Cynics will note that there is virtually no difference performance-wise between the mono recordings of his first eight records for Columbia, so why bother? They will then point to the success of the Beatles’ mono box as the financial motivation for Sony (Columbia’s owner) to pull a similar move, a clear attempt at getting Dylanophiles to dig deep in their wallets once again.
But what cynics also need to acknowledge is that these eight records are absolutely essential and probably half of them changed the course of rock music. So if you’re going to exploit a legendary artist like Dylan with some fancy, overpriced packaging, at least you’re doing it with material that’s pretty hard to fuck up.
In looking at it from that perspective, if someone who is just beginning their studies of Rock Music 101 were to approach the Dylan catalog for the first time, they may as well fork over the dough all at once for the format presented here.
Yes, the packaging does mirror (as best as its format allows, anyway) the way the original releases would have looked. Original, era-specific Columbia labels are used, and each record is housed in cardboard jackets that look like the original artwork.
Bob Dylan even finds its disc in a label-roster paper sleeve, promoting the albums of such artists as Mitch Miller, Ray Conniff and original cast Broadway recordings. It shows Columbia Records as being woefully late to not only the rock and roll game, but to folk as well. And while that debut would go on to sell only a little over 5,000 copies, it would sell enough to get the owners to tell others about this strange piece of work from Minnesota.
While his significance wasn’t known at the time, its wake was so wide that I imagined what a similar catalog advertisement for Columbia Records’ roster would have looked like just a few short years after the release of the one found in Bob Dylan.
There is something endearing about the mono versions presented—particularly in the later, electric records. They’re warmer, you can appreciate the musicians’ interplay a bit more, and right above the singular mix is Dylan. The phrasing, and ultimately the words themselves become center stage, suggesting that maybe there was a bit of truth in the self-congratulating liner notes that unconvincingly attempt to demonstrate the need for this set because this is how they were intended to be heard.
I think the intent was just to be heard, regardless of it was a hi-fi system or on a portable record player from Montgomery Ward’s. At the same time, after having heard some of these albums in their stereo form for years, I can confirm that there’s something drawing me to these mixes a bit more.
I don’t know if it’s the novelty of hearing things presented a bit differently or if the mix really does fit in my ear a bit better (I swear that Dylan’s harmonica is not as shrill as it is in stereo and that Blonde On Blonde sounds like a new masterpiece with its punchy blend), but it’s got me coming back to these records with more vigor than it probably should.
For the novice, The Original Mono Recordings is an ideal way to begin your Dylan phase. If your pocketbook can tolerate the up-front expense, then by all means, indulge in this clever facsimile of eight records that will eventually end up in your library at some point in your life.