Never Had a #1… Bob Dylan

For my next three posts, I’ll be returning to a feature I tried out last year… The biggest bands and artists – who’ve sold millions and are beloved by billions – but who’ve never made it all the way to the top of the UK singles chart.

First up. A Nobel prize winning songwriter who put the concerns of an entire generation into his early records, who has featured twice in my countdown as a songwriter (‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘The Mighty Quinn’), who celebrated his 80th birthday just yesterday, and whose singing style I once heard described as sounding ‘as if he were sitting on top of a washing machine going at full spin’…

Bob Dylan has never been much of a singles artists but, at least early in his career, he was a consistent presence in the charts. Here are his handful of Top 10 singles:

‘The Times They Are A-Changin”, and ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, both #9 in 1965

1965 was Dylan’s most prolific year on the singles chart with four Top 10 singles – including this pair. One is a rousing clarion call to the young, telling the old fogeys to get out of their way… The order is rapidly fading… It sounds a bit preachy now, and the acoustic guitar and harmonica combo grate on me after a while. File under: Of Cultural Significance.

The latter single is much more fun, and has a very famous attempt at a music video. As the name hints, it’s a short, sharp bluesy number and where ‘The Times…’ is looking forward, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is looking up from the gutter. It drips with sarcasm and cynicism. The pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles… They certainly did. ‘What??’ the last card reads as Bob swaggers off, too cool for school.

‘Positively 4th Street’, #8 in 1965

Probably my favourite of this bunch. Any song that opens with a line like: You got a lot of nerve, To say you are my friend… is going to be fun. Bob has a bone to pick! With whom exactly has been the subject of much discussion, but the consensus is that he’s taking aim at the critics of his move away from the acoustic folk of ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” and ‘Blowing in the Wind’ (4th Street runs through Greenwich Village, and the clubs where Dylan made his name).

‘Rainy Day Women #12 and 35’, #7 in 1966

Some people don’t like this song. Possibly because it sounds like Dylan and his band were having a lot of fun making it, and Bob Dylan’s music should at all times be taken SERIOUSLY! He’s a Nobel prize winner for God’s sake! Whatever. Apparently he insisted that everybody taking part in the recording of ‘Rainy Day Women’ be highly intoxicated, and it certainly has a boozy, woozy, last day of spring break feel to it. A ‘rainy day woman’, I have literally just learned, was 1950s slang for a doobie. Dylan claims that this isn’t a ‘drug song’. Except… Everybody must get stoned!… he shouts, as the band whoop and holler behind him. Radio stations at the time certainly had their suspicions, and many refused to play what turned out to be one of his biggest hits.

‘Lay Lady Lay’, #5 in 1969

His most recent Top 10 hit. Oftentimes Dylan’s lyrics are pretty oblique, but this one seems pretty clear. He wants his girl to stay, to lay across his big brass bed. That line, in the wrong hands, could sound ridiculous… But here it’s a sweet sentiment in a sweet song.

‘Like a Rolling Stone’, #4 in 1965

One of the foundation pillars of rock music. This tale of a spoiled rich girl whose life has fallen apart gave Dylan his biggest chart hit in the UK. It sounds a lot like ‘Positively 4th Street’, both in terms of the organ and the barely concealed sarcasm. And again, there has been a lot of debate over just who the song is about, but it has definitely not got anything to do with The Rolling Stones. At six minutes long, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was, at the time, one of the longest singles ever released.

Another #1-less artist coming up tomorrow – one that can’t compete with Bob Dylan’s legacy and influence, but that certainly has a better voice…


37 thoughts on “Never Had a #1… Bob Dylan

  1. Excellent post, thank you. I was brought up on Bob Dylan – it’s funny to think that both he and The Seekers were the trailblazers for Top 10 folk singles in 1965 – well, some people have never stopped calling him a folksinger. (Essay question time for your homework: ‘Describe a Folk Singer, giving examples’….) He’s released some pretty thin gruel over the years, and his career has taken some weird curves, but I can’t think of any other artist who has remained on the same record label for coming up to 60 years (apart from a brief detour to another label in 1973-74 and then the resulting records were reissued by the original company), still recording and releasing new material, and scoring UK No. 1 albums with new stuff 65 years apart. And no No. 1 single as a performer as you say, unless you include his participation in ‘We Are The World’ in 1985. But then he’s no ordinary pop singer – alongside The Beatles, probably the biggest musical icon ever!

  2. The reference to washing machines is a terrible slur! To washing machines! Dylan is a genius songwriter, and despite his vocal drawbacks still managed a couple of definitive recordings in Like A Rolling Stone and Positively 4th Street and a pretty good Hits collection – more usually though the definitive versions are covers, be they The Byrds, manfred mann, Bryan ferry, Adele, Peter Paul & Mary, George Harrison, Olivia Newton-John or any other act that put in a decent effort.

