"By the time I got Jerry to manage me, I almost didn't have a friend in the world. We were working on [Renaldo & Clara]...I was being thrown out of my house. I was under a lot f pressure, so I figured I better get busy working." Bob Dylan 1977.
The period that spans 1974 to 1979 was a particularly prolific one in Bob Dylan's career, with no fewer than nine official albums being released - three of these were live albums, the third being "Live at Budokan," the official chronicle of Dylan's Far Eastern tour of 1978. The reason for this tour was purely financial, Dylan needed to recoup some of the money that he had lost during the financially disastrous 1977. An expensive divorce, the spiralling costs of his Malibu mansion and the ongoing expenses of getting "Renaldo and Clara" into some sort of acceptable shape for cinema release had all combined to place him in an impecunious position. "I've had a bad year or two..." was his uncharacteristic admission to the L.A.Times "...I've got a few debts to pay off." Prior to September of 1977 when he took a five year lease on the building that would become his Rundown studio, Dylan had only ventured into a recording studio once in that year - in March, to record back-up vocals on one track ("Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On") for Leonard Cohen's poor and unrepresentative album "Death Of A Ladies Man" (Cohen later disowned the album). By the end of the year, Dylan was virtually living at Rundown and it was here in late December that rehearsals began for what would be Dylan's first world tour for twelve years. The other significant step that Dylan took in 1977 was to sign with Jerry Weintraub's management agency and this was the first time he was officially represented since his acrimonious split with Albert Grossman some years earlier. Weintraub, a high profile movie producer whose other acts included Neil Diamond, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and The Carpenters was hardly a man one would readily associate with Bob Dylan, as the thrust of the tour (particularly the Far Eastern leg) would demonstrate.
Preparations began and Dylan's first step was to recruit the core of his Hard Rain band (Guam) from two years previously. Rhythm section stalwarts Rob Stoner and Howie Wyeth were brought in and although a surprised Stoner took up the offer, Wyeth reluctantly pulled out, fearing that his narcotic dependency might prove debilitating in Japan. Replacing the drummer would be something of a problem for Dylan. Two other Guam veterans (guitarist Steve Soles and violinist Dave Mansfield) were engaged, and even though Dylan was using the nucleus of his Rolling Thunder line-up, it was clear that this was to be a far more professional undertaking. Billy Cross was flown in from Denmark to play lead guitar, Cross had played with Stoner before and in 1977 had released an album ("Topaz") with Stoner and Howie Wyeth. Two other professionals were added to boost the sound, saxophonist Steve Douglas who was a veteran of the Phil Spector wall of sound recordings and had played with artists as diverse as Bobby Darin and Aretha Franklin, and keyboard player Alan Pasqua who included a stint with Santana (among others) in his impressive resumé. Motown veteran session percussionist Bobbye Hall was added to the rapidly increasing line-up and she was handsomely compensated for any session work that she might miss out on. The problem of the empty drum stool appeared to have been solved with the addition of ex Wings drummer Denny Siewell who seemed to be more than capable, but a drugs arrest while touring Sweden with McCartney meant that he would not be allowed into Japan. Several replacements were auditioned, before ex King Crimson stickman Ian Wallace was selected, partly because of his pedigree and partly because time was running out. Animosity between Stoner and Wallace was evident from the start with Stoner being less than complimentary about Wallace's expertise (or lack thereof). Wallace would be the main reason for Stoner leaving the band after the Far Eastern leg of the tour and not playing on the "Street Legal" sessions or the rest of the tour gigs.
The other selection problem that faced Dylan, though probably a far more pleasurable one, was the choice of female back-up singers. Having decided on a "big-band" sound, female vocalists were an obvious requirement, and several were auditioned. One of those who nearly made the cut was an up and coming actress/singer by the name of Katey Sagal who would go on to find fame (and probably fortune) playing Peggy Bundy in the long running TV sitcom "Married...with Children." Having decided on his vocal backing, (Helena Springs, Jo Ann Harris and Debbie Dye) Dylan and his entourage flew to Japan in mid February 1978. Dylan was probably glad to be in front of an audience again, "I have to get back to playing music, because unless I do, I don't really feel alive...I have to play in front of people just to keep going." he told journalist Jonathan Cott in 1977, but he had another reason to be glad to be out of the country - "Renaldo and Clara" had opened in both New York and Los Angeles some three weeks earlier, and the reviews were not only bad but in many cases quite savage. Perhaps not surprisingly Dylan took this personally ("...they weren't about the movie, they were just an excuse to get at me" he said), and the opportunity to be on the other side of the planet was probably quite welcome.
The tour opened at Tokyo's Nippon Budokan Hall on February 20th before moving to Osaka for three dates and then back to Tokyo by the 28th for five more dates before flying to New Zealand. The look of the 1978 tour was very much 70's disco chic with plenty of satin, sequins and make-up - a far cry from the ramshackle cowboy/gypsy image of two years ago and not everyone was pleased with it. The girls complained that they looked like hookers, and Debbi Dye said that she felt stupid singing "Blowin' In The Wind" with her "...boobs hanging out." Stoner was remarkably more philosophical, "There's more than a little Wayne Newton in all of us." was his wry take on the garish costumes. Dylan himself seemed to revel in the radical change of image, commenting "I just got too depressed having to go on in my street clothes all the time." It was almost as if he was trying to live up to the description of "entertainer" that the tour booklet had hung around his neck. On the opening night in Tokyo, he performed twenty-eight songs in a set lasting nearly two and a half hours that leaned heavily on his sixties output. This was a requirement of the Japanese promoters who had sent a list of the songs they expected him to perform, turning him into what Stoner referred to as a "...human jukebox." Dylan seems to have had no problem with this, happily jumping through hoops in return for a huge payday. He was relaxed on stage, and as the tour progressed his introductions of his back-up singers became more and more bizarre, referring to each of them at different times as his girlfriend, fiancee, ex-wife, next wife etc., something that the Japanese audiences and media lapped up.
The album itself was recorded over two consecutive nights, February 28th and March 1st on the return to Tokyo from Osaka, and it is probably fair to say that it captures Dylan and his band as a work in progress. Paul Williams says it best, "I don't think it would be possible to put together a first-rate album from any of the early shows..." and the pity is that only a couple of months later Dylan was giving some of the best performances of his life. The first indication that all is not right comes with the opening track - "Mr. Tambourine Man" is speeded up and given orchestration that it neither wants nor needs. The background "oooh oooh's" don't help either. This is not necessarily a bad version of the song, but like most of the album's arrangements it seems to be change simply for the sake of it or to accommodate the extra personnel. It would be unfair for me to comment on this version of "Shelter From The Storm" because I like the original album version so much that nothing could really compare favourably. "Love Minus Zero" could have been really enjoyable were it not for Steve Douglas's irritating flute playing (this is a concern throughout), but "Ballad Of A Thin Man" works surprisingly well with the big-band arrangement. Even though the song loses most of the anger and spite that make it a classic, it changes into something entirely different - sometimes that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially considering that this is one of the best vocals on the album. Rearranging "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" into a pseudo reggae number was a brave move but perhaps not a wise one. This certainly needed more work, Dylan's vocal is hesitant and unsure and the harmonies are way off. "Maggie's Farm" is quite simply a disappointment. To me this is a fine song, but it has a tendency to suffer from overkill - there are many versions of it in Dylan's catalogue, but this one is probably the least essential
I always think that "Desire" is far more than just the sum of its parts. Consequently when songs like "One More Cup Of Coffee" are taken out of context they seem to loose something, but that said I really like this version, at least until the saxophone takes over. On the whole though this works, Dylan seems sure of himself and everybody seems to be working towards the same goal. "Like A Rolling Stone" is just ragged enough around the edges to give it a spontaneity that is lacking in much of the album. This is one song that really works, and the vocal is not a million miles from the way that Dylan would be performing it three years later on his next major world tour. Far more polished and professional is "I Shall Be Released." The song has a gospel feel to it, and Dylan really nails the vocal. The female chorus is right on the money and the dramatic vocal pause before the title line is perfect. Another plus is that for once Steve Douglas doesn't think he's the star of the show. "Here's an unrecorded song. See if you can guess which one it is." jokes Dylan before "Love In Vain," a song that he had debuted the previous evening. I know that I am one of a tiny minority of people that think "Street Legal" is an underrated classic so all I shall say about this is that it is almost identical to the (soon to be recorded) album version.
