The Beat

Bob Dylan’s `Royal Albert Hall’ : The Holy Grail of Rock ‘n’ roll
by Seth Rogovoy

John Lurie (WILLIAMSTOWN, Oct., 08 1998) -- Next Tuesday, Oct. 13, Columbia Records will release a 32-year-old recording which will forever change the way we look at the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The two-CD package is the long-promised, official version of the oft-bootlegged, legendary May 1966 concert in England by Bob Dylan and The Hawks known commonly as “Royal Albert Hall” or the “Judas” concert.

The recording, officially titled “Live 1966: The `Royal Albert Hall’ Concert,” is volume four of Columbia’s ongoing Dylan “Bootleg Series,” in which the record company is releasing official versions of Dylan material previously available only on unofficial or “bootleg” albums.

Live albums are typically promotional throwaways, used by record labels as ways to get extra money from fans who will buy anything by a particular artist, even if it contains all old or familiar songs. One need only look at Columbia’s poor track record in releasing live Dylan material: other than Dylan and The Band’s “Before the Flood” -- which was originally released by Asylum Records -- virtually all previously-available live Dylan material available was at best moderately inspired (“MTV Unplugged,” “Hard Rain”) and at worst embarrassing (“Dylan and the Dead,” “At Budokan”).

More than a mere live album, however, “The `Royal Albert Hall’ Concert” is a revelation. It is at once an historical document of unparalleled significance in rock and simply the greatest live rock ‘n’ roll album ever released. With clarity that defies the lapse of decades, it captures a moment when rock musicians and audiences alike were struggling over the role folk, rock and popular music would play in the greater culture. It also contains some of the most shocking, urgent, incendiary rock music ever made.

For over three decades, myths have swirled around this particular concert, in which a fan supposedly hurled the epithet “Judas!” at Dylan, presumably a reference to his so-called betrayal of folk music by plugging in and playing with The Hawks, a mostly Canadian rock ‘n’ roll outfit which was later to evolve into the great American folk-rock group The Band.

Since 1969, this concert has been bootlegged variously as “Royal Albert Hall,” “In 1966 There Was,” and most recently, “Guitars Kissing and the Contemporary Fix.” In actuality, the recording captures a concert that took place not at Royal Albert Hall but in Manchester at the Free Trade Hall.

The concert has since taken on an historical overtones similar to that of the 1913 Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Like Stravinsky’s, Dylan’s avant-garde experiment was met with outright hostility on the part of the audience. But in the long run, both innovators were hailed as singular geniuses, dragging their respective audiences and genres kicking and screaming into theretofore new and unexplored territories which would prove artistically rich and fertile for themselves and others. Each in their own way were signposts that spoke eloquently of and to their times.

The first of the two “Royal Albert Hall” disks features Dylan playing a selection of some of his most classic songs alone on acoustic guitar with occasional harmonica. In some ways it captures Dylan at his most intense: singing his most poetic material, songs such as “She Belongs to Me,” “Fourth Time Around,” “Visions of Johanna” and “Desolation Row,” with extraordinary focus and fluidity, close to the time he wrote them, presumably when they were still raw and invested with whatever original meaning the singer intended for them.

At least that’s the way they sound -- it is familiar, vintage Dylan, a glimpse of the post-folk, pre-electric, original song-poet. His phrasing, as always, is remarkable -- listen to how he variously shapes the word “home” in “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” His vocal tone is at times downright beautiful, in his patented, unschooled, streetwise fashion, smooth and youthful, alternately deeply resonant and lightly playful and full of subtle wit, intelligence and with just a hint of a sneer. He caresses his syllables with a respect for diction he never showed before or afterwards -- was it England that made him do it? There is a slight hint already of the smoother, country-like twang that he would affect later in the decade, or perhaps it was just there all the time and is simply more apparent given the hushed, naked quality of the production.

As remarkable a document as side one is, side two is the utter and totally revelatory artifact. If there is a Holy Grail of rock ‘n’ roll, this is it: the missing link between Chuck Berry and the early Beatles and everything that was to come afterwards: when rock ‘n’ roll became rock, music that boasted the power of intellectual and emotional suggestion far beyond anything hinted at by “Twist and Shout” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

More than just the plugged-in backbeat that we already know from studio albums of the time including “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde in Blonde” -- landmark albums of juiced-up, amphetamine blues-powered psychedelic poetry -- side two of “Royal Albert Hall” is rock ‘n’ roll of such fierce, dangerous magnitude that it makes contemporaneous hits by the Rolling Stones such as “Satisfaction” and “Get Off My Cloud” sound like just so much cartoon music -- more like The Monkees than The Beatles’ evil twin.

