Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” one of the young folk bard’s first “electric” numbers, was recorded on January 14, 1965. The personnel at the session were Dylan on acoustic guitar, harmonica and lead vocals; Al Gorgoni, Kenny Rankin and Bruce Langhorne on guitars; Joseph Macho Jr. and William E. Lee on bass; and Bobby Gregg on drums. (I guess it would have taken that many musicians to achieve such a perfectly ramshackle sound.)
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” was put out as a single by Columbia Records on March 8, 1965 two weeks before the song would appear on the Bringing It All Back Home album. It was Bob Dylan’s first top 40 hit, although it only made it to #39.
In part “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is an homage to the Beats with Jack Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans referenced in the title. There’s also an echo of the Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger song “Taking It Easy” (“Mom was in the kitchen preparing to eat/Sis was in the pantry looking for some yeast”). Dylan would later say the number was influenced by Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” and scat songs from the 1940s.
John Lennon was reportedly so in love with the song’s surrealistic wordplay that he told friends he didn’t know how he’d ever be able to write something better (high praise indeed) and Rolling Stone magazine listed “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” as the 332nd “Greatest Song of All Time” (whatever that’s worth.) An acoustic version of the song, recorded the day before the single, was later released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.
D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back includes what is now seen as one of the earliest examples of a music video—it was intended to be a Scopitone—the famous one-take cue-cards “performance” of the song. The iconic and much-imitated sequence provides the energetic opening of the classic documentary on Dylan’s 1965 tour of England and it also served as the “coming attraction” trailer before the film was released.
Pennebaker and Neuwirth discuss the shoot.
The cue cards were Dylan’s idea and the handwriting on the cards are that of Donovan, Joan Baez, Bob Neuwirth and Dylan himself. Neuwirth and poet Allen Ginsberg—who would both later take part in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue—are seen in the clip, which was shot behind the Savoy Hotel in London. There were two alternate versions shot at the nearby Embankment Gardens and on the hotel’s roof, where the trio was joined by Dylan, Zappa and Velvet Underground producer Tom Wilson (bits from these additional takes were seen in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home doc).
In 1994, The Day Today claimed that Dylan’s song plagiarized a song written by WWII-era ukulele player George Formby. The BBC program aired a clip of what was claimed to be the newly discovered original, showing Formby performing to British troops in newsreel footage:
Thank you Whiz Kid of Los Angeles, CA!