‘Rock critics like to make a big deal about B sides but there are only maybe a dozen really great ones in the whole history of singles.’ – Dave Marsh, The heart of rock & soul: the 1001 greatest singles ever made, in the entry for Bob Dylan’s ‘Just like Tom Thumb’s blues [live]’.
Coming soon – the completion of the second dozen B/ws and embarkation on the third.
Perhaps we have more of a tradition on this side of the pond when it comes to valuing the contents of the B side, whether as artists or listeners. Or maybe we’re bigger pop snobs with less rock and soul heart.
Perhaps it depends on your definition of the popular song, and how far you lean from the heart of rock and soul towards the spleen of the anti-popular. Perhaps the question revolves around what in your view makes a great pop song, or a great anti-pop song. Perhaps it centres on an acceptance or qualified rejection of the concept of the canon, and how seriously (or playfully) we take its overarching structure as a means of discussing music. Perhaps it has to do with the exclusivity or inclusiveness of the canon in question, the individuality of its reckoning as compared with its willingness – or instinctive tendency – to take on board some sense of shared value.
In the end most likely it comes down to the fact that Dave Marsh published his personal canon in 1989 and that, even by his own admission in this 1998 postscript, ‘the Age of Rock & Soul is dead.’
However – assuming it’s the one recorded on May 17th 1966 at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester show, and played four songs before the legendary ‘Judas’ moment – Dave is absolutely right about this version of ‘Tom Thumb’s blues’, which first appeared on the flipside of ‘I want you’ that year:
‘[It] came out before anybody ever thought of bootlegging rock shows, before anybody this side of Jimi Hendrix quite understood Dylan as a great rock and roll stage performer. And so this vicious, majestic music, hidden away in the most obscure place he could think of putting it, struck with amazing force.
Today, it sounds like the reapings of a whirlwind, Dylan’s voice as draggy, druggy, and droogy as the surreal Mexican Beatnik escapade he’s recounting, Robbie Robertson carving dense mathematical figures on guitar, Garth Hudson working pure hoodoo on organ. Slurred and obtuse as Little Richard reading Ezra Pound, there’s a magnificence here so great that, if you had to, you could make the case for rock and roll as a species of art using this record and nothing else.’