Fifty years ago today, Bob Dylan played at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. A recording of that gig, erroneously labelled as being recorded at London’s Royal Albert Hall, became probably the most famous bootleg recording of all time and included rock’n’roll’s most notorious heckle.
If you’re not familiar with the events surrounding Dylan’s 1966 tour and the Manchester gig in particular, then stop reading this and listen to Andy Kershaw‘s outstanding documentary about it.
Andy himself was co-hosting tonight with ex-Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias and veteran of the 1966 gig, C.P. Lee who also wrote the definitive book on that tour. You could not wish for 2 greater experts or better hosts for this event.
The evening was promoted as being a re-creation of the original gig with Dylan’s setlist being played in the same order with a different act performing each song. That’s exactly what we got but along the way there were a few unexpected twists and turns.
Here’s my track-by-track review accompanied by some excellent photos courtesy of Aidan O’Rourke.
The evening kicked off with an amazing poem called “And the Dreamers” (as in Freddie Garrity) from Tony “Longfella” Walsh. The poem told the story of Manchester’s rich musical heritage and it was quite literally breathtaking.
“She Belongs To Me” performed by Andrew “Blind Boy” Butler
Striding onstage looking like the “walking antique” of the lyric, Butler’s attire suggests that tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1929. He played a great version of the song on the banjo with a completely different melody to Dylan’s version, the first clue we had that tonight was not going to just be a straightforward run-through of the 1966 set.
“Fourth Time Around” performed by Kevin Hewick
Excellent version, sung very well by the first of this evening’s Factory Records alumni (FAC 48 in case any wannabe completists were wondering). Dylan has openly acknowledged that this song was written in response to “Norwegian Wood” so it was appropriate that a little snippet of the Beatles song was slipped in at the end.
“Visions of Johanna” performed by The Speed of Sound
One of my favourite ever Dylan songs but not a highlight this evening. It was a bit of a ramshackle performance with a messy guitar solo and a bass guitar that needed tuning. A shame because I really like the latest single on their Bandcamp page.
“It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” performed by The Freshies
This was more like it. Great to see the band formerly led by Chris Sievey a.k.a. Frank Sidebottom (more on Frank & me here) who had reformed for just one night and just one song. They were clearly having a good time with this uptempo power-pop version which reminded me of this Dylan cover by ex-Strangler Hugh Cornwell. The organist’s repeated 3 note riff was particularly joyful.
“Desolation Row” performed by John O’Connell
Probably the most challenging song on the setlist tonight was given to John O’Connell a.k.a. Simply Dylan. They bill themselves as “a tribute to Bob Dylan, not a Bob Dylan tribute” and that’s spot on. There’s no attempt to look or dress like Dylan or imitate his voice. Why would anyone do that when even Dylan hasn’t sounded like Dylan for decades? Instead you get John’s excellent and powerful voice, enunciating the words clearly backed up by a brilliant bassist and violinist. Having seen a mixed bag of gigs from the man himself ranging from inspired to forgettable, you could quite easily make the case that John and his band do a far better job of honouring the richest back catalogue in popular music history. Definitely going to try and catch a full show.
“Just Like A Woman” performed by Poppycock
Whenever this song comes on at home, Mrs Garbanzo always takes the piss out of it for being patronising and sexist. She would’ve loved Poppycock’s lyrical amendments which gave the song’s subject a right to reply. One of the singers was making a second appearance of the night having already played guitar with The Speed of Sound. Great looking stylishly-dressed all-female-except-for-the-drummer band featuring Una Baines who I think was the first ever ex-member of The Fall.
“Mr Tambourine Man” performed by Edwina Hayes
The final song of the first half was played solo accompanied by just an acoustic guitar just as it was 50 years ago. The singer was Edwina Hayes and Andy Kershaw mentioned in his introduction that the great Nanci Griffith was a big fan. Hayes definitely shares some vocal qualities with Lubbock’s second most famous export. There’s a similar sweetness and sincerity in those vocal chords for sure. In Andy Kershaw’s documentary, you can hear descriptions of how you could hear a pin drop during the first half in 1966 and the same thing happened here as the room fell silent to enjoy this song being so beautifully sung.
