Is Like a Rolling Stone really the greatest song of all-time?

cover1Those with an interest in popular music have most likely heard of the ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’ list made by the ever-famous and polarizing Rolling Stone magazine. They’ve decided to take on and completed this Herculian task in 2004 and probably have spent the last 10 years dealing with the hateful comments that readers assault them with. Because let’s be realistic – with a list like that, the people sharing their opinion will split into two camps: those who disagree with it and those who definitely disagree with it.

Out of all of those, the comments contesting the top-placed song are probably in the biggest number. Sure, many like to signal the omissions or argue about the other songs included, but nothing really comes into notice more than the song that should be, according to them, the single greatest one of all-time. In this case, Bob Dylan had the honor, with his 1965 classic ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ – both a successful single and the opener of one of the most appreciated albums of all time.

And my opinion is that the song surely deserves all the praise that’s been thrown at it over the years. It all comes together perfectly – Dylan got a firey, spontaneous sound from his backing band and he suitably matches it with an instantly-recognizable, defying snarl. This is Dylan on the top of the mountain, looking down on everybody, with a Little Richard album in one hand and a poetry volume in the other.

To some the highlight comes in the form of the opening snare drum, to others it’s Al Kooper’s organ riff or even Mike Bloomfield’s bluesy electric guitar licks that do the trick. Me, I’ve always been partial to Dylan’s vocal delivery and intonations – the story is not really an original one (the riches-to-rags motif), but it’s all about how he articulates it, how he pushes the girl character deeper and deeper into the ground with each new verse. And the chorus is 100% ironic – he’s not actually asking the girl how she feels, no, he doesn’t give a damn about that, it’s just another occasion for him to point out her situation and remind her that she’s “without a home”, “a complete unknown” and “on her own”. No artist that I’m aware of has adopted such an imposing attitude in a song before.

So is ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ really the greatest song of all-time? My opinion may not stir up as many controversy as did Rolling Stone’s, but here it goes: I don’t think there is one single tune that can be classified as the greatest. Many different artists created totally unique and revolutionary works in their career, at different times, in different ways and under different circumstances. There was and still is too much music out there for one song to reach a level of greatness unmatched before and after, whether it’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘My Generation’ or ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. There are many perfections – Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is one of them.

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Categories: Essays

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11 replies

  1. Indisputably a great song.
    The only problem with it? It was not called “Lucky” and recorded by Radiohead and therefore could not be the greatest song of all time! 😀

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  2. Completely agree, Ovidiu. Like A Rolling Stone still stops me each time I hear it, but so do many others. It’s just impossible to pick the best track of all time …

    (Good Vibrations would be up there, though).

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  3. Agreed, it’s not like a sports league where there’s only one champ at the season, it’s the sum total of greatness that makes the arts so special. But if I had to keep it narrowed down to Mr. Dylan I would opt for the philosophical poetry of “Mr. Tambourine Man” since “Rolling Stone” at its core is a put-down. My favorite version of it is on “Before the Flood” where he and the Band run it over with a Mack truck and turn it into a set-ending celebration.

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  4. Very eloquent and well put, my Man!
    The “Greatest” will always be split between popular and individual criteria; in reality how can we compare artists and songs when the artists’ songs themselves can be equally good even when they run 180 degrees to their own known output?
    The most important thing I remember is the exact time I heard Like A Rolling Stone on the radio, when it was released, and for me that was coming home from school, passing the kitchen, where the radio was always on, and stopping dead in my tracks. Those are the songs that are the Greatest, the ones that block out every other sensation and all you hear and sense is the wonder of that song – there haven’t been that many, really.

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  5. I agree – it’s impossible to have a “greatest song of all time”. Sometimes it’s not even possible to have a greatest song on a Bob album. Is “Visions of Johanna” better than “Stuck Inside of Mobile…” ? Actually it is, but it might not be tomorrow.

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  6. I agree it’s impossible to define the gratest song of all time. I’ve always thought that Like A Rolling Stone was bit overrated in my opinion but it stills a pretty good song.

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