This Week in Rock History: Bob Dylan Goes Electric - Rolling Stone
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This Week in Rock History: Bob Dylan Goes Electric

Plus: Woodstock ’99 ends in disaster and Motown signs the Jackson 5

Dylan goes electricDylan goes electric

Bob Dylan performing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

Alice Ochs/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

This week in rock history, Bob Dylan went electric, the Jackson Five inked a deal with Motown, Elvis Costello was arrested for busking, Woodstock ’99 ended in disaster and the Who’s John Entwistle died.

July 25, 1965: Bob Dylan goes electric at the Newport Folk Festival
Young Bob Dylan’s performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was always intended to be a straightforward, acoustic event: the 24-year-old singer/songwriter had enjoyed a tremendously positive reception when he performed at the 1963 and 1964 festival, and was already firmly established as a top protest folk artist of traditional instrumentation (acoustic guitar, sparse backing). His decision to perform with an electric band came spontaneously the evening before his set. Dylan chose two tracks from his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home – “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Maggie’s Farm” – and the work-in-progress “Phantom Engineer” (which would eventually become “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” on sixth album Highway 61 Revisited).

When Dylan took the stage with that unprecedented amped-in performance, he fatefully intertwined folk with rock & roll. But more immediately, he was harassed by the audience, who booed him loudly and called him a traitor to the folk genre. Legendary singer/songwriter Pete Seeger watched from the sidelines and was dismayed by Dylan’s electric ambitions; he complained to the audio technicians, “If I had an axe, I’d chop the microphone cable right now.” (That line spiraled quickly into the apocryphal story that Seeger actually had an axe and attempted to swing it at the sound system.)

After performing the three rehearsed songs, Dylan stormed off the stage. He was eventually urged back by other festival performers and brusquely delivered two songs on acoustic guitar: “Mr. Tambourine Man” and, not so subtly, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” The more traditional delivery satisfied the crowd, who cheered enthusiastically for the scowling Dylan. After that contentious performance, he refused to return to the Newport Folk Festival for 37 years.

July 26, 1968: The Jackson 5 sign with Motown Records
The first family of Sixties pop was discovered in a fairly typical way: they opened for a Motown Records artist, Bobby Taylor, who arranged for the troupe to audition for his label. The Jacksons (Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael) aced their tryout, a rendition of James Brown’s “I Got the Feelin,” signed to Motown and relocated from Indiana to California.

However, that backstory changed in the hands of Berry Gordy; the Motown guru invented several shrewd promotional tactics on the eve of the Jackson 5’s debut into the music industry. He decided that the young singers would benefit from a more glamorous narrative and decided to credit Motown star Diana Ross as the catalyst of the group’s career. Motown’s publicity team pushed a brand-new narrative in the group’s official biography: Ross had been introduced to the Jackson 5 by the mayor of their town, and she delivered the fresh-faced boys to her own label. Gordy also lowered the ages of several brothers in the group: all Motown materials maintained that lead singer Michael, already preternaturally gifted at age 11, was in fact only nine years old.

The marketing tactics were a rousing success. Diana Ross introduced the group at their first media showcase, and the Jackson 5 enjoyed six years at the top of the Motown food chain as their top-charting teen idols. Their first four singles for Motown (“I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “I’ll Be There,” and “The Love You Save”) all reached Number One on the Billboard Charts.

July 26, 1977: Elvis Costello is arrested for busking outside a Columbia Records conference
Two months after releasing his debut album on British indie-punk imprint Stiff Records, Elvis Costello proved his anarchistic mettle by protesting at the steps of a much bigger label.

The release of My Aim is True was an unsatisfying achievement for 22-year-old Costello: Stiff Records only provided distribution in the United Kingdom, so listeners in the United States had to buy copies as costly imports. As the album had been well-received in the U.K., reaching Number 14 on the charts (and single “Less Than Zero” was popular on radio), New Wave progenitor Costello felt that he was being deprived of his rightful American audience. To solve this, he set up shop outside a convention of Columbia Records executives at a London hotel, loudly performing his songs and making his case for international distribution.

The ploy worked: Costello was arrested by British police and fined a small sum, but Columbia invited him back for a formal audition. He was signed to the label and they re-released My Aim is True to American shores that year. Columbia went on to issue forth the most influential works of Elvis Costello and the Attractions, including 1979’s Armed Forces and 1982’s Imperial Bedroom. Costello switched over to Warner Brothers Records in 1989 – without having to busk for anyone’s attention.

July 25, 1999: Woodstock ’99 ends in riots, three deaths and 120 arrests
The 30th anniversary celebration of the original peace-and-love-in, Woodstock, ended in grisly failure: three deaths, over 100 arrests, and a muddy, post-apocalyptic landscape of aggression.

Woodstock ’99 was an attempt to revisit and amplify the legendary Sixties music mecca and claim another moment of rock & roll history. It was a reasonable plan upon conception: organizers had successfully executed another updated event, Woodstock ’94, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the original. But Woodstock ’99 was a powder keg from the start. Temperatures reached over 100 degrees and on-site vendors charged upwards of $4 for small bottles of water. Also, the headliners were far more hostile stylistically than the original bevy of artists, and they fostered a similar climate in the irritable, heat-stroked audience: Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit quickly incited fury during their sets. Widespread riots erupted during the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ performance: attendees started lighting the massive amounts of ground trash on fire, climbing the main towers and looting food booths. Audience members were trampled and assaulted: by the end of the carnage, three participants were dead and 120 were arrested. Four rapes were reported, including one that occurred in the pit during Limp Bizkit’s set.

July 27, 2002: John Entwistle dies
The Who’s bass player was no background player: his walking lines were some of the most powerful in rock.

Known as “Thunderfingers” and “the Ox,” Entwistle was a chief contributor to the Who’s signature chaotic build; his smart, sharp parts often served as melodic centerpieces for the songs (“My Generation” builds largely on his lines). He was born on October 9, 1944 in London and was a childhood musical prodigy, as well as the only member of the Who to receive formal training; he played trumpet, piano and French horn (the latter was later heard on the Who’s “Pictures of Lily”). He was the primary catalyst in the formation of the Who, as he played with both Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey before bringing them together in one band.

Entwistle was one of the first musicians to utilize Marshall stacks, the now-frequent mass arrangement of amplifiers; he began using them to hear over Keith Moon’s cavernous drumming and, in turn, guitarist Pete Townshend adopted the stacks to be heard over Entwistle. He was the first member of the band to record a solo album, 1971’s Smash Your Head Against the Wall.

Entwistle died at the Hard Rock Hotel in Los Vegas after suffering a heart attack. He was 57. The Who were scheduled to begin a North American tour the next day.

LAST WEEK: Nico Dies and Roger Waters Performs at the Berlin Wall


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