Bob Dylan: Slow Train Coming – [Record 146]
Slow Train Coming is the nineteenth studio album by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, released on August 20, 1979 by Columbia Records. It was the artist’s first effort since becoming a born-again Christian, and all of the songs either express his strong personal faith, or stress the importance of Christian teachings and philosophy. The evangelical nature of the record alienated many of Dylan’s existing fans; at the same time, many Christians were drawn into his fan base. Slow Train Coming was listed at #16 in the 2001 book CCM Presents: The 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music.
The album was generally well-reviewed in the secular press, and the single “Gotta Serve Somebody” became his first hit in three years, winning Dylan the Grammy for best rock vocal performance by a male in 1980. The album peaked at #2 on the charts in the UK and went platinum in the US, where it reached #3.
1, Gotta Serve Somebody.
2, Precious Angel.
3, I Believe in You.
4, Slow Train.
5, Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.
6, Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others).
7, When You Gonna Wake Up.
8, Man Gave Names to All the Animals.9, When He Returns.
Recording sessions: Dylan first heard Mark Knopfler when assistant and engineer Arthur Rosato played him the Dire Straits single, “Sultans of Swing”. Later, on March 29, 1979, Dylan caught the final show of a Dire Straits’ residency at the Roxy in Los Angeles, California. Dylan approached Knopfler after the show, asking the guitarist to participate on his next album. Knopfler agreed, unaware of the religious nature of the material that awaited him.
Dylan also approached Jerry Wexler to produce the upcoming sessions. Studio recording had become much more complex during the 1970s, and after his struggles recording the large ensemble performances of Street-Legal, Dylan was resolute in hiring an experienced producer he could trust. He was familiar with Wexler’s celebrated work with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Dusty Springfield, and other soul artists. “Synonymous with a small studio in Sheffield, Alabama, the sixties Atlantic recordings of Wexler defined the Muscle Shoals Sound,” writes Clinton Heylin. Like Knopfler, when Wexler agreed to produce, he was unaware of the nature of the material that awaited him.
“Naturally, I wanted to do the album in Muscle Shoals—as Bob did—but we decided to prep it in L.A., where Bob lived,” recalls Wexler. “That’s when I learned what the songs were about: born-again Christians in the old corral … I liked the irony of Bob coming to me, the Wandering Jew, to get the Jesus feel … [But] I had no idea he was on this born-again Christian trip until he started to evangelize me. I said, ‘Bob, you’re dealing with a sixty-two-year-old confirmed Jewish atheist. I’m hopeless. Let’s just make an album.’
Knopfler voiced his concerns to his manager, Ed Bicknell, remarking that “all these songs are about God,” but he was also impressed with Dylan’s professionalism. “Bob and I ran down a lot of those songs beforehand,” recalls Knopfler. “And they might be in a very different form when he’s just hittin’ the piano, and maybe I’d make suggestions about the tempo or whatever. Or I’d say, ‘What about a twelve-string?’
When sessions were held in Alabama, Dylan retained only two members from his 1978 touring band: Helena Springs and Carolyn Dennis, both background singers. Veteran bassist Tim Drummond was hired, as was Dire Straits’ drummer Pick Withers on Knopfler’s recommendation. Keyboardist Barry Beckett and the Memphis Horns, all key elements of the celebrated Muscle Shoals Sound, were also brought in.
The first session was held on April 30; it proved to be very difficult. Much of the day was dedicated to recording “Trouble in Mind,” a song that was ultimately left off Slow Train Coming. Wexler criticized Dylan for unnecessarily vocalizing while Dylan refused to wear headphones, adamant that they pursue a more ‘live’ sound even though overdubs on the 24-track recordings were virtually expected.
“Bob began playing and singing along with the musicians,” recalls Wexler. “We were in the first stages of building rhythm arrangements; it was too soon for him to sing, but he sang on every take anyway. I finally persuaded him to hold off on the vocals until later, when the arrangements were in shape and the players could place their licks around—not against—Bob.”
As the sessions wore on, Wexler’s techniques seemed more accommodating. Once arrangements were set, Dylan could focus on recording a strong vocal track while subsequent overdubs would fill in the gaps. As Heylin describes it, the basic tracks with “lead vocals intact [were] laid down before Dylan’s boredom threshold was reached. Adding and redoing bass parts, acoustic and electric guitars, background vocals, horns, organ, electric piano, and percussion would require their own set of sessions, but by then Dylan could be an interested observer.” For “Precious Angel”, bass, guitar, organ, and horns would all be overdubbed a week after recording the master take. “No Man Righteous (Not No One)” (ultimately left off Slow Train Coming) was also constructed in similar fashion.
