Version Tracker examines how different artists have performed the same song over the years, adapting it to suit their own needs and times.
When Bob Dylan arrived on the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961, he was just another Woody Guthrie fan with a reedy voice and a repertoire of standards. Within two years he had a major label record deal and a reputation as a charismatic performer, synthesizing the best of what his peers were doing and adding both a sense of poetic mystery and a touch of pop savvy. But his career really began to take off when other artists started covering him. “Blowin’ In The Wind” was the first of his original compositions to cross over to the mainstream, followed in short order by the likes of “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “All I Really Wanna Do,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Playing a Dylan song became something recording artists did, be they politically engaged young folkies, old-guard superstar vocalists, or the latest R&B sensations.
So in a way it was only natural for an eclectic assortment of acts to take a crack at “Like A Rolling Stone” after Dylan released his version as a single in July of 1965. The song was a huge hit on the charts for Dylan, and hailed by critics as a groundbreaking, generation-defining track. If “Blowin’ In The Wind” could be done by everybody from Duke Ellington to Elvis Presley, then why not “Like A Rolling Stone”?
On the other hand, “Like A Rolling Stone”? Really? A six minute tumble of words, snarled out by Dylan over shambling rock ’n’ roll? If ever there was a song defined by its original recorded performance, “Like A Rolling Stone” would be it. Nearly everything that was exciting about the song was bound up in the idea that it was coming from Dylan—a man known for his gentle acoustic ballads and incisive protest anthems. Here he was storming onto the radio with a new kind of rock sound that was loud, messy, and improvisatory, with lyrics that were cryptic, angry, and clearly personal, at a length that was more than double what the typical “single” was expected to be. It’s become a cliché to say that something a musician did “changed the rules,” but there’s no better way to describe Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” It was unprecedented.
That’s what makes the glut of covers in the mid-to-late 1960s so fascinating. Like a lot of rock classics, “Like A Rolling Stone” remains a favorite of artists who want to evoke the vibe of the hippie era, although—as seen below—more recent versions tend to be more faithful, and often duller. It’s the initial rush of imitations and reinterpretations that says a lot more about what the industry thought this song was. A gritty garage-rocker? A freeform poem? A catchy melody? A sacred text?
The 30-plus versions below run that whole gamut, from covers that are practically note-for-note to some that try to trim the song to make it more pop—or expand it to make it more groovy. Each of these acts tries to find their own way through “Like A Rolling Stone,” dwelling on what they find to be the most interesting sections, be it a a good long howl of “didn’t yoooouu?” or a feisty “How does it feel?”
Some Dylan covers become so definitive that subsequent versions riff on them almost as much as they do the original. (Cases in point: The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower,” and Jason & The Scorchers’ “Absolutely Sweet Marie.”) Brooklyn garage-rock trio The Soup Greens were never well-known enough to be a major influence, which is a shame, because their “Like A Rolling Stone” was one of the first and most inventive takes on the song. Ditching the verses entirely, the band locks into the chorus and the central riff, taking Dylan’s embrace of rock ’n’ roll as an invitation to make a rager. That same year, Frankie Valli & The Four Season’s refined that basic idea, reintroducing more of Dylan’s lyrics but still going with a driving, gritty arrangement. Something in between these two approaches would’ve been a good path for covers in the years that followed—something tight, but true enough to the original to be recognizable. By and large, this was not to be the case. Grade: B+/A-
It’s not surprising that various Hollywood/Sunset Strip pop acts leapt at the chance to do “Like A Rolling Stone,” given the success The Byrds had with “Mr. Tambourine Man.” What is surprising is how doggedly these artists approached Dylan, failing to add their own stamp in the way that Roger McGuinn and company had. The prefab band Dino, Desi & Billy (featuring one of Dean Martin’s sons, alongside the son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) do a drearily faithful run through the tune, sticking close to the original six-minute running-time. The Turtles cut it down to three minutes, but still hold close to a cleaner, more sterile version of Dylan’s arrangement. And Cher also goes with an abridged cover, with overly familiar instrumentation. All three of these raise the question of what the whole point is of tackling an already well-known song. For Dino, Desi & Billy, The Turtles, and Cher, the choice of material seems rooted in the assumption that their fans would be interested in hearing their voices instead of Dylan’s; but really only Cher is a distinctive enough vocalist to give her “Like A Rolling Stone” a raison d’être. Grades: C-/C+/B-
