Back in 1978, Bob Dylan was abut to release Street Legal, his eighteenth album. When Street Legal was released in June 1978 it was a very different sounding album to anything he’d previously released. So much so, that it would divide the opinions of critics and fans. Unlike previous albums, he decided to record the album with a huge pop and rock band backing him. Supplementing the sound, would be female backing vocalists. 

Before he could record the album rehearsals would take place for a tour of Japan and Australia. So he set about putting together a band. Joining his band were Steven Soles, David Mansfield, Rob Stoner and Howie Wyeth, all former members of the Rolling Thunder Revue. Pianist Walter Davis Jr and percussionist Otis Smith completed the line-up. However, suddenly one member decided to leave the band. Drummer Howie Wyeth decided to leave, he’d been struggling with heroin addiction and decided not to go on tour. Auditions were held for a new drummer. Many tried out, but it was Denny Seiwell, who played with Wings briefly, who got the job. Now the band was complete, they’d head to rehearsals of Street Legal which was recently released by CBS on Blu Ray.

However, when the rehearsals began on December 30th 1977, guitarist Jessie Ed Davis was now part of the band. The backing vocalists were Katey Sagal, Franny Eisenberg and Debbie Dye Gibson. However, the line up would continue to change. In mid-January 1978, Sagal and Eisenberg were replaced by Jo Ann Harris, a professional singer and Helena Springs who was an unknown novice singer. That wasn’t the end of the changes though. Drummer Denny Seiwell and the rest of Wings were caught in possession of drugs in Sweden. When he applied for a visa for the forthcoming concerts Japan, he was denied a visa. This meant Seiwell was out, and a new drummer required. After further auditions, Ian Wallace, former King Crimson drummer got the job. By now the line up that would tour and record Street Legal was almost complete. Guitarist Billy Cross joined the line-up, as did percussionist Bobbye Hall, saxophonist Steve Douglas and keyboard player Alan Pasqua. This would be the line up that headed to Japan on tour.

When the band played in both Japan and Australia, critics and fans loved the new arrangements of Dylan’s old material. Later, a recording entitled Bob Dylan Live At Budokan would be released of the concert. During the tour, some of the band weren’t happy with the sound. This included Rob Stoner, who at the end of the tour in Australia, quit the band. This meant a new bass player was needed to record the album. Jerry Scheff replaced Stoner, and now Dylan and the band would start to record Street Legal.

Street Legal was recorded in Santa Monica, California at a recording studio and rehearsal space he called Rundown. Dylan had hired a mobile recording studio to record the sessions. It only took four days to record the nine songs Bob had written for Street Legal. Because of the short time scale, everything was rushed. Getting equipment into place was done quickly, and there very few takes of each song recorded. Don DeVito the producer knew that Bob Dylan had a tight schedule, and just had to make the best of what he had. 

When Street Legal was released, to say that critics in America disliked the album, is an understatement. However, in the UK, critics took a different view. They really liked the album and gave it positive reviews. Commercially, it reached only number eleven in the US, but reached number two in the UK album charts. In the UK, it became his biggest selling studio album. Having told you about the background to Street Legal, I’ll tell you what kind of album it is, and who were right, the American or UK music critics. 

Street Legal opens with Changing of the Guards. Straight away, the new sound is apparent. The rhythm section, guitar and keyboards accompanying Bob. As he sings the deeply literate lyrics which have religious themes, it’s like call and response between him and the backing vocalists. Their joyous voices are the perfect accompaniment for his voice. Quickly, the arrangement grows. His band play brilliantly their sound big, bold and really tight. This sound includes guitars, rhythm section, keyboards and is augmented by a saxophone, which drenches the arrangement. One member of the band who deserves credit is drummer Ian Wallace. Throughout the track his playing is perfect. To quote Rob Stoner he has “a beat like a cop.” What makes the track is the arrangement. It features Bob and a really tight band and the additional of the backing vocalists was a masterstroke. Without them, this wouldn’t be as good a track. Quite simply, this is the perfect way to start Street Legal.

It’s a combination of electric guitar and drums played really slowly the opens New Pony. The atmosphere is moody, even before Bob sings. When he does, his voice is loud and slow. Again, he’s accompanied by backing singers. Slowly, the arrangement builds, but mostly, it’s just really slow, soaring guitars and plodding drums. It’s a powerful sound, and here, Bob sometimes is almost snarling the lyrics.   Here the lyrics reference religion, with references to Lucifer, praying, ghosts and voodoo. Religion is a theme that’s a constant throughout the album, as are apocalyptic themes. Later in the track, saxophones blow, further increasing an impressive and powerful track, New Pony is very different in style to the opening track it’s just as good.

Like New Pony, No Time To Think is a slower song, one featuring lyrics which have apocalyptic themes. They portray images of society unravelling, lawlessness all around. Here, it seems Dylan was far from optimistic about the direction society was heading. An epic song begins with drums and saxophone combining, before Bob sings. Straight away, the same powerful delivery as on New Pony is present. Again, the backing singers accompany him, their voices a welcome addition. Here, Bob sings the song with passion, while behind him piano, saxophone, guitars and rhythm section play. They’re playing with the same passion as Bob, producing a fantastic rocky track, with tinges of gospel, courtesy of the backing vocalist. Alan Pasqua’s keyboard playing especially is outstanding here. Quite simply, a combination of strong, intelligent lyrics, and a great performance from Bob and his band, results in an outstanding track.

