Written by Bob Dylan and Band bassist Rick Danko, this was one of Dylan's famous "Basement Tapes" songs, recorded in April 1967 with the members of The Band in Big Pink (a house in upstate New York) after Dylan's near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966. Fourteen different Basement Tapes became available as Bootleg recordings, and "This Wheel's On Fire" appeared on tapes labeled "Great White Wonder" and "Little White Wonder."
Joey - Athens, GA
Band drummer Levon Helm's autobiography is called This Wheel's On Fire
. In the book, he explains that the basement tapes sessions had a very loose feel - they didn't mind some bad notes and had to play relatively quiet, since they were really in a basement and too much sound echoing off the wall could be annoying. Helm adds that for this song, he was teaching himself to play the piano, and some of the music he wrote just seemed to fit with Dylan's lyrics.
Dylan's original version is much slower than The Band version on Music From Big Pink. When he recorded The Basement Tapes with The Band, many of the songs were covers of old Country or Blues tunes, and sometimes they jammed on different song ideas. "This Wheel's On Fire" was one of the few fully formed songs they came up with. Members of The Band credited Dylan with teaching them a great deal about songwriting during his time at Big Pink.
Like many songs Bob Dylan wrote, this one is open to interpretation. The wheel on fire seems to be the singer anticipating death, and who he's speaking to could be a friend, an enemy, or even God.
Many artists have covered this song, including Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity, whose version hit #5 in the UK in 1968. The Byrds covered it in 1969, and Siouxsie and the Banshees brought it back to the UK charts in 1987, with a version that hit #14.
With so many cover versions, it was a very profitable song for the writers, and while Bob Dylan was used to large royalty payments, Rick Danko was not, and his check for about $200,000 was an astonishing amount of money. Danko would later say, "Those royalty checks almost killed some of us," referring to members of The Band who suddenly had easy access to drugs, alcohol, and a lifestyle of excess. Richard Manuel, who killed himself in 1986, was particularly prone to drinking and drug binges.
Julie Driscoll recorded the song again in the early 1990s as the theme to the BBC comedy series Absolutely Fabulous. This new version was recorded with Adrian Edmondson, who is the husband of the show's creator and star Jennifer Saunders.
Kylie Minogue gave the track an euphoric disco-charged makeover. Her version was released as the official theme song for 2016's Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.