Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Thought on Dylan Going Electric in 1965

© Text by Robert Barry Francos /
Images from the Internet

It was inevitable that Bob Dylan would go electric, sending the folk masses either running towards or away from the electronic medium.  It wasn’t as much a rebellion when he showed up and plugged in his Strat during the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, shocking and rocking the status quo with “Maggie’s Farm,” as a growth spurt.

Dylan’s previous albums started out professing their loyalty to what preceded, nodding a head to Woody Guthrie, Delta Blues, and his upbringing in small city Minnesota.  When he hit the folk circuit in New York, his retro sound and vocal meanderings were as shocking to that audience used to the more subdued folk sounds of the Weavers, the Kingston Trio, and Peter Paul & Mary, as his hard hitting excursion in 1965. However, the first time was a revivalism to the hootenanny crowd who grasped his sincerity and bravery, putting him at the head of the pack. This became especially true when he started producing original numbers that were not about sea shanties (“Greenland Fisheries”), lost loves (“Barbara Allen”) and murder (“Down By the River”, “Willow Garden”), but of current events (“Blowin’ in the Wind”) and the changes in society (“The Times They are A-Changin’”); he even wrote nasty ditties about people he didn’t like (“It Ain’t Me Babe”).

Much like the beginning of rock and roll, where the smaller songwriters were copied and homogenized by the larger, and more mainstream sounding artists, this also followed in the folk milieu, with many artists such as Peter, Paul and Mary covering Dylan, or even Judy Collins having a hit with “Suzanne” before its creator, Leonard Cohen. But as with the examples for both folk and rock, having the smoothed out versions led the way for the lesser known artists, especially Dylan, whose voice was hardly AM radio friendly.

Dylan was in a constant mode of expanding and stretching, each album being more progressive and far reaching, with fame and ego pushing him ever forward. By the time he played England in spring of 1965, it was obvious he was bored. As much as he was influencing the whole folk genre, spurring on new sounds from the likes of Phil Ochs and Simon & Garfunkel, he was also, in turn, tuned into the newer, relatively harder and updated eclectic electric sounds of the British Invasion, as well as the more harsh music that was coming out of the Pacific Northwest, with bands like the Kingsmen and the Wailers. Most likely drugs were also spurring him on, as evidenced by the classic footage of Dylan and John Lennon completely in an outer range of mind alteration in the back of a limo, as they mumble and burble along; it’s as painful as it is unintentionally funny.

If Dylan had not plugged in, surely someone else would have eventually, as technology manages to eventually change everything, but it was the combination of Dylan’s stature as a folk artist and being in the bailiwick of the traditional celebration of the genre that broke the folk rock sound barrier. If Dylan had played somewhere else, even Folk City on Bleecker St., or it was someone else who had electrified Newport, the shock wave would not have been as big and certainly not as electrically instantaneous at that moment. It was all the elements forming into a perfect time-binding flash that changed not just one genre, but many, and forming a completely new sound that would spark the likes of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. This kind of moment would not occur again until the Beatles would release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.

Side note: Music historian Tom Bingham states that “Some of us would argue that the release of Pet Sounds a year earlier was a far more groundbreaking moment (and current historical perspective seems to corroborate that).” While I agree with him on some level, I believe the effect of Pet Sounds was more on a music industry level, and Sgt. Pepper’s was more on a mass cultural one, i.e., everyone had the Beatles record, but the Beach Boys’ excellent release was less populous.

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