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How Bob Dylan Set the Standard for Box Sets

The singer-songwriter’s newest retrospective package highlights his enduring influence

Earlier this month, Columbia/Legacy released Bob Dylan’s The Cutting Edge 1965–1966, the latest installment of The Bootleg Series, that spotlights perhaps the greatest creative period of the singer-songwriter’s career — highlighted by the landmark albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. To mark that occasion, Columbia/Legacy is offering three different configurations of mostly unreleased Dylan music from that era: a ‘Best Of’ two-CD set; a ‘Deluxe Edition’ six-CD collection; and for the die-hard fan, a very lavish ‘Collector's Edition’ of 379 tracks on 18 CDs, advertised as containing all of the music that Dylan recorded in the studio during that historic two-year period.

It’s fitting that the arrival of The Cutting Edge comes on the 30th anniversary of Biograph, the Bob Dylan collection that unofficially kicked off the archival reissue program of the singer’s music. First released in late 1985, Biograph, whose recordings cover the years between 1962 and 1981, was an attempt to present a somewhat-comprehensive Dylan retrospective with previously unreleased tracks augmented by liner notes, commentary and photos. Not only was Biograph a critical and commercial success upon its initial release, but it launched the rock box set boom from the late 80s through the mid 90s (In his review on Biograph, Stephen Thomas Erlewine said: “Historically, Biograph is significant not for what it did for Dylan’s career, but for establishing the box set, complete with hits and rarities, as a viable part of rock history”).

By no means Dylan’s Biograph, which was reportedly three years in the making, was the first-ever multi-disc career set by a rock artist. On the heels of the successful biopic The Buddy Holly Story, MCA in 1979 released The Complete Buddy Holly, a six-record retrospective of music by the 50s legend. Five years later, RCA put out the six-LP Elvis Presley collection A Golden Celebration, which commemorated the King of Rock and Roll’s then-50th birthday. And to a certain extent, Neil Young’s Decade from 1977 could arguably be considered a box set, as it was made up of three vinyl records and contained five previously unreleased tracks.

But Biograph, whose formats consisted of five LPs, three cassettes, or three CDs upon its release, stood out from the Holly and Presley compilations. First, Biograph has outlasted those now-out-of-print sets; it’s still available on CD as well as in digital form. Second, whereas the Holly and Presley collections were posthumously released, Dylan himself was involved in Biograph— at least through his participation in a very lengthy and candid interview with music journalist Cameron Crowe and his track-by-track commentary for the set’s booklet.

Not adhering to chronology, the selections on Biograph were uniquely sequenced, with some of the vinyl sides touching on certain themes or phases in Dylan’s oeuvre: love songs, romantic breakups, protest tracks, electric folk rock, and spirituality. Aside from featuring the artist’s best-known material, the set contained 21 rare and previously unreleased tracks, which must’ve excited Dylan fans starved for rare archival music beyond The Basement Tapes and bootlegs. Among the highlights: “Baby I’m in the Mood For You,” the earliest of the unreleased songs that goes back to 1962; a live performance of “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We’ve Never Met),” recorded in Belfast from the historic 1966 tour; “Quinn the Eskimo,” taken from The Basement Tape sessions, predating the version that appeared on 1970’s Self Portrait; and an alternate version “You’re a Big Girl Now” from the classic Blood on the Tracks from 1975.

In explaining “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” one of the unearthed tracks, to Cameron Crow in the Biograph booklet, Dylan commented about his material being bootlegged:

“The stuff usually doesn’t get onto a record for one of two reasons. Either there’s too much on the record, and you can’t get the song on it… or else you just don’t think the song is good enough. A lot of stuff I’ve left off of my records I just haven’t felt has been good enough. Or maybe it didn’t sound like a record to me. I never even recorded ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine,’ you know… but if people like it, they like it.”

Not surprisingly, Biograph, which was advertised in issues of Rolling Stone and Billboard with the tagline “The ULTIMATE BOB DYLAN Album!” drew acclaimed reviews. In the January 16, 1986 issue of Rolling Stone, Tim Holmes opined: “Biograph is a scratch on the surface of the tip of the iceberg, a tantalizing invitation to explore anew the rest of the Dylan catalog.” And in his review for The New York Times, music critic John Rockwell wrote: “Biograph, despite some omissions and oddities, contains more striking songs, more stirring modern poetry and more mesmerizing musical performances than you’re likely to encounter in any similar five-record set.”

Dylan himself seemed to downplay the importance of Biograph when he spoke to Rolling Stone’s David Fricke in 1985 : “It’s not a record that people are going to make a big fuss over.” Yet the set reached the Top 40 on the Billboard album chart and has since gone platinum— writer Anthony DeCurtis summed it up best in a story for Rolling Stone: “Biograph’s success is a testament to Dylan’s lasting importance.” However, it would take another six years for more archival material from the singer to be released with the arrival of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1–3, which, like Biograph, also drew acclaim.

The recording industry recognized Biograph’s potential when it came to drawing music from a popular artist’s back catalog. The following year, Bruce Springsteen released the five-LP concert release Live 1975–1985, which peaked at number one on the Billboard album chart. Then a flood of retrospective sets followed throughout the late 80s and into the 90s by mostly classic rock artists: among them Eric Clapton, Jethro Tull, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers Band, Elton John, Chicago, Electric Light Orchestra, Cheap Trick, and Jefferson Airplane. All of those sets followed Biograph’s example of featuring popular tracks, unreleased material and rarities, detailed liner notes, and sumptuous packaging.

Nowadays box sets have gotten even more elaborate and comprehensive by either focusing on just one particular album or an important period in an artist’s career. Recent examples of those include Nirvana’s In Utero; the Velvet Underground’s first four records; and King Crimson’s The Road to Red, a 24-disc set devoted mostly to the progressive rock band’s 1974 tour. And even some of those box retrospectives are including unique extras — for example, the upcoming Collector’s Edition of The Cutting Edge will also contain a leopard skin printed spindle (apparently a reference to the Dylan song “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”), and a strip of film cells from a print of the famous D.A. Pennebaker documentary on Dylan, Don’t Look Back.

Since its original release, Biograph has been surpassed by more Dylan archival releases with The Bootleg Series (which is now 12 volumes and counting), and the 47-CD The Complete Album Collection that features every Dylan studio and live release through 2012’s Tempest. But even with the set’s now-modest total of 53 tracks and omission of some of Dylan’s best-known songs (“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Maggie’s Farm,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” are a few examples), Biograph still manages to satisfyingly cover the breadth of the artist’s career up to that point. (In the Rolling Stone Album Guide, published in 2004, Rob Sheffield described the set as “an excellent way to turn on a new fan, or to become one”). It shows that with imaginative and unique song selection, a generous amount of unreleased archival tracks, visually-striking packaging, and excellent writing and notes, a retrospective can go beyond being a predictable dumping ground for the obvious hits — but something of enduring value that truly represents a great artist’s career while giving something back to the fans.

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