Cover albums are a dime a dozen these days, often providing an artist an excuse to fulfill an album contract or a break between studio albums when he or she runs dry of ideas. But for solo artist and Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry, his career has long been a balancing act between unique originals and clever interpretations of other people’s songs. When the elegant crooner tackles something like Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” subverts its angry intensity and twists it into a call of seduction, you get a song that is quirkier and often far removed from the original. So it should be no surprise that Ferry’s latest effort, the 11-song Dylanesque, transforms a collection of classic Bob Dylan songs into a new animal.
In the past, Ferry has taken on many different tunes and has done so purely from instinct. “They’re just songs you have a feeling for,” he muses. “When you hear them, you just like them, and as years go by you still like them. With the Dylan songs, it’s such a huge catalog of good work, especially those songs in the ’60s when they were blatantly poetic.”
What is most unusual is that the songs Ferry chose to cover share an overtly political tone that is usually absent from his own work. “A few of the songs were inspired by the Vietnam War, but I think they still apply if you look at them in a more general sense,” Ferry observes. “They still seem appropriate today, so I don’t think they necessarily have to be sung with what inspired them in mind.”
“I’ve been reading some of the customer reviews on iTunes and Amazon,” notes Dylanesque co-producer Rhett Davies, who has worked with Ferry and Roxy Music on several albums. “A lot of people said they’ve always liked the Dylan songs, but have never been a big fan of his voice. But to hear Bryan doing the songs brings them to life for them.”
“All Along the Watchtower,” the most charged track that the crooner has done in ages, lies halfway between Dylan’s original and Jimi Hendrix’s rocked-out interpretation, particularly at its guitar-driven coda. And “All I Really Want to Do” owes a little to The Byrds’ version. Unlike Dylan’s work, however, there are no solo acoustic tracks or beefy organ sounds on these renditions.
The inspiration for Dylanesque was simple. Ferry and Davies were bogged down by production on the new Roxy Music album (the band’s first in 25 years) and they decided to take a holiday and perhaps give the singer some inspiration to conjure new lyrics. “We did have some Dylan songs on the back burner from the Frantic [Ferry’s most recent solo album] recordings, which we’d been looking at, thinking that one of these days we should do a complete Dylan album,” recalls Davies. “So we put the band together and cut 15 songs in three days, which was pretty phenomenal. By the end of that week, we’d done most of the overdubs and put the backing vocals on. Then we started working on the album in earnest. We got to Bryan’s studio and started working on lead vocals. Virtually all the vocals are the live vocals from those three days of recording. It sounds just incredible. Once the band got the feel, Bryan got the tracks.”
“We did it very fast,” confirms Ferry. “Over the next few weeks, we did some finishing touches to it with string quartets and things like that, but there was really no fuss. It was the easiest album I remember making apart from the first [solo] one [the 1973 These Foolish Things], which was also done in the same spirit.”
Preparations for the album were simple. Ferry selected songs he liked with Davies, then sat down with Colin Good, who worked on Frantic, and worked out the best keys for Ferry to sing the songs. “If I could play a bit of keyboard, I would work out which tempo was best and maybe the feel,” says Ferry. “Colin is such a brilliant piano player that he did the piano on the album. We just did everything live, which meant that I could lead from the microphone rather than the mixing desk. It was really refreshing. It was just like being onstage playing live.”
The band included guitarists Chris Spedding, David Williams and Oliver Thompson; atmospheric guitarist Leo Abrahams; bassist Guy Pratt; organist Paul Carrack; drummer Andy Newmark; and pianist Colin Good. Abrahams and Spedding played the rhythm tracks live, while Williams and teenage axeman Thompson (who solos on “Watchtower”) added their parts during overdubs.
Dylanesque was primarily tracked at the Town House Studios (London) using Pro Tools HD2 through an SSL E Series 56-channel console. Ferry’s vocals were miked with a Neumann U47 through an API 3124 mic preamp with UREI 1176 compression. For the seven different female backup singers, it was a Neumann U87 through a Neve 1073 mic pre and the 1176. Electric guitars were recorded with Shure 57s, Sennheiser 421s and FET 47s. The bass was DI’d through a Gas Cooker with a Neve 1073 mic pre and UREI 1176 compression. Piano was cut via a B&K 4011 pair, Neve 1073 and API 550A EQ. The Hammond B3 and Leslie cabinet were captured with two Sennheiser 421s and a FET 47. Other textural elements included a Kurzweil and Spectrasonics’ Atmosphere.
Drums took a selection of Neumann, AKG, Shure and Sennheiser models, with outboard comprising 1073s, SSL and API pre’s, and a Distressor for compression. Strings, keyboards and effects were overdubbed in Ferry’s Studio One using a number of mics, including a FET 47, two Sennheiser 451s, a Neumann U87 and a B&K 4011 pair for the room. Farfisa and Wurlitzer were DI’d and augmented with an Avalon U5. Effects included the Korg Kaoss Pad and Roland Chorus Echo 301. Ferry played most of the Farfisa and Vox Continental; Good most of the Wurlitzer parts and string pads; and Carrack all the Hammond and most of the atmospheric pads. Other parts for the album were recorded at RAK Studios in London with engineer Neil Broadbank and 4th Street Recording in Santa Monica, Calif., with engineer Chris Mullings.
“Each song was tracked over about 22 tracks,” reports engineer Tim Roe, who worked on the Town House and Studio One sessions. “With overdubbing, this figure would be raised to between 24 and 50. The exceptions to this would be the acoustic track/ballads, which usually took up significantly fewer tracks at the tracking stage, but many have been overdubbed to include about 24 tracks.”
Perhaps the most interesting track in terms of construction was “All Along the Watchtower,” which began in a demo stage approximately seven years ago with Ferry on vocals and keyboards and Robin Trower on acoustic guitar. “We started working on it and weren’t sure of where it was going,” Davies recalls of the original “Watchtower” demo. “We were really scared of doing that track, for obvious reasons. We were working on that song before we cut the tracks last year [for Dylanesque], and Leo Abrahams came in and came up with a really good guitar part, which is the main guitar part in the instrumental sections. Then Oliver Thompson came in and did the lead guitar on there. The original acoustic guitar on the backing track is Robin Trower. Once we finished the track and mixed it, we still couldn’t decide whether or not to put it on the record. We actually had two other songs on the record that we took off in the end because everybody who heard ‘Watchtower’ thought it was great.”
Former Roxy Music member and U2 producer Brian Eno added some of his patented treatments to “If Not For You,” but in general, Ferry and Davies did not want to use a lot of processing. Of course, Bob Clearmountain used “his box of tricks,” as Davies call it, to tweak the final mixes, which took place over the course of a week at Clearmountain’s Mix This! facility in Los Angeles.
“We had to mix it in two stages because we were waiting to work with David Williams on the record,” Davies says. “Bryan really wanted to add him as the final guitar part on the record. There was a holdup in getting that together, and Clearmountain only had one window to mix the record, so we were still stuck in London and Bob was mixing in L.A. We would download the mixes every evening and make comments. The final process was Bryan and I flying out to L.A. and recording all the mixes quickly and making the final adjustments.” The album was mastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine.
Ferry says he works so well with Davies “because he’s very calm. I think he has a very good karma about him. I tend to be the turbulent one, and he’s very steady. I find him very comfortable to work with.” Davies acknowledges that Ferry can be challenging to work with, but he knows what he’s doing. “I’m his straight man,” remarks the producer. “He knows that if he can get it past me, then it’s going to work. And he knows I can deliver it for him.”
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