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Music

Bob Dylan picks the "first and the last" great rock and roll band

@SamWKemp

When it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, Bob Dylan is something of an expert. After cementing himself as post-war America’s folk laureate with tracks like ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, ‘Hey Tambourine Man’ and ‘Girl From The North Country’, the harmonica-huffing, scarecrow-framed singer took a radical left turn. Instead of catering to his newfound folk fanbase, he decided to cut himself adrift and step into the world of rock music. By 1965, he’d abandoned his blue-collar wardrobe in favour of the left bank’s severe and intensely chic outfits. He even found a pair of Godard-style cat-eye sunglasses to complete the look.

At the same time, Dylan’s songwriting was undergoing its own metamorphosis. In an interview in 1963, Bob addressed the folk boom then sweeping America. “Why are we in the midst of a folk music boom?” he asked. “Because the times cry for the truth…and people want to hear the truth and that’s just what they’re hearin’ in good folk music today… There’s mystery, magic, truth and the Bible in great folk music. I can’t hope to touch that. But I’m goin’ to try.”

A couple of years later, the ubiquity of folk troubadours espousing ‘the truth’ forced Dylan to reconsider his appraisal of the genre. Indeed, by 1964, there was a sense that folk had become a sacred cow. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the UK, where R&B venues like London’s Ealing Club were beginning to attract a new kind of audience. The Ealing became an incubator for a uniquely British brand of R&B pioneered by groups like The Who and, above all, The Rolling Stones. When the club opened in ’62, there was nothing else like it. News travelled fast, filling the city with the hum of anticipation. Recalling that time, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger said: “Just when we were getting together, we read this little thing about a rhythm’ n’ blues club starting in Ealing. Everybody must have been trying to get one together. We thought, ‘Let’s go up to this place and find out what’s happening.'”

When Dylan returned to England for the third time in May 1964, rock ‘n’ roll was firmly rooted in the UK. The Rolling Stones were at the centre of the action. After landing a show at London’s Royal Festival Hall, Dylan wrote a letter to a friend in which he insisted she come backstage. “You gotta come to this one, because the Rolling Stones are coming.” Even though the 27,000-seat venue had been sold out for weeks, the queue flowing down Southbank was still several thousand yards long.

Anthea Carthy, the friend Dylan urged to attend the concert, recalled the occasion. “In those days, we all had long hair, wore jeans, and the boys with their long hair were carrying bedrolls, with their chicks walking exactly two steps behind with the guitar. Here the birds always carried the guitar. There were no returned tickets. Bob’s first question was: ‘Are the Rolling Stones here?’ I said, ‘If you want to see rolling stones, put your head out the door.”

Dylan did end up getting the opportunity to meet the Rolling Stones, and would later describe them as “truly the greatest rock and roll band in the world and always will be. The last too.” In Dylan’s view, Jagger and company were responsible for laying the foundation not only for rock music but a whole raft of genes that followed. “Everything that came after them, metal, rap, punk, new wave, pop-rock, you name it… you can trace it all back to the Rolling Stones,” Dyan added. “They were the first and the last and no one’s ever done it better.” High praise indeed.

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