The Young Rascals get docked a notch or two for not doing with “Like A Rolling Stone” what they did with the likes of “Mustang Sally” and “In The Midnight Hour” on the same album: rearranging the song to suit their own raw, basement-party energy. But Felix Cavaliere shares some of Dylan’s bratty vocal style, and his mates play the song with enough spunk—especially in the noisy final minute—to justify the cover as a statement of purpose. (It was the band’s way of saying that they were in tune with the counterculture, and weren’t just a blue-eyed soul act.) Similarly, the explosive British rock band The Creation didn’t tinker too much with Dylan’s basic structure, but it did tighten the song and give it some of its own bottom-heavy swagger, making it feel almost like an original. Grades: B/B+
Here’s where some unexpected musicians start trying “Like A Rolling Stone,” and making it their own. Bob Marley was about a half-decade away from recording his big, internationally popular hits when he and The Wailers knocked out this casually mellow reggae Dylan cover, which features completely new verses that don’t even try to replicate the original. The Wailers do plenty of justice to the chorus, though. Reconceiving the hook as light and soulful instead of angry alters the meaning, but preserves the poetry. Grade: B+
It’s a testament to Dylan’s skills as a melody-maker that even though his songs were mostly admired for their words, they were still well-suited for the 1960s instrumental craze. The Wrecking Crew guitarist Billy Strange does a credible “Like A Rolling Stone,” essentially by keeping the arrangement mostly as-is and substituting his spry twang for Dylan’s voice. The thick orchestrations of The James Last Band, on the other hand, choke off a lot of what’s exciting about the song—although it’s interesting to hear how Last keeps jumping from harmonica to piano to a wash of strings in order to carry the tune. Grades: B/C+
This one requires some explanation. Checkmate/Family Affair star Sebastian Cabot recorded an entire album of Dylan songs, delivered as recitations—which wasn’t an uncommon thing for actors to do in the 1960s and 1970s. (William Shatner’s spoken-word pop covers are probably the most famous examples today, and they’re hardly anomalous.) For fans of celebrity kitsch, Cabot’s “Like A Rolling Stone” is a masterpiece. It’s wholly bizarre and inappropriate, from the cheery marimba-and-clarinet backing track to the way the actor blitzes past rhymes and even swallows the words “didn’t you.” The record is objectively lousy, but it’s fun lousy, and kind of useful inasmuch as Cabot does straighten out Dylan’s tangled verse into comprehensible sentences. He’s like an American thespian trying to make Shakespeare clearer for modern ears. Grade: D (or maybe A)
Bluegrass duo Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs broke up shortly after recording their 1968 album Nashville Airplane, reportedly because the hidebound Flatt was tired of the more open-minded (and commercially oriented) Scruggs pushing their group to record songs like “Like A Rolling Stone.” But especially in comparison to later country-fied covers—as will be seen later on down the list—Flatt & Scruggs actually do well by Dylan. They seem a little stymied by the lyrics, which they sing as though the words just showed up on the music-stand a minute before the engineer called “rolling.” But this “Like A Rolling Stone” is on-point musically, with a real swing in the picking and real kick to the percussion. Grade: B
The style of square vocal music favored by The Arbors was falling out of favor by the end of the 1960s—with the exception of some “sunshine pop” acts like The Association and The 5th Dimension—but their more academic, music-major approach to Dylan actually resulted in a more enjoyable and unpredictable recording than a lot of the more rock-oriented bands of the era. This “Like A Rolling Stone” is damned dramatic, with tight harmonies giving way to a booming chorus. The group breaks the song into chunks and then makes each component as shiny and dynamic as they can. The Arbors could never have competed with Dylan if they’d covered him slavishly, so they do well with their own thing, while borrowing his words and chords. Grade: A-
