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Inside the studio: Tales from Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ recording session

@TomTaylorFO

Great things can be made in humble places, and by all accounts, the crumby tales of a dishevelled Bob Dylan holed away in a dingy basement bracing up to braving the inevitable slings and arrows of going ‘very’ electric is a testimony of this. It became a counterculture masterpiece that almost caused Frank Zappa to retire because he had nothing else to add, but its fitting inception was decidedly underground.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Robbie Robertson recalled his own experience with seeing the song come into existence: “When Bob recorded the studio version of the song, I accidentally went with John Hammond Jr. to the studio,” Robertson commented. “He said, ‘Oh God, I forgot, I promised my friend I would stop in, he’s recording,’ and I was like, ‘OK, whatever.’ We went in and they were recording ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ and I thought, ‘Whoa, this guy’s pulling a rabbit out of the hat — I haven’t heard anything like this before.”

He may as well have descended down into a room and witnessed the Mona Lisa getting its first coat. There was power to Dylan’s track in the most perfunctory sense too. “When I started playing with Bob,” Robertson said, “I didn’t know how so much vocal power could come out of this frail man. He was so thin. He was singing louder and stronger than James Brown.”

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Aside from Dylan’s raucous rattle, the musicians Dylan had enlisted in the studio were Paul Griffin on piano, Joe Macho Jr on bass, Bobby Gregg on drums, and Bruce Longhorne on tambourine, with the legendary Tom Wilson taking up production duties. However, that leaves the iconic Hammond organ unaccounted for, and the tale of how Al Kooper found himself behind one is a paradigm of that. 

Essentially, Kooper just wandered into the studio and figured he’d flit around the instruments. Eventually, the only thing left for him to try and impress on was the Hammond organ where Wilson humoured him. “He just sort of scoffed at me,” Kooper recalled. “He didn’t say ‘no’—so I went out there.” His playing was far from accomplished and he spends a swathe of his magnificently scathing memoir Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards discussing how the clunky delays on the chords later heralded as genius were actually were actually caused by his lack of organ credentials. 

In fact, on the first take you can even hear Wilson remark, “OK, Bob, we got everybody here, let’s do one, and then I’ll play it back to you, you can pick it apart” before he sees Kooper and adds with amusement, “What are you doing there?” prompting Kooper to burst out laughing. 

Nevertheless, when Dylan heard the song back, he shrugged off Wilson’s remarks that Kooper was “not an organ player” and insisted that his unwieldy sound be turned up in the mix. By now that song had taken its full form and on the fourth take, Wilson announced over the mic: “That sounds good to me.” Dylan would record 15 takes in total, but the fourth would remain positively the best. And the rest is history. 

The song rang out on its own whim and the band pulled in line to craft one of the greatest songs of all time. As Paul McCartney said when John Lennon called him round to constantly spin the Promethean new record: “It seemed to go on and on forever. It was just beautiful … He showed all of us that it was possible to go a little further.”

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