‘Judas’ at the Free Trade Hall: memories of Dylan in ’66

bob-dylan-1966

Bob Dylan’s 1966 British tour is remembered primarily for one thing: the moment at the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig when a man in the circle yells ‘Judas!’. Some brief banter with the stage ensures, and then Dylan turns to his all-electric band and instructs them to ‘play it fucking loud’, before launching into the last number of the night, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. The story has been told countless times. In the most recent biography of Dylan, by the journalist Ian Bell, it actually is the defining moment if the singer’s career: a version of it opens the book, and Bell’s somewhat baroque analysis spills out over twelve pages, the leitmotif of Dylan’s life. The interpretations of the ‘Judas’ moment are legion: the defeat of folk, the triumph of sex, the birth of punk, the death of God. You name it, it’s been said.

Like just about everyone else, I only know the moment through heresay, and more recently Martin Scorcese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Back. The ’65-66 tour was a the subject of D. A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back, which impressed me the first time I saw it aged 15 or so. I happen to have known the venue, Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, very well. An extraordinary transplanted Florentine palazzo, it was the frame for any number of crucial performances, from the Halle Orchestra to the Sex Pistols. A truncated Hall now serves as the entrance portico of the Radisