On May 16th, 1966, Bob Dylan, released Blonde on Blonde, often named as the best album of his career by music journalists, and the next day, he was in Manchester, for a concert at the Free Trade Hall.
All you Bob fans out there, buckle in as our Manchester Reporter Pauline Smith gives us a song-by-song account of the memorable night.
“Turning down the opportunity to go to Woodstock in the Summer of Love in 1969 will always be a ‘what if or if only’ moment for me. I couldn’t go as I had to start my first real job that summer and so I turned down the offer from one of my student friends to visit the USA with him that summer. He did actually go to Woodstock and see Hendrix perform All Along the Watchtower; I went to work in Clayton with a strong smell of chemicals in the air.
“But there was no such ‘what if’ moment on Tuesday, May 16th 1966. I was actually there to see Robert Zimmermann – better known as Bob Dylan – live at the Free Trade Hall for 20 shillings.
“Back then that 20 shillings was a lot for me and we were in the stalls not in row G, but on the 9throw, Row I almost in the middle, which was just nine rows from the stage.
“This was the old original Free Trade Hall before the facade become the frontage for an upmarket hotel. Even years later I didn’t realise how important it supposedly was to be at that particular concert, and yes I did hear the booing and jeers and slow handclaps.
“Dylan was so important and he was on the cusp of changing his music from protest folk music to rock music. Just a day before the concert, he had released Blonde on Blonde, arguably the best album of his career. The next day he played live at “the concert” at the Free Trade Hall, the 11th date of the European leg of his world tour.
“Dylan was in his lightning-rod phase, being seen as the turncoat by the folkie community aghast that he had dared to rock out with an electric guitar. Their main gripe, which came to a head in Manchester, was that “plugged-in” Dylan was less legitimate than acoustic Dylan, less likely to provide listeners with music that spoke to them and who they were, and less communally in touch with the problems of the age.
“This battle had been playing out since Dylan had hit England. Dylan would perform his first set alone on stage, armed only with his acoustic guitar, and that would go down well. But then he’d come back out with his backup band the Hawks – later, of course, to become the Band – and it would be at that point, with the acrimony increasing throughout the electric set, that the “booing and jeering started”, or as our American cousins would say, a donnybrook would play out each evening.
“The more annoyed Dylan and his musicians would get in response, the more mercurial, magisterial, untouchable the music became.
”It was not light, it was not folky,” said guitarist Robbie Robertson of the period in Clinton Heylin’s Behind the Shades. “It was very dynamic, very explosive, and very violent.”
”It was like, as if, everything that we held dear had been betrayed,” says one fan in C.P. Lee’s Like the Night. “We made him and he betrayed the cause.”
“According to Robertson, the shows were solely recorded because of a prevailing incredulity within the Dylan camp. “The only reason tapes of those shows exist today is because we wanted to know, ‘Are we crazy?’” he recalled. “We’d go back to the hotel room, listen to a tape of a show and think, ‘Shit, that’s not that bad. Why is everybody so upset?’”
But aggrieved they were, and Dylan doubled down in his genius and went right back at them.
The tape from Manchester would remain unreleased for 32 years until it finally made it to light as The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4, attesting that Blonde on Blonde may not have even been the best new Dylan music you might have heard in that particular week, 55 years ago. Let’s take a look at the playlist of this evening by a genius.
All of the songs that Dylan and the Hawks sang and played that night have the LP where they were originally recorded listed in brackets (with one exception); this is so anyone who is interested can trace them back. And bear in mind not many of us were aware of the jeers and shouting at the previous concerts on this tour; there was no social media in the 1960s.
Looking back almost 55 years later I still pinch myself and genuinely recognise how lucky I was to be there. Fortunately, there is a recording of the evening and a few photos; we even know who shouted “Judas”…and I do remember someone shouting about Donovan early on and Dylan cupping his hand to his ear and shouting back…”Who is he?”
My clearest memories are how privileged I was to hear Dylan at the height of his powers, having written and performed 3 immense LPs in just over 12 months, all of which are represented in the songs he performed on that May evening in the Free Trade Hall.
Not all of us thought he was Judas, we could see and hear the torch he lit for that melding of folk and rock music. The 1960s was a decade when so many artists experimented with cross over sounds and we (my friends and I) had eclectic tastes even then – we weren’t “folkies” and enjoyed music from the Ronettes to Dylan. Weren’t we oh so lucky to have that explosion of creativity and choice.
First Set: Acoustic
“She Belongs to Me” (Bringing it all back home)
“Pure folk music aficionados” seemed to have this perception that he was now singing about himself in his electric rock songs, whereas “folkie Dylan” was more communal. My friend and I thought at the time that this was wrong, we really wanted to hear the new stuff. It was only when I went to college for the next 3 years that I could buy the Blonde on Blonde album, and listen to the others that my new friends there had – we shared our LPs in our flatshares.
Everyone in the audience was really pleased as the acoustic half opened with this number.
“Fourth Time Around” (Blonde on Blonde)
Played in 3/4 time, it is sometimes said that Dylan is having a dig at John Lennon’s Norwegian Wood or it could be some kind of ironic homage. Either way the audience were happy with this melodic song.
“Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde)
If you have time read the lyrics, and then just imagine hearing this for the first time the day after it was released on an LP? Which was what it was like for all of us sitting there enraptured and relaxed listening to the words by a master wordsmith attempting to define what love is. In some people’s eyes one of the greatest love poems/songs and it seems based on living in New York when his wife was pregnant.
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (Bringing it all back home)
The intensity of “Johanna” is balanced out with what is perhaps Dylan’s most melodic ballad, which is all about rejection and a woman mourning the loss of her lover. Some people think its about Joan Baez, it is the last track on Bringing It All Back Home and he sang it to close the Newport Folk Festival in 65; so is it him saying farewell to his days as folk protest singer? If it was none of us in the audience that evening were aware of the irony…many of us were teenagers like me and we thought we knew all about being dumped and this ballad defines that loss.
