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.
By the time Dylan arrived in England in May of '66, the stage was set for a similarly taxing run of shows. The U.K. sported its own small-minded, Stalinist folk movement. Dylan and his pack of unreconstructed Canuck greasers coped by showing up loaded to the tits and spoiling for a fight. Eat the Document, jaggedly edited by Dylan and Howard Alk, richly captures the amphetamine-stoked heebie-jeebies that ensued. The shock and sense of betrayal on the part of Dylan's fans is caught in a series of post-show interviews in the movie; one outraged man snarls, "'E's a traitor, 'e wants hangin'." Writer Lee found similar feelings 30 years after the fact: One erstwhile fan called the Manchester Dylan-Hawks show "all your worst nightmares coming true." The second disc of Live 1966 is a full-scale representation of the collision between the irresistible force of Dylan's electric music and the immovable object that was his folk-fan base.
The Manchester audience, who listen in enchanted silence to the gyroscopic word-spinning of "Visions of Johanna" and "Desolation Row" during Dylan's solo acoustic set, erupt during his performance with the Hawks. The show is punctuated by jeers, whistles, catcalls, foot stomping and clapping; Dylan mutters incomprehensibly until the noise dies. But Dylan and the Hawks win this cage match with a set unparalleled in its time for painful volume, and still unequaled in the stateliness and elegance of its execution. It's a princely noise, as elements carom seamlessly into one another - Robertson's gnarled, ringing Ike Turner-isms on guitar, Garth Hudson's carousel fantasias on organ, Richard Manuel's whorehouse interjections on piano, the thunder of Jones' all-meat drums and Rick Danko's bass kicking it home.
The set list is a series of warnings, curses and farewells to the crowd, slugged out with a fistful of vitriol by Dylan. "Tell me, momma - what izzit, what's wrong with you, this time?" he whines in his opening number, and then he lets loose with a round of kiss-offs ("Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "One Too Many Mornings") and accusations ("Ballad of a Thin Man").
The album ends with what may be rock's most famed condemnation, and its greatest rebuttal. A fan screams, "Judas!" His voice full of bile, Dylan drawls, "I don't buh-leeve you . . . you're a liar," and then the band hurtles into a version of "Like a Rolling Stone" that is nothing less than the musical equivalent of an execution - a furiously overamped fever dream of frustration and rage. It's a confrontation that leaves you breathless, and one so full of blood and near-Shakespearean drama that it's easy to see why, 30 years later, Robyn Hitchcock and his audience chose to act it out like Titus Andronicus.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.