When it comes to Bob Dylan, Crotchety Man came late to the party. He had raved about House of the Rising Sun (by the Animals), adored Blowin’ In The Wind (by Peter, Paul and Mary) and swooned over Mr. Tambourine Man (by the Byrds). He was moved by The Times They Are A-Changin’, With God on Our Side and Just Like a Woman. But, somehow, he never connected all these records with the Bob Dylan name. It wasn’t until Lay Lady Lay at the end of the sixties that he began to appreciate just how many great songs Dylan had written and recorded.
Looking back, I think this was partly because the record-buying public here in the early sixties listened almost exclusively to the BBC’s Light Programme, which broadcast popular music and other forms of light entertainment. Until 1964 there was simply no viable alternative. If you were lucky you could get passable reception tuned in to Radio Luxembourg but, in most parts of the UK, this was an immensely frustrating experience.
So everyone listened to the BBC, which hadn’t shaken off its public school, upper class beginnings and seemed to regard the Light Programme as the runt of the litter. It was as if the writers of popular songs were merely failed poets and second-rate classical composers, not worthy of any mention by an august institution like the British Broadcasting Corporation. If the plebs wanted to buy a record all they needed was the title of the song and the name of the recording artist. And that’s all we got. We fans of pop music were starved of the information we needed to make the connections.
The advent of the off-shore (‘pirate’) radio stations changed all that. Radio Caroline brought a breath of fresh air, but reception was still rather poor. Then, in December 1964, the south east corner of Great Britain started to receive nice clear broadcasts from a ship anchored in international waters off the coast of Essex, within sight of the town of Frinton-on-Sea. Radio London had landed… docked… anchored itself to the airwaves and, in between its signature jingles that jangled out “Wonderful Radio London” in excruciating multi-part harmony, it was just… wonderful!
For the next two years or so Crotchety Man feasted on a newer, fresher kind of pop music, gorging himself on as much of Big L’s output as he could fit into his life as a schoolboy living with his brother and parents in a small south London council flat. The adults commandeered the Sunday lunchtime slot for Family Favourites on the BBC but the kids were allowed to tune in to the pirate station at other times provided it wasn’t too loud. We borrowed Dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder, dumped hours of John Peel’s broadcasts onto tape and listened to it over and over again.
But Bob Dylan wasn’t centre stage on pirate Radio London, either. They played his songs along with all sorts of other pop and underground music but, as far as I remember, he was never singled out for special attention. All the excitement was in the Flower Power haze of psychedelic rock music. Well, that and anything else that was out of the ordinary and tickled the fancy of John Peel, Kenny Everett and the other DJs.
Then, in August 1967, Radio London closed down. The government had made it illegal to supply any unlicensed off-shore radio station with music, advertising, fuel, food or water from the UK. It was one of the saddest days of Crotchety Man’s adolescent years. Radio Caroline continued broadcasting, getting its essential supplies from the continent, but it wasn’t the same. Neither the music nor the reception was up to Big L standards and problems with the business and technical operations meant that Caroline suffered several periods when it went off-air. Giving up on Caroline, Crotchety Man’s ears went into a long period of mourning.¹
By this time Bob Dylan had transformed himself from a fairly conventional folk singer to a song writer of exceptional flair and originality but there was still no radio station in England that could provide a natural home for his songs. A few of his singles made the charts and were played on pop music stations like the BBC’s Radio 1 but the bulk of Dylan’s output remained hidden away on albums, out of the reach of a working class school kid whose pocket money wouldn’t stretch to exploratory purchases. Friends had albums of blues-influenced and psychedelic rock but, sadly, none were into Dylan.
So, for many years I missed out on a lot of Bob Dylan‘s music. Eventually, though, the Lady of the House² added half a dozen Dylan CDs to our combined collection, which together form a rather patchy summary of Dylan’s extensive repertoire.
Listening to those albums I find that several of his tracks from around 1964 and 1965 have seeped into my soul: Blowin’ In The Wind, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Mr. Tambourine Man, Like A Rolling Stone. This was the time when Dylan was known for writing protest songs (and no-one did it better than him) but even then there were some intensely personal songs and others with a splash of sardonic humour. Those few songs from the mid-sixties stand out in my memory but, of course, there are lots more great songs in the Bob Dylan canon (Gotta Serve Somebody, Everything Is Broken, Jokerman, for example).
Dylan’s contribution to popular music is immense. He has written some of the most enduring songs in the history of recorded music. He has found words that touched the hearts of his contemporaries and were taken up by civil rights activists. He continued to write and perform when many of his early fans called him ‘Judas’ for using electric instruments. And he has been making new recordings now for over 50 years. In all that time Bob Dylan has never been constrained by conventional ideas of genre or trapped by the red tape of commercial contracts.
As Bill Clinton said when presenting the Kennedy Center Honor in 1997, “Bob Dylan has never aimed to please. He’s disturbed the peace and discomforted the powerful”. It is that determination to plough his own furrow that made it difficult for Crotchety Man to find him. Dylan has sown seeds in different fields and different lands, as a musician, a writer and a painter. In the field of music some crops thrived while others failed but Dylan himself never faltered. Like Crotchety Man’s collection, Bob Dylan‘s output is somewhat patchy but there are rare blooms among the staple crops and never too many weeds.
Bob Dylan takes my retrospective Artist of the Year award for 1964.
- That period of mourning lasted well into the Internet Age.
- The house is jointly owned but it’s Mrs Crotchety’s home – she just let’s me live here for a bit of company – like the cat.