It’s easy to overlook the enormity of the fact that Bob Dylan has been making music for five whole decades now; on March 19, 1962, Bob Dylan released his self-titled debut album. It consisted mostly of covers and original arrangements of traditional folk songs, including a rather awesome take on “In My Time of Dying,” which Led Zeppelin would popularize to a much larger degree years later. Bob Dylan is certainly an interesting work and an essential listen for any Dylan fan (it’s an honorable mention), but he would not fully blossom until his sophomore effort, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released in 1963. Freewheelin’ begins with the classic “Blowin’ in the Wind” and also contains my favorite Dylan song, “Masters of War.” It’s another honorable mention.
After a couple more acclaimed albums, The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan, were both released in 1964, he went electric on the first half of Bringing It All Back Home in 1965, which is my second favorite Bob Dylan album and another honorable mention. The presence of the electric guitar on the first side of Bringing It All Back Home (it’s divided into an electric side and an acoustic side) foreshadowed what was to come on Highway 61 Revisited, a career-defining, full-blown rock opus. Unquestionably Dylan’s best and most dynamic work, Highway 61 Revisited is Dylan at the peak of his powers. It’s one of the greatest albums ever, recorded and released as rock came into its own. Rock & roll had been around, of course, ever since Elvis strolled into Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee on July 5, 1954 and invented it on “That’s All Right.”
And while it’s important to keep in mind that music is a continually evolving art form, “That’s All Right” is considered to be the breakthrough for rock & roll. The elements of rock had existed previously, but no one had synthesized them into this particular form before. The Beatles and their British Invasion brethren then shaped it into the more modern form we can recognize today. Yet there is no denying that the Beatles’ early work is simpler, shallower and less interesting than their later material. The Beatles met Bob Dylan prior to recording Rubber Soul, who flatly told them that they said nothing with their songs, and Rubber Soul (released at the end of 1965) was much more lyrically nuanced as a result. 1965 was just a huge year, a turning point in rock & roll, if for no other reason than that Dylan expanded his sound to beyond acoustic guitar and harmonica, and rockers started incorporating more serious lyrical themes.
It was the year when songwriting really began to develop rapidly, as music and lyrics met halfway for the first time. The Rolling Stones’ classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” now considered one of the greatest songs ever, was released in June of 1965 in the United States. On July 25, Dylan played an electric set in an infamous incident at the Newport Folk Festival, where he was booed by a crowd expecting an acoustic set. At the end of that summer, on August 30, Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited, an absolutely essential album in the rock & roll canon. Every song is first-rate, from the opener (“Like a Rolling Stone,” one of the greatest songs ever) to the closer (the acoustic, 11-minute “Desolation Row”) and everything in between (my favorite is “Ballad of a Thin Man”).
Highway 61 Revisited gave rock the form it would have throughout the rest of the ’60s. In fact, it’s hard to pinpoint for sure when another album ever overhauled popular music that way ever again. After Highway 61 Revisited, there would be plenty of highly influential albums, but they would only influence a portion of popular music. Highway 61 Revisited changed everything, and that’s something that simply hasn’t happened since.