Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Greatest Hits – an embarrassingly poor compilation

I’ve tended to dismiss the critical mauling that Greatest Hits has attracted since release in 1967. Having bought and enjoyed the compilation LP on vinyl on release, I just didn’t get the negative vibes - it was one of the highlights of my nascent record collection. OK, the songs weren’t hits, but I took “hits” as a metaphor for “best-known songs”.

The cover artwork – dark browns dominant, with echoes of Rembrandt – seemed to elevate Dylan to his rightful place among the greats of Western art, well away from the rabble of fellow 1960s popsters.

But when I returned to Greatest Hits recently, the penny suddenly dropped. Good as its songs are, the 12-track UK version from March 1967 was an embarrassingly poor compilation.

The compilers of Greatest Hits had seven Dylan albums and umpteen singles to draw from, yet chose eight of the 12 tracks from just two LPs – Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde On Blonde. Yes, they’re both masterpieces but what a cock-eyed selection to include no singles (unlike the US/world version which had Positively 4th Street), nothing from the first album, Bob Dylan, and only a single track from each of the other four great albums of the period.

Greatest Hits was the first missed opportunity in the discography – the first of many, according to some. I’ll be given a fairer hearing to the critics of CBS/Columbia/Legacy/Sony in future. Though the label generally does a fine job in showcasing Dylan, they’re not above criticism, as Greatest Hits demonstrates.

Gerry Smith