Released: January 1974
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 21
Certified Gold: 1/22/74
By the mid '60s, Bob Dylan had become the most influential singer-songwriter of the rock era. His songs were covered by Peter, Paul & Mary, and his work had influenced such rock icons as the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Yet despite the admiration of his peers and the acclaim of rock critics, more than a decade into his career, Dylan had yet to top the album chart. He had come close, though -- Highway 61 Revisited, his landmark 1965 album, had reached number three, and John Wesley Harding, his 1968 "comeback" album, spent four weeks at number two, but was unable to top the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour or Paul Mauriat's Blooming Hits.
By the time Dylan's contract with Columbia Records expired in 1973, he had amassed eight top 10 albums. With Dylan freed from Columbia, record executive David Geffen quickly made a verbal deal with the singer-songwriter to record for his Asylum Records label. The album would be Dylan's first recorded collaboration with the Band, Dylan's former backing group, a star attraction in its own right with three top 10 albums.
Planet Waves, which would be Dylan's first new recording in nearly three years, came together quickly. Initially, Dylan and the Band were rehearsing in Malibu, California, for a forthcoming tour, when they decided to go into the VIllage Recorder in West Los Angeles and cut an album. "The guy that was managing the studio was also one of Dylan's accountants," says engineer Rob Fraboni. "He offered them a secrecy situation where nobody would know that they were there. Based upon that, they came in." Fraboni, the chief engineer at the studio, was scheduled to work on another project, but found the combination of Dylan and the Band too much to resist.
"It was striking to do something that powerful that quickly," Fraboni adds. Dylan wrote "Wedding Song" while lying on his back in the control room. The album was mostly recorded live in the studio. "There were only two overdubs," Fraboni adds. "One piano overdub and one harmony vocal." Initially, Dylan attempted to overdub part of his vocal on "Going Going Gone." Says Fraboni, "After trying one overdub he just stopped and said, 'I could do this all day long and I don't eve know if it's the right thing to do.'"
The sessions were conducted in an extremely loose and improvisational manner, with the Band naturally following Dylan's lead. "They had been rehearsing together before, but when they went into the studio, the Band ably only knew about four of the songs," says Fraboni. "What was incredible was that they were so in tune with Bob, such great musicians, and so intuitive, they were able to basically just watch Bob's hands on the chord changes and play along. It might have taken a take or two for them to learn the songs, but these were songs that they had never played before."
One such song was "Forever Young," which appears on the album in two different versions. "Bob said to me that he had carried this song around in his head for several years and he had never written it down, and now he wasn't quite sure how to record it," Fraboni says. As a result, five different versions were cut. The slow version, which ended up closing side one of the album, was recorded in one take. Ken Lauber played congas on the track, although he is not credited on the sleeve. "I remember sitting behind the board thinking, 'My God, I've never witnessed anything like this in my life,'" says Fraboni. "the sheer, emotional intensity and musicianship was amazing." After the track was complete, all of the musicians, including Dylan, piled into the control room for the playback. "At the end, no one said a word and everyone kind of wandered out of the control room," Fraboni says.
In spite of the sheer brilliance of the performance, Dylan considered leaving the track off the album during the mastering phase, but Fraboni convinced him to keep the track.
Planet Waves entered the chart on February 9, 1974, at number 19. A week later, it shot up to the top, finally giving Dylan that elusive Number One.
- Craig Rosen, The Billboard Book of Number One Albums, 1996.
In a time when all the most prestigious music, even what passes for funk, is coated with silicone grease, Dylan is telling us to take the grease and jam it. Sure he's domestic, but his version of conjugal love is anything but smug, and this comes through in both the lyrics and the sound of the record itself. Blissful, sometimes, but sometimes it sounds like stray cat music -- scrawny, cocky, and yowling up the stairs. A-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Even with a new record company (this release originally was Dylan's Geffen debut, commencing a brief absence from Columbia, which ultimately required the rights to the master), and a reunion with The Band (clearly the finest backup group with which he has been associated), Planet Waves was greeted somewhat apathetically commercially and critically. Those that denigrated it were probably afflicted with unreal expectations because of the legendary Dylan/The Band chemistry (The Basement Tapes being then the most notorious and coveted bootleg about). Time reveals a recording concerned with simple domestic involvements that yield enduring pleasures. It's no masterpiece, but it's far from the secondary product it is too often perceived to be. If anything, it has a somewhat unfinished quality about it, but that's not a foreign element in much of Dylan's work. While Planet Waves is best known for "Forever Young" (performed both up- and downtempo) and "You Angel You," it is not the individual tracks, but the sophisticated picture of loving and relationships that encourages repeated listenings. The sound quality is only fair; the whole seems unnaturally bunched together, and Dylan's vocals and harmonical flirt with edginess throughout. A-
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
A companion work to its predecessor, New Morning, this first album to be recorded with Dylan's backup group, the Band, mixes pronouncements of marital and familial contentment with severe criticisms of the singer himself and others. Contains "Forever Young." * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
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