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Bob Dylan

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Possibly the greatest songwriter of all time

The impact of Bob Dylan cannot be overstated. Nobody else so revolutionised the way we think about singing, songwriting, music as protest and the very definition of folk music, all in their first decade as a performer. That Dylan did all this while remaining elusive, chameleonic and defiant sets him apart from almost anyone else to ever sing into a microphone.

As with all things Dylan, the truth is often secondary to the myth. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota as Robert Zimmerman and journeyed to New York (some say by car, he says by riding the rails) to forge his path in the city’s burgeoning folk scene. A devoted disciple of Woody Guthrie, the young Bob spent time with the famous folkie prior to his death and rapidly established himself as singer of repute in the venues of Greenwich Village.

It was there that he crossed paths with musical Svengali Albert Hammond, who promptly signed Dylan to Columbia Records in 1961. Dylan’s debut Bob Dylan came out later that year, mostly consisting of covers of folk standards. But it was Dylan’s second record that would really have an impact. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan announced its creator’s arrival with some force, particularly on protest songs 'Blowin’ In The Wind' and 'Masters Of War' and bittersweet ballads 'Girl From The North Country' and 'Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright'.

Dylan cemented his reputation with The Times They Are A-Changing, released in 1964. It was a far more serious album than its predecessor, maybe due to the gathering clouds of war that inspired the title track or the breakup with Suze Rotolo that inspired the broken-hearted 'Boots Of Spanish Leather'.

Just seven months later, Dylan delivered another masterpiece. Another Side Of Bob Dylan, again epitomised both the fired-up protester, the cynic and the romantic across songs such as 'Chimes Of Freedom' and 'It Ain’t Me, Babe', both empowered by a songwriter allowing himself to become more and more impressionistic.

While Dylan’s reputation had been made as a folkie, the signs were showing that he had little interest in the confines of the genre. That became glaringly obvious on 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, which featured sinful electric guitars and rollicking tracks such as 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' and 'Maggie’s Farm'. 'Mr Tambourine Man' would become a huge hit for The Byrds and D.A. Pennebaker immortalised Dylan in his acclaimed documentary Don’t Look Back.

While the dyed-in-the-wool folkies were up in arms over their hero’s traitorous about-face, Dylan went about releasing yet another masterpiece, this time going fully electric for Highway 61 Revisited. The result was a searing, surreal rock record that stands as one of his best, right from the careening, organ-drenched opener 'Like A Rolling Stone' to the bleakly cynical epic 'Desolation Row'.

Dylan’s electric, impressionistic period culminated with 1966’s wonderfully eccentric and hallucinatory double album Blonde On Blonde, a record that heavily featured Robbie Robertson and the band that would become The Band. Dylan was now officially a huge global star but a motorcycle accident that year left him with serious injuries and he retreated from the public eye while he recovered.

Ever the restless wanderer, Dylan was acoustic again when he returned, but still not the folkie of his early records. His 1967 album John Wesley Harding found him making overtures towards the countrified sound that leapt to the fore on 1969’s Nashville Skyline. As ever, Dylan shows little regard for his own legend, going so far as to completely changing the voice that had become his hallmark. He scored a top ten hit with Lay Lady Lay and Self-Portrait rounded out the decade.

Dylan started off his second decade in the public eye with 1970’s New Morning, another country-tinged record, followed by a foray into acting in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. Dylan also wrote the soundtrack, scoring a hit with 'Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door'.

Dylan departed Columbia Records afterwards and signed to Asylum for 1974’s Planet Waves, his first No.1 album. He then hit the road with The Band as his backing band, the results of which were released as the double live album Before The Flood.

Dylan poured the disintegration of his marriage to Sara Lownds into Blood On The Tracks, his most commercially successful album since the mid-60s and his second No.1 record. The following autumn, he assembled the Rolling Thunder Revue, a huge tour including Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Roger McGuinn and Allen Ginsberg and headed out on the road. Footage from the tour would appear in the film Renaldo And Clara and the Martin Scorsese documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, while recordings formed the live album Hard Rain.

Mid-tour, Dylan released Desire, again to critical acclaim, especially the song 'Hurricane', which recounts the story of Rubin Carter, a boxer wrongly convicted of murder. Shortly after 1978’s Street Legal, Dylan announced he had converted to Christianity, releasing a trilogy of religious albums Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love.

Dylan was back in secular territory with Infidels (1983) and Empire Burlesque (1985). He followed the latter with a tour with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, a partnership that would eventually lead to the formation of The Travelling Wilburys (featuring Dylan, Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne).

On record, Dylan hit another peak in 1989 when he recorded Oh Mercy with Daniel Lanois. The result was Dylan’s best received album since Desire. Another Wilburys record and Under The Red Sky followed and Dylan commenced his Bootleg series in 1991, which would delve deeper and deeper into his archives over the years, producing outtakes, alternate versions, live albums and unreleased tracks. He returned to the folk standards of his youth on the acclaimed Good As I Been To You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993).

To ever view Dylan as outdated would be foolish and anyone who did so in the 90s was corrected by Time Out Of Mind, the 1998 album that won three Grammys, peaked in the top ten and went multi-Platinum. His rejuvenation continued with the well-received Love And Theft in 2001.

Dylan continued to defy expectation, assembling a starry cast for his film Masked And Anonymous, scoring a No.1 album with Modern Times in 2006, releasing a Christmas album and two albums of songs made famous by Frank Sinatra. In 2016, he won the Nobel prize for literature but declined to show up for the ceremony.

In 2020, as much of the world was heading into lockdown, Dylan returned with a true epic: the 11-minute single Murder Most Foul, a stream-of-consciousness journey through the conspiracy to murder JFK. It was heralded as one of his finest songs. The album Rough And Rowdy Ways, his first album of original material since 2012, followed later that year.