“Desolation Row” (Highway 61 revisited)
This small skinny man in his suit (yes he wore a suit at that concert) with his guitar and harmonica, the curtains closed behind him sung for 11 minutes. And boy did we listen.
Yet again his lyrics entranced us – is it the music of the absurd with so many eclectic references…from the hanging to blackface minstrel music to Ginsburg and even Einstein, Ophelia and Nero.
This is a complex song with its lyrics about a rejected lover who is now no longer in love with the woman who tries to come back to him. Whereas, Dylan still had a lot of living to do. And being honoured with the Nobel Prize for literature was decades away, this song is one of the reasons why.
“Just Like a Woman” (Blonde on Blonde)
It’s important to keep in mind that this Blonde on Blonde song was being heard for the first time by almost everyone in this audience, just like Johanna. Meaning that everybody was listening intensely to see what Dylan would bring us next.
Would it be a new protest song? No
Unless that means protesting just how cruel love can be when the parties who once shared that love are virtual strangers needing an introduction at a party. Some say this song is misogynistic, some say its about the difference between a girl and a woman and it could be about Edie Sedgwick or even Joan Baez.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” (Bringing it all back home)
And so we come to the last song of the acoustic half with words that as with many Dylan lyrics have different roots. Is Mr Tambourine Man his muse or the Pied Piper of Hameln and the surrealistic images are said to be inspired partly by Fellini’s La Strada and was it influenced by Mardi Gras? Even though the Byrds version, which was much shorter, became a Number 1 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1965, everyone there revelled in the words and the melody.
Second Set: Electric
“Tell Me, Momma” (written for the 1966 Tour)
Dylan used this song to open the second half of the concert on his 1966 Tour and it was only ever played 15 times, and the official published lyrics are nothing like those that he sung. Probably the song was written to open the electric set and he just needed a song that nobody knew and it wouldn’t really matter if he changed the words. This is the opening verse
Ol’ black Bascom, don’t break no mirrors Cold black water dog, make no tears
You say you love me with what may be love
Don’t you remember makin’ baby love?
Got your steam drill built and you’re lookin’ for some kid To get it to work for you like your nine-pound hammer did But I know that you know that I know that you show Something is tearing up your mind
Tell me, momma
Tell me, momma
Tell me, momma, what is it? What’s wrong with you this time?
Who else but Robert Zimmerman would write a song this good, and then never release a studio version?
“I Don’t Believe You” (Another side of Bob Dylan)
After the first number the atmosphere in the Free Trade Hall has changed rapidly, like a cloud going over the sun and its slightly edgier and chillier.
This is the loudest rock & roll set played so far, and Dylan introduces this number from 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, an acoustic album of course…. with, “This is called ‘I Don’t Believe You.’ It used to go like that, and now it goes like this.”
Everyone here knows this song and now they’re worried that he’s changed it; lots of nervous laughter……not by me and my friend. We are both enjoying the new version where the anger in his voice and the thumping sound of the Hawks shows us both that it’s how you sing a song rather than the lyrics that make it memorable.
“Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” (Bob Dylan)
This is a traditional folk song popularised in the 1950s by Eric Von Schmidt and it’s from Dylan’s first album, but on this evening it’s anything but a “folkie version”. The Animals had chart success with a version of this Dylan number, Baby Let Me Take You Home in 1964.
Lots of hecklers are becoming bolder. Angry and shouting. For the first time, they disrupt the intro by chanting and slow clapping.
Dylan breaks off his harmonica intro for a short moment in time and when he resumes he and the Hawks play over the heckling until we can no longer hear them.
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (Highway 61 revisited)
The version recorded three nights earlier in Liverpool, where apparently the crowd was even nastier, became the B side of “I Want You.” It is also recorded on the bootleg so-called Albert Hall version which was of course the Free Trade Hall, and Dylan and the Hawks quickly get into playing before the heckling can start; the lyrics are incredibly complex and about a drug and alcohol-drenched time in Juarez before returning to New York.
“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” (Blonde on Blonde)
The only Blonde on Blonde song in the electric set and the crowd does not want to hear it. Some say the woman in it was inspired by Edie Sedgwick. Dylan introduces this 12 bar blues song like he’s teaching small children.
They counter with mock applause, and a slow handclap to disrupt the musicians. A heckler shouts something about playing protest songs. Applause follows.
The slow handclap becomes frenzied clapping.
The music starts and drowns them out…again.
“One Too Many Mornings” (The Times they are a changing)
Another song about overpowering lost love which was originally recorded in 1963 and it was previously a pensive ballad with a lilting melody.
Dylan mumbles jumbled nonsensical words over and over until everyone decides that maybe they don’t want to miss what he’s saying. At which point, he says,
“If only you wouldn’t clap so hard.” Begrudging laughter. And they launch into the electric version
“Ballad of a Thin Man” (Highway 61 Revisited)
The Thin Man, Mr Jones, is a company man or a “suit” and the lyrics are both provocative and even implicitly sexual…its a tough raunchy number.
Everyone knows the concert is almost over. What will happen next?
“Like a Rolling Stone” (Highway 61 Revisited)
This is the final number and the hecklers last chance to make a stand and Dylan’s.
The showdown begins in that silence in the intro….and someone in the audience, from up in the circle, shouts………. “Judas”
Dylan hisses back, “I don’t believe you” and then with venom in his voice, “You’re a liar.”
Another pause, before Dylan turns to his band and orders them to “Play fucking loud!”
At the end, the audience erupts into applause and Dylan says “thank you”