Music · Technology

Album of the week: #6 “Shadows in the Night” (Bob Dylan), not “The Black Album” (Jay-Z)

Last week’s Album of the week was “The Wheat Album” by The Rutles. It prompted memories of “The White Album”, as the Beatles’ self-titled 1968 release is usually called. I planned to make Jay-Z’s similarly-named 2003 release “The Black Album” my latest Album of the week, having bought a copy from a local charity shop recently. I had checked that the CD was inside the case, but not thoroughly enough. The disk is a Maxell CD-R 80 XL on which someone has written “Reflections Eternal”. It’s not the original disk. I haven’t played it to check what is on it and felt rather foolish at not looking closely enough before buying it.

So, last Wednesday evening, I chose something else, a CD that I had bought when it was released but had only played once or twice: “Shadows in the Night” by Bob Dylan. I was prompted to buy it after hearing the odd track on Radio 2, when it was their Album of the week. I am surprised to find that this happened over five years ago, in the week beginning Monday 26 January 2015. “What’ll I do”, an Irving Berlin composition, was the song that leapt out at me, partly because it had been the theme tune to a UK TV show, and I couldn’t remember which one. It was “Birds of a Feather”, a sitcom starring Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson that was first broadcast in the late 1980s and which introduced me and many other viewers to the actress Lesley Joseph.

All 10 tracks on “Shadows in the Night” are covers of songs recorded by Frank Sinatra in the 1950s and 60s. Only four of them were familiar to me: “What’ll I do”, “Autumn leaves”, “Some enchanted evening” and “That lucky old sun”, which I knew from the Johnny Cash version on one of his last albums (“American III: Solitary Man”). These compositions form part of what is generally called “The Great American Songbook”. My knowledge of it is patchy but was improved by hearing a series of radio shows by “Songbook Ambassador” Michael Feinstein some years ago.

Back in 2014 I was working on a project at a place that is at the heart of the music business here in London. One of my colleagues had recorded 33 of Feinstein’s shows onto audio cassettes when they were originally broadcast on BBC Radio 2. As far as I could tell, that was a year or two either side of the year 2000. She lent me the cassettes and I set about making digital copies of their contents. My technical skills, and the technology I had access to, were just about sufficient to achieve this. You might be able to do it more efficiently, but my method used the following steps. I recorded each show onto Mini Disc from a cassette Walkman, in real time, using a 3mm lead. I then used my Archos 705 Mobile DVR (a 7” tablet that I bought in 2009), with its docking station, to create WAV files from each Mini Disc recording (again, in real time). These WAV files can be played on most devices. I have never bothered to convert them into MP3 files. All of the equipment mentioned here is still in good working order, but the battery life on the Archos 705 has diminished. It only offers about 10 minutes’ worth of viewing before it needs to be recharged.

I appreciate that admitting to making digital copies of BBC recordings may be unwise, legally speaking, but I have not sought to make any profit from them or distributed them in any way. If the BBC, or Feinstein himself, were to offer the shows as paid downloads, or as Podcasts, I would happily access them that way. If, however, the original recordings have been lost, by the BBC and by Feinstein, those WAV files that I created in 2014 might be the only copies available. I see myself essentially as an archivist here.

The world of illicit recordings, or Bootlegs, is one that Bob Dylan has dealt with very successfully over the years. He has released numerous volumes of Bootlegs since the first boxset nearly 30 years ago [“The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991], making them more easily available to his fans, and enabling him and his record company to profit from them. By all accounts Peter Grant, manager of Led Zeppelin, had a different way of dealing with unofficial recordings in the band’s heyday. This typically involved the destruction of all tapes and recording equipment and physical punishment meted out to anyone caught in possession of either. Allegedly.

“Shadows in the night” has been a pleasant enough accompaniment for the last seven days. I have shaken my head and smiled a lot at it, contemplating the reaction it would get from friends and family who are definitely not Bob Dylan fans. I alluded to them here, when Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. For anyone who has struggled to come to terms with Dylan’s voice and delivery this album might be a real stretch. For those of us who regard him as the greatest songwriter of our lifetimes it’s another story. But before I listen to these recordings again I’ll need to hear him sing some of his own songs. Let’s see, “She’s your lover now”, Track 12, Disk 2 from that first Bootleg boxset. That’s always a good place to start. I can’t find an easily accessible version online though. You’ll have to buy it or download it for yourself.



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