Listen to this song by an electrified, and transformed Bob Dylan from his historic 1966 appearance at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. It’s the rocking ‘Tell Me Momma”, the opening salvo of the second half of the program when he was joined onstage by the Hawks. The performance, and indeed the whole concert, had been bootlegged for decades (known by the misnomer “Royal Albert Hall Concert”), finally getting an official release with 1998’s The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall Concert”.
Dylan ‘going electric’ is a high point in rock history, and what a rocky road it took to get to the place where it’s recognized as the artistic triumph that it was. The crowd at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in May of 1966 were fans of the solo Dylan, singing his tried and true folk songs as he’d done faithfully up until Newport in 1965. And to be fair, Dylan gave the audience what they wanted, within the confines of his own interpretation of those songs in his new paradigm, and pushing the limits of his audiences’ expectations of the songwriter.
The first half of the program was focused on Dylan with his acoustic guitar, albeit singing in a new voice, and with a new appearance. Checked shirts, short hair, and a down-home and earnest stage persona had been replaced by a wild mop of curls, shades, and an urbane wardrobe. He had transformed himself into a sort of beautifully wasted beat poet standing in the place of Woody Guthrie’s supposed heir apparent.
But, no one knew just how much things had changed until the Hawks joined Dylan for the second half of the show, and the band launched into the no-holds-barred rock n’ roll of “Tell Me Momma”.
No one had heard anything like this at the time, when the rules of rock music were only just being invented. It wasn’t the first time that an artist outraged an audience by challenging their expectations, but it was certainly the first time in rock history when it had been done so dramatically. The cries of ‘Judas’ , booing and jeering, and disgruntled concert-goers interviewed after this show and others are now a part of rock history as much as the performances are.
But what strikes me the most is the mystery of Dylan’s motivation. What was it that made him stray from a path that virtually guaranteed him an audience and lifetime career, in favour of such an artistic risk? I’m sure that his plugging-in wasn’t a completely spontaneous move. After all, the British Invasion proved that electrified guitar music had an audience, and quite a significant one. There was money to be made in playing it. But, nobody expected it from Dylan.
The change in artistic direction which is so much more common these days was virtually unheard of on this scale in 1965-66. I can only guess what inspired Dylan. And this is my guess: amazement. I think that the songs coming out of Dylan amazed even him. And perhaps in his head they demanded to be heard through pick-ups and amps, rather than through the PA systems of smaller theatres, coffee houses, and folk festivals.
I think Dylan did it for the songs.