How Bob Dylan Invented the Box Set With ‘Biograph’
Bob Dylan’s career has been punctuated with the innovations for which he’s been given credit. That extends to his retrospectives, as well. Released on Oct. 28, 1985, Biograph is widely considered to be the first modern box set.
Prior to Biograph, an artist’s history was usually told through their greatest hits, either a single- or double-album, with a few new songs to entice completists (Neil Young's three-record Decade was an exception). And they were often made to fulfill a contractual obligation.
But Biograph chronicled the first 20 years of Dylan’s recorded output in 53 songs spread across five LPs (or three cassettes or CDs). While it didn’t skimp on his hits and most important compositions -- and also spotlighted some deeper cuts -- the dangling carrot for Dylan fans were 18 previously unreleased tracks.
This includes two songs from the shrouded-in-legend New York sessions for Blood on the Tracks (a different version of “You’re a Big Girl Now” and the stellar “Up to Me”), three from the tumultuous 1966 world tour and a Basement Tapes-era version of “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn).” Two others, “Mixed-Up Confusion” and “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?,” were non-LP singles that had been forgotten by all but the most ardent Dylan fans.
Despite being famously reluctant to talk about his music or his personal life, the liner notes featured Dylan's track-by-track recollections and an extensive essay by Cameron Crowe featuring and interview with the singer-songwriter.
The only downside to Biograph was its sequencing. Where nearly every box set that followed would present its material either chronologically or thematically, Biograph took a haphazard approach. There’s no rhyme or reason to the track-listing order, which shows that even when Dylan is being open about his work, he still finds a way to confound us.
Biograph's success sent the record companies scrambling to rethink about how they could repackage a classic artist's career. Eric Clapton's Crossroads in 1988 raised the bar by bringing together key moments from all of his bands from his first 25 years, and Dylan himself would take the vault-cleaning concept one step further with the first set of his Bootleg Series in 1991.
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