It was a sunny afternoon on July 25th, 1965, when Bob Dylan stepped out on stage at the Newport Folk Festival with one of the most vilified Stratocasters of all time under his arm. It was a move that cemented his status as an iconoclast and in the process became one of the most influential ‘I’ll go my way’ moves in the history of music.
Although reports from the day vary wildly from mild tales of a few disgruntled purists amidst a largely appreciative crowd to stories of a ‘Judas’-crying lynch mob, there is no doubting the significance of the moment aside from the mythic folklore.
Backed by the wildly underrated Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Dylan took to the stage and defied expectation in every which way. The impact of the moment was two-fold: the simple subversiveness of Dylan’s electric middle finger to folks standards earmarked a crystalising moment for musicians that success was not something to be perused, you simply gathered it up in your boundary-pushing wake. Secondly, it coupled the introspection of folk with the energy of rock ‘n’ roll that mutated the art of songwriting to an irrevocable end. What followed that appearance at Newport was a trilogy of mostly electric records: Bring It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and despite a slew of fans turning their backs on his ‘turncoat antics’ each of those records is in with a shout of being crowned the greatest of all time.
As David Bowie once said, “Never play to the gallery. Always remember that the reason you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society.” Bob Dylan was a firm believer in that mantra and his ‘plugging in’ seemed to send out a clear message to the rest of society that he would not be a mouthpiece for their points of view.
In that famous quote, Bowie goes on to say, “I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfil other people’s expectations. They generally produce their worst work when they do that.” Dylan’s defiant electrified stance against expectation certainly produced some of his best songs and we’re taking a look at them below. And if your favourite doesn’t make it’s probably because the track can be played unplugged (I.e. ‘Hurricane’).
Bob Dylan’s ten greatest electric songs:
Everything about ‘Jokerman’ is totally mad. From the near-indecipherable lyrics to the strange juxtaposition of Dylan’s voice of “sand and glue” over a production style so slick it should come with a ‘caution: wet floor’ sign, it’s all a little weird and wonderful to find Dylan in such a schism.
If his Newport Folk Festival performance singled him out as a daring artist then flying headstrong into new-fangled world of white reggae in the 1980s certainly solidified this legacy. This list would be incomplete without a bit of perversely daring mayhem.
9. ‘Not Dark Yet’
The beauty of electric music is the ambient scope that it gives to musicians. In the wired-up world of the studio, it would seem any sound is possible. Dylan used it to his advantage on ‘Not Dark Yet’ to sonically encapsulate the sound of a weary sigh.
‘Not Dark Yet’ pairs the coarsest of hoarse voices with the dreamiest of soundscapes for a song that straddles the dichotomy of old age’s reclined contentment and regret. It is the sound of a man in his autumn feeling the warmth of the setting sun, touched by the first cold of night, and it’s a thing of beauty.
8. ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’
It wasn’t merely Dylan’s transition to electricity that changed music, he altered culture irrevocably in a myriad of ways. One such way was the DJ silencing ‘long song’. Back when he first started, if it wasn’t around three minutes or less then it wouldn’t be played on the radio for the simple reason that anything longer gave DJ’s less time to talk. Dylan discarded one of his many fucks in this regard and crafted rambling masterpieces aplenty.
‘Stuck Inside of Mobile…’ is a long song that never loses its edge. The jangling electric melody and ensemble instrumentation find Dylan’s vocals at their most Dylan-esque for a tale of the blues. The rock-orientated 4/4 time is a departure from his early stylings, but it is one that proved beautifully fruitful.
7. ‘Idiot Wind’
With Blood on the Tracks, Dylan was back with a bang and he’d hardly been away. The LP also saw a slight change in writing style. The songs were more so stories regaled rather than predicaments dissected. Amidst all the loveliness on this album, however, is this standout stanza. It is spewed out bile, that proves for all his wonderful, sweet touches and poignancy, he’s often at his best when his pen is moved by rage. The track has a humour and pithiness akin to punk poet John Cooper Clarke’s iconic ‘Twat’.
