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Not of much importance in the Dylan catalogue, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid is probably an album that will be interesting only to Dylan obsessives. It's a soundtrack album, and as such features mostly instrumentals and incidental music. It certainly isn't an album that I find myself playing much, and I've got to admit one listen to "Turkey Chase" is probably all that's required. It's the kind of album that's probably only useful if you like to pretend you're in a Western movie, or if you are actually planning to chase some turkeys. If you are, "Turkey Chase" is the song for you.
Saying that, the two actual bone-fide vocal songs on the album, "Billy" and "Knocking on Heaven's Door," are a fine return to form from Dylan after the half-hearted New Morning album. Most people will be familiar with "Knocking on Heaven's Door," but it's "Billy" that's the standout for me, and the song which is always the only reason for me returning to the album. It's a return to the ballad form of John Wesley Harding, written as a personal plea to Billy the Kid from one of his friends, and effortless evokes a kind of dusty, long-gone America. It's a fine return to solid songwriting from Dylan, a return that will be consolidated by Planet Waves the following year, and flourish wonderfully with Blood on the Tracks the year after that.
The soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah's final say on the Western genre, the album is probably best known for featuring the now standard 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door'. This was Dylan's first album of new material in 3 years, since 1970's New Morning.
It is made up primarily of instrumental material, perhaps making the album less than essential to many, it remains a rare example of a mainstream artist successfully composing a score of entirely self-penned material.
Sharply followed by a creative spurt including 'Blood on the Tracks' & 'Desire', this album has been forgotten in several respects, it may not compare with his best work, but listened to on it's own terms, it still holds up over 30 years later.
Perhaps not a fully fledged studio album, & it's definitely not up there with 'Nashville Skyline' as Dylan's top country album, it is still worth investigating to the keener Bob Dylan fan.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is the soundtrack to the film of the same name, consisting of track s written and recorded by Bob Dylan. It followed on from New Morning, with many calling it an amateurish release, not pertaining to the heights of his previous earlier works, but for me this is far from the truth. As with many soundtrack albums it is made up of mainly instrumental material, with a few tracks that can be considered to be songs. It is often criticised for this aspect, and for the fact that it provides three versions of in effect the same song, Billy 1, Billy 4 and Billy 7, done in opposing styles. But there has also been much praise for Knockin' on Heaven's Door, which in truth is best heard live. This should not really be considered as a fully fledged studio album, but more as another insight into the mind of the great man, as he attempts to prove himself as an instrumentalist, which on a couple of numbers he does. In truth you could see this almost as a bootleg, containing different styles of the same song, with a few almost off the cuff numbers, but then some of the unreleased pieces from the film would have made this a great album. It is a nice outing but I do find myself feeling that it could have been much more, and wait in vain hope that they will re-release an expanded version with the other tracks included as well.
1. Main Theme (Billy) *****
This opening track has a really nice feel, and for me does remind me of a home on the range kind of sound, riding your horse on open country. And as the film is sited in the Wild West, this is a major factor, and this relaxing track would be suitable for a sunrise, with the riders coming into view over the horizon. The guitar work here is great, with some nice shakers in the background which help to keep the rhythm.
2. Cantina Theme (Workin' For the Law) *****
A more atmospheric track, taking in some nice bongo drums, something I wouldn't immediately relate to cowboys, but there you go. Again the guitar work is key, and the rhythm that this track exudes is great. It is again quite mellow once you get into it and is a nice track to just sit back to and read a book, or simply listen to, as Dylan could write instrumental tracks as well.
3. Billy 1 *****
The opening few harmonica refrains tell you that we have come to the first vocal track, and the first of the three Billys. This is the upbeat version, and takes a while to build up to the vocals, but when they come in it does make an impact after the instrumental tracks that came before. This is really a vision of Billy the Kid, a free man outside the law, bound to no one, trying to build up our appreciation of him. It also reminds us of the dangers that such freedoms warrant, perhaps metaphorical of the musical path Dylan himself was following at the time.
4. Bunkhouse Theme ****
A very mellow piece with some nice piano in the background behind a slowly strummed guitar. But for me one of the funniest aspects is the coughing that comes through on the track at some points, showing the process through which it was recorded and Dylan's insistence on not doing too many takes of the same song, thus leaving this historical error in the song.
5. River Theme ****
Some Dylan humming comes through on this track, and it is not too dissimilar from Wigwam on Self Portrait, although not quite as pronounced, and with a simple guitar backing. This is only a short track at 1.28, and does show that perhaps adding the other tracks released in the film on the album would have been a good idea.
6. Turkey Chase ****
An odd little track that is very down south influenced, taking in some banjo and some classic back country style rhythm. This again feels a bit comic, but it was part of the film, which I admit not to have seen, thus it is a necessary addition, but after hearing some of the other tracks, some of them should have taken preference.
7. Knockin' on Heaven's Door *****
One of Dylan's most well known songs, although mainly from the cover versions, this classic track is probably the biggest highlight of the set, with its eerie sense of finality and destruction. In a way this is similar to all along the watchtower in the style that it professes doom, although this is more personal and is about regret for his life and fear of what lays beyond. Most of you will probably already know the song, so I don't really need to say anymore.
8. Final Theme ****
This does feel like a closing theme, taking on that classic sense of finality and completeness, taking in a flute as the main instrument on this, which permeates the track and slowly winds its way to the song's conclusion. The backing wails suggesting some of the things talked about in the previous track.
9. Billy 4 *****
Probably the straightest version of the song, taking on a more classic style of vocal, with a shorter entry. This is also the longest version at 5.03, in no small part due to the extended lyrics which make this feel like a more complete track in comparison to the first one, although the harmonica from the first would have been a nice addition. The guitar is the main backing instrument, making this again feel more of a personal track.
10. Billy 7 *****
A more low key version, taking on a more refined and mellow vocal, which at times is almost haunting and full of emotion. This feels more like a funeral tune than a proclamation of Billy The Kid, thus probably why it was not chosen as the main version. But this style, which is again mainly guitar, provides another side to the song, and just shows how changing a few things can make the same lyrics sound worlds apart. This takes on the shorter form of the first version, thus coming in at 2.08, almost as if it is simply an extra bonus track, although not a bad one at that.
It would be a lie to say that this is an essential Dylan purchase, as it is filled with predominantly instrumental material, but that is not a bad thing, and fans will appreciate the more restrained laid back style of this recording, which shows that Dylan was not simply a one trick pony. Overall though I always feel that some of the other songs from the film and the recording sessions could have been added to make this a more complete representation of the soundtrack, but you can't argue to much, and these tracks can be found elsewhere anyway.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid
2 Workin' For The Law
3 Billy 1
4 Bunkhouse Theme
5 River Theme
6 Turkey Chase
7 Knockin' On Heaven's Door
8 Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid
9 Billy 4
10 Billy 7