Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde vs. Ochs’ Pleasures of the Harbor

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published on August 18, 2010

In the early ‘60s, two giant talents appeared on the streets of New York City’s Greenwich Village—Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. Both musicians had individual styles that set them apart from other folksingers of the time, and both first became known as protest singers, although Ochs preferred the term “topical songwriter.” It has been said that there was a long-running feud between the two artists, but with 20/20 hindsight, it seems it was more of a friendly rivalry.

Like all friends, Ochs and Dylan had their ups and downs, complicated by the relentless touring both artists undertook in an effort to bring their message to the masses. In 1965, Dylan famously told London’s Melody Maker magazine, “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he just keeps getting better and better and better.” It’s also well known that Ochs admired Dylan’s verbal and musical prowess. Their careers had a similar track, moving from protest songs to pop, but by the time Ochs cut his first album, the acoustic All the News That’s Fit to Sing (1964), Dylan was getting ready to shock folkies by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, just months after the March ‘65 release of Bringing It All Back Home, the last album to feature his acoustic guitar for decades. It’s hard to know if Dylan’s move to rock inspired Ochs to write the pop songs that appeared on Pleasures of the Harbor, but no record company, much less stodgy old A&M, would have taken a chance on Ochs if Dylan hadn’t proved the commercial viability of what was then called folk-rock.

Looking back, one can see that both men were on fire in the ‘60s. Between ‘62 and ‘66 Dylan made seven albums that contain much of his best work including The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bringing it all Back Home, and Blonde on Blonde, which was a dizzying blend of folk, rock, country, New Orleans funk, and blues goosed into overdrive by the five men in Dylan’s touring group (soon be known as the Band) and augmented by a few Nashville regulars including Charlie McCoy and the legendary Al Kooper supplying organ, guitar, piano, and miscellaneous horns. Blonde on Blonde was the album that made Dylan a pop star.

Ochs released his best four albums in four years, capped by Pleasures of the Harbor, which came out a little over a year after Blonde on Blonde, and for a brief moment in time, he was a pop star, too. The first single A&M released from the album was “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”, a ragtime protest song inspired by the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. According to newspapers, several people witnessed the hour-long attack on her and never called police. It was an odd choice for a single, but it started climbing the charts until it was pulled from the air because of complaints about the verse that states:

“Smoking marihuana is more fun than drinking beer,
But a friend of ours was captured and they gave him 30 years.
Maybe we should raise our voices, ask somebody why,
But demonstrations are a drag, besides we’re much too high.”

Pretty tame by today’s standards, but the conservatives of the time blew a gasket. That was the end of Phil’s bid to become a pop star.

Blonde on BlondeAccording to people who were there at the time, Dylan was improvising music and writing new lyrics right up until the final takes of the 14 songs that made it onto the final version of Blonde on Blonde. That driven, frenetic feel jumps out of you on almost every track. “Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35” has Dylan laughing throughout the song. His high sprits are also evident on “I Want You”, one of his most tuneful love songs goosed along by the chattering guitar of Wayne Moss, sprightly organ from Kooper, and his own wailing harmonica and the slow bluesy rock of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, which features an icy solo by Robbie Robertson.

Dylan broke the traditional time limits of pop music on several of the album’s best-known tunes. “Visions of Johanna”, a slow, sparse blues hit and the dark wailing circus rock of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” are both more than seven minutes long, while the album’s centerpiece, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, a despondent folky waltz full of desolate images clocks in at 11 minutes. The language is baroque, as is some of the music, but the feeling of loss and hopelessness is overwhelming.

The rock tunes on Blonde on Blonde are some of Dylan’s best. “4th Time Around” was allegedly inspired by the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and has some of the Fab Fours’ lightness; “Temporary Like Achilles” sounds like last call in the honky tonk next to Heartbreak Hotel. “Absolutely Sweet Marie” chugs along with a carefree sneer on its face, and the jaunty country blues of “Obviously Five Believers” features more stinging guitar from Roberson. Dylan completely jettisons the verse/chorus structure on most of the album, but the songs are so propulsive that you never notice. Blonde on Blonde takes the folk music conventions Dylan loved and turns them inside out to make something new, a trick many have been trying to duplicate ever since… including Phil Ochs.

14 Comments

  1. Cool,Calm &Collected
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    That Ochs album is great but it gives me the creeps a bit…like Disneyland moving too fast or something…

  2. Rose Darling
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Titans of melody and cinema the both of them…

  3. Lou Leary
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    I agree with most of this article, although Robbie Robertson was the only Band member to play on Blonde on Blonde, with the exception of “Sooner or Later” which I don’t think was even recorded in Nashville. Charlie McCoy should probably get the lion’s share of the credit for the Nashville session musical arrangements. I interviewed Ochs when he was recording Pleasures of the Harbor. He took a break and gave a concert in Berkeley. He did acoustic versions of most of the album’s songs and they were all amazing. Yes, he did spoil them to a great degree with the overreach of the A&M sessions. In the interview, he was highly complimentary of Dylan, and said that Dylan, Tim Hardin, David Blue and he were all working on the same thing and pulling it off. He didn’t like the term “folk rock” but talked about a mixture of music and poetry.

  4. Posted August 19, 2010 at 4:31 am | Permalink

    Very interesting article. A great take on the comparison of the artists and their relevance to the sixties and the music scene at the time.

    There are two things I just don’t understand.

