So here we are. It’s been fifty years since the release of Bringing It All Back Home, the first of an album triage that would define Dylan’s mid-60s period as arguably his greatest. And what an incredible fifty years it’s been: socially, politically, culturally – multifaceted modernity owes the second half of the twentieth century everything. But culture in particular owes the Dylan of fifty years ago a substantial amount. These are the sounds that would influence millions; attached to these recordings (some of which comprise the first ever double LP, Blonde On Blonde, a landmark in itself) are a treasure-trove of key influential moments in music – the much-referenced visually narrated music video for Subterranean Homesick Blues; Maggie’s Farm, one of the songs first played by Dylan at his controversial Newport Folk Festival electric set; and a song often ranked amongst the greatest of all time: Like A Rolling Stone. Truly, the importance of these records cannot be understated.
This is no revelation however, and for years, the illegal bootleg trade saw the creation of several thousand unofficial Bob Dylan compilations – live shows, recording session outtakes, radio/TV session takes: you name it, it’s been bootlegged. In recent years, Sony has taken the initiative to officially release some “bootleg” recordings in their own, now much-beloved Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. So far the releases have been crammed with auditory gems that show the genius singer-songwriter at work, from the pot-fuelled, witty live banter of Volume 6: Live at the Philharmonic Hall to the recent unearthing of Dylan and the Band’s complete Basement Tapes (Volume 11), encompassing an epic 138 tracks.
This is a somewhat nefarious line of work however, and in recent years particularly, Sony have only confirmed their reputation for pure evil by their knavish handling of Dylan’s unreleased material. They did it in 2012 with The 50th Anniversary Collection, brazenly subtitled The Copyright Extension Collection. The upshot of this release, was Sony’s successful prevention of allowing Dylan’s work to enter the public domain and become free to consume. The label’s unashamed malevolence was repeated with 2013’s The 50th Anniversary Collection 1963 – as with the prior entry in this farcical, money-grabbing copyright scheme, a meagre 100 copies of the set, containing extremely rare and sought-after material, were released – thus Sony could claim ownsership of the music by having technically released it commercially (though barely) and placate as few devoted Dylanites as possible in the process. The bastards. What did fans of Dylan ever do to them exactly? Because in case you think their bootleg game in the 60s and 70s put a dent in label finances, take a look at Dylan’s sales’ figures for this period; the demand for his official material never went away, it’s just that the demand for his unreleased recordings was never met. Well, not legally anyway…
The Cutting Edge is no different. Where the complete Basement Tapes surprised fans of the reasonably-priced Bootleg entries 1-10, by retailing around an unholy £100 for six CDs (the definitive, complete release), the numbers are somewhat more venemous here. For the collection in its entirety (every note recorded by Dylan from 1965-6 over 18 CDs), you’re looking at around £600. For starters, it’s a US only one-off pressing of 5000 copies, so you’re paying a metric ton in import tax. It also comes in a gigantic, fourteen-pound box with a bunch of worthless repressed 45s and a big-ass book. But even still, the deliberately distracting extra content to one side, that’s roughly £30 a CD, and consequently, almost £1.50 per track, almost double the already offensively high price of individual MP3 downloads. On top of this, Sony is offering far inferior, reduced compilations (a halved selection over six CDs, further dilution into double or single CD sets, and also a bizarre triple vinyl box containing “highlights”), but even these are extortionately priced. At the time of writing, the six CD version is £99.99. They cost pence to produce.
What the hell?
You’ve got to ask why Dylan does it to his fans – if he’s not directly involved, then he’s certainly complicit. What is the motivation in hurting your following in this way? Why stir an already aggravated market, prone to illegal commerce even before prompting, which is exactly what this scandalous product does. It’s horrid, awful behaviour from Sony – and Dylan for that matter. Worse, it’s a shameful and sad antithesis to the immeseaurably gorgeous art at stake here. In forums online, there are fans pledging in writing their sincerest hopes that one of the 5000 oligarchs purchasing The Cutting Edge, shares it online. What utterly tragic, fuedal times we live in – “Oh, I do hope those with more money than sense share the rich goodnesses on which they gorge”. Seems likely.
Perhaps most terrible of all, is that this pricing issue dwarfs what is actually the real issue at hand: the material on offer. And of course, to make matters difficult, it’s nothing short of mind-blowingly amazing. There is an abundance of exciting, alternative recordings on offer here – take for example, disc 4/18, comprising alternate takes of Like A Rolling Stone exclusively. Most exciting (in my eyes anyway), are the several versions of Desolation Row that you can now enjoy – guitar overdub recordings, rehearsals, incomplete takes, false starts etc. The whole thing is a frankly orgasmic resource – a bonafide goldmine of treasures for the Dylan fan, and a musical document unlike any other for its prodigious dimensions, both physically and in runtime (379 tracks!) I have never come across a boxset that is so artfully put together, so entirely comprehensive and yet so completely devastating to behold (mostly in excessively-priced, fragmented incarnations that do little to stem our yearning for Dylan’s total recorded ouevre).
This was a very tricky review to write and it ended up being quite a long one that had very little to do with the music. I actually wrote most of it before listening to any of The Cutting Edge itself. In truth, I can’t make up my mind about how I really feel. You know the material is golden – if you’re a fan of Dylan, in a big or a small way, you’ll know how quintessential this set is, and just how fantastic it is to have the chance to observe the artist so intimately. This release is unquestionably the wet dream of Dylan enthusiasts, but at the same time, Volume 12 in the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series is actually a poignant reminder of the horrid mess the modern music industry is in. These are glittering gems indeed, but only if you can get your hands on them – and if you’ve the faintest sense of true value for money, you’ll know how this has to end. After all, “a very great man once said that some people rob you with a fountain pen. It didn’t take too long to find out just what he was talkin’ about…”