I've just finished reading White Bicycles, Joe Boyd's excellent memoir of the 60s ("I was there, I do remember"). The record producer and self-proclaimed éminence grise was one of the organisers of the infamous 1965 Newport Fok Festival when Bob Dylan plugged in and blew dust from the ears of thousands of folkies (scroll down for the tracks).
My favourite anecdote is when Dylan returned to play two acoustic songs after pissing off the folk faithful with the Butterfield Blues Band. He asked the audience, "Has anyone have an E harmonica? Anyone? An E harmonica?" As Boyd writes, "Only at Newport would this request be followed by a shower of half a dozen harmonicas on to the stage". You can hear them all thud in this clip:
Boyd also explains his theory behind the rumour that Pete Seeger was so incensed by Dylan's electric performance that he threatened to cut the speaker cables with an axe. It turns out that on the bill the day before Dylan's gig were the Texas Worksong Prison Group, a bunch of lifers on day release who performed one song chopping down a huge tree stump. As they rhythmically attacked the felled tree a mic cable came loose. A worried Seeger signalled to Boyd to secure the wire. "Seeger, axes, cables..." he writes, "somehow, in the way of legends, things got muddled up."
These then are the songs that caused all the fuss...
MP3: Bob Dylan - Maggie's Farm
MP3: Bob Dylan - Like a Rolling Stone
MP3: Bob Dylan - Phantom Engineer
MP3: Bob Dylan - It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
MP3: Bob Dylan - Mr Tambourine Man
Listening to these tracks more than 40 years after the event it's hard to comprehend why they had such an impact. The version of Like a Rolling Stone that Dylan and The Band unleashed in the UK the following year has much more power. Yet Boyd puts forward a good argument that this was rock's Year Zero.
Some loved it, some hated it, most were amazed, astonished and energized by it. It was something we take for granted now, but utterly novel then: non-linear lyrics, an attitude of total contempt fot expectation and established values, accompanied by screaming blues guitar and a powerful rhythm section, played at ear-splitting volume by young kids. The Beatles were still singing love songs in 1965 while the Stones played a brand of blues-rooted pop. This was different. This was the Birth of Rock.
If Joe Boyd is correct then this was arguably the most important gig in music history. What do you reckon?
To those wanting to witness Dylan at Newport I'd highly recommomend the DVD The Other Side Of The Mirror, which I wrote about some time ago. There's also much more about it in White Bicycles.
Bob Dylan: The Other Side of the Mirror