It's 50 years since the most controversial and incendiary rock and roll moment of all time: when Bob Dylan went electric in Manchester, but what's even more amazing is that the Lancastrian city has been at the centre of the UK's music scene ever since...Featured May 16 Words by Rob Crossan / Photo By Retna
A spring evening in Manchester and a toxic atmosphere is reaching peak hostility inside a Victorian concert hall in the centre of the city.
On stage, a rake-thin singer, his hair a mass of curls, wearing a polka-dot shirt and dark glasses, has spent the past hour soaking up slow hand claps and abuse from the audience. Eventually, one crowd member has had enough. Rising from his seat, he bellows towards the stage, “Judas!”
Unperturbed, the singer turns to his band and, as they launch into a frenzied version of Like a Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan defiantly yells an instruction to his guitarist: “Play it f**king loud!”
“The idea that an audience could get so offended by a simple change in musical direction, be so angry and take something as such a very personal affront, is just inconceivable today,” says CP Lee, a former lecturer at the University of Salford who, as a 16-year-old schoolboy, was at the infamous Bob Dylan's concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall exactly 50 years ago this spring; a gig that, in numerous ways, changed the course of rock history when Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar.
“There's a strong argument to be made that we wouldn't have heavy rock, or artists like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, without Dylan going electric,” adds music journalist and Dylan biographer Patrick Humphries. “Yet, despite the importance of what he did, there were lots of people who thought he was an absolute traitor.”
Dylan's tour of the UK in May 1966 was a watershed moment in his career. Already the most famous folk singer in the world, his acoustic tracks, such as Mr Tambourine Man and The Times They Are a-Changin', had made him the poster boy for a new brand of intelligent, popular folk music - a genre which, to hardcore devotees, had a code of conduct that bordered, at times, on the puritanical.
“There were these places called singer's clubs, which were all over the north of England in the 1960s,” explains Lee, as we sit in what was once the Free Trade Hall, the location for this explosive night on 17 May 1966, now a smart Radisson hotel.
“These clubs were popular with folk-music fans, but had very strict rules. At this point in the 60s, there was a revival of traditional folk music, some of which dates back hundreds of years, and a very brutal notion of what constituted ‘authentic' music. It was these people, who loved Bob Dylan's early folk music, who became so enraged when he plugged in his electric guitar that night at the Free Trade Hall.”
“Bob had first performed electric back at the Newport Folk Festival in the States the year before,” says Humphries, “but word travelled slowly back then. A lot of people in Manchester, folk purists, would have still been hoping that he had realised his mistake. Many members of the crowd in Manchester that night were angry at this change of direction and they wanted to make their feelings heard.”
For the first half of the show, Dylan appeased the folkies by playing an acoustic set, but the second half of the show then caused an eruption.
“It was quite simply the loudest rock and roll anyone had ever heard in their lives before,” says Lee. “The noise was incredible, like a bulldozer smashing through a wall. But a huge section of the crowd absolutely hated it and were booing all the way through. I saw one young girl walk up to the stage and hand Dylan a piece of paper. He read it and shoved it in his pocket. It turned out that what was written on the paper was, ‘Tell the band to go home'.
Rock and roll was never the same again. For most cities, such a moment would represent a high musical watermark, but in Manchester, it was simply the first of many instances that have helped to define it as the UK's beating musical heart for much of the past half-century.
The Free Trade Hall continued to host acts up until its closure in 1996, but its next epoch-defining moment surely occurred in the summer of 1976, when the Sex Pistols came to town in a blaze of attitude and safety pins. Not only was it the first instance that the punk band played Anarchy in the UK, but in the crowd for those events were a number of men who would go on to shape not only the city's but, arguably, the world's musical tastes for the next decade. Ian Curtis and Peter Hook, who went on to form Joy Division, Mick Hucknall of Simply Red and Morrissey were all present that night. Another man there was Tony Wilson who, two years later, launched Factory Records, the label that, in 1983, would release New Order's Blue Monday, still the largest selling 12” ever, with over three-million copies shifted worldwide. From there it led to the blissed-out days of the legendary Hacienda nightclub, also thanks to Wilson, and the psychedelic guitars of the Stone Roses, which formed part of the baggy scene that kicked off the second summer of love in 1987.
In the 1990s, the city rode the Britpop wave, most notably in the form of the muscular rock and roll of Oasis, while Manchester can lay claim - whether it likes it or not - to one of the most successful boy bands of all time in the form of Take That.
Manchester is, according to local radio presenter and blogger Shell Zenner, a city that has always punched above its weight:
“Manchester lives by its own rules and spirit,” she insists. “As someone who grew up in the Midlands, moved to London and then to Manchester, other UK cities lack the tightknit community and variety of culture that Manchester offers. And don't forget the weather. It rains A LOT in Manchester, which means you'll often find people holed up inside a studio escaping the wet or hanging out in bars and venues, which can conjure up some creative magic.”
The stats back it up, too: Manchester has more music venues per 100,000 people than any other city in the UK and it's also fast establishing itself as a cultural powerhouse. It already has the Manchester Literary Festival, a biennial celebration of performing arts which has, over the years, had a strong musical flavour, with the likes of Björk and Damon Albarn involved. Last year, the city welcomed another addition, in the form of a new multi-arts venue Home, on top of a promised £78m Government investment which will focus on the construction of yet a further artist-led creative hub, to be called The Factory.
This month sees Electric 50, a concert with radio DJ Andy Kershaw as MC where, exactly 50 years after Dylan's show, modern artists and bands will be taking it in turns to play the exact set list in the exact order that were played on that legendary night in 1966 (on 17 May at the Manchester Academy, tickets from £11, manchesteracademy.net). Edwina Hayes, one of the artists who will be performing, is one of the younger generation who, despite not even having been born at the time of the original gig, has a lifelong love affair with Bob.
“Dylan's songs are all like old friends to me,” says Hayes. “I grew up with them and he's just such a mysterious, enigmatic figure. He never gives interviews and there's so much myth and legend around him. I know a couple of acts who have supported him on his tours and, even then, you can't really get close to him.”
Dylan, now 74, continues to gig on his Never Ending Tour around the world, though the idea of him causing such controversy these days is unimaginable.
“Anyone can listen to the recording of the original concert and you can hear the revolution,” says Lee, referring to the album of the gig, which is mistakenly titled Live at the ‘Royal Albert Hall', hence the quote marks. “Audiences don't get so involved in music like that any more. Even if Adele came on stage at the O2 and played avant-garde electronica for an hour, the audience would probably accept it. Nobody changed music like Bob Dylan. Manchester is still feeling the effects of that night half a century on.”
Manchester's Free Trade Hall is now a Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel complete with a Bob Dylan suite (radissonblu-edwardian.com). Patrick Humphries' Dylan biography, No Direction Home, is out now, published by Omnibus Press