By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Last year, Warner Bros. Records issued Royal Queen Albert & Beautiful Homer, a promotional CD by Robyn Hitchcock, the reigning king of Anglo-wackiness. The disc contained a track from Hitchcock's then-current album, Moss Elixir, and 11 live renditions of songs written by Bob Dylan - two acoustic, eight with a full band, all of '60s vintage, with an encore of the 1989 song "Dignity." The cardboard sleeve of the disc carried a sketch by Hitchcock, depicting an anthropomorphized view of London's Royal Albert Hall, its dome "face" swathed in enormous Ray-Ban shades, its base "shoulders" draped in a capacious polka-dotted shirt - just the way Bob Dylan dressed in 1966.
The uninitiated may have been nonplused when they heard the record. Several times during the electric set, Hitchcock is interrupted by shouts of "Judas!" from his fans; before a performance of "One Too Many Mornings," the crowd claps loudly in unison, as if to disrupt the action, and Hitchcock begins mumbling to make them stop. The audience, which seems to expect this response, laughs.
Hitchcock and his audience are, in fact, performing a ritual, enacting a Rocky Horror Picture Show for hipsters: They're replaying a concert that took place three decades earlier. Royal Queen Albert was recorded on May 25, 1996, one day short of the 30th anniversary of a show Dylan performed at the Royal Albert Hall with the Hawks, the American-Canadian rock group soon known as The Band. Hitchcock's full-band set followed the order of the electric half of a Dylan show that became known, erroneously, as "The Royal Albert Hall Concert," actually recorded on May 17, 1966, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England. (It was first bootlegged under the incorrect rubric in 1970.) It became the most widely duplicated underground document of that '66 tour - a tour so notorious, thrilling, riotous and groundbreaking that Hitchcock, with his fans as accomplices, sought to replicate it, down to the last roaring chord and the last shriek of protest.
If the "basement tapes" that Dylan recorded after his July 1966 motorcycle accident contain, in Greil Marcus' phrase, an "invisible republic" of musical-historical resonances, then Dylan's 1965-66 tour - his first with a full electric band - may be viewed as a secret insurrection, since the legal documentary evidence of its existence has been virtually nonexistent. Until now, only two electric tracks from the tour have been officially released: An explosive take of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," recorded in Liverpool three days before the Manchester show, escaped on the B-side of the 1966 single "I Want You," while a muddled version of "I Don't Believe You," from a May 5, 1966, show in Dublin, appeared on the 1985 box set Biograph (along with an acoustic "Visions of Johanna" from the first night at the Albert Hall). Otherwise, all has been silence.
Though Dylan reportedly thinks nothing of the '66 live recordings, he has finally given consent for the official release of the Manchester show as a two-CD Columbia/Legacy set, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966 - The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert. (Such a project was in the works three years ago, but Dylan scotched it, and some enterprising brigand pirated the master on CD, in crisp stereo for the first time, in 1996 as Guitars Kissing & the Contemporary Fix.)
At the same time, director D.A. Pennebaker's long-unseen film on the 1966 tour, Eat the Document, has been liberated for authorized screenings at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills. (See this week's TV column for more on this.) Finally, C.P. Lee, a former member of the English punk band Alberto y Los Trios Paranoias, has offered his own recollections of the May 17 Manchester show, which he attended as a teen, and records the reactions of others in the audience that night in an uneven melding of reporting and criticism, Like the Night: Bob Dylan and the Road to the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Together, record, film and book freeze-frame a critical moment in rock & roll history, when the world tilted on its axis as Dylan simply plugged a Fender into his amp.
It's a thrice-told tale that bears encapsulation. By 1965, Dylan had alienated the left-tilting folk establishment with his boldly impressionistic new writing style, which eschewed socially conscious lyrics in favor of druggy ink-spilling, and his newly electrified sound. In April of '65, he released "Subterranean Homesick Blues," which made the Top 40; "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Positively 4th Street," both Top 10 singles, followed in July and September, respectively. Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan's first mostly electric album, had landed in March; in July, on the eve of the release of Highway 61 Revisited, he was booed at the Newport Folk Festival, where he appeared with a juiced-up band featuring Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band rhythm section. Dylan was a pop star, and the folkies weren't having it.
In September of '65, in the midst of recording Blonde on Blonde, Dylan began a world tour that would take him through the U.S., Australia and Europe. For the electric half of his show, he hired the Hawks, who had been playing together for four years, mostly in Canada, first behind emigre rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins and then on their own. By November, drummer Levon Helm had quit; in his 1993 Band memoir, This Wheel's on Fire, he wrote, "I wasn't made to be booed." He was ultimately replaced by Mickey Jones, a veteran of Trini Lopez's and Johnny Rivers' bands.