The beatnik crowd at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 sat quietly and reserved under the summer sun. All was heavenly and peaceful as hopeful spectators awaited the arrival of the man who had been crowned king—a boy of only 24 years named Bob Dylan. The only thing that could possibly upset the peace, love and acoustic harmony, is if some daft punk went and disavowed the Amish standards of folk authenticity and plugged in.
They did not expect the betrayal at hand from the man who had been introduced as literally belonging to them. As Dylan would later exclaim, “What a crazy thing to say! Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn’t belong to anyone then or now.” With his bold iconoclasm, Dylan was about to prove just that.
While his decision to turn electric was entirely his own, motivated by myriad factors, some of which even the hardiest of investigators or wiliest psychologist might never unearth, there are two bands who claim to be central in his decision. The times were a-changing and Dylan was too, by no means are these likely to be the only two acts that turned Dylan’s head, but given that Greenwich Village was absolutely mad about authenticity the great leap Dylan made can’t be underestimated and two key bands helped to swing him over the abyss.
“Appropriately enough,” David Crosby told Stereogum, “my favourite [Dylan track] is ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. Our manager knew Bob’s manager [when I was in the Byrds], and got an early tape of Bob singing this thing with another folk singer. It was really terrible, it was a really bad demo. They were out of tune and they were all screwed up. It was absolutely nonsense. But we heard these words: ‘To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.’ We were entranced.”
The song became a huge hit for The Byrds, so much so that some less scrupulous fans believe they actually wrote it all along, however, Crosby opines that their hit also had a huge impact on Dylan. “He came to hear us do the song. It was a crucial moment in Bob’s life. I don’t think he had heard anyone play his stuff electric before that. I’m pretty sure. We were the first ones. When we played ‘Tambourine Man’ for him, you could hear the gears going in his head, man,” he concluded.
In true timeless folk tradition, the next electric hit that stirred Dylan is also not an original from the band themselves but a mystic classic from time immemorial. “There was a connection that went on between the Animals and Bob, and our recording of ‘The Rising Sun,’” Animals frontman Eric Burdon says. “I’ve been told by lots of people who know, and were around at the time, that that’s what stimulated Bob into going electric, and becoming a rock star as opposed to a folk star.”
Burdon continues: “You might say we were all exposed — when I say ‘all of us,’ I mean the same age group on both sides of the Atlantic — we were exposed to the root of true black music at the same time, and realized that that was the road that we wanted to take.”
It is the opinion of the rafter rattling frontman, that based on what he has heard from others in the industry, that if Dylan thought the wise wherewithal of folk tales could be paired with the raucous cutting edge of rock ‘n’ roll as effectively as the Animals had coerced them then who cares about appeasing the so-called gatekeepers of genre standards.
Nevertheless, Dylan had to take the next leap entirely alone. He had grown up in the gingham-clad realm of Greenwich Village and he was well aware of the problems he would face as he added a fuzz to things. As the director, Ethan Coen said, “The folk scene was defined largely by the worship for authenticity.” That is at ends with being a pioneering trailblazer but it seems that is what Dylan was born to be. As John Hammond, the man who first signed him, once expressed: “Dylan was a born rebel, and I figured that, you know, Dylan could capture an audience of kids that Columbia had lost years before.”
As Robbie Robertson said of playing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ on the subsequent electric tour, “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.” Now, the naysayers are remembered as nothing other than daft while ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is a definitive anthem and one of the definitive great American works of art.