Skyline and New Morning, Planet Waves is “rounded out with more than one shade of romance: subterfuge, suspicion, self-hate (‘Dirge,’ ‘Tough Mama’), and memory (‘Something There Is About You’) counter lighthearted celebration (‘On A Night Like This’).”
Many critics gave the performances on Planet Waves plenty of attention, perhaps more than the songs themselves. Dylan and The Band had performed on numerous occasions, most notably on tour in 1966 and during the “Basement Tapes” sessions of 1967, but at the time of Planet Waves’ release, very few of these performances were officially released.
“The Band’s windup pitch to ‘Going, Going, Gone’ is a wonder of pinpoint ensemble playing,” writes Riley. “Robertson makes his guitar entrance choke as if a noose had suddenly tightened around its neck, and you get the feeling these guys could shadow Dylan in their sleep.” Riley also writes that “‘Tough Mama’ is the track that exemplifies the best playing on Planet Waves, and a pitch of writing that shows Dylan can still challenge himself.” Clinton Heylin also singled out Dylan’s performances, noting that “Tough Mama” featured “one of his raunchiest vocals”.
Arguably the most celebrated song on Planet Waves, “Forever Young”, was originally written for his children, and a demo recording from June 1973 (released on Biograph in 1985) explicitly shows this. As described by Heylin, the song is “an attempt to write something hymnal and heartfelt that spoke of the father in him.” Though two different versions were released on the album, most critics and listeners defer to the “beautiful slow waltz of a performance” recorded on November 8 as the primary recording. (It is not a waltz, it is in 4/4 time.)
“Dirge”, “his most twisted song since the accident,” writes Heylin, “represents a quite astonishing catharsis on Dylan’s part. As the narrator expresses an underlying hatred for ‘the need that was expressed’ by her presence, he encapsulates all the ambivalence this popular artist felt for both muse and audience.” Critics also singled out Dylan’s piano playing in praising the recording.
The closing number on Planet Waves is “Wedding Song,” and over the years, a number of critics have called it autobiographical. “It begins with the narrator attempting to convince his lady love that he loves her ‘more than life itself,'” writes Heylin. “However, the focus begins to turn when he informs her, ‘we can’t regain what went down in the flood,’ suggesting that their search for a new Eden was always doomed to failure. By the sixth verse we have come to the crux of the song—the singer’s protestation that he does not wish ‘to remake the world at large,’ because he loves her ‘more than all of that.'” Many critics have dismissed such claims of autobiographical content, making “Wedding Song” one of the more debated numbers on Planet Waves.
Reception: Planet Waves was Dylan’s first ‘proper’ album in three and a half years. With a planned tour to follow (his first since 1966 and backed by the same band that supported him on that legendary tour), the media coverage was enormous. Asylum Records planned on releasing Planet Waves the same day the tour began, but an album title change (from Ceremonies of the Horsemen) and a last minute substitution in liner notes (also written by Dylan) pushed the release date back two weeks.
Planet Waves would ship gold, topping Billboard’s album charts on the basis of advance orders, but by the end of 1974, it had sold a modest 600,000 copies, selling only 100,000 units after those initial orders were made. The figures were a surprise considering the enormous success of the tour; it is estimated that $92 million worth of checks and money orders were sent in from roughly ten million ticket applicants.
The critical reception was generally positive, if a bit muted. The consensus was ultimately strong enough to secure Planet Waves at #18 on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1974. “In a time when all the most prestigious music, even what passes for funk, is coated with silicone grease, Dylan is telling us to take that grease and jam it,” wrote critic Robert Christgau. “Sure he’s domestic, but his version of conjugal love is anything but smug, and this comes through in both the lyrics and the sound of the record itself. Blissful, sometimes, but sometimes it sounds like stray cat music—scrawny, cocky, and yowling up the stairs.”
Ellen Willis of The New Yorker wrote, “Planet Waves is unlike all other Dylan albums: it is openly personal…I think the subject of Planet Waves is what it appears to be—Dylan’s aesthetic and practical dilemma, and his immense emotional debt to Sara.”
Though most of Planet Waves was played on the tour (including a solo, acoustic rendition of the outtake, “Nobody ‘Cept You”), as the tour progressed, songs from the album were removed from the setlist. By the end of the tour, only “Forever Young” would remain. In the meantime, Dylan and The Band would professionally record many of the shows as they planned their next release. None of the Planet Waves songs were included on the subsequent live album (Before the Flood), and only “Forever Young,” “Hazel,” and “Tough Mama” have been performed in recent years.