Newly released studio recordings of Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” shows how the first recording attempts floundered with a sound everyone knew was wrong. An overnight decision to change the rhythm from a waltz to a 4/4 shifted everything, and a classic was recorded.
The NPR Broadcast The Day Dylan Got It Right (html) recants this story as shown in the release of new recordings of Dylan’s studio sessions as a 6 CD set The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Volume 12 (html).
Now, with all of these previously unreleased tracks, we get to join Dylan and the studio musicians from his first fumbling attempts to nail the track. They worked on “Like a Rolling Stone” over two days in June of 1965 at Columbia Records’ Studio A in a New York City.
They first attempted the song as a waltz. How does it feel? Well, it feels wrong: Dylan’s voice breaks, and he’s unsure of the words. Al Kooper was one of the musicians at that session — and when I invited him to come by NPR to listen through the alternate takes, he heard this one and immediately started shaking his head.
“The concept of a waltz — it’s a ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, that I don’t think suits the lyric he was trying to express,” Kooper says.
After struggling to make the words fit a time signature that won’t yield, the crew calls it a day. Overnight, a decision is made: Play it in 4/4.
The stepping back from the problem, and changing a foundational aspect, might be seen as well as a process of creativity. Also evident in this story is that, while Dylan certainly drove the creative process among studio musicians, he did not get it right – the numerous repeated recordings were never as good as the first complete one. And it was the smaller contributions, such as the organ chords contributed by Kooper (who was not even considered a keyboardist) were pivotal to the success of this song.
Source: The Day Dylan Got It Right (NPR) (html)