“Gotta Serve Somebody” by Bob Dylan

While the album Slow Train Coming is generally the best-regarded of Bob Dylan’s three Christian Rock albums, this particular song is generally seen as emblematic of the problems associated with that stage of his career. This is partly because it was only really popular hit song to come out of his Christian phase, but there’s more to it than that.

For one thing, it’s a relatively simplistic piece of songwriting by Dylan’s usual standards, which is bound to come off as disappointing to fans of his usual work. For another, its simplicity means that Dylan’s smugness, a problem that is generally present to at least a subtle degree even on his classics, is much more direct and palpable here.

But perhaps the biggest problem with this song is one that most of the people who object to it don’t even realize…it is blatantly ripped off in both content and structure from “Righteous Rocker No. 1”, a song from Larry Norman’s seminal Christian Rock album Only Visiting This Planet. Both songs offer various descriptions of worldly success or failure before tying each statement back to a biblical reference. In Norman’s case, it’s that “you ain’t nothing without love”, a reference to Corintheans 13; in Dylan’s, that you’re “gonna have to serve somebody”, a reference to the ‘God or Mammon’ dichotemy from Matthew 6:24.

The songs are in fact virtually identical, except that Norman’s is actually a lot better, coming off as significantly less smug and more sincere. Dylan’s Christian albums actually produced several songs much better than this one but he ought to have been above this kind of borderline plagiarism, and it stands as one of the more disappointing moments of his illustrious career.

Verdict: Not terrible, exactly, but “Righteous Rocker No. 1” got there first and did it a lot better.

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