We explore Dylan's weirdest and most controversial decade
Someone’s asked you to make a list of people who might make a good job of producing Bob Dylan’s new album, so who do you pick? Frank Zappa? David Bowie? Elvis Costello? Dylan gives some thought to each of them, before hiring Mark Knopler to produce Infidels. Since playing on Slow Train Coming, Knopfler has enjoyed huge success with smooth radio-friendly Dire Straits and mistakenly thinks their eerily clean and vacuum-sealed sound will work for Dylan. When album sessions commence at New York’s Power Plant he brings with him Straits keyboardist Alan Clark and the band’s producer, Neil Dorfman. Bob’s already there with legendary Jamaican rhythm section Sly & Robbie and former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor. There is tension from the start between Knopfler and Dylan.
“I had done Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold with Mark, which was a very worked-on and worked-over record,” Dorfman tells Uncut. “That was Mark’s process at the time, really taking a lot of time, a lot of overdubbing and attention to detail and sound. And, you know – that is not Bob Dylan, at all. So, I think, once we got into it, Bob was a little shocked at the way Mark and I worked. My impression is that Bob always has, and always will want a very immediate approach. He gets very easily bored. So, in that respect, I think Infidels was not the most comfortable situation for either Bob or Mark.
“I learned very quickly that this wasn’t going to be a normal session. I don’t want to use the wrong word, here, but Bob was also a little bit of an agent provocateur, or he even had a little saboteur in him. If things were going maybe too well, in somebody else’s definition, he would consciously make an effort to make that stop. Whether it was walking away from the piano and vocal mic while he’s doing a take, or, I remember him taking the tinfoil from a sandwich, and standing opening and closing it like an accordion into a vocal mic during a take. And, of course, everybody stops playing, thinking there was something wrong technically, but it was just his way of saying, ‘I’m bored with this, I don’t want to do this particular song anymore.’ Then he announced that he wanted to start a Christmas record that night. And, yeah, we all laughed, thinking, he’s just messing with us. But, of course, years later, he subsequently came out with a Christmas record. It was kind of intimidating, challenging, but also hilarious in its own crazy way.
“I don’t know how much I should talk out of school about this particular situation. But I know that it really, really bothered Mark, that song choices were dictated a little bit, and were turning out to be different from the song choices he thought we were going in to do. I think it just really frustrated him. I imagine that he felt a similar responsibility to the one that I felt: this is Bob Dylan; we’re going to make an amazing record, we have an incredible band, an incredible bunch of songs, and it’s up to us, we really, really have to make this happen. And I could feel the air just sort of going out of Mark a little bit, when he realised that the traditional role of the producer was not going to be in play on this record. He was going to be looked to as an advisor, or maybe a mirror in some ways. But as far as driving the bus – that was not going to happen. Bob was going to drive this bus, no matter what. I’m sure it was very frustrating to Mark.”
When it’s released on October 27, 1983, Infidels is welcomed as a return by Dylan to secular music, although suggestions he has abandoned religion, discarding Christ as he might a suddenly out of favour bass player or backing singer, are wholly misguided. After Shot Of Love, Dylan simply steps down from the pulpit. But his obsession with an approaching Armageddon remains fiercely central to his writing, up to and including 2012’s Tempest and its many songs of wrath and retribution.
Some reviewers are uncomfortable with the right-wing Zionist rhetoric of “Neighbourhood Bully” and strident patriotism of “Union Sundown”. But there’s enough here that reminds them of the Dylan they have been desperate to hear again and Infidels is generally well-received. A highlight for everyone who hears it, the six-minute opener, “Jokerman”, is immediately hailed as one of Dylan’s greatest songs, although its meaning even by Bob’s most abstract standards is at best vague. No matter. It at least sounds like vintage Dylan – densely allusive, bristling with esoteric reference, coded, the song playing out in the somewhat detached atmosphere of a dream someone else is having, perhaps due to its soporific momentum, Sly and Robbie’s ticking groove and the glossy guitars against which Dylan’s washed-out voice is dreamily pitched.
On the whole, Infidels is better regarded than anything Dylan’s done since Desire. Mark Knopfler may be forgiven for freaking out when he hears it, however, because in its released version it’s not the album he left Dylan with when he re-joined Dire Straits for a tour of Germany in June, at which point he now discovers Dylan has ‘re-thought’ the album, as he later puts it. In June, Bob is back at the Record Plant, re-recording some tracks and remixing what’s left. As far as Knopfler’s concerned this is bad enough to make Infidels sound more like an unpolished demo than the gleaming, streamlined thing he had envisaged. What appals him even more are Dylan’s baffling revisions to the nine-song tracklisting they had earlier agreed. Dylan deletes two songs – a venomous rocker called “Foot Of Pride”, later magnificently covered by Lou Reed, that Dylan under Knopfler’s stern instruction has laboured through 47 increasingly agonised takes.
Also missing from the released album is one of Dylan’s very greatest songs, “Blind Willie McTell”, which in two versions, only one of which has been officially released (on The Bootleg Sessions Volumes 1-3), evokes a terrible history of slavery in America and the suffering that found a hallowed voice in the blues that Dylan so cherishes. It’s a song in other words about how pain and anguish can be turned into art, and art in that transaction becomes redemptive, a hymn of survival, transcendence and eventual triumph over the world’s every ill whose omission from the album, in either version, is a cause of great woe to Knopfler. “Mark was committed to the recording of Infidels for, I think, three weeks,” Dorfman recalls. “And we thought that was enough to get everything done, except the actual mixing. So Mark then had to go off with Dire Straits to tour. I left with Mark. But I had the sense the record was at least recorded, if not quite finished. But there was a certain amount of rethinking by Bob – but Bob made that clear, that he was starting to rethink, in the last week of recording. We’d done a bunch of overdubs, which Bob could not have been less interested in. He hates overdubbing, man. I think he finds the whole thing phony: ‘Why are you overdubbing?’ I remember, we had a percussion player come in, and I think it was an actual torture for Bob, to have to sit there and listen to shakers and tambourines being put on stuff. His view was that could have been done live, if he’d wanted them.
So, I think he wanted to go in and either erase these overdubs, or listen to them and decide that… no, he really did not like them. So, basically, he did a bunch of re-examining once Mark left. There was nothing anybody could do, and, really, nothing anybody should have done about it – after all, it’s Bob’s record.”