Whenever Bob Dylan’s 1966 UK Tour is discussed, all we ever hear about is the infamous “Judas” incident from the Free Trade Hall, Manchester.
But there were several other dates on the tour and on May 16 (just one day before the Manchester show) Dylan played a concert 30-odd miles away across the Pennines in Sheffield and I was there.
Our story begins some weeks earlier when I was dispatched to the Gaumont Cinema in the heart of Sheffield to secure tickets for a group of school friends. This was not as straightforward as it sounds. Ticket buying back then was a much more labour intensive affair than it is now and often required a morning off work/school. Telephone booking was still many years away (as, indeed, were telephones themselves for many British households) and getting concert tickets involved fronting-up in person at the box office on the specified date and conducting an uncomfortable cash-only transaction with the grim-faced matron behind the glass.
In those pre-multiplex days of course, the Sheffield Gaumont was still a busy full-time cinema, featuring live music only a handful of times a year (it had played host to The Beatles just six months previously) and buying concert tickets involved a curious double queuing method out on the street alongside (but separate from) those who were waiting to see Alfie or The Good, The Bad & The Ugly or whatever the latest flick was.
The task of policing the twin queues was entrusted to an old school commissionaire of the type still seen outside swanky hotels and restaurants in London but hardly anywhere else these days. This bloke was probably a retired war veteran and he certainly had a military bearing with his peaked cap, white gloves and burgundy greatcoat which almost brushed the ground as he walked. The ensemble was completed by twin rows of brass buttons and, to borrow an Ivor Cutler line, gold epaulettes like bath brushes.
Bespectacled and self-important in the style of Captain Mainwaring the commissionaire strutted up and down outside the Gaumont intoning the same line over and over: “Queue this side for the film, queue this side for tickets for, er, Bob Die-Lon” he indicated with a wave of his immaculately gloved hand. He was clearly having trouble getting to grips with the name and those of us wanting to see “Bob Die-Lon” sniggered at his mispronunciation. Eventually he gave up and changed his mantra to “This side for the film and this side for the, er, folk singer” which only made us giggle even more. Incidentally, the tickets cost 10 shillings and sixpence each. For younger readers that translates to 52½ of the Queen’s new pence folks – outrageous, I know.
Finally the big day came and I arrived at the Gaumont to take my seat in the circle alongside John Tams, then just a school friend but later to become properly famous in the folk music world as a member of The Albion Band and part of the cast of the TV series Sharpe, for which he also wrote and performed some of the music.
Old beyond his years, Tams cut a kind of benevolent Flashman figure and carried himself with a casual self-confidence the rest of us were sadly lacking. He dressed in the latest boho chic, sported an impressive Brian Jones haircut and most galling of all, he had a desperately attractive girlfriend. Even at school Tams was a passable guitarist and while we were still struggling with the basic chords to Dylan and the Beatles he had many of the Bert Jansch tunes down and knew loads of traditional material besides. At 17 he was already the complete package and his opinion of the concert would be sought many times in the coming weeks.
I don’t remember if there was an introduction, but the heavy velvet cinema curtains creaked open and Dylan appeared in the spotlight. Pipe cleaner thin and looking like the coolest man on Earth with that iconic haircut, he teetered across the stage in Cuban heels and the now-familiar tight houndstooth check suit and polka dot shirt. People have based entire careers on Bob Dylan’s ’66 look and I’m not just talking about John Cooper Clarke. Marc Bolan was clearly influenced by Bob’s wild curls and even Hendrix was inspired to grow his own Afro to impressive proportions after seeing Dylan during this tour. We were witnessing one of the truly defining looks of rock and roll.
Save for a few stray details which refuse to budge, the nuts and bolts of the show itself have long since faded from the memory. The first half consisted of a folkie-appeasing acoustic set which was much more edgy than the previous year’s solo shows had been. Whatever chemicals Bob was using gave the performance a mesmeric intensity and his harmonica playing in particular was quite bizarre. Onstage he had a stool and a pint glass of water in which lived four or five assorted harps. He would select one, shake the water out of it and painstakingly install it in his Heath Robinson-style neck harness. This curious ritual would then be repeated for almost every song. But instead of playing the harmonica fills as we knew them from the records he simply went up and down the entire instrument randomly, blowing and sucking furiously on every available note over and over again. It sounded just fine but it was certainly a little surreal to witness.
As the curtains re-opened for the second half the stage lights remained dimmed. In the gloom we could clearly see the red stand-by lights of the guitar amplifiers as several shadowy figures shuffled on and plugged in. The Hawks! A spotlight found Dylan and I had just a second to register that the acoustic guitar had been replaced by a Fender Telecaster before all hell broke loose and a glorious cacophony filled the hall. It was louder than anything I’d ever experienced before and the sound was massively distorted. But it was also unbelievably exciting.
The staging of rock concerts was still in its infancy in 1966 and cinemas in particular weren’t geared-up to handle this kind of thing, anymore than they had been three years earlier when the beat group package tours arrived. I’m not even sure if there was a proper PA system or if Dylan was singing through the Gaumont’s own set-up. Compared to a modern rock show the presentation was not that slick and there were long delays between songs as Bob mumbled incoherently into the microphone and fiddled with his guitar and harmonica harness. He seemed to take forever to start each number and that’s when the booing started in earnest. The murmurings of dissent had begun about three songs into the second half, reached a climax as Dylan sat down at the piano for “Ballad Of A Thin Man” and continued on and off until the very end.
Anyone familiar with the unreleased (but much bootlegged) D.A. Pennebaker movie Eat The Document will have seen the disgruntled fans interviewed in the foyer of a north of England venue (possibly Sheffield). “I’ve heard pop groups produce better rubbish than that!” opines one red-faced farm boy with vowels flatter than a dead hedgehog. “It were a bloody disgrace. He wants shooting! He’s a traitor!” he adds with perhaps a touch of hyperbole.
We’d read about the booing, of course. Sheffield was the sixth date on the 1966 UK tour and news of unrest from the fans had already started to filter through. Let’s be honest though, it was basically just a copycat protest. After all, what were they expecting? Blonde On Blonde was still a month or two away, but Dylan had already released a couple of full-on electric albums in the shape of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. As if that weren’t enough of an indication, the trio of loud and nasty singles “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Positively 4th Street,” and “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” had been all over the radio and the charts like a rash for almost a year, so the blueprint of Bob’s new direction was right there for all to see.
They’d no doubt read that a few folkies were protesting in America and felt they should follow suit. But who in Britain, other than perhaps stuffy old Ewan MacColl and his traditionalist ilk, really cared about that stuff? Did we boo? Of course we fucking didn’t. The short-haired squares could complain all they liked, this was Bob Dylan at his absolute creative peak and we had just seen the future of rock and roll.
Walking home afterwards we were on a real high. Someone produced a harmonica (John Tams, probably) and we sang Dylan songs on the platform of Sheffield Midland station, wishing the night would never end.
A day later in Manchester Dylan would be denounced as a “Judas” and soon the entire world would sit up and take notice. But that was yet to happen and for just a few hours more he still belonged to us.