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40 Years Ago: Bob Dylan Releases ‘Planet Waves’

“The crystal ball up on the wall / Hasn’t shown me nothing yet / I’ve paid the price of solitude / But at least I’m out of debt.”

The early ’70s were a bit of a bumpy time for Bob Dylan fans, with rock’s reigning poet laureate in the middle of an extended hiatus that kept him off the new-releases rack at record stores for the better part of three years. When he returned with his 14th studio LP, ‘Planet Waves,’ on Jan. 17, 1974, it served as his first proper solo album since 1970′s ‘New Morning,’ with only the soundtrack to 1973′s ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ and the vault-purging hodgepodge ‘Dylan’ standing in between.

Surprisingly, given Dylan’s reputation for rarely doing the same thing twice, he opted to record ‘Planet Waves’ with the Band, the combo he’d previously used for his 1965-66 tour, and who’d since gone on to become a hit recording act in their own right. With Dylan and Band guitarist Robbie Robertson now Malibu neighbors, the time seemed right to renew a partnership that everyone agreed still had unfinished business.

There was so much unfinished business, in fact, that the ‘Planet Waves’ sessions went hand-in-hand with plans for a tour — Dylan’s first since that original jaunt with the Band, which included some infamously hostile responses from audiences who resented his shift away from the acoustic sound that made him famous. Coupled with Dylan’s expensive new contract with Asylum Records, it represented a marked return to high-profile work after months in carefully imposed exile.

For Robertson, it was as simple as picking up where they left off. “We know the technique very well,” he told Melody Maker. “We’ve been playing with Bob for years. There’s no surprises involved. We did it and it was over before we knew it. We were preoccupied with the tour, and the album really took a backseat.”

While Robertson’s quote makes it seem as though ‘Planet Waves’ was an afterthought, the sessions ultimately produced some of the most bracing and memorable work Dylan had produced in years — including the dark ‘Dirge,’ quoted above, and ‘Forever Young,’ which Dylan famously struggled with throughout the recording process and ended up including twice on the finished LP. Asylum responded with an appropriately aggressive marketing campaign, rewarding Dylan’s creative resurgence by helping send ‘Planet Waves’ to the top of the charts and giving him his first No. 1 album.

The tour was also a major success, playing to crowded houses throughout its 40-date run in early ’74 and spawning a hit album in its own right, the live ‘Before the Flood’ LP, later in the year. Regarding the tour, Robertson laughed that it was one of three he’d enjoyed to that point in his career. “Ten years ago we were just some musicians working with Bob Dylan,” he explained. “This time we were more than a backing band. Then the people came to the concerts with their minds made up and booed us. At least on the ’74 tour we didn’t get any bottles thrown at us.”

The creative floodgates reopened, Dylan spent the remainder of the decade working at a fairly torrid pace, and although ‘Planet Waves’ would soon be somewhat overshadowed by 1975′s classic ‘Blood on the Tracks,’ it served as a fitting tribute to his incredible chemistry with the Band, and it remains one of the more musically satisfying collections he’d release during an occasionally bumpy period. For Dylan, of course, it was just another record — or at least, that’s the way he made it seem during the few occasions when he decided to talk to the press.

“If there was something else out there to really give you a kick, I would have thought differently about doing this,” he shrugged to Circus during the tour. “What I want to hear I can’t hear, so I have to make it myself.”

Next: Top 10 Bob Dylan Songs

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