Jimi Hendrix is responsible for one of the most famous Dylan covers of all time with 1968’s “All Along The Watchtower” (also his biggest hit single in the United States), but one year earlier he blew away the crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival with a bellowing, bluesy “Like A Rolling Stone.” Mostly a showcase for Hendrix’s guitar fillips, this cover maintains its integrity as a song, rising and falling in volume from verse to chorus—a little like a slow-building monologue, and much like the original. Grade: A-
Never a big-timer, the R&B bandleader Phil Flowers maintained a viable career as a touring attraction and occasional recording artist from the 1950s through the 1970s, and when he got a chance to go into the studio, he made the most of it. His nine-minute “Like A Rolling Stone” is an unsung classic of the psychedelic soul era, with a sped up, funky rhythm and an off-beat vocal performance that’s just waiting to be stripped for parts by some crate-digging turntablist. The Undisputed Truth, meanwhile, was a pet project of Motown producer/songwriter/performer Norman Whitfield, who used the group to experiment with his own new prog/R&B hybrid—well-represented by The Undisputed Truth’s multi-layered, gradually unfolding take on Dylan. Grades: B+/A-
Originally one of the more experimental of the West Coast acid-rock bands, Spirit had already broken up and reformed as a mellower, more jam-oriented group by the time it recorded a spacey, trance-like “Like A Rolling Stone” for the band’s classic 1975 album Spirit Of ’76. In the mid-1970s, playing this song constituted an early act of nostalgia, reminding Spirit’s remaining fans of the decade from whence the band came. But really, this version points the way to the future, sounding a lot like a precursor to the loping stoner music of the 1990s and 2000s. Grade: A-
Just as it’s sometimes strange to think of songs as wordy as Dylan’s inspiring instrumentals, it’s also remarkable how many have been translated into foreign languages, where some of the wordplay must get lost. It would take someone fluent in German dialects to determine whether Austropop hero Wolfgang Ambros captures the lyrical nuances of “Like A Rolling Stone” in his “Allan Wia A Stan,” but aside from the smoother late 1970s production, he definitely gets the original’s rolling rhythms and raspy vocals. French new wavers Taxi Girl, on the other hand, sing in such heavily accented, awkward English that it’s not clear whether frontman Daniel Darc knows what any of the words mean. The band does at least take the arrangement to some new places though, upping the tempo and letting a cheap, cheesy organ serve as the dominant instrument. The result sounds semi-snotty—which is exactly as it should’ve been for a young alt-rock group in the early 1980s, no matter how crummy the outcome. Grades: B-/C-
The punk scene in the U.K. generally sneered at anything that stunk of “hippie,” but the first wave of New York punks showed more respect to 1960s rock legends like Dylan—and the the generation right behind them tended to pick and choose which old-timers were worth revering. New York Dolls/The Heartbreakers guitarist Johnny Thunders turned in a downright pretty “Like A Rolling Stone”—and did it acoustically to boot—in an outtake to one of his solo albums. A few years later though, Thunders disciple Paul Westerberg led his band The Replacements through a crude Dylan parody called “Like A Rolling Pin”—and according to legend, did it without knowing that Dylan himself was watching from the recording booth. (Producer Scott Litt says that when the take was over, Dylan just said, “You guys rehearse much?” and then walked out.) Grades: B+/C-
A frat-rock favorite in the late 1960s, Ryder dabbled in hard rock and singer-songwriter confessionals in the 1970s, and then—thanks to Bruce Springsteen covering his songs in concert and John Mellencamp producing his comeback album—experienced a mini-revival in the 1980s. That was the context for this unusual, Don Was-produced 12-inch single, which spins “Like A Rolling Stone” into a hip-hop and gospel-inflected club track. This isn’t exactly a good record, but it does at least represent the sound of 1985, rather than merely being a redo. There was an obvious effort here to make the song “fresh”—in every 1980s sense of the word. Grade: C+
Shortly before he died, guitarist Mick Ronson (who actually toured with Dylan briefly in the mid-1970s) gathered some of his old friends and colleagues for a solo album that was released posthumously. His best-known collaborator David Bowie tagged in for a fiery “Like A Rolling Stone” that’s a little too normal overall, but that does feature some blistering playing by Ronson. Similarly, one year later, The Rolling Stones rather belatedly—and perhaps obviously—did their own “Like A Rolling Stone” cover for their live album Stripped, and while they could’ve done more with the arrangement, it’s hard to fault the actual performance, which is pretty spirited for a bunch of dudes in their 50s. Grades: B/B