    Stick him in the back of the Travelin Wilburys and let Roy, Jeff, Tom or George sing and I’m fine. My singing voice is marginally better than Bob’s, especially his post-60’s singing voice, and my singing voice is terrible. Happy to listen to him as a DJ/music historian, as he has in latter years on Radio 2. As long as he doesn’t sing! 🙂 That said, I went and ruined everything I just said by buying I Contain Multitudes the other month a fab new track in which he talks a song more than sings it, quite effectively. Still got it!

  3. I love Bob’s voice…nothing wrong with it. Would you rather hear a singer like a soulless Michael Bolton warble something in perfect key? It’s what’s behind the voice…the soul and feeling. Mick Jagger can’t “sing” worth a damn but it sounds great. If someone wants a close to perfect voice that is fine…that is why they made easy listening. On top of that…there are not many of Bob covers that I like better than Bobs… the two exceptions are Jimi Hendrix (who again couldn’t conventionally sing) All Along The WatchTower and The Byrds All I Really Want To Do…which Bob does terribly on.

    Even in the Wilburys…my favorite song is Bob’s… Tweeter and the Monkey Man. There are many who can’t sing…well the way some people define singing like Ric Ocasek, Springsteen, Johnny Cash…and the list goes on. That is why it strikes me funny people talk about Bob but ignore others…I like imperfect voices…they are different…I like all the singers I mentioned except one…the soulless one.

    I didn’t even touch on his writing, harmonica playing, and guitar playing…the guy is a real musician in every sense of the word. He loves playing with different people.

    Oh, Vic will see this!

    • You are right of course. Lead singer of a rock n roll band (a la Mick Jagger, Axl Rose, Liam Gallagher) is about so much more than just singing. I didn’t mean to be nasty by comparing him to a washing machine!

      Of the songs I posted, I think he sings ‘Lay Lady Lay’ beautifully, and ‘Sub. Homesick Blues’ really suits the way he barks the lyrics out. It’s when he reaches for certain notes on ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, say, that you can hear his limitations. And he sings ‘Rainy Day Women’ terribly, but then again he was probably baked out of his skull, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt!

      • No No No….it’s not you…at all. It’s what expected when someone reviews him. Hell man even I’ve done it before. It’s like the rap against him…it is larger than him… and is the white elephant in the room.

        Oh he has limitations no doubt…and some of it…this is hard to believe but my wife didn’t believe it until she saw him…he was singing…I mean singing live and was great… and then we saw him on a TV show a few weeks later and he just bombed…I’ve read where he does that to toy with people…he doesn’t like being taken so seriously. Now my wife totally believes it…because she saw it.

      • It’s hard to word it right but it’s expected to talk about his voice yet no one touches Mick or even Lou Reed…it puzzles me but I guess he has been around so long

      • I never thought of Mick Jagger as being a ‘bad’ singer but you’ve got a point… he was just too busy inventing the role of the frontman… I think Lou Reed got away with it as he never had quite the exposure that Dylan did

      • But again…I love to hear Mick sing…he does what he does well and no one could sing those songs as well…a “good” singer singing Start Me Up and it could turn into cabaret.

      • Oh I love his voice because the songs would not be the same without it…same with Hendrix songs.

      • I do also…now I’d admit I like different time periods better…I love the Jones and MIck Taylor eras a lot more than from there.

      • Lou Reed…now there’s a curious one. He doesn’t sing, either. He is gifted with the dual quality of talking his songs…off key. And, Mick…Mick just slurs a bit.

    • But…of course. LOL! Actually, Dylan doesn’t really “sing” so much as he “talks” through his music. Sometimes, he sounds like Felix Unger clearing his sinuses on The Odd Couple (Tony Randall, not Jack Lemmon). I can count on one hand how many of his songs, that *he* “spoke”, that I like. My favorite is Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, followed by Lay Lady Lay, then Rainy Day Women (which is funny as hell…”Evy body muss get STONE…”). I can just barely stand Like a Rolling Stone and the Sub…um, the Sub…um, the homesick blues in your basement song is annoying. I can handle Jagger better than Dylan.

      As I stated above, he is a grand songwriter, a strong political figure (Lennon was more powerful) and a cultural icon, to a degree.

      Speaking of Bolton, he never warbled. He’s a younger screamer in the same vein as Springsteen, just a pitch higher (though I prefer the term “holler”). I’m still laughing at John Holton’s comment on your blog about Springsteen. Bolton always sounded like someone was standing on his foot when he “hollered” his music. LOL! Watch the We Are The World video I posted above and hear Springsteen “shout” like John said. LOL!

      Yeah. Ocasek is questionable. He always sounded like he had a throat lozenge or a piece of candy in his mouth when he sang. And, Cash…LOL! My dad loved Cash but, he was notorious for singing off key. My dad never grasped the irony of complaining that the Beatles “all sang harmony, off key.” Maybe one guy off key is better than four at one time?

