Bob Dylan’s 40 best songs

As chosen by famous fans, Dylan associates and Uncut writers

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1 Like A Rolling Stone
From Highway 61 Revisited (August 1965)

KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: I was living in Nashville when I first heard “Like A Rolling Stone”. By then, well, nothing he did surprised me. I just loved it: it was like an anthem. I didn’t want to hear the rumours of who was who and what was what. It just worked. I was there when he did Blonde On Blonde, and I was the only songwriter in Nashville allowed in the building – because I was the janitor! None of my friends could get past the police. Those were the wildest sessions I’d ever seen in Nashville, you were expected to get three or four songs during a three-hour session. They ran it in-and-out, because time is money. And, God, Bob went into the big A-studio at Columbia and sat at the piano for hours while the musicians were out playing ping pong and cards – and he’s writing a song. It was the most bizarre behaviour anybody in Nashville had ever seen, because he didn’t record the damn thing until the sun came up. I wasn’t there for all of the Nashville Skyline sessions. I know that I didn’t see him do “Lay Lady Lay”, because I remember Bob Johnston playing it for me later in the studio, and just being knocked out. But I was there when he cut a thing with John. “Girl Of The North Country”. And, Jesus. you need to understand these were very heady times for me: I was still barely four years out of the military, and I felt like history was happening before my eyes. Johnny Cash was very elusive at the time – he was like catching lightning in a bottle. And to get them both together, it was like watching two pieces of lightning.


IAN MacDONALD: More closely controlled than many of Dylan’s most ambitious lyrics of the 1965-66 period, “Like A Rolling Stone” is a brilliantly caustic cameo of the fall into self-discovery rendered in four lengthy stanzas. Here, music and lyric are equally outstanding, going so well together that it’s hard to imagine them apart. Thunderous on the 1965-66 world tour, the performance cements the effect, riding the concept as if in a carnival-painted cadillac. One of the top 10 singles of all time.

HOWARD DEVOTO: Me and this song is like the cliché of romantic comedy, where initial loathing masks true love. I was 13 in 1965 and it had been hate at first sight between me and Mr Dylan’s first two singles [“The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues”]. Then three or four months later, for some reason, I buy “Like A Rolling Stone”. Next thing I know I’m hovering over the record player, moving the needle back and forth, trying to write down the lyrics line by line. The organ was a hugely important factor in the impact the single had. Me and my only friend of the time, who was a Dylan fan, were fixated by a little rising organ phrase in the third verse which I’m hard-pressed to hear at all these days. You can’t help but believe it was Dylan hearing Alan Price’s playing on The Animals’ “House Of The Rising Sun” that made him prick up his ears when Al Kooper – apparently unbidden – started noodling around on the organ during the recording session. And sorry to get nerdy but you really have to hear it in the original mono.

GRANT-LEE PHILLIPS: This probably would have been the first song that l was ever exposed to of Dylan’s. It works on so many different levels. Firstly there’s the energy of this wild, twister-like thing that whips up, taking everything with it, and the singer only has this brief moment to convey his essential plea, which is to look life squarely in the eye and recount the judgements that we might have harboured about those things we have no experience with. Although it’s really heavy, you tend to get swept up in the spirit of the song. Perhaps it could be said that Dylan appeared to be this character, the rolling stone who is the spirit of Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac and others who found similar potential in the quest for self out on the big dusty road. All of that made for a very romantic sketch of who exactly Bob Dylan was. It’s still the song l’d play for the alien who just landed, asking to be taken to our songwriting leader.

CP LEE: l was 15 when this came out and to hear it over the radio, for the very first time ever, is one of those moments that, for the rest of my life, makes me grateful to have shared the planet with the man who wrote this. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest single ever. lts effect in 1965 was cataclysmic. That rimshot from the drum kicking it off is just staggering. It signalled the revolution in lots and lots of ways. It’s a privilege to be on the same planet as the man who wrote that.

STEVIE JACKSON: Probably a lot of people’s favourite, and I know most of the others in Belle & Sebastian love Dylan and this in particular. I remember Stuart [Murdoch] DJing one time and he played this in his set. Isobel [Campbell] is a really big fan too. Sometimes she wears her Dylan dress, which is really cool – just a dress with a picture of Dylan on it circa ’66, with the dark shades. At Belle & Sebastian gigs we always do impromptu covers, and I seem to remember we did try “Like A Rolling Stone” one time. Well, I say “we”, but actually it was mainly me!