Over 30 years after The Wailers gave “Like A Rolling Stone” some Jamaican flavor, their contemporaries The Wailing Souls did a modernized reggae version of the song (complete with grinding electric guitars) that uses more of Dylan’s lyrics than Marley and company, but still improvises some new lines and digressions. The Italian hip-hop act Articolo 31 also fit “Like A Rolling Stone” to its style—and to the sound of 1998—with its “Come Una Pietra Scalciata,” which translates the lyrics and works them into a rap, using a sample of Dylan’s actual voice for the refrain. Both of these covers, while clever, have come out clubfooted. The process of adaptation has left them sounding too forced. Grades: C/C
It’s hard to know exactly what to make of Nancy Sinatra’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” which was recorded when she was in her late 50s, a few years after she posed for Playboy. The production is appealingly light and soulful, with a slight Caribbean lilt—all relatively restrained for a veteran performer at the turn of the millennium. But unlike her pop, Sinatra was never exactly known as a great singer, and while Dylan’s music doesn’t demand a smooth voice, it does ask for at least a little expression. Grade: C+
The increasingly faded lines between rock, pop, and country have a lot to do with what the audiences for those genres think the music is supposed to sound like, and how it overlaps with their sense of identity. These two country covers of “Like A Rolling Stone” aimed to connect with the subset of fans who like Americana and classic rock by recasting one of the most radical songs of the 1960s as just another traditionalist roots-music favorite. In the case of Charlie Daniels’ version—taken from his duets album Deuces—the appropriation is especially provocative, given the Southern rocker’s outspoken conservative politics. In addition to giving an old-timer’s stamp of approval to ex-Hootie & The Blowfish singer Darius Rucker, Daniels uses “Like A Rolling Stone” to remind longtime fans of his own longhair past. (Fascinating semiotics though don’t make either of these recordings any less dull.) Grades: C/C-
Both of these fairly extreme re-dos—by lesser-known 21st century modern-rock bands—get credit for originality, and for trying to contemporize Dylan, even if the results are fairly mixed. Anberlin completely modifies the cadence of the verses to get them to jibe with the sleek, snappy arrangement and the overly busy production. As for Belgium’s Sleepers’ Reign, the quartet’s electronics-enhanced “Like A Rolling Stone” finds some pleasantly roomy spaces between Dylan’s dense thickets of verbiage, which gets expanded into something atmospheric and toe-tapping. These takes are likely to be off-putting to purists, but in a way that makes them more valuable than a straight cover, because they reveal more about where the real heart of the song lies—at least to those for whom “Like A Rolling Stone” is always going to be “Dylanesque or bust.” Grades: C+/B-
Though it’s not the most transformed version of “Like A Rolling Stone” on this list, Mountain’s rap-rock cover may be the most unexpected, given that it’s coming from a band that actually played Woodstock. It’s not every day that “Like A Rolling Stone” becomes a drummer’s song, and while Mountain’s pounding, spare take wears out its novelty quickly, it does at least sound like its coming from musicians trying to be creative. The cover by Seal and Jeff Beck (for the Dylan tribute set Chimes Of Freedom) on the other hand is everything a non-Dylan “Like A Rolling Stone” shouldn’t be: It’s tedious, unimaginative, and interminable. Beck can play and Seal can sing, but neither can salvage this bombastic, overlong performance. Grades: C/D+
Here are two fairly faithful “Like A Rolling Stone”s from modern rock bands popular enough and accomplished enough to do the song without too many questions about their credibility. But while Green Day’s version is nice and loud—and Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocals properly whiny—the band’s arena-filling approach doesn’t suit Dylan as well it does their own precision pop-punk. Drive-By Truckers easily win this battle of the bands, with a “Like A Rolling Stone” cover that has a warm, earthy sound, and traded-off vocals by Patterson Hood, Shonna Tucker, Jason Isbell, and Mike Cooley that keep the performance from becoming too repetitive. Grades: B+/C-
Ideal cover: The best interpretations have tended to be the most liberal with the original, taking pieces of Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” and reshuffling them into songs that have their own distinctive progression. A cover with the energy of Phil Flowers and The Soup Greens and the complex construction of The Arbors and The Undisputed Truth could be great.
Ideal artist: The hip-hop possibilities of “Like A Rolling Stone” still remain largely unexplored, aside from a few fairly weak swings. It’d be fun to hear someone like Kendrick Lamar completely pull apart and reconstruct the song, perhaps in collaboration with Flying Lotus and saxophonist Kamasi Washington.