Bob Dylan has drawn a lot of criticism for his decision to sit out the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm next week. Just today it was reported he also sat out a meeting with President Obama and other American laureates.
One can never predict what Bob Dylan is going to do, which has endeared him to some fans and alienated him from others. Whether its a a Christmas album (which we will enthusiastically defend) or an album of Frank Sinatra songs (which even we can’t get behind), Dylan has long had the luxury of following his muse and allowing his records to largely speak for themselves.
Consider his original Greatest Hits package, released by Columbia in 1967 to fill the gap when it appeared his next album was a ways off on the horizon and presumably compiled without his involvement. While it is not one of those “Greatest Hits” collections which misuses the word hits — his sixties singles sold successfully — it was still frustrating to fans. While it compiled his singles, in cases where those contained a separate mix from the album version, the album version was used. And it retailed for a dollar more than most LPs at the time.
Greatest Hits Volume II, which came just four years later, offered a little more to fans in the form of a side’s worth of new material. Dylan originally suggested one side be drawn from the then-unissued “Basement Tapes,” but this was rejected by Columbia executive Clive Davis — and instead a hodge podge new songs were added to the double LP. These included the tracks produced by the late Leon Russell (“Watching the River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”) as well as a live cut from the 1963 Town Hall concert and three newly recorded songs.
This is the first “Greatest Hits” album we can think of which finds the artist enticing fans with a few new songs. Dylan’s business savvy is always surprising to us — and in this case he created an idea that became common by the time Columbia finally churned out Greatest Hits Volume III in 1994, including a successful new song, “Dignity.”
We’ve thought a lot about some of those songs added to “Greatest Hits” and “Best Of” records, because sometimes we are such big fans of the artists that we’ll buy an album even though 90% of it is already in our collection. For instance, Gil Scott-Heron’s topical “Re Ron,” which first appeared on a 1984 compilation. His picture is hardly flattering on The Best of Gil Scott-Heron, and its hard for fans to face the reality of how poorly he was doing at the time.
“Re Ron,” Scott-Heron’s response to Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign, would be one of the last songs he’d release for nearly a decade, as drug use derailed his life. A sequel to his first Reagan song, “B Movie,” it didn’t leave the same impression with fans and he was subsequently dropped from the label.
From an entirely different era and an entirely different section of the record store are the two Best Of albums released by Jethro Tull in the 70s. Each adds a new song, which sound distinctly like outtakes from earlier albums. Neither is particularly essential, although Tull fans are not unlike Dylan fans in their complete-ist tendencies. The first also offers an alternate mix or edit of a couple songs, notably “Aqualung” where Martin Barre’s familiar opening riff is extended.
The second of these is one of the most un-necessary “Best Of” collections of all time, and is indulgent even by Jethro Tull standards. The new track offered for the faithful is an outtake from the band’s successful War Child album which was clearly left aside for a reason.
Faring little better is The Best of the Band, an early album in the trend of titling these collections carefully to avoid the word “Hits.” After all, The Band’s singles hardly charted, and several of these songs were not even released as singles in the United States. The album is still a fair representation of highlights from their first half dozen albums, with the exception of a single-only track, “Twilight.”
Another collection clearly forced by the label was RCA’s Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed. Never a hit-maker, Reed had already been dropped by the label by the time this record sulked into stores in 1976. Essentially a vehicle for the title track, Walk on the Wild Side did offer the first LP release of “Nowhere At All,” a rockin’ outtake from Coney Island Baby which had previously been issued as a B-side. Also worth noting is the appearance of Rachel, Reed’s long-term transexual lover, on the cover. Rachel was the inspiration for much of Reed’s music in the second half of the seventies even though she had been all but erased from the rock and roll lexicon by the time she died in obscurity in the nineties.
So far we have established that the extra song on a “Greatest Hits” or “Best Of” album is a sort of ashcan for outtakes and leftover live cuts. A recent culling of our own collection turned up all the albums in today’s post, each of which purchased solely for those added ‘bonus’ tracks, but hardly ever taken off the shelves. We’ll end today’s post with a more successful example. It’s a Greatest Hits which recently saw its first US release on LP and has already sold out.
See, nobody drew such success out of the extra song on their Greatest Hits album than Tom Petty, who recorded “Last Dance with Mary Jane” while recording his second solo album with career-reviving producer Rick Rubin. The song was the last to be recorded by the original Heartbreakers lineup, and an unexpected hit. It almost certainly spurred the success of that fantastic solo album, Wildflowers, the following year.
Always one to create the creepiest possible videos, Petty outdid himself with “Last Dance with Mary Jane,” a macabre vignette purportedly based on a French film which was, in turn, based on a Charles Bukowski story. If you have never seen this video before, you’re likely to not feel the same about Tom Petty, or about actress Kim Basinger, ever again.