Change simply for the sake of it seems to be the order of the day on "Going, Going, Gone" never a strong song to begin with. Musically it's a mess, the vocal is all over the place and if there was a reason to rewrite the lyrics then it escapes me completely. The thoughtful and understated "Blowin' In The Wind" is one of half a dozen that Michael Gray calls "...dramatic" and it would be hard to argue with him. It was probably one of very few that was recognised by the intro, and gets a well deserved round of applause. In much the same style is "Just like A Woman," one of the finest love songs from Dylan's mid-sixties period. This is another song that he has performed countless times, but here he takes it right back to its roots and it is without doubt one of the album's highlights. Not so "Oh, Sister" which unlike its "Desire" stablemate is quite simply awful. Vastly different from the way it was being performed two years previously, this is one of the album's real bombs. By way of contrast, I don't think there is a version of "Simple Twist Of Fate" that I do not like. It is a strong song (there is not a weak one on "Blood On The Tracks") and somehow Dylan manages to imbue it with a freshness every time he performs it. This version is no different, Dylan introduces it with the cryptic "Here's a simple love story. Happened to me." It is superb. "All Along The Watchtower" falls somewhere between Dylan's original and Jimi Hendrix's other end of the spectrum version. This is one that I just have never been able to make my mind up about. "I Want You" may not be the worst arrangement on the album, but it is certainly the strangest, both vocally and musically. It has a bizarre quality to it that forces you to listen and then wonder why you did. "All I Really Want To Do" is turned into a bar room stomp a la "Rainy Day Women" complete with honky tonk piano - not one of the album's finest moments. "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" is another song that seems to work well whatever treatment Dylan gives it, and here is no exception - this is a classic, and quality will always show itself.
The last three tracks come from the closing of the 28th February set, which is strange because the following night seems to have been the stronger (fifteen of the twenty-two tracks come from the second night). The first of these is the classic "It's Alright Ma, (I'm Only Bleeding)" possibly the best title that Dylan has ever written. Unfortunately, the song with its acoustic pedigree never sounds right when given a powerful backing, the music detracts from the lyrics which are without doubt some of the best that Dylan has ever written. That, coupled with his tendency to shout in order to be heard make this one of my least favourite versions of this song, not that that takes anything away from the song itself. He follows it with another classic, a version of "Forever Young" that is pretty faithful to the slow version on the "Planet Waves," album before leaving the stage and returning for the obligatory encore. The sets were fairly rigid for this tour (something quite unusual for Dylan) with all eleven Japanese concerts ending with the same three songs. The third of these (invariably the encore) was "The Times They Are A-Changin'," which Dylan introduces with the slightly cringeworthy "Thank you, you’re so very kind! You really are. We’ll play you this song. I wrote this song also about fifteen years ago. It still means a lot to me. I know it means a lot to you too." The problem here is that this song is very much of the time that it was written, and although it obviously does mean a lot to Dylan (it features in live concerts right up to the present day), the sentiments don't really extend beyond the mid sixties. Sadly, the song is dated, and was even then. Dylan's attempt to revitalise it with a backing chorus and Steve Douglas's ubiquitous saxophone simply don't do the trick and the album ends on a rather unsatisfactory note.
"Live At Budokan" is nowhere near as bad as most of its critics would imply, "Dylan sounds like a nightmarish cabaret letch while the new arrangements struggle under sterile production and some bizarrely emphatic flute playing." said Mojo before softening the blow with "It doesn't even begin to hint at the brilliance that was to come." While Tim Riley in Hard Rain commented that "...Dylan's mix - 'n' - match arrangements seemed as out of touch as his sequins." Rolling Stone was slightly kinder "But this time the old songs have been recast sweetly, without that self-defeating aggression, in what sounds suspiciously like a spirit of fun.." Later adding "Bob Dylan at Budokan is a very contentious effort -- and, for the most part, a victorious one." But still only awarded it one star. The point was that the album was originally only intended for Japanese release ("Masterpieces" had been released before the tour with a similar idea in mind), but it would be naive of anybody to think that that would be the case. So it is perhaps unfair to be overly critical of something that was never meant for worldwide consumption in the first place. Dylan of course went from strength to strength in 1978. After Japan he performed one concert in New Zealand and eleven in Australia before returning to the States (and Rundown) where "Street Legal" was recorded at the end of April. He then did seven warm-up shows in Los Angeles before embarking on an enthusiastically received tour of the UK and Europe. The second half of 1978 was spent touring North America and it was towards the end of this period that he had the epiphany that led to his embracement of Christianity. By the time this massive world tour ended in mid December, Dylan had played one hundred and fourteen dates and been seen by nearly two million people, he had reinvented himself and set a standard for concert excellence that would continue through and well beyond his "religious" phase. Shame then that the only official record we have of this rich period is this quirky and largely experimental album. Some years later Dylan would defend "Live At Budokan," saying, "They twisted my arm to do a live album for Japan. It was the same band I used on Street Legal, and we had just started findin' our way into things on that tour when they recorded it. I never meant for it to be any type of representation of my stuff or my band or my live show."