As Heylin notes, Dylan also broke from his “usual practice of recording songs without running them down for the musicians.” “Bob might run it down on piano or guitar, just singing and playing the background until we had a rough shape in our minds, then the Muscle Shoals band would start to play it,” recalls Wexler. “As soon as it sounded right, Bob and the girls would start to sing.” Unlike his previous album sessions, Slow Train Coming sessions would run smoothly and efficiently after a slow start. The basic tracks for the remaining ten songs were recorded in just six three-hour sessions over a period of three days. The first takes of “I Believe in You” and “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” would become the basic tracks for the masters.
The final song recorded was “When He Returns”. Its role as the album’s closer was already decided, but Dylan planned on having Springs or Dennis sing the lead vocal. After recording a guide vocal, backed by Beckett on piano, he reconsidered. As Heylin suggested, Beckett’s “strident accompaniment made him think again.” Dylan practiced singing “When He Returns” overnight before laying down eight vocal takes over Beckett’s original piano track. The final take, described by Heylin as “perhaps Dylan’s strongest studio vocal since ‘Visions of Johanna’,” was selected as the master.
Wexler convinced Dylan to overdub new vocals for “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking” and “When You Gonna Wake Up?”, but otherwise the overdubbing sessions held the following week focused on instrumental overdubbing.
Outtakes: Dylan recorded three additional songs during these sessions, but these did not make the final cut for Slow Train Coming. “Trouble in Mind” was issued as a B-side in 1979. “Ain’t No Man Righteous” was covered by a reggae group, but no studio take circulates. “Ye Shall Be Changed” was issued on The Bootleg Series Vol 1–3.
- “Trouble in Mind”
- “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One”
- “Ye Shall Be Changed”
Reception and aftermath: Before the album was completed, Patty Valentine had brought a defamation-of-character suit against Dylan, regarding the song “Hurricane” from Desire; on May 22, while giving a pre-trial deposition in his defense, Dylan was asked about his wealth. “You mean my treasure on earth?” replied Dylan. He was asked about the identity of the ‘fool’ in “Hurricane.” Dylan said the ‘fool’ was “whoever Satan gave power to … whoever was blind to the truth and was living by his own truth.” Five days later, Dylan’s pre-trial statement was reported in The Washington Post, which also interviewed Kenn Gulliksen, who revealed to the paper that Dylan had joined the Vineyard Christian Fellowship.
By June, with the album virtually finished, Dylan gave London’s Capital Radio station an acetate of “Precious Angel,” which premiered on Roger Scott’s afternoon radio show. By July, the album was ready for issue, and pre-release copies of Slow Train Coming circulated through the press. New Musical Express would proclaim “Dylan & God – It’s Official.”
In a year when Van Morrison and Patti Smith released their own spiritual works in Into the Music and Wave, respectively, Dylan’s album seemed vitriolic and bitter in comparison. Critic Charles Shaar Murray wrote, “Bob Dylan has never seemed more perfect and more impressive than on this album. He has also never seemed more unpleasant and hate-filled.” Greil Marcus wrote, “Dylan’s received truths never threaten the unbeliever, they only chill the soul” and accused Dylan of “sell[ing] a prepackaged doctrine he’s received from someone else.” According to Clinton Heylin, “Marcus isolated Slow Train Coming’s greatest flaw, an inevitable by-product of his determination to capture the immediacy of newfound faith in song.”
Robert Christgau gave a mostly positive review, grading it a B+. “The lyrics are indifferently crafted,” wrote Christgau. “Nevertheless, this is his best album since Blood on the Tracks. The singing is passionate and detailed.”
Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner proclaimed it “one of the finest records Dylan has ever made.”
On October 18, 1979, Dylan promoted the album with his first—and, to date, only—appearance on Saturday Night Live, performing “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “I Believe in You,” and “When You Gonna Wake Up.” On November 1, Dylan began a lengthy residency at the Fox Warfield Theater in San Francisco, California, playing a total of fourteen dates supported by a large ensemble. It was the beginning of six months of touring North America, performing his new music to believers and his heckling fans alike.
Despite the mixed reactions to Dylan’s new direction, “Gotta Serve Somebody” was a U.S. Top 30 hit, and the album outsold both Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde in its first year of release despite missing the top of the charts. It even managed to place at #38 on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1979, proving he had some critical support if not universal acclaim.
In the meantime, Dylan refused to play any of his older compositions, as well as any secular material. Though Larry Myers had assured Dylan that his old compositions were not sacrilegious, Dylan would say he would not “sing any song which hasn’t been given to me by the Lord to sing.” Fans wishing to hear his older songs openly expressed their disappointment. Hecklers continued to appear at his concerts, only to be answered by lectures from the stage. Dylan was firmly entrenched in his evangelical ways, and it would continue through his next album, whether his audience would follow or not.