Probably the best known track on Street Legal Is Baby, Stop Crying, a track he played brilliantly the night I saw him live. From the opening dramatic bars, it’s apparent that something special is unfolding. The combination of booming drums, chiming guitars and keyboards opens that track, then Bob sings. Here, he gives one of his best vocals on the album. His voice is much clearer, it’s strong and powerful, supplemented by the backing vocalists. Their voices veer between strong and passionate to a high, soaring sound. Behind him, drummer Ian Wallace provides the track’s heartbeat, saxophones blow, guitars and keyboards play. The keyboard adds atmosphere to the track. For nearly five and half minutes, Bob Dylan and his band provide a musical masterclass, which thirty-six years on, still sounds as spectacular as it did back then. Stunning.

When Is Your Love In Vain? begins, the tempo is slower and the sound much fuller. A trumpet accompanies guitars, rhythm section and keyboards in producing a lovely rich sound. They jam for forty-five sections before Bob sings, and when he sings, his voice doesn’t seem as powerful as on previous tracks. It’s much more subtle and augmented by backing vocalists. The band seem to be overpowering him slightly. Having sad that, their playing is flawless.  During the track they really get the chance to shine, producing one of the fullest arrangements on the album. Later in the track, Bob plays his trusty harmonica, reminding us of his roots. Overall, it’s another great performance from Bob and his band. However, the lyrics caused controversy. In them, he poses a number of questions about love. On the album’s release, this song drew accusations of sexism from one reviewer. He thought the lyrics which include “can you cook and sew, make flowers grow,” were sexist in their nature, and thus offensive. Certainly, I’m uncomfortable with them, and don’t particularly like the almost servile nature of them. For me, this takes some of the shine of an otherwise good track

It’s a very different sound at the start of Senor (Tales of Yankee Power). As the song opens, there’s a slight hesitancy about the sound. Quickly, this is rectified and what is dramatic sounding song opens up. Again, Bob’s voice is different, it’s much more powerful, and clearer. Sometimes, his voice soars, accompanied by saxophones, piano and backing vocalists. Like on other tracks, Ian Wallace’s drums help lay the foundations of the track. Wallace’s drumming is dramatic. Similarly, a guitar gets in on the drama. A careful and thoughtful solo is played several times. It too, is spectacular, like the saxophone solos. By now, you realize just how good a band Bob put together. In putting this band together, he was able to find musicians who could transform his sound, and reenergise his music. Here, they did a great job, as did producer Don DeVito. Together, they helped Bob to produce another powerful track, where he delivers a truly impassioned vocal.

True Love Tends To Forget is another track that starts slowly, with just guitars and drums playing before Bob sings. Quickly, he’s joined by saxophone, keyboards and backing vocalists. Together, they combine to produce a slow powerful track, where he sings about regret, forgiveness and love. Although slow, his voice is a mixture of strength and clarity, and here, the band don’t overpower him. Instead, they compliment his voice, a combination of chiming guitars, atmospheric keyboards, steady and reliable drums and those masterful backing vocalists. The sound Bob and the band produce has a joyousness, and they really sound as if they’re enjoying themselves. I certainly enjoyed their performance and True Love Tends To Forget is one of the album’s highlights.

At the start of We Had Better Talk This Over there is a slight country feel to the track. This is down to the guitars, violin and mandolin accompanying the drums at the start of the track. After that, this influence continues throughout the track. Even the backing vocalists and piano adds to this influence. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. This is good, but quite different sounding track. The guitar and piano playing especially, is really good. However, it’s Bob’s vocal augmented by the backing vocalists who steal the show. Together, the combine masterfully, bringing the lyrics about a failed relationship to life.

Street Legal ends with Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat). Percussion opens the track, then saxophone, drums and keyboards combine before Bob sings. When he sings, the backing vocalists immediately accompany him. As always, their performance is stunning, making a good track even better. Their voices soar, as Bob sings the lead. Behind him a great arrangement is unfolding, with keyboards having the biggest influence, producing a lovely retro sound. Drums steadily play, later a saxophone joins the frae. Bob meanwhile is giving a great performance, his voice loud and confident as he sings the lyrics. By now the band have really hit their stride, and this tight band seem to have reserved a standout performance for this track. The same can be said of Bob, he seems in his glory. Towards the end a guitar solo plays, it’s loud and soars high above the rest of the arrangement. That and the backing singers, bring the track to a close. At the end, you feel ecstatic having heard such a great track to close the album. It was a track of epic proportions, a brilliant, full arrangement where everyone played a part in its success.

I’ve always loved Street Legal, it’s one of my favourite Bob Dylan albums. Since the album was released, I’ve loved it, and it’s one of Bob’s albums that I’ll return to often. His idea to use this band and the backing singers was a masterstroke. It totally transformed and reenergised his music. Many people saw Bob Dylan in a new light after Street Legal. They may not have been drawn to his earlier work, but loved this album. No wonder.

For nine songs, you’re enthralled by Bob and this great band. However, what really made this album, was Bob’s decision to use the backing vocalists. They were the perfect accompaniment for his voice and the songs. When they sang, they helped bring the song to life. During the album, they filled gaps left by Bob, and accompanied him just at the right time. Without them, it wouldn’t be as good an album. Considering that Street Legal was recorded in just four days, it’s remarkable that the album sounds so good. Much of the credit must go to producer Don DeVito for bringing the album together, and producing such a great sounding album. There are flaws on the recording which are audible, but that doesn’t matter, because this is a great album. That critics in America disliked the album so much seems strange, because what’s not to like, great songs, a great band and backing singers and of course, Bob Dylan. Thankfully, critics in the UK realized how good an album this is. They were right, and if you’ve never heard the album, go out and buy it. Even if you’re not usually a Bob Dylan fan, Street Legal will change your mind. 



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