There’s something winningly quaint about the security measures surrounding The Complete Basement Tapes. In order to combat piracy, there are no promotional CDs: those who wish to cast a critical ear over the 138 tracks are required to listen to them via a stream, or visit the record company’s offices, taking the precaution to first pack a sleeping bag and a change of clothes. No one must bootleg The Basement Tapes; that seems to be the message.
Given that someone first bootlegged The Basement Tapes 45 years ago – indeed, someone went to the trouble of inventing the entire bootleg industry specifically in order to bootleg The Basement Tapes – and that the intervening five decades have been packed with people bootlegging them in a variety of formats, culminating in the appearance of not one but two multi-CD sets of Basement Tapes bootlegs, this does feel a trifle like shutting the proverbial stable door. Still, the preponderance of Basement Tapes bootlegs tells you something about the importance heaped on the music they contain.
The rough recordings Dylan made in Woodstock in the spring and summer of 1967 had a profound effect, widely held to represent the third time in as many years that he altered the course of music. The accepted wisdom is that when some of the lo-fi songs he’d taped leaked via a publishing acetate, his peers took it as a sign that Dylan was calling time on the experimentation of the psychedelic era, directing them to an earthier hue: he and the Band had cleared the path that led the Beatles from Sergeant Pepper to the Get Back sessions, the Rolling Stones from We Love You to Beggars’ Banquet and the Byrds from Artificial Energy and Dolphin’s Smile to Sweetheart of the Rodeo – an album that included not one, but two songs from The Basement Tapes.
Certainly the music was radically different from anything any other major artist was attempting at the time – tellingly, when Julie Driscoll and Manfred Mann covered two of Dylan’s new songs, they felt obliged to dress them up in the era’s sonic finery – and Certainly the singer-songwriter had earned a position as an avatar of taste: on the disc of outtakes that came with Let It Be… Naked, you can hear George Harrison blithely informing his Beatles that Dylan and The Band thought the best song on The White Album was Ringo’s countrified Don’t Pass Me By, although the audible skepticism of Paul McCartney’s response is something to behold.
There’s so much diversity on The Basement Tapes Complete – stoned jokes, old folk ballads, covers of Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, Bo Diddley and the Impressions – that it’s daft to try and make definitive statements about it. But listening to it almost 50 years on, one striking thing is how much they sound like the songs Dylan wrote before The Basement Tapes, how little they resemble a game-changing stylistic rupture destined to jolt any musician who heard them. Sign on the Cross and I Shall Be Released do tap into a vein of Americana forgotten during pop’s headlong rush into the future in the mid-60s, but tapping into veins of Americana forgotten by others was pretty much what Dylan had been doing before he relocated to Woodstock: while the Beatles were playing tape loops backwards and inviting sitar players into Abbey Road,
he was ensconced in Nashville, making Blonde on Blonde with country and western session men so deeply uncool that when the singer meaningfully enquired about recreational activities, one of them suggested a game of golf. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to picture those same session musicians fleshing out You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere or Don’t Ya Tell Henry and the results slotting onto Dylan’s previous album, just as it’s easy to envisage Odds And Ends or Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread being reworked in the torrential style of Tombstone Blues.