Here’s a clip of Bob Dylan performing a mid-career high point in 1978’s “Changing of the Guards”, a song which evokes the spirit of his best epics, although with a decidedly late-70s production sheen.

Bob Dylan, 1978
Bob Dylan, 1978

The Street Legal album was looked upon by critics and by many fans as a step downward from the highly praised Blood on the Tracks and Desire albums. These previous records were accepted as new heights in Dylan’s discography, on par with his legendary 60s output in the minds of many. As such, Street Legal had a lot working against it; expectations were running high. And while in the middle of a divorce settlement and a number of personnel problems in getting a band together for a tour, Dylan was stressed out even before recording began. Further to this, times were changing and Dylan was looked upon as being very much a part of the old guard – which may or may not account for the song’s title. Yet Dylan being Dylan, he chose a path which was more in line with the musical heroes of his past despite any pressure on him to be more in line with younger artists. Specifically, he formed a sound around his hero Elvis Presley who had built up a similar approach to building large scale backing groups during his Las Vegas years. Elvis’ death on August 16, 1977 affected Dylan deeply, apparently. Perhaps this was his way of paying homage. I wonder what a slap-back echo, rockabilly record from Dylan would have sounded like…

To many, this album is all gloss with a level of slickness which undercuts the depth of the songs. But, I really like this tune in particular; this is classic Dylan in the role of the aging prophet, with spiritual imagery presented on a Biblical scale. The song’s lyrics are firmly in Dylan’s own world of watchtowers and wicked messengers. I actually think the lush arrangement and call-and-response backing vocals helps this effect. This is big music, even if it’s a little bit of its time.

Speaking of spiritual imagery on a Biblical scale, in 1978, Dylan had begun his flirtation with Christianity, which would evolve (devolve?) into full immersion by the following year. His subsequent albums until 1981 would pursue his interest in gospel-rock to its most logical conclusion, with much of his trademark lyrical obfuscation traded for overt Christian messaging. It’s been argued pretty convincingly that Dylan’s foray into the gospel world started much earlier at least where his lyrical approach is concerned, if not in its blatant content. His love of gospel music early in his career is pretty well documented. In this light, the music giving way to deeper personal exploration wasn’t out of nowhere, even if it seemed that way to many fans. And you can see the first sprouts of those seeds here on Street Legal, even before his official “Gospel Bob” phase began the next year. ‘Changing of the Guards’ is a great example of Dylan’s continuing interest in spiritual imagery, just before he plunged himself headlong into lyrical sloganeering. In this the Street Legal album was the end of one era, with hints at the beginnings of the next.


9 thoughts on “Bob Dylan Performs ‘Changing of the Guards’ from 1978’s Street Legal

  1. 30 years ago, (yesterday) Street Legal provided dance music to our hippy wedding in in the foothills outside Santa Fe, NM. At least two incongruities there – Dylan as dance music; and Street Legal for a wedding. Enough Tecate, tequila, and marijuana can make anything danceable, and I think I just got the album that week. Anyway, Street Legal is a great, overlooked Dylan album. “New Pony,” is great and lowdown, and I’m surprised D never plays it.

  2. AND…it’s not even the best epic on the album. I’ve long maintained that Where Are You Tonight? is the sequel to Tangled Up in Blue, and is one of the very best Bob songs of all time.

    This album was DESTROYED by it’s production quality / and certainly merits not a only a revisit, but a remaster that might free the genius within from the disco chains of the late seventies.

    I agree too that the death of Elvis might have knocked Bob for a loop- afterall, one of the most unexpected things about Bob’s career is that he lived through it- i think he thinks so too:

    “There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived.
    If I’m there in the morning, baby, you’ll know I’ve survived.
    I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive,
    But without you it just doesn’t seem right.
    Oh, where are you tonight?”
    -The last lines of Street Legal.

    or put another way, more recently:

    “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
    I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
    Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
    I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
    Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
    It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

    -Not Dark Yet, last verse

  3. Thanks for comments, guys.

    In some ways, Dylan has appeal because he tends to make a listener work a bit. He is, if nothing else, mercurial. I think this can put the kibosh on a lot of canon building when it comes to his back catalogue. As good as Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde are, in recent years, Planet Waves has gotten more play around here. Who knows why? Not me.

    I guess I just like it as a record that is just kind of thrown out there – it’s the sound of a guy who’s known for big, epic length songs, and for supposedly being a ‘voice of a generation’, making a little album of little, funked-up songs. If he’d followed a template, that record wouldn’t exist. I think that’s what I love about Dylan; when it comes to his work, he’s the original punk, old guard or not. And I think this principle goes for Street Legal too. No one expected him to make a glossy Vegas record. But, he did it anyway.

    Thanks again for comments, guys!

  4. I totally agree. I’ve come to love all the so called minor albums for their own merits- and Bob has always been about context for me- his own, or the larger world, and SL fits nicely into that, and paves the way for the classic born again stuff to come.

  5. That is not a clip of Dylan performing “Changing of the Guards.” It is the track from the album with no video

    Here is a clip of Dylan performing the song – Nashville, Dec 1978

  6. Thanks bokhara,

    I actually attached that clip originally, but found that the sound wasn’t too great. So, I swapped the clip for one where the song came through a bit better. Thanks for referencing it again – now we’ve got both of ’em.


  7. I agree with Kermus about “Where Are You Tonight”. That is one of my favorite Dylan epics. I also agree that the original release was very poorly produced / mastered. Pick up the remastered cd and you will be very pleased with the upgrade in sound quality. I am a vinyl freak and not that fond of digital but I was very happy to hear this under- rated lp in a reworked form.

  8. Hey Larry – thanks for your comments.

    From what I’ve read, the recording was pretty difficult, with Dylan pretty unreachable in terms of what he wanted. I imagine this had a negative knock-on effect when it came to the finished product. I’m glad they’ve tightened up the sound on the re-issue.

    Thanks again for your input!

  9. Street Legal has always been my favorite Bob album even eclipsing Blood on the Tracks.To my mind he was at the absolute top of his game when this came out as anybody who witnessed the Earls Court gigs or Blackbushe will testify.Never did understand the “lousy”production tag… me the songs and the production are fantastic.people just dont listen

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