Some of this may have been by design, some by accident. Judging from the crowd’s reaction -- part of the recording’s legendary aura -- it’s probably a bit of both. According to the historical record, this was pretty much the case as Dylan toured the world in 1965-66; Dylan and the Hawks were greeted with such ambivalent or downright hostile responses at home the previous fall that the Hawks drummer Levon Helm quit the group in November. (Helm later rejoined the group in Woodstock, N.Y., where they evolved into The Band of later renown.)

“Almost every night, the music lifted off the stage, so strong it was like a body….It was hard to hear, and hard to believe that anything could ever be better,” wrote Greil Marcus of the concerts on this remarkable tour in “Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes,” a groundbreaking effort led by Dylan, who at 25 was the old man of the group.

The set kicks off with “Tell Me Mama,” a raucous, previously-unreleased blues-rocker, which sets the brash tone that follows. Dylan is seemingly transformed from the quiet if pointed singing poet of side one into a venomous, scornful, electric prophet, his voice sailing through the octaves, stretching words and syllables like elastic, full of anger and rage and an edgy darkness within.

At first the crowd response is muted and anxious; there’s a release of nervous laughter after Dylan introduces the second number saying, “This is called `I Don’t Believe You.’ It used to be like that, and now it goes like this.”

As Dylan and the Hawks heat things up, the crowd grows increasingly restless, even drowning out the group’s intro to “Baby Let Me Follow You Down.” The response is totally understandable, for there was no precedent for what they were hearing: a gorgeous, violent blast of electrified folk and blues that was as much a clarion call to arms as it was a shattering of the status quo. Stravinsky in Paris.

Hawks guitarist Robbie Robertson scatters fiery, shotgun blasts of melody and chords throughout the songs, tying them together with a few signature hooks that repeat over the course of the eight songs. His guitar punctuates virtually every phrase Dylan sings, underlining, italicizing, and caressing Dylan’s every expression. Richard Manuel’s barrelhouse, honky-tonk piano runs over and through the melodies, as Garth Hudson’s swirling, soulful Lowery organ drenches the music with a sound alternately sinister and comical.

The sum effect is symphonic. Anyone looking for evidence that The Hawks were the world’s greatest rock band need look no further than “Royal Albert Hall,” and the album is worth the price alone simply for their peformance. But in the service of the era’s greatest singer-songwriter, The Hawks, who previously backed rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins, were an armed and lethal battalion that took no prisoners.

And that it was a battle is clear from “Royal Albert Hall,” which by the way sounds as if it were recorded just last month and not over three decades ago. “If you only wouldn’t just clap so hard,” Dylan taunts the crowd, in response to its effort to drown out him and the band, before launching into “One Too Many Mornings,” which features beautiful harmonies by Rick Danko. Each of the songs wind up being battles in a eight-song-long war, with the tension ratcheting up ever higher through “Ballad of a Thin Man,” with its apt refrain, “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.”

The last skirmish occurs before the closing number. Dylan acolytes have already read about how a fan called him “Judas!,” to which he responds, “I don’t believe you….You’re a liar.” The full exchange is included here, beginning with someone apparently shouting out a commonly-used obscene putdown. Then comes the “Judas” exchange, which also includes someone shouting what sounds like, “Why don’t you play some Bob Dylan songs?” Then you hear a musician, presumably Robertson, telling Dylan and the band to “Play f---ing loud,” before launching into a triumphant version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” bringing the drama to a close with what is probably the greatest rock anthem (and putdown) of all time.

There was no turning back at this point, for Dylan, The Hawks, or anyone who took rock ‘n’ roll seriously. Every subsequent development in rock can be traced back to this period in Dylan’s career. Recordings by artists as diverse as the Velvet Underground, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, R.E.M., U2 and Nirvana are simply unthinkable without reference to it. Entire movements -- garage-rock, punk-rock, alternative-rock, even country-rock -- can all be traced back to what the Hawks and Dylan were doing. The evidence is laid out plainly on the eight transformational tracks of side two of “Royal Albert Hall.”

With earlier albums and concerts, Bob Dylan had already effected a revolutionary transformation of the lyrical potential of popular music, raising it to the level of poetic, political, meta-cultural discourse. Consciously or not, wittingly or not, Dylan and the Hawks were rewriting the rules of postwar American popular music, adding the element of electric rock ‘n’ roll and investing the music itself, born of the blues and rhythm and blues, with a new, eloquent voice of its own. The now-essential “Royal Albert Hall” bears this out in all its raging glory.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Oct. 8, 1998. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1998. All rights reserved.]

Seth Rogovoy
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