Electrifying moment: when Bob Dylan invented rock

Bob Dylan's historic 1965 concert 45 years ago today broke down musical walls and shaped rock 'n' roll as we know it, writes Oliver Good.

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1965:  Photo of Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival  (Photo by Alice Ochs/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

Dozens of harmonicas clatter on to the stage. Boos and hisses begin to drown out the music, while furious festival organisers threaten to cut off the power - with axes, no less. They are angry because the 24-year-old man on stage has betrayed them and everything he claimed to believe in. Bob Dylan, folk music's brightest star, had gone electric. Or so the legend goes. The truth about what occurred at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965, is still a matter of debate. Most experts now claim that the crowd threw harmonicas because Dylan asked to borrow one, that they were displeased because Dylan's set was to be cut short, or due to poor sound quality, rather than the ideology of folk purists. But the one thing that everyone agrees on - the times they were a-changin'.

"It's the single most defining point in the history of modern popular music," says Clinton Heylin, the author of six books about the singer, including the biography Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades. "Dylan split the music world in half that day. He said, 'I'm going with them', and in a single gesture created what we now know as rock music." The singer was headlining the Sunday night of the annual Rhode Island event, which had been drawing folk fans from all across the US for six years. Dylan had played the previous two events and also caused controversy in 1964 for debuting songs like Mr Tamborine Man. Despite its now being considered a modern classic, many folk purists dubbed it as introspective and even unlistenable, while magazines ran editorials urging the singer to return to a more traditional form of protest music.

But although his decision to "go electric" at the 1965 event has gone down in history, Dylan's road to becoming a rock 'n' roll musician had been a gradual one. The inspiration came when he heard the Animals covering House of the Rising Sun, an old folk song that Dylan had also recorded on his debut album. The British group's electric reworking of the tune led the folk singer to enlist a full band for some of the songs on his March 1965 album, Bringing it all Back Home.

"It's hard for us to understand in 2010 that people who were fans of folk music - generally young, college-aged people - looked down on pop music and considered it frivolous," says Heylin. "They considered folk music and pop music to be completely separate things." The American folk music revival, which had begun in the 1950s, frequently saw artists adapting existing songs, the authorship of which was often unknown. With acoustic guitars and harmonicas they reworked ancient ballads, protest songs from the Old West or the Great Depression and Mississippi blues numbers.

"[They] even pretended to sing 16th-century Scottish ballads, which were about things that they couldn't possibly have understood," says Heylin. But when groups on both sides of the Atlantic began to combine protest song writing with rocking rhythm sections, folk was subsumed into its louder, brasher cousin. It was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band that would help midwife Dylan's rebirth at Newport. But the controversy began before any musician played a single note, when Dylan's manager Albert Grossman had a fist fight with one of the festival's organisers. Alan Lomax had given the Butterfield band a snotty introduction during their own set because they played with electric instruments and Grossman saw that as a slight on Dylan too.

The day before he was due to appear, three of the Butterfield band decamped to a nearby mansion with Dylan to practise, but it was quickly revealed to be an uneasy musical union. According to the organ player Al Kooper: "The Butterfield band didn't have the best chemistry to back Dylan and [the practice] was a tough night, complicated and ugly." When the singer arrived on stage at Newport in 1965, the master of ceremonies Peter Yarrow - of Peter, Paul and Mary - announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, the person that's going to come up now has a limited amount of time. His name is Bob Dylan."

The band launched into the defiant workers' anthem Maggie's Farm, then the new single Like a Rolling Stone, before playing the little known song Phantom Engineer (which later became known as It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry). Backstage, the folk singer and co-organiser Pete Seeger was livid, shouting at the sound technicians to "get that distortion out of his voice" and threatening to chop the cables with an axe.

"There was a lot of bad blood," says Heylin. "But the hostility towards Dylan's performance [was from] the organisers, not the audience. I've asked many people who were there whether Dylan really was booed and it's pretty clear that any booing there was pretty muted." After the short set Dylan left the stage. Some reports claim he was visibly shaken by the experience, but he was urged to return by Yarrow minutes later to appease the audience. After fumbling around for an acoustic guitar the singer reappeared on stage, but was then forced to beg the audience for an E harmonica. The acoustic set saw him pointedly play the lamenting It's All Over Now, Baby Blue and the previous year's most controversial song (and now a chart hit) Mr Tambourine Man.

"It was an obvious raised digit to the organisers," says Heylin. But despite the performance's shambolic reputation, recently unearthed footage contains little audible evidence of booing and a much better live sound from Dylan and the Butterfield band than many had expected. "There were some sound issues which you would expect, but essentially it's a very tight performance," says Heylin. "The reaction from the crowd at the end of Like a Rolling Stone is clearly extremely enthusiastic."

So if Dylan's transformation from folksinger to rocker was in fact a gradual one, and the performance really to blame, what was all the fuss about? "He did cause enormous controversy. Whether the controversy was built up after the event or whether there was this epiphany at the actual concert is still a matter of debate, but by the time he played his next concert at Forest Hill six weeks later, there's no question that people were expecting the crowd to boo and turning up to boo," says Heylin.

The British tour that followed saw Dylan play concerts that were split into separate folk and electric sets. The shows led some of the greatest displays of outrage from audiences that the singer would ever receive, including the infamous "Judas" heckle at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. "The real problem for [the Newport organisers] was that Dylan was bigger than the festival - that was incontestable by that point. They were about to be swept away by the tide and he wasn't."

Dylan's decision to "go electric" influenced the careers of countless other artists and allowed rock and pop musicians everywhere to incorporate social commentary and other artistic themes into mainstream songs. The months that followed saw the release of the Beatles' Rubber Soul, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and the formation of the Velvet Underground. "The whole history of pop music tilted off its axis," says Heylin, "but unfortunately, one of the other consequences was that Dylan almost single-handedly killed folk as a commercially viable form of music. It has never recovered from that." ogood@thenational.ae