Without the backing of electric instruments the song might have been left a little bit naked, but thanks to the force of charged particles, the brutal tirade packs a caustic punch that any rapper would be happy to host as a diss track.
6 ‘I Threw It All Away’
The brilliance of Dylan as an artist is that even the unquestionable ‘fuck you’ of plugging in was dealt with in an artistically considered way. ‘I Threw It All Away’ is a song dainty that memory can fool you into thinking it was in fact wholly acoustic but layered behind the track is melee of little electrified touches.
Although the melody may be dainty the message is anything but: in an almost daringly simple way Dylan croons out “Love and only love,” in a bold entreaty of harmony. This defiant mantra emboldens the melody a monolithic sense of spiritualism. Nick Cave said if he could have written any song it would be this and that’s good enough calling call to earn its place on any list.
5. ‘The Man in Me’
After a decade of musical dominance in the 1960s, Dylan found himself retreating from the ‘voice of a generation’ tag that came with it. For the spellbinding album, New Morning, he intentionally stripped his songs of anything that could be interpreted as some sort of satirical metaphor, and surprisingly such constraints resulted in somewhat of a masterpiece.
‘The Man in Me’ stands out in the party of Dylan’s back catalogue as a laidback presence sipping on a White Russian. It is a dreamy piece of music, ideal for bathtub escapism (just make sure there aren’t any marmots about).
4. ‘Sign on the Window’
Another masterpiece on New Morning is the chronically underrated gospel-adjacent track ‘Sign on the Window’. It is a brooding piece of humbly exuberant electrically sonified introspection and it’s absolutely brilliant.
The song opens with the gorgeously poetic couplet of, “Sign in the window says ‘lonely’ / Sign on the door said ‘no company allowed.’” These opening lines shine a light on the duality of the turmoil he was facing: the company that came with fame was a bad thing, but perhaps the loneliness of self-imposed solitude was worse.
Though on the surface about a very specific notion that very few have to endure, in a spiritual sense, loneliness versus the fear of taking the first steps against it is a battle that resonates with a far greater universality.
3. ‘Positively 4th Street’
It seems positively baffling that a song of this quality could go without an album to call home. Dylan’s embracing of Thomas Edison’s invention proved to turn up such a purple patch that he was able to dish this masterpiece out on a humble little 45.
The song itself is the twin brother of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. It packs all the same punch and caustic acerbic wit, riding along on a slightly sweeter organ tone.
The gem in the crown of this piece of folk-rock perfection is the very last verse, perhaps one of the best break-up verses ever penned, “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes / And just for that one moment I could be you / Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes / You’d know what a drag it is to see you.”
2. ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’
To open his electric oeuvre on Bring It All Back Home Dylan met his “Judas!” picketers with a fist. Rather than clutch to the safety of a successful formula, Dylan laced this proto-rap song with a flourish of jostling acoustic and electric guitars.
Dylan once said, “Nobody told me to go electric…No, I didn’t ask anybody. Nobody at all.” But with an introduction like this, even the Amish were glad that he did.
The song is a thing to cherished. It is a force of nature and an incendiary attack on the status quo in all its guises. However, what really makes it a masterpiece is the thrashes about like a mule and kicks the naysayers into touch in two minutes and twenty-one seconds flat. And it has one of the greatest music videos of all time as an added extra.
1. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’
We might have electricity to thank for one of the best songs in music history, but we also have Edie Sedgewick to thank too. The wrath and rage she induced in the songsmith paired perfectly with a little bit of electrified fuzz.
Edie Sedgewick was born to one of the richest families in America before becoming the poster girl of Andy Warhol’s factory. Edie’s departure from high society to the art scene was all well and good, but it was her dive into the darker side of the counterculture that led to Dylan’s caustic condemnation in song.
‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Positively 4th Street’ stand out from Dylan’s back catalogue as two of his best-ever songs, but also two of his most viscerally disdainful, and it would seem that whilst poseurs and champagne socialists, in general, may well have been under attack, to Bob on a personal level that side of society was encapsulated by Edie. The one thing that songs prove unanimously is that hell hath no fury like Dylan scorned.