"Could Dylan's Most Hated Album Actually Be His Best?"

In 1978, Bob Dylan released an album of radical change. It spoke straight from Dylan's wounded heart and was called "Street Legal." And the American critics hated it! A little backstory:

One year previous to the release of "Street Legal", Dylan had divorced his wife whom he loved very much...her name was Sara. On top of that, Dylan was supervising the editing of his 1975 film, "Renaldo & Clara" which was not going well. The critics hated that too. So, in a vast departure, Dylan decided to take over Elvis' place who had died in 1977 and mix the sound with Phil Spectors "Wall Of Sound" to get "Street Legal." And in my opinion in 2012...it worked.

I first discovered "Street Legal" in 1983 while I was working as a songwriter in Nashville. I was 24 years old and I had to leave a beautiful young woman behind in Seattle when I left for Nashville on a plane. So, I could relate to the sad lyrics that were contained on this album. Dylan was laying it all out on the line quite clearly instead of useing metaphors and symbolism as people were used to. The critics  were outraged! Who did Dylan think he was...Bob Dylan? Gone was the little harmless troubadour with an acoustic guitar and harmonica exchanged for lavish outfits and backing vocals supplied by three female background singers who could really sing out loud and wail! This was certainly over the top but Dylan always did like a good carnival!

"Street Legal" was full of lines like this: "I have dined with kings, I've been offered wings, And I've never been too impressed." Or: "If you don't believe there's a price, For this sweet paradise, Just remind me to show you the scars." "Is Your Love In Vain?",  "Baby Stop Crying" & "Senor" are straight up masterpieces. Really I like every song on the album. Evidently the 1978 critics were not listening to the lyrics very  closely instead drawing conclusions of misogyny and so on.Was Dylan just bitter about Sara...I don't think it's that simple and the critics were in way over their heads.

The players included: Ian Wallace, (Elvis' former bass player) Jerry Scheff, Billy Cross, Steven Soles & David Mansfield. The album was produced by: Don DeVito who remastered the album in 1999 digitally. The album was recorded for the most part live in the studio in four days it is reported. It was recorded in Santa Monica, California in a space Dylan had rented out for rehearsals. They used 24 analog tracks. And of course Bob was at the helm on electric guitar and vocals.(No harmonica for Dylan's Elvis persona).

To summarize: a-lot was going on in Dylan's life in 1978 but he was brave enough to soldier on with a completely new sound and set up that today sounds as fresh as if it were just recorded. I was shocked when I listened to the album again recently and realized  just how timeless it was in 2012. Dylan really did complete his mission and transform himself into something new and very bold. The critics of 1978 were just wrong about "Street Legal." Check it out for yourself. If nothing else the lyrics, as Dylan has always done, will amaze you I think.  

Views: 6982

Comment by Paul Wilner on August 3, 2012 at 1:24pm
I like the fact that it was dedicated to Emmet Grogan...
Comment by RP N10 on August 3, 2012 at 3:00pm

I don't remember this record getting slagged off in Europe.  I think of it as the last record of his second creative period. Not really been impressed by anything since.  No Blood On The Tracks for sure but shaded Desire by not having crocks like Joey and Sara.  "Sixteen years"...

Comment by Stumpzian Farber on August 4, 2012 at 3:05am

Good article. I was surprised by the critical reaction at the time, given how dense the album was with creativity. Here are two examples, "Changing of the Guards" and "Where Are You Tonight?" via dramatic interpretations of the lyrics:



Comment by Alex OBrien on August 4, 2012 at 3:12am

I first heard this album when Dylan toured it 1978 and was fortunate to get seats four rows from the front at Earls Court Arena in London.

This was a real revelation with Dylan decked out in white top and trousers with sequins.A line up including horns.

But the audience was blown away with the sounds. This in my view was Dylan at his best and also a great album.

Ive never once considered it a dud and have gone from LP  to CD to digitally remastered CD and still spin it often.

Dylan has produced some albums which may have failed to reach the audience expectations.This is definately not one of them.

Comment by Dino C on August 4, 2012 at 5:39am

Tim, great points here! I bought the record when it came out, I was 13, and I loved it. It has always been one of my favorite Dylan records. Is Your Love In Vain is such a great song, one of my top ten Dylan songs! I also love the Live at Budokan record which came right after, and is also not superloved by the critics.

Comment by Alex OBrien on August 4, 2012 at 5:49am

DinoC  your choice of song is spot on.I well remember the big intros on stage June 15 1978.It was absolutely incredible and so unlike anything else  by Dylan .Ive also got to agree with you on the Budokan album.Different quirky but Dylan.

Comment by David Wesley Williams on August 4, 2012 at 9:09am

Great question, great premise. "Street Legal" is one of my favorite Dylan albums -- for the songs, more so than the production and sound of it. But I love it, no reservations. The songs are great -- "New Pony,"  "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power) ... 


Here's a link to the Greil Marcus review. I love his writing, but he's wrong sometimes, like everyone else. In this review he says "Desire" was a bad album, too. "Desire" is probably my favorite Dylan record, ever.


Comment by Tim M. Otto on August 4, 2012 at 11:05am

David, Thanks for the Rolling Stone link. I read the review of "Street Legal" and almost chuckled! What a bunch of shmucks they were about this album. I stand by my theory and opinion...IT'S A GREAT ALBUM, PERIOD! (In fact, I'm listening to it again right now and I still enjoy the heck out of it).

I appreciate everybodys oppinions, support and input on this. I guess I'm not the only fan of "Street Legal." 

Comment by Bill Nork on August 4, 2012 at 1:38pm

I always liked Street Legal. I think Changing of the Guards is one of his top 100 songs. 

Comment by Eddie White on August 7, 2012 at 3:56am

Street Legal is probably the last Dylan studio album that I regularly revisit


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.