ADAM SWEETING: Al Kooper, who bluffed his way into playing Hammond organ on Highway 61 Revisited, reported that Dylan sessions at the time were like strategy meetings to plan the course of the counterculture. This landmark recording succeeds almost despite itself, with some of the players almost tripping over each other as the track threatens to fall apart, but Dylan strides on regardless. lmperious, contemptuous and apparently all-knowing, Dylan was gazing down from a height nobody else had ever reached as he delivered this unsparing put-down of some overreaching female acquaintance. “How does it feel?” he demanded. Somebody should have asked Bob the same question.


GERRY LOVE: Hearing this was like hearing The Beatles for the first time, just so instantly transforming. What struck me was the choice of instruments, and plus I didn’t know how they did it. It features just a classic sound of Hammond, piano, bass and drums but played in a very inspired way. There’s something magical about the way they’re all put together. It’s not carefully arranged but spontaneous and raw. If you have 15 takes of one song, all you’ve got is 15 different versions going on at the same time. There’s so much character to what he does, and the waltz beats and melody is really unusual on this as well. Not many people write in 3/4 time.

MARC ‘LARD’ RILEY: I reckon this song is beyond justification. If I were to try I’d probably say that from the opening snare drum crack you know this is going to be one of the greatest songs of all time. Can a song be classed as an icon? If so, this is one.

DAVE MARSH: The Live 1966 version is as powerful as any piece of music made in American history.

THEA GILMORE: l was always really intrigued by this song after finding out it was originally written in 3/4 because it is the pulling of the words against the rhythm when it was put into 4/4 which makes it such a jagged and exciting sound.

DAN BERN: It got to Number Two on the charts (his highest ever) and it was about twice as long as anything else on the radio. You think you know the song inside out, and then you hear it again and it’s brand new. The form of the song is huge, and the chorus keeps going up and up and up.

LYNDON MORGANS: Seems almost a cliché to pick this, but it is one of the finest things ever recorded by anybody. Ever. It set a whole new standard of achievement, and came out over a year before “Good Vibrations” and 18 months before “Strawberry Fields Forever”, its peers in the god-like genius stakes. It’s haunting and claustrophobic and unprecedented . . . Bob’s the Solomon of the slag-off. (Costello’s no slouch at it either, but with Dylan it’s so apparently effortless. With Costello you can feel how he’s winding himself up…)

EILEEN ROSE: This is one of the three songs Dylan debuted live at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he freaked out all the folkies. Everybody else is writing love songs, and he comes out spitting and fuming about social aspiration and the fall-out from self-betrayal. What does it feel like to have recorded a song that gets labelled ‘the most important and revolutionary’ record ever made? He knew it too. Even Dylan himself was quoted as saying: “I’m not going to be able to make a record better than this one.” I wonder if he heard the sound in his head first, or stumbled on it. Doesn’t matter. It still rocks and I really wish I’d written it.

JAMIE CATTO: The first song that got me into Dylan, and one of the first songs that I remember literally throwing me around the room with emotion and exhilaration. When I first heard it – the Live At Budokan version, sorry purists – I just played it over and over again. It was the first time a track had done that to me.

NICK JOHNSTONE: Timeless and astonishing even on the thousandth listen, it’s a song that probably every person over a certain age knows. It’s more an icon than a song at this point. It should be classified as the Eighth Wonder Of The World. The music, the cool factor, the lyrics the delivery, that huge sweeping authentic chorus: it’s everything you could ever wish for in a pop song, a rock song, any type of song.

PETE YORN: l have a soft spot for this song because we opened for Bob in Atlanta last year. Our tour bus was parked right behind the stage because it was an outdoor venue and he started playing it just as my new girlfriend and l were getting it on for the first time. Through the open window of the bus you could hear Bob scream “How does it feel!”, and I thought to myself, “This feels fucking great”.