    The statement about Bob not returning to acoustic guitar for “decades” after Blonde on Blonde seems a bit exaggerated. I understand it was the sixties and time seemed irrelevant, but I could have sworn Bob returned to his sparse, acoustic folk roots on his next album, John Wesley Harding. Following that we had the country twang of Nashville Skyline, and then New Morning, whose title song starts with the great sounding rhythmic strumming of an acoustic guitar.

    Also, though space is precious when writing such an article, I personally think no commentary on Blonde On Blonde is complete without at least a mention of “You Go Your Way..” and “Sooner or Later..”

  5. azimmerman
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Hi Lou, thanks for writing in! We have credited Mr. Charlie McCoy in the article, because he certainly deserves recognition as well. However, the part in the article about Robertson and the other members of the Band that you’re disputing is actually referencing Dylan’s material between ’62 and ’66, not just Blonde on Blonde. Take another read-through and you’ll see what we mean.

    Cheers,
    - the Editors

  6. Posted August 19, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Lou about the line about acoustic material, John Wesley Harding being a prime example. Lou is also correct about “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” which was recorded in New York City, and features Robbie Robertson on guitar; Rick Danko on bass; Al Kooper, Paul Griffin on piano, and Bobby Gregg on drums.

    I’m not sure where the author gets that Bob Dylan told “Melody Maker” in 1965 that Ochs keeps getting better and better, since he is quoted in the liner notes on Ochs’ debut album, “All The News That’s Fit To Sing,” by Agnes “Sis” Cunningham, editor of Broadside Magazine, and as the author correctly says, the album was released in 1964.

    I also don’t understand how the author can call A&M records a stodgy old record company since is was founded in 1962 by trumpeter Herb Alpert with Jerry Moss, and was only five years old when they released Ochs’ “Pleasures of the Harbor,” which was one of their first adventurous signings.

    I saw Phil Ochs many times during the ’60s in around NYC, and he was performing the songs from “Pleasures” long before the album came out, and yes he did overreach with the production of the album. Ochs was a frequent guest on many radio shows in the NYC area, most notably Murray the K’s show on WNEW while he was recording the album and talked a lot about what he was trying to accomplish which was trying to merge rock and classical. The problem was he didn’t necessarily have the musical chops to really know what he was doing. He wrote the songs, gave them to an arranger, who came up with, well, what he came up with. While there are some arrangements on the album, I do like, they are always outweighed by Ochs’ solo versions of the same songs.

  7. Posted August 20, 2010 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    the March ‘65 release of Bringing It All Back Home, the last album to feature his acoustic guitar for decades.

    Decades? It may have seemed like decades, but “John Wesley Harding” was only two-and-a-half years later.

  8. Thomas LaBelle
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Decades between albums featuring acoustic guitar? Besides that, if you didn’t or don’t know that Dylan played the lead guitar on Leopardskin Pillbox Hat (it says so right on the album btw), I’m not sure you’re qualified to write this piece, at all. Then again, anyone equating Och’s second rate material to Dylan’s genius is short on facts and long on opinion, to begin with. Carry on.

  9. Posted August 30, 2010 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    “Fill her up with love, please won’t you Mister
    Just the High Test is what I used to say
    That was before I lost my darlin’
    I’ll have a dollars worth of regular today”

    Old Hank couldn’t have said it better himself!

  10. Joseph de Culver Cit
    Posted September 2, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Hey, Thomas LaBelle–Ever hear Phil Ochs sing live? No, not a recording…

    Thought not. Who’s long on opinion?

    (An unabashed admirer of the late John Train)

  11. Posted September 7, 2010 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    This is one of the best descriptions of Phil Ochs that I’ve seen – you actually get him, unlike so many music critics. What a pleasure to read. I agree that the production of Crucifixion on Pleasures is difficult – but get a hold of Chords of Fame or Farewells and Fantasies or There and Now (live album of Vancouver concert) and you can hear this masterpiece the way I heard it many times in person, in the late 60s and early 70s, at concerts, rallies and marches. The beauty and stark brilliance of the alliterative lyrics, the haunting melody, Phil’s clear voice, and the timeless concept of the song – the cycle of sacrifice, how we build our heroes up so that we can enjoy tearing them down – are without parallel. Dylan certainly made many brilliant contributions, but for him to get all of the credit that Ochs so richly deserved but never quite got, in some ways led to the tragedy of his death and our great loss. Thanks for this piece.

  12. Mike
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I just love Phil much more than Dylan. Dylan was the greater innovator but Phil wrote Changes and When I’m Gone and delicate, subtle songs . The Marines have landed on the shores of Santa Domingo and his Celia is beautiful and Tape from California Dylanesque but all Phil. Hey Phil was better -looking and nicer to people until his untreated bipolar disorder. JUST SO PISSED THAT PHIL IS NOT GIVEN ENOUGH CREDIT. Sure Dylan was more prolific and Phil was suffering writers block due to numerous reasons but I could play Phils records over and over and Dylan is just nice on the radio. I have 20 Phil Ochs songs in my mind that are better than Dylan. Just writing about my feelings and not trying to use logic, I know. But I could if I wanted to..ha.

  13. Wes Marshall
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    I don’t have PotH to hand currently, but I could swear the arrangement of The Crucifixion was done by Joe Byrd, leader of two Columbia bands, The United States of America and Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies.

  14. Phillip Washago
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Hey, Thomas LaBelle, you should know that Dylan played “lead” guitar (if you want to call it that) only on the opening 12 bars. Anyone who knows anything about guitar playing knows that Dylan can’t play like Robbie Robertson, who did the REAL lead guitar work in that song.

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