Biograph, released in 1985, was the first Bob Dylan box set and one of the first box sets to be released in the CD format.
Recently, The Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, now at seven volumes, has been releasing every live performance, alternate take, cough and clap that Bob Dylan ever recorded on tape. The producers of Biograph had the advantage of being the first to do so and have the entire Dylan catalogue at their disposal. The producers chose well. The 53 tracks contained on three CDs comprise most of Dylan’s well-known songs plus 22 previously unreleased performances. Biograph, released in 1985, covers what is now the first half of Dylan’s career, 1959-1985. The last album represented is Shot Of Love; thus, Dylan’s later material, a lot of which does not measure up to his earlier efforts, is not included.
One of the highlights of Biograph is the accompanying booklet. This large size booklet is filled with rare pictures, a Dylan biography and notes about each song.
The only real problem with this collection is that the tracks are not presented in chronological order. While there are several groupings of similar songs that make sense, it would have been nice to have been able to follow Dylan’s development as an artist, singer and songwriter rather than hopping around through the years.
The first disc contains many of Dylan’s better and most famous recordings, beginning with a series of love songs: “Lay Lady Lay” from
Nashville Skyline, “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” recorded in 1961, “If Not For You” from New Morning and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” from John Wesley Harding. These tracks all establish a mellow mood and good feeling for what is to follow. Next up is a lost gem, “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” which was originally recorded with Judy Collins in mind, featuring just Dylan singing at the piano.
Three of Dylan’s most famous protest songs are also grouped together. “The Times They Are A Changin,’” “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Masters Of War” have all gone down in history as three of the most famous protest songs in American music. Simple melodies and casual lyrics show forty-five years later just how important Dylan’s music was to the anti-establishment.
Disc two travels in a different direction than the first, containing a number of previously unreleased songs. A live 1966 rendition of the concert staple “Visions Of Johanna” shows Dylan’s increasing sophistication as a songwriter and performer. Meanwhile, we also have Dylan’s first recorded interpretation of the now well-known track “Quinn the Eskimo,” a huge hit for Manfred Mann. “You’re A Big Girl Now” was left off of Blood On The Tracks and it is interesting to speculate why, as it is classic Dylan of the period.
Likewise, “Abandoned Love,” which was cut from Desire, shows Dylan’s mind during the recording process but never really has the feel of a finished song. A 1966 acoustic live version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” shows how a song can change and in many ways evolve when presented live with minimal backing.
The third disc centers on additional unreleased performances. The subtle, introspective “Up To Me,” also from the Blood On The Tracks allows the listener a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Dylan’s mind. “Baby, I’m In The Mood For You” from the Freewheelin’ sessions harks back to the long gone very early Dylan. The live version of “Romance In Durango” shows that Dylan knows how to improvise and work a song.
Biograph draws to a close with classic seventies Dylan: “I Shall Be Released,” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “All Along The Watchtower,” “Solid Rock” and “Forever Young” all re-establish the mood of the first songs.
The variety of material contained on Biograph meanders along with twists and turns that find delight at every stop. It is a wonderful look at the legacy and catalogue of an American musical legend.