MICK FARREN: The hit, the classic, came with a song structure and rhyme pattern that boldly went where no other rock tune had gone before, and imagery that touched the imagination of every teenage malcontent in the western hemisphere. Although the song was Dylan’s first major outing with the full Fender guitar, Hammond organ rock’n’roll band, the power of the actual song is easily cross-referenced by the versions from Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones.

TIM BURGESS: A rude, long and unforgiving statement, just tellin’ it like it is…

SIMON NICOL: The best song anyone has ever written. Gershwin, Porter and Strauss included.

IAN MCCULLOCH: It’s one of the first Dylan songs I heard. Not that l was old enough to remember it when it came out, but later, probably something me older brother had on tape. Hearing it as a kid, even though you’d been told about this Bob Dylan fella being some great poet and sage, that song was a breath of fresh air, even as a 12-year-old into me Bowie and Lou Reed. It’s probably the song that most people into Dylan would’ve first heard and gone, “Hang on. I like this bloke”. Whereas if you’d heard “Gates Of Eden” first it’d probably have put you off. Sometimes I think his lyrics are terrible, all that waffling-on stuff, but this is great. All that spite and venom really comes across. The sound is just so exciting, particularly with the Hammond, and I think more than most other Dylan tracks it’s got a real band feel to it. It’s of its time, but it’s still not dated. I don’t know what else was going on when it was released but it certainly wasn’t anything like what The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were doing, because back in the Sixties Dylan was the leader. He influenced The Beatles. And then he went crap.

STEPHEN PASTEL: Completely fantastic. He was so ‘on’ at that moment. There’s something really Method Man about Bob Dylan. He kind of knew how to position himself and a lot of it was pretty strategic. But he always managed to make these fantastic leaps into the dark, like there was almost something kinetic about the music. There’s so much energy in that song, a real enthusiasm and joy of playing. Triumphant!

JIM SCLAVUNOS: Once again, Dylan upped the ante for rock music.

DAVID PAJO: A fantastic record – but have you heard the Isle Of Wight version? It’s unrecognisable, the phrasing is awesome.

GAVIN MARTIN: An indomitable example of Dylan as a catalytic force. The original recording is so alive that 30, 40 years later you can still feel the energy flying round the studio. Though he had been pilloried for deserting the protest movement at its hour of need, “Like A Rolling Stone” is a furious blast at all the shallow duplicity and venal ugliness that the world can offer. It’s timeless – his greatest rebel song. This is raw, unvanquished love; real love – bloody and hard-earned – borne out of careering heartlessness and truth-telling. You get an epiphany – “You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal” – a real state of grace after the treachery, the acid bath, the public hanging and the other untold torments. It’s a universal anthem, but when he plays it live Dylan seldom allows it to become a great big ‘altogether now’ singalong. That is not its fate – like all great works of art, it holds an endless fascination, a mystery which he feels belongs to him. So when he plays it there’s always the feeling that he steals it back and reshapes it. The startling imagery is brought newly alive, the drama of action and consequences revitalised. Maybe tonight he’ll get close to unlocking its secret, maybe tomorrow he’ll get even closer.

PETE WYLIE: I always try and do that thing of listening to records and pretending you’ve never heard them before – it’s a game – y’know – but “Like A Rolling Stone” is stunning every time. It’s everything that’s great about Dylan. The words are fantastic because it’s a rallying cry AND a massive put-down. It’s direct, you know exactly what he’s talking about even though it’s wrapped up in all manner of mystery and intrigue. Is he talking about you? Is he talking about himself? Is he talking about a girl? The great thing is that it’s all of those things, he’s got all the truths in one basket. The first time I was aware of this was in the early Seventies when I started buying records. It was through Bowie at first, after “Song For Bob Dylan” on Hunky Dory, that I started paying more attention. That was the thing about Bowie which me and Ian McCulloch both had, that anything to do with Bowie you wanted to get to know. Dylan and “Like A Rolling Stone” connected with me right away. I’ve seen him live God knows how many times, and he’s not always great, but it’s really hard to ruin that song, although he has managed a couple of times. But the last thing I’ll say about “Like A Rolling Stone” is that it still manages to buzz me. It’s got that thing which, when you hear Dylan, you think, how the fuck did he do that? How did he write that? Those words? It’s like when Hendrix plays guitar or you hear Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin sing. You just can’t scientifically map it out, know what I mean?

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