The “Royal Albert Hall” Show

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Dylan’s 1966 world tour with The Hawks is one of the most legendary moments in the history of rock music. Immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, each show opened with Dylan playing a solo acoustic set for the first half, and then, after a short intermission, re-emerging with The Hawks for a rock set. To say that this didn’t go well would be an incredible understatement. Particularly in England, the crowd reacted to the drums, organ and electrified guitars with sheer horror. They abused Dylan and his band, they walked out, they interrupted, they tried to throw the band off rhythm by clapping off-beat.

In his book about “Like A Rolling Stone”, Greil Marcus insists that there was organized Stalinist resistance to the Dylan shows. He notes that the British Communist party-controlled folk clubs across the UK had an approved repertoire of songs that would ennoble the folk, and that Dylan had crossed them by abandoning folk, protest and topical songs. Marcus suggests that these clubs sent people to the shows, seating them strategically through the halls to rabble rouse, complain, and clap off rhythm. I have absolutely no idea if this is true or not, but watching Eat the Document and No Direction Home this week it certainly seems believable that these raging young men standing outside his shows were Stalinists. They were obviously true believers in something, and that something wasn’t particularly Bob Dylan.

A number of shows on the 1966 tour were recorded, in varying quality. It is clear from what I’ve heard from Sheffield, London (the last night of the tour), Liverpool and elsewhere that the reactions were fairly consistent over the course of the month. More importantly, it is clear that musically and vocally Dylan had never been better in his life. In No Direction Home he says something to the effect of “whatever they were booing, it wasn’t what they were hearing from the stage” and he’s absolutely right. Many of the songs performed on this tour are the best I’ve heard so far this year.

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Yes, it is true that Dylan didn’t sing the protest stuff, even in the acoustic set. He commonly did “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” from his first album, but a rock version. Freewheelin’ and The Times They Are A-Changin’ were almost completely overlooked. But the fact is on most of the shows at the end of the tour the acoustic set was this:

She Belongs To Me

Fourth Time Around

Visions of Johanna

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Desolation Row

Just Like a Woman

Mr. Tambourine Man

Seriously, that is an epic song list. That’s several of his best ever songs all lined up in a row. Now, of course, this isn’t the stuff that was getting booed. But Dylan was giving the crowd tight, focused, definitive versions of some of his best songs – I defy you to find a better version of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” than the one that he did in Manchester – and they were still outraged. Remarkable.

Good shows abounded on this tour. There is a tremendous bootleg of the acoustic half of the final show (27 May 1966) at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where the version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” just slays me. The Sheffield show may have been recorded for a planned live album – the sound quality is impeccable.

The pinnacle of the whole tour, arguably the greatest single audience-performer interaction in the history of rock, took place on 17 May 1966 at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. It was the sixth show from the end of the tour, and it is one of the most bootlegged shows of all time. Erroneously identified by those bootleggers as one of the two Royal Albert Hall shows that concluded the tour, it was released under that name as Bootleg Series 4. If I could only have one Bob Dylan album on a desert island, there is no doubt in my mind that it would be this one.

The Manchester show has no faults at all. You get both sides of Dylan, both at their absolute peak. You get a remarkable set list. And you get the most triumphant version of “Like A Rolling Stone” imaginable.

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The second half of this show plays out a bit like a war between Dylan and the crowd. “Tell Me Momma”, the first song with the band, does not have any evidence of the booing – though the applause is markedly more muted than it was in the first half of the show. Dylan then introduces “I Don’t Believe You” by saying “It used to go like that, but now it goes like this”, which is a (good) line that he’d used earlier on the tour as well. Again, solid applause but also a few catcalls, and these grow as Dylan tunes his guitar and plays a little harmonica. Then the clapping starts. It’s a slow, distracting mean-spirited Stalinist clapping that Dylan drowns out with his harmonica and then the band comes in for “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”.

“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (awesome version, by the way) receives solid applause but more of the slow-clapping, but then Dylan interrupts it by talking over it. The crowd keeps quiet if they think he is going to say something to them – they’re like sheep that way. When the band takes too long to start the song, the clapping and booing grows overwhelming until Mickey Jones’s drumming leads them to drown it out. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” follows, and this is a near-perfect version of this song – might be the best ever. Then comes the turning point.

The crowd loses patience as they band tunes again – and there is more clapping and stamping of feet. Dylan is brilliant here – just brilliant. He steps up to the mic and begins to mumble nonsense into it. Eventually the crowd stops trying to upset him long enough to listen to what he might have to say. Which is this: “If you only just wouldn’t clap so hard”. This generates a mixture of applause and boos, demonstrating the strength of the split in the crowd.

Of course, the pinnacle of the entire scene takes place after “Ballad of a Thin Man”. The most famous crowd interaction in pop music history begins with a bunch of people yelling things at the stage that are incomprehensible. Then someone yells “Judas!” at him. It’s as clear as day.

This is how the liner notes for the bootleg Zimmerman: Ten of Swords (which concludes with a recording of the electric part of this show) explained the situation to me when I was sixteen or seventeen: “It would appear that it is in answer to the “Judas” accusation that Dylan responds, “I don’t be-leeeve you…You’re a LIAR… [moving back from the microphone] … you’re a FUCKING LIAR!”.

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For decades this is how I heard this exchange. The calls from the crowd are hard to make out if they’re more than a few words, and this made sense. Dylan’s final expletive could have been that. No Direction Home shows that he yelled it not at the audience but to the band – his back is to the crowd. It is also demonstrates that it’s not the “Judas” that draws the “I don’t believe you”, though it certainly might have been what crossed the line. On Ten of Swords you could hear that someone else yells something but it was never clear what it is. Bootleg Series 4 and No Direction Home make the whole scene much more precise:

“Judas!” draws no immediate response although part of the crowd laughs and claps, but then someone else in the crowd yells “I’m never listening to you again, ever!”. This is the man Dylan calls a liar (probably correctly), and then he turns his back on them and tells the band “Play it fucking loud!”. Which they certainly do.

Dylan spits the lyrics of “Like A Rolling Stone” at them. It’s an accusation. It is them that he’s singing to: “Once upon you dressed so fine, you threw the bum a dime, in your prime. Didn’t you?” The music thunders, and Dylan vents his spleen all over the Manchester audience as Jones thumps out a machine gun style drum line.

I was asked the other day if I’m going to make something like a Dylan Top 100 Songs at the end of this. I certainly am. Not just a list of the best songs, but the best versions of the best songs. I can’t imagine that “Like A Rolling Stone” won’t be at the top. I can’t imagine that it won’t be this version of that song. It’s perfection.

The best part of the whole exchange? Listen to the crowd at the end of the song. Long, loud, sustained applause. No booing. No catcalls.

Winner and still champion, Bob Dylan.

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