The beatnik crowd at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival sat patiently under the boon of the summer sun. They eagerly awaited the arrival of Bob Dylan like pilgrims in a promised land, confident that a six-stringed miracle was handily scheduled in for their adoring eyes to behold. Bob Dylan was the messiah of folk music, and even Joan Baez was announcing him as such, but in one swooping electric middle finger, Dylan went from Jesus to Judas to the backbeat of a fuzz pedalled hum.
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 that it was a move that upset many. Likewise, it spawned some of his greatest songs, including the counterculture anthem ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.
“When Bob recorded the studio version of the song,” Robbie Robertson of The Band has said of his involvement with the track, “I accidentally went with John Hammond Jr. to the studio. He said, ‘Oh God, I forgot, I promised my friend I would stop in, he’s recording,’ and I was like, ‘OK, whatever.’ We went in and they were recording ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ and I thought, ‘Whoa, this guy’s pulling a rabbit out of the hat — I haven’t heard anything like this before.”
Robbie Robertson would tour with Dylan on the infamous electric ‘Judas’ concerts that followed, but ‘Like A Rolling Stones’ was a rallying cry of defiance, as he adds: “When I started playing with Bob, I didn’t know how so much vocal power could come out of this frail man. He was so thin. He was singing louder and stronger than James Brown. We were in a battlefield on that tour, and you had to fight back.” Seemingly, nowhere was that battlefield bloodier than in the usually peaceful pastures of Yorkshire.
A few months after the Newport Folk Festival, in 1966, Dylan played a UK tour whereby the first half of his set was solo acoustic, and for the second half, he was joined on stage by his band for an electric finale. “A year ago, I saw him at the City Hall,” one fan declared, “And I thought he was magnificent, I thought he couldn’t improve if he tried. Then the next thing that happened is he went really commercial with this backing group and I didn’t like that very much. […] I think he’s prostituting himself.” And another fan simply added, “Bob Dylan was a bastard in the second half.”
You can witness the subdued outcry in the video below (and contrary to the title, it is in Sheffield, not Newcastle, where the thinking men of the Toon were much more hip with the changing times and had fully embraced Thomas Edison by then). What is fascinating watching back is how hindsight has rendered the idea of Bob Dylan succumbing to some sort of popular demand absolutely ludicrous; he is an artist who conforms to standards about as much as dark matter, and going electric was only the first signpost on a road that continues to zig and zag forevermore.
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 as he coupled folk introspection with the visceral edge of rock ‘n’ roll.
What followed that electric set at Newport for Dylan was Bring It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966); With this trilogy and his voice of “sand and glue”, Dylan quite literally changed the world, and he did it in a 14-month spell, which represents a purple patch of brilliance so prolific that even to Dylan himself it conjures up a notion of divine intervention.
It is easy to forget how quickly the 1960s sped by in a kaleidoscopic blur. Rock ‘n’ roll may well have been brooding away since the days of Robert Johnson and the delta blues, but its flower didn’t really burst open until the summer of the mid-sixties. And Dylan helped that invasive wildflower spread to ensure that pastures of pop culture would never look the same again with three records, 34 songs, recorded in 14 months when he was only 23. Each one of them is in with a shouting chance of being crowned the greatest album of all time, leaving the good people of Sheffield with pie on their kind faces.
See the clip, below.