On 25 July 1965, 51 years ago this week, in Newport Rhode Island, USA, Bob Dylan strapped on a black Fender Stratocaster guitar, plugged it in and played with an electric blues band at. He only played three songs and one of them was apparently terrible but in about 15 minutes he managed to split the Sixties wide open and changed music more than a little. It must be aid the crowd that evening weren’t especially happy – Dylan was said to have “electrified one half of his audience, and electrocuted the other” – so Dylan travelled the world and played to audiences around the world, including here in the UK, who bought their tickets and booed him loudly.
Songs from the early Sixties were all moon-in-June I-love-you-yes-I-do teen fluff. Post 1964/5 though they have added weight, almost always still about love but now deeper and more sophisticated. If it wasn’t Bob Dylan’s immediate influence, then it was the massive influence he had on The Beatles when he finally met them, which he did on Friday 28 August 1964, in a room in the Delmonico hotel at Park Avenue and 59th in New York City, during the Beatles first US tour. According to one critic: “That meeting didn’t just change pop music – it changed the times.”
Dylan introduced the Fab Four to marijuana for (allegedly) the first time. Ringo Starr didn’t understand dope etiquette so smoked it all without sharing and collapsed in a giggling mess. Manager Brian Epstein was so stoned he could only squeak. Paul McCartney believed he’d attained true mental clarity for the first time in his life and instructed Beatles roadie Mal Evans to write down everything he said henceforth. Sober and later, it was gibberish.
Dylan, exposed to the Beatles, decided he’d had enough of the spokesman-of-his-generation nonsense and wanted to plug his guitar in. His next album, March 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home album was half acoustic and half full electric folk rock. The songs still had the social conscience of traditional American music and of his earlier songs but they didn’t half rattle along nicely. Exposed to Dylan and dope, the Beatles began to mine their own interior lives for more personal, self-examining songs. They went from “If I Fell” and “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” on A Hard Day’s Night in the first half of 1964 to “I’m a Loser” and “Baby’s in Black” in late 1964. In the middle they had got high with Bob Dylan. And in 1965 if it influenced the Beatles, sooner or later it was going to influence everyone.
In March 1965 he released a new single unlike anything he had done before, Subterranean Homesick Blues, a Beat stream consciousness, married with electric music inspired by Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’. But his next single which was the game changer. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ had been written in his suite at the Savoy Hotel on his May 1965 tour of the UK. By mid June back in the US, he had condensed 20 pages of lyrics to the six minute single we know. Actually it’s 6’10” but they put 5’59” on the label.
In July he was due to play the Newport Folk Festival in Newport Rhode Island, which he had played solo for the previous two years and where he was revered as a god by the folk faithful. In ’65 there was a terrific buzz on Dylan, that new single had been out four days and wasn’t like anything they’d heard him do before. On top of that, the Byrds’ truncated version of the 5 and a half minute poem on his latest album ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ had been the Number One hit single in the country less than a month before
On them Saturday, 24 July, he played the song writing workshop solo with his guitar as that kind of nasal troubadour we all love to a rapturous crowd. Over on the main stage, a group from Chicago called the Paul Butterfield Blues Band were playing their own set. They included singer/harmonica player Paul Butterfield and blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield, a Jewish kid from a wealthy family in Chicago who even at 21 was a guitar virtuoso. Chicago is after all where the blues went electric. The rest of the band were old timers who had played with old Chicago blues guys like Little Walter and Howlin Wolf.
They were introduced rather sneeringly by grandee of the folk movement called Alan Lomax, as ‘these kids from Chicago will try and play the blues with the help of all these instruments’. As he walked off, Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman said ‘that was a real chickenshit introduction’, at which point Lomax replied ‘do you want a punch in the mouth?’ and pushed Grossman. Both fell to the ground so you hadthe sight of these two large middle-aged men rolling around on the ground punching each other until they were separated.
So irritated was Dylan by what he considered Lomax’s condescending remarks and behaviour to his manager that he decided to do something he had wanted to do for some time: play his new songs with an amplified, electric band on his main-stage set the following night. He took the Butterfield Band’s rhythm section, plus their lead guitarist Mike Bloomfield and a few others he knew were there like Al Kooper, a guitar player who had blagged his way into playing the Hammond organ on Like A Rolling Stone a month earlier, back to Nethercliffe, a mansion nearby being used by festival organiser as a bolt hole for entertainers where he was staying in RI and rehearsed till dawn.
They all soundchecked at 5.30pm the next afternoon, Sunday, just as the afternoon’s heavy rain had stopped – which might not normally matter if all you have is a battered acoustic guitar but these guys had amps and mikes and metal harmonicas. At about 9pm, sandwiched between two very traditional acts, Dylan dressed in a leather jacket, black jeans, shades and Cuban heeled Beatles boots he’d bought on Carnaby Street two months earlier took the stage. Loud applause faded as the audience realised everyone on stage was plugging in and tuning up. Dylan then started strumming his electric guitar, the drums started as support then Bloomfield shouted Let’s go and they were off into Maggie’s Farm, Dylan’s vocals in a call and response with Mike Bloomfield’s blues guitar
By today’s standards it wasn’t especially loud but to a field full of folk enthusiasts “that first note of ‘Maggie’s Farm’ was the loudest thing anybody had ever heard”. People started booing about half way through the first song. The only mikes were on stage where there were more likely to be boos, hence the legend. The applause at the end lasts mere seconds when there was applause for nearly a minute when they first walked on stage.
Next was Like a Rolling Stone which most only knew from the radio and had a shambolic end . Again there was only 10 seconds applause for something that was in the Top 3 that week. They then played an early version of It Takes A Lot To Laugh It Takes A Train To Cry, which was by all accounts awful. After which Dylan says ‘Lets go, that’s all’ at which an incredulous Bloomfield answers ‘That it?’ Yes it was but that was when the main booing started. They’d only played three songs – they had rehearsed five – and only been on for 17 minutes. The promoter begged him to go back out on his own lest there be a riot, so Dylan borrowed an acoustic guitar from Johnny Cash and went back on for two more solo songs. It had been a total of 35 minutes since he went on and he was off stage or tuning up for ten of them. The crowd exploded with applause at the end, calling for more but Dylan did not return (in fact he did not return to the Newport festival for 37 years and in an enigmatic gesture, sported a wig and fake beard).
Backstage the feeling was one of betrayal. All the old guard were incandescent with rage at the abandoning of their principles by the best known among them and according to legend Pete Seeger went hunting for an axe to cut the power. Dylan though seemed calm, claiming not to have noticed the booing but booing there was. In fact Yarrow had to ask for the booing to stop so the next act could come on. At the traditional post-show dinner, Dylan sat in the corner nervously whilst the traditionalists at the other end of the room stared daggers. Singer Maria D’Amato – later Maria ‘Midnight At The Oasis’ Muldaur went over to ask him to dance, and he said ‘I’d dance with you Maria but my hands are on fire’.
Dylan went back to New York and completed recording his Highway 61 Revisited album in just four days, an album generally regarded as a revolutionary record, one of the greatest ever made. He had big shows booked for August 1965 and he needed an electric band to back him up. The Butterfield Blues Band had their own careers. so Albert Grossman’s secretary had seen a great band playing in a club in near Atlantic City, NJ called Levon and the Hawks. Drummer Levon Helm and lead guitarist Robbie Robertson joined Dylan’s electric band for the gigs but as band members left one by one fed up with being jeered every night, so the other three members of the Hawks – Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson – joined. The band we later knew as The Band went off round the world with Dylan and were roundly booed every single night.