Bob Dylan

Subterranean Homesick Blues

Song Review by

It seems fair to say that, when it was released in March 1965, Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was totally unexpected by most people, that it sounded like nothing anybody had ever heard before, and that it utterly transformed Bob Dylan's career and the history of popular music along with it. In retrospect, the song's appearance was a little easier to understand. Dylan had been an early rock & roll fan in high school, and even after he released his folky first album, Bob Dylan, in March 1962, he had gone back into the studio and recorded a rock & roll single, "Mixed Up Confusion," that fall. But the record was a flop, and in 1963 Dylan became the leading figure in the folk revival, writing socially conscious anthems like "Blowin' in the Wind." As of his fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, released in August 1964, he was becoming less interested in political material and more interested in songs with poetic, allusive imagery, but he was still playing them on an acoustic guitar or piano and his ever-present harmonica. In January 1965, however, Dylan went into the studio with a five-piece electric band -- two guitars, piano, bass, and drums -- the same instrumentation he had used on "Mixed Up Confusion" a little more than two years earlier -- and cut some more rock & roll. The first product of this effort was "Subterranean Homesick Blues," released as a single and as the leadoff track of the album Bringing It All Back Home. In four lengthy verses, with no real chorus (though the line "Look out, kid" appeared in the second part of every verse) and no mention of the title, Dylan delved into a free association of rhymes and catch phrases. The song contained depictions of a variety of characters including Johnny, "the man in the trench coat," "the man in the coon-skin cap in the big pen," Maggie, "girl by the whirlpool," and others, and, in the second parts of each verse, various pieces of cautionary advice for the kid, including everything from "Don't try No Doz" to "try to avoid the scandals." It wasn't a protest song in the way that some of Dylan's earlier songs had been, but the lyrics clearly expressed social discontent, with lines like "Twenty years of schoolin'/And they put you on the day shift." Dylan spat out the words in a staccato rhythm while the band rollicked along in a ramshackle manner. The whole thing was oddly exhilarating, but "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was easily the strangest single Columbia Records had ever released. It was also a hit, at least a modest one, peaking just inside the Top 40, Dylan's first single to reach the charts. The artist actually filmed a promotional video for the song, more than 16 years before the advent of MTV. In its single shot, he was seen standing in an alley holding large cards containing the hand-printed lyrics, which he discarded as the song went on. Poet Allen Ginsberg could be seen in the background. (The video first got general exposure in 1967 when it was used as part of the film Don't Look Back.) With the push of a hit single, Bringing It All Back Home became Dylan's first Top Ten album; two years later it would become one of his first LPs to go gold. This commercial success introduced the style of folk-rock, which became massively popular in 1965, as the likes of the Byrds, Cher, and the Turtles scored hits with Dylan songs, Dylan himself had more hits, and many other people copied the style. Dylan had combined the lyrical quality of folk music with the kinetic power of rock & roll, and things were never the same after that. Beyond the music business, the song's air of iconoclasm and paranoia turned out to be an accurate forecast of the rest of the 1960s. Its references to undercover law enforcement ("The phone' s tapped anyway," "Watch the plain clothes") were only too relevant to political activists, who were inspired by lines like "Don't follow leaders" and, particularly, "You don't need a weather man/To know which way the wind blows," which inspired a radical offshoot of the SDS to call itself the Weathermen. There have been only a handful of covers of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" over the years, among them a version by Nilsson on his 1974 Pussy Cats album and one by Red Hot Chili Peppers on their The Uplift Mofo Party Plan album in 1987. But the song remains a striking example of Dylan's work, which has turned out to be enormously influential.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Bringing It All Back Home 1965 Columbia / Legacy 2:21
Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits 1967 Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 2:22
Don't Look Back 1967 Docurama
Biograph 1985 Columbia 2:20
The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 1991 Columbia / Sony Music Distribution 2:56
Masterpieces 1998 Columbia 2:16
Hear It Now! The Sound of the '60s 1999
Various Artists
Legacy / Columbia 2:20
Rock: Train Kept a Rollin' 1999
Various Artists
Sony Music Distribution 2:20
Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century 1999
Various Artists
Sony Music Distribution 2:20
The Essential Bob Dylan 2000 Columbia 2:20
The Best of Bob Dylan, Vol. 2 2000 Columbia 2:19
No Image 2000 Sony Music Distribution 2:18
No Image 2001 Sony Music Distribution 2:24
Bringing It All Back Home/Highway 61 Revisited/Blonde on Blonde 2002 Sony Music Distribution
Bob Dylan [Limited Edition Hybrid SACD Set] 2003 Legacy 2:21
Greatest Hits, Vol. 1-3 2003 Legacy / Columbia 2:22
Dylan 2007 Legacy 2:19
The Collection: Another Side of Bob Dylan/Bringing It All Back Home/Highway 61 Revisited 2009 Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 2:21
Haynes Ultimate Guide to Rock: Dad 2010
Various Artists
Sony Music Entertainment 2:19
The Best of the Original Mono Recordings 2010 Columbia / Legacy 2:17
The Original Mono Recordings 2010 Columbia / Sony Music 2:19
Music & Photos 2013 Columbia 2:19
The Complete Album Collection, Vol. 1 2013 Columbia Records / Sony Music 2:18
Forevers Hits Universal Distribution
Get Together: The Colourful Sound of the Sixties
Various Artists
Sony Music