Another of my little indulgence pieces for you today (although I suppose really, ALL of these articles are indulgence pieces) as I was thinking; “well, it’s been almost a year since I’ve written about Bob Dylan” and in my mind, that’s just not good enough. However, I hope to do more than just praise the music, as that’s been done to death already, not least by me. There is a specific point I wish to make about the nature of rock music, the direction in which Dylan’s music was firmly established by the time he performed this concert in 1966.
There’s no way you can really form a picture of rock music without its association with the youth. Its first audience and love was the youth, especially in America, where it exploded onto the scene at a turbulent time. Civil rights movements, post-war rebuilding, the “Baby Boom,” McCarthyism were all part of a society with a growing dependency on fear, but with a glorious optimism for the future. The growth of rock and roll music coincided with the rise of “the teenager” as a new social class, a relaxation of the adult-dominated society which had previously been the norm. Hollywood, at the same time, was relaxing its Motion Picture Production Code; teenagers had the rebellious and notorious figures of Marlon Brando and James Dean as idols. All around the USA, societal and moral values were changing, and from this slow transition rock and roll was born; the first genre of music to both symbolize a protest against the norm as well as just showing people how to have a good time and enjoy themselves. It’s worth noting that the point at which some people consider rock music to have lost its relevance (post-Woodstock, post-Hendrix/Joplin/Morrison etc) roughly coincides with the end of these societal changes. Civil rights had been achieved in law if not in practice, we’d beat those damn reds to the Moon, people could swear in films now, the Vietnam war was drawing to a close. It’s not that there was less to protest against (I think if the rock and roll movement began now, in 2013, they’d have a lot more to protest against than they did back then) but perhaps their voices weren’t being heard anymore, or people had simply become blind to their message. Either way, early rock and roll was inexorably linked to protest and expression; or even a protest against an inability to be expressive. At least, selon moi. In light of this, I would like to suggest that the crux of this album epitomizes the true spirit of rock music.
1963. Dylan, a frizzy haired young folk singer, the new “spokesman of a generation” with his topical lyrics and protest songs against racism and war. Skip forward a year, his album Another Side of Bob Dylan, in which there “aren’t any finger-pointin’ songs” prompted some critics to suggest he had lost touch with the populace. 1965, Dylan introduces electric instruments and releases 2 albums featuring full-fledged rock arrangements. Finally, 1966, the year this album was released, Dylan goes on a world tour, in which a typical should would consist of an opening acoustic solo set, followed by an electric set, backed with the musicians who would later become The Band. This album demonstrates a particularly infamous set in Manchester Free Trade Hall, one that has been bootlegged extensively for decades before this 1998 release and one infamous for a particular incident near the end of the show.
The acoustic set is nothing to write home about whatsoever. Seven songs, all of which compare very poorly with their studio counterparts, not least due to the lack of electric instruments that made songs like Visions of Johanna so ethereal and majestic in the first place. Dylan sounds fairly bored in both his playing and his singing, as if he was itching to get to the electric set. Frankly, I was itching for the same thing. Disc two is where all the action begins. The opener leaves no holds barred, with Robbie Robertson channeling angst through his guitar and Dylan, definitely sounding more at home here, blazing through the lyrics with a sneer and a smirk. However, it doesn’t take long before things get a little tense. Clearly unhappy with the electric reworking of his earlier acoustic I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met), the applause diminishes slightly and the heckling starts. It continues throughout the set before each song, before another electric reworking of the traditional Baby Let Me Follow You Down, after the boisterous and hilarious Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, and especially after the penultimate Ballad of a Thin Man. (Perhaps because this song in particular had some sound issues; you can barely hear Dylan’s vocals) This is where history was made. During a rare quiet period in the middle of heckling, someone shouts the infamous cry: “Judas!” which is applauded enthusiastically by the crowd. After some more relatively inaudible insults, Dylan sneers back “I don’t believe you… you’re a liar!” and then turns to his band, and just within earshot, mutters: “Play fucking loud!” before launching into a raucous version of Like A Rolling Stone. This, for me, encapsulates the rock ideal in one simple gesture. Dylan wasn’t about to be pigeonholed or go along with people’s expectation of him as a protest singer if that’s not what he wanted to do. Why shouldn’t he play with electric instruments? With a true rock ideal, he realized he was being identified with something and then challenged that identity to the point where it was no longer tangible. It was a protest against the norm; a different kind of protest from what his fans were accustomed to, but a protest nonetheless, and to turn your back on your own fans, to go your own way in the face of opposition, to be defamed as Judas Iscariot himself, and to simply respond with the instruction to “play fucking LOUD!”… I’ll be damned if it’s not the most rock and roll thing I’ve ever heard.
Words – Adam.