      • No I always thought of Bolton…first as boring and no soul but he could sing…ok switch singers… Celine whatever her name is…I would rather hear Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan sing than her…she bores me to tears. Great voice but no feeling.

        What I was trying to get at was many are just as bad as Bob technically but Bob catches it all. I like all of them but Jagger and Cash don’t really sing…or Hendrix…BUT what they do is great! Bob just catches all the heat.

        When you told me about your dad saying that…I never understood the off key thing with the Beatles. This Boy and songs like that are perfect harmony…he had to have a song in mind.

        Oh I love Like A Rolling Stone and the one in this post better… Positively 4th Street…I love the attitude in both. He brings me in and I feel his anger….a regular pop singer doesn’t do that to me.

      • My dad dated a woman for a while before he got to my step-mom. That woman LOVED Bolton. He always made my hair stand on end.

        Celine Dion…freak extraordinaire. She has a creep factor off the scales. I liked her first English song from 1990. That was it. As crooning goes, I’d rather hear Adele.

        If my dad was thinking of a particular song, he never mentioned it. He just absolutely could not stand them.

  4. As Tom Breihan keeps pointing out, Dylan and his fellow songwriter poet Bruce Springsteen share a weird chart history in the US in that they both peaked at #2 on their own (“Like A Rolling Stone” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” for Dylan and “Dancing In The Dark” for Springsteen) while an act covers their song to a #1 hit (The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” for Dylan and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s “Blinded By The Light” for Springsteen) but they manage to appear together on a #1 hit which is the all star charity single “We Are The World” providing the most funniest moments on that song. But like the UK, 1965 represented Bob Dylan at his pop chart peak not just himself but also in the influence he had with the Byrds and the larger folk rock movement taking shape that year. He hasn’t made the Top 10 since “Lay Lady Lay” but his music to this day still garners attention whether it’d be last year’s Rough and Rowdy Ways or 1997’s Time Out of Mind that garnered him an Album of the Year Grammy. Me and my sister saw Bob Dylan in concert in 2013 and we left halfway through because of how we couldn’t understand him and how he radically rearranges his songs so you can’t tell what song he’s playing. Obviously, he’s done a lot of great work but we couldn’t sit through all that but the opening acts were great.

    Just posted my new review on the new Apple TV series on music in 1971

    • I’ve never seen him live, but have heard he can be quite contrary. (Though anyone buying a ticket should know what to expect – he’s done a few tours by now…)

      Interesting symmetry in Manfred Mann having a UK #1 with a Dylan song, and a US #1 with a Springsteen song (though with two different versions of the band). And does that mean Springsteen has never had a US #1? I’d have assumed ‘Dancing in the Dark’ or ‘Philadelphia’ got there…

      • Like I said, Springsteen got as high as #2 with “Dancing In The Dark” in 1984 with Duran Duran and Prince keeping him off the top. The weird thing about all this is that his Born In The USA album was the best-selling album of 1985 and is tied with Thriller, Rhythm Nation, and Scorpion for the most Top 10 singles off an album at seven but unlike those albums Born In The USA never got any single to #1.

      • There are more charts than just the US Billboard Hot 100. Dancing in the Dark was #1 on the US Rock chart and #1 in the Netherlands. Born in the USA and I’m On Fire were #1 in Ireland and New Zealand. Brilliant Disguise and Human Touch were #1s on the US Rock chart and Norway. Tunnel of Love was #1 on the US Rock chart. Streets of Philadelphia was #1 in Canada, Germany, Ireland & Norway.

  5. different strokes for different folks:) Listen to Bryan Ferry’s amazing version of A Hard Rains A Gonna Fall – Ferry’s another one without a natural singing voice, like Lou Read, but I dont struggle to get through entire albums with their voices. I struggle to get through more than one Michael Bolton track too for the same reason, but even he (like Dylan, like Cohen and others with voices that polarise) could also pull out the odd restrained half-decent single now and again. Lay Lady Lay is fine (back to Dylan) vocally, Knocking On Heaven’s Door ditto. I’ll contradict what I was generalising about earlier now by saying that the 2 famous covers of the latter (Clapton and Gun N Roses) suck all the life out of the song, or turn it into a cartoon parody, respectively.

    I mean, I love Paul Simon’s voice, but I have a friend who hates it (“annoying whiny little thing”!), so it’s all down to personal taste really. I’ve deliberately avoided Dylan concerts as I know I’m going to get annoyed from what people tell me who have been. Plus they cost a fortune, oops! 🙂 Happily went along to Ringo Starr, though, another who has his own err singing voice, cos he puts on a good show and makes an all-star effort. The tragedy was the number of empty seats, his UK media-target rep for 40 years as a target of fun proving tough to defeat. I also bought his latest single (like Dylan) cos I like musical legends!

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