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Artist of the Month: Bob Dylan

December 1, 2016

The furore that greeted the announcement that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” must have raised a wry smile from its recipient.

As one of the most original, influential and culturally fascinating artists to have emerged in the 20th century, the man born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941 has also proved to be one of its most divisive. And what makes this even more fascinating is that the derision that has confronted Dylan over the years has frequently come from his very own constituency.

Rewind 50 years and you’ll find Bob Dylan facing what was arguably his most creative yet contentious period. 1966 has proved to be a watershed year, a 12-month period that saw groundbreaking album releases from The Beatles (‘Revolver’), The Beach Boys (‘Pet Sounds’), and The Rolling Stones (‘Aftermath’) among many others as they gave birth to modern rock music. And in the eye of this tumultuous hurricane stood Bob Dylan and the release of the double album, ‘Blonde On Blonde’, the final part of a triptych of era-defining albums that had begun the previous year with ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. And though history rightfully looks back with admiration at this period, there are still plenty of folk out there who are still sore since Dylan went electric.

Dylan’s new direction had already encountered resistance at the Newport Folk Festival on July 1965 but his four-month world tour of 1966 was more akin to a crusade. As evidenced by the mammoth 36-CD box set, ‘The Live 1966 Recordings’, a collection of every known live recording from this tour, Bob Dylan, backed by The Hawks who would eventually become The Band, was an artist fuelled by the courage of his convictions. Realising that he could only go backwards by standing still, Dylan unleashed his electric set to an audience that was neatly split between those affronted by his new vision and those prepared to go with him.

That he split his sets into solo acoustic slots and full, electric performances only serves to draw a line between what had gone on before and where he was at. Moreover, his appearance had changed, too. Gone was the folk troubadour and his place stood a new figure. Dressed sharply in a narrow mod suit, his eyes hidden behind Wayfarer shades and his hair grown out, this was an artist only too keenly aware that the times were indeed a-changing.

To listen to this staggering box set is to encounter the resistance Dylan faced on an almost nightly basis. We all know of the “Judas.” accusation – famously caught on the legendary ‘The Royal Albert Hall Concert’ though actually recorded at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall – but the opposition at other concerts is just as startling.

Yet for all of this, there was no shortage of support for what Dylan was doing. Not only is the music electric, it is, crucially, electrifying. This is the sound of barriers being broken down – never to be repaired or fixed – and those going with him to a future where music is changed forever were rewarded with music that not only defined its times but also transcended it for the ages.

Bob Dylan would go on to challenge both himself and his audience over the coming decades but it’s within this massive document that he makes the first of those gigantic strides that would cement his reputation. Exhaustive but never exhausting, this is a cultural artefact that will rightly be referred to for decades to come.

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