During the interval, there was a raffle with the prizes being 6 signed photos taken by Mark Makin who is, as far as anyone know, the only person who took any photos of the 1966 gig. Kershaw got him up onstage for a short interview and asked why it was that people were so surprised that Dylan was playing with a band when he’d had quite a few electric records out by then. But it wasn’t just that he was playing with a band that people found shocking. It was the sheer volume of it. At that time, bands just miked up the stage amps and balanced the vocals to match the backline. Nobody in the UK had ever been subjected to a P.A. system as powerful as the one that Dylan had flown over for this tour.
Anyway, I’m very pleased to say that I won one of the photos in the raffle. Here it is, this will soon be framed and on the dining room wall next to the Clash poster.
“Tell Me Momma” performed by Dub Vampire
The fastest song from the 1966 gig was slowed-down and given a more soulful feel tonight.
Following that Andy Kershaw revealed why he had always suspected that the original recording was not taken from London’s Albert Hall as he had noticed that lots of the crowd had broad Mancunian accents. The clincher here is the person who can just about be heard straight after the infamous “Judas” shout. Andy played us that extract and we all clearly heard a northern voice shouting “yer great pillock” at poor old Bob.
“I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” performed by Thick Richard
Like some of my other favourite Dylan songs (e.g. “Positively 4th Street” “Idiot Wind”) the lyrics here are full of anger, bitterness and twisted humour. Musically the song was given a right kick up the arse by Thick Richard & friends, namely serial C.P. Lee collaborator John Scott on guitar and Ste Spandex on synth. These 2 combined to make a right old racket. At times it was hard to tell if the synth was actually supposed to sound that way or be that loud or if it was actually malfunctioning in some way. This shouldn’t have worked but in fact it was a truly extraordinary performance of a great song and one of the night’s highlights.
It felt like some of the audience were taken aback, even a bit annoyed, by this radically different and challenging version of the song. But I thought that made it even better, even more in the spirit of the original concert. “It used to be like that, now it goes like this.” Don’t follow leaders.
“Baby Let Me Follow You Down” performed by George Borowski & E.P.I.
A packed stage with nine bandmembers onstage. But wait, who’s this centre stage? The thin wiry frame, the unruly hair, the polka dot shirt, the harmonica holder round his neck. People around me were shouting out “it’s Bob” but then the man concerned announced that he’d dressed up specially for the night and he’d come as John Cooper Clarke. Surprisingly this was the first time we’d heard a harmonica all night but they made up for it by having 2 of them on this rollicking party version of “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” similar to the version in “The Last Waltz”.
“Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues” performed by Jez Kerr
Former leader of the much-missed A Certain Ratio who were prolific Factory recording artists of course, see FAC 5 16 22 35 38 42 52 55 62 65 72 112 128 135 166 (my personal favourite) and 168. That band were “all about the bass” if you ask me and it was great to hear Jez’s signature sound again. Loved the wah wah pedal as well on this fast punky/psychedelic version.
“Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” performed by The Creature Comfort
I reviewed The Creature Comfort last year when they supported Evil Blizzard and I was excited about seeing them and particularly their dynamic singer Ben again. They certainly didn’t disappoint. They transformed this song, reviled as a stupid joke song by many fans in ’66, into a stomping Stooges-style rock’n’roller. You can’t take your eyes off Ben as he jumps around and gets in the faces of the veterans of 1966, sat at the front. They look a bit suspicious him, fair enough really because you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do next. All of which adds up to a great frontman really.
Nice tip of the chapeau to the recently departed Prince too, with a mention of his millinery-themed songtitle.
“One Too Many Mornings” performed by Vocal Harum
As you may guess from the name, Vocal Harum are a vocal harmony group featuring 5 singers, including C.P. Lee himself on bass vocals, and 1 acoustic guitar. Their version of this song, the oldest Dylan composition played tonight, was wonderful especially on the final verse where the acoustic guitar dropped out to leave just the singers.
After that Andy Kershaw was back to tell us about how he made it his mission to find the person responsible for the “Judas” shout, resulting in him initially finding Keith Butler and then later John Cordwell. Both claimed to be the “Judas” shouter but Kershaw leans towards Cordwell being the true culprit. Both men are sadly no longer with us but Kershaw played an extract from the documentary above where he conducted a scientific test of sorts. He made Cordwell go to the other end of a room and shout “Judas” to compare it with the version on the live album. Hear all that in the documentary above and read Andy’s account here.
“Ballad of a Thin Man” performed by Gerry and The Holograms
Two men are onstage wearing white boiler suits and weird creepy face masks. The man on the left is playing one finger basslines on a vintage synth whilst his accomplice intones the surreal lyrics in a robotic monotone.
Something is happening but you don’t know what it is.
This is Gerry and The Holograms. In 1980 Frank Zappa described them as “the hottest thing to come out of Manchester in at least 15 minutes.” They put out some records in the early 80s parodying the emerging synthpop sound and one of their songs was allegedly ripped off to become the biggest selling 12” single of all time (FAC 73). Nearly 40 years later, this is their first ever gig which makes Kate Bush look like a relentlessly prolific live performer.
I bet your favourite verse in this song is the same one as mine. It’s this one, right?
You see this one-eyed midget shouting the word “NOW”
And you say, “For what reason?” and he says, “How?”
And you say, “What does this mean?”
And he screams back, “You’re a cow, give me some milk or else go home”
“Like a Rolling Stone” performed by everyone
Our 2 fine hosts had warned us at the start of the evening that nobody was to shout it until the right time came, reminiscent of John Cleese at the stoning in Life of Brian. Nobody is to shout “Judas” until I blow this whistle.
This directive hadn’t been complied with by everyone so there had been many premature ejaculations of “Judas” and even a few shouts of “yer great pillock”
But now the time had come so the whole crowd was encouraged to participate in a mass “Judas” shout. This was so much fun that we ended up doing it twice.
Once again, Andy Kershaw’s obsessive knowledge of the original recording provided more fascinating insight and he went into full-on mythbusting mode about Dylan’s angry response to John Cordwell’s accusation. He can clearly be heard saying “I don’t believe you….. you’re a liar!” But then there’s a further comment that can be heard off-mike. Like many other people, until tonight I was under the impression that a furious Dylan turns to The Hawks and says “play fucking loud!”
But as Andy Kershaw points out, this instruction to the band would make no sense at all. They were using amplification exponentially more powerful than any that had ever used on these shores in 1966. They already were playing fucking loud! Kershaw told us that what he actually said was “you fucking liar” and said that once you know this, you will never hear it any other way. He then played the extract in question and there it was. Have a listen yourself and see what you think.
The show finished with the whole ensemble onstage (along with a cardboard cutout of Bob) taking turns to sing a couple of lines each.
A great end to a great night. The event was organised to raise funds for MDMA (Manchester District Music Archive) which is an online repository of the city’s musical history. Music fans have contributed thousands of photos, tickets, flyers and memories going back decades. But be warned, you could easily lose a few hours browsing around this amazing resource.
Leopard-skin pill box hats off to all the musicians, technicians and staff that gave their time for free to make this event happen.
But special thanks must go to the 2 hosts. As well as his authoritative voice on the 1966 gig and daft jokes onstage, C.P. Lee was responsible for putting this bill together. It would’ve been very easy for him to book a load of acts who would just play fairly faithful solo or band versions of these songs and to be honest that’s what I was expecting when I arrived. But instead he provided a great mixture of artists who interpreted Dylan’s songs in wildly different and sometimes avant-garde styles that challenged the audience’s artistic prejudices and pre-conceptions just as Dylan himself did 50 years ago. Then there’s Andy Kershaw whose music programmes were a huge inspiration behind us wizards starting our own podcast (as evidenced by our homage to him at the start of our very first full length podcast).
But as a journalist he excels in filling in the human details and whether he’s reporting on a faraway earthquake or forensically dissecting a Bob Dylan bootleg album he’s always passionate, knowledgeable, captivating and bloody good company.
See you in 9 years for the Rolling Thunder Revue 50th anniversary then.