The day the music changed forever
50 years ago tomorrow, Bob Dylan took to the stage at the Newport Folk Festival and plugged in his guitar. Rock 'n' roll was never the same again
Published 25/07/2015 | 02:30
The trajectory of rock 'n' roll was forever altered when Bob Dylan stepped on stage at the Newport Folk Festival 50 years ago tomorrow. On a balmy July night, the sun having just dipped below the horizon, the folk singer, already an icon at 24, gazed out at the adoring crowd, plugged in his guitar and rocked out. All around, jaws turned slack with disbelief. Soon jeers could be discerned - a chorus of apparent disapproval that would quickly echo around the world.
What was so shocking about a rock star playing loud, angry music on electric guitar? Nowadays it might be considered part of the job description. To understand the negative response we must place ourselves in the position of an idealistic music fan of the mid-60s. Dylan was a folkie - he was expected to play acoustic guitar and sing about politics, communal love and the evils of the Vietnam war. Thus "going electric" - as his new direction was swiftly dubbed - wasn't just a stylistic shift. It was a betrayal.
From the outset, reports of what actually happened at Newport were contradictory. One account has it that the 14,000 attendance booed not because Dylan was plugging in but because of a malfunctioning sound system which reduced his voice and guitar to muddy washes of noise.
Other witnesses say punters mostly approved Dylan's volte-face - which hadn't exactly dropped from the clear blue sky, with his latest album having included several electric "cuts" - and were supportive of his attempt to move beyond folk music.
In this retelling, the cat-calls erupted only when he walked off after just three songs and less than half-an-hour into a scheduled 90-minute performance (with cajoling, Dylan went back on and strummed out several perfunctory acoustic tunes, cadging a harmonica from someone in the front row).
What's beyond dispute is that, to the average Dylan-ite of 1965, their hero wielding an electric guitar was a shocking proposition. Plugged-in instruments were regarded suspiciously by purists, perceived as a means of masking poor technique and of polluting folk music with overtones of licentiousness.
More troubling, from a modern perspective, is the racial element - at the time electric guitars were understood in the United States to be the preserve of African-Americans, a crutch for Mississippi bluesmen whose baby had gone and left them, and not at all a suitable accompaniment for a generational spokesman such as Dylan.
Five decades on, why should anybody care about what Bob Dylan got up to in Newport? By general consensus it's been years since he put out a truly vital piece of new music.
Rock 'n' roll itself is at risk of losing its central place in the culture, usurped by pop, techno and, in a supreme irony that would probably elicit a husky laugh from 74-year-old-Dylan, "nu" folkies such as Mumford and Sons. So some people got mad (possibly) at Dylan in 1965 - big hooey.
The reason Newport remains so important is that its reverberations go far beyond Dylan and even popular music. If we accept the received wisdom that Dylan plugged in and was then booed off his actions constitute a historic case of an artist knowingly alienating - and perhaps antagonising - his core support.
As Dylan surely understood when, in the run-up to Newport, he ditched his acoustic guitar and began hashing out future classics such as Like A Rolling Stone and Maggie's Farm on a Stratocaster, to repeat yourself is to fall into creative stasis.
Ever since, it is a lesson artists have ignored at their peril. JK Rowling could have spent the rest of her life churning out Harry Potter novels. But, just like folk-era Dylan, she stopped at the right moment. So did Radiohead, exchanging stodgy stadium rock for bonkers electronica in the early 2000s. U2 embracing irony, Robert Downey Jr agreeing to play Iron Man, Jedward starring in Sharknado 3 - in each case the lesson is that, for creative souls, change isn't an indulgence, it's a survival mechanism. Dylan was first to show us this.
Revisiting contemporary accounts of Newport, it's obvious that - whatever exactly happened - the tension that night was intense. In the wings, Dylan's idol and mentor Pete Seeger was visibly distraught, though he would deny the apocryphal claim that he tried to chop Dylan's guitar lead with an axe. Later, Dylan himself seemed equal parts baffled and upset. "I played the guitar, that was all I did," he recalled subsequently. "I thought it was great music."
In hindsight, Newport may also be seen as the zenith of Dylan's influence on popular culture. On July 29 1966, almost one year to the day after the festival, he was greviously injured in a motorcycle accident and vanished from view for 18 months (and would not tour for another eight years).
The world did not stop spinning in Dylan's absence, and by the time he returned things had moved on.
And yet, memories of Newport endured. As the context changed, so Dylan's willingness to face down his fan-base acquired resonances beyond the folk community. The lesson - that occasionally you have to step outside other people's idea of who you are - remains as relevant today as 50 years ago.
"Dylan at Newport is remembered as a pioneering artist defying the rules and damn the consequences," writes music journalist Elijah Wald in his book Dylan Goes Electric!
"Supporters of new musical trends ever since - punk-rap hip-hop electronic - have compared their critics to the dull folkies who didn't understand the times, they were a changing."
Bringing it all back home: the Irish musicians who love Dylan
"I'm a big-time Dylan fan. I opened up for him twice, in Kilkenny and Galway. The crowd were 'Dylan-ites' without a doubt. People who go to see Bob Dylan - I would say less than 1pc aren't familiar with most of his work. With some of his performances, it's almost a game to figure out what he's playing sometimes. But it's quite a good game. Like most of the most successful musicians in the world, he was rather small.
"He was jogging on the spot before he went on, wearing his Western regalia. The whole of the VIP area was just standing there staring at him."
John Creedon, RTE presenter:
"My feeling about Dylan going from acoustic to electric is a bit like the argument in Cork that raged about Rory Gallagher and whether he was better on acoustic or electric. To my mind it is like comparing apples and oranges. It's possible to like both."
Oisin Leech The Lost Brothers:
"What happened at Newport is still hugely relevant today. Every artist young or old soon learns, sometimes the hard way, that following your own heart is the hardest but finest thing you can ever do. To ignore all the clamour around you and listen to what your very instinct is telling you. Dylan learned this very early on.
Oliver Cole, Musician:
"I remember thinking he was a terrible singer and awful guitar player. It was only when I heard a friend of mine play You're a Big Girl Now at a party that I was blown away. I was intrigued by this enigma of a man, who said so much but gave so little away, who sang contradictions with conviction that formed conclusions - and who answered to no one."
Philip King, founder of the Other Voices festival:
"He has a distance from the celebrity he has created. He needs that distance to allow him to work. At a concert in New York 1964 he said 'Well I hope you're having a good time, it's Hallowe'en and I've got my Bob Dylan mask on'. It's still there 50 years on. Behind the mask… is the man who makes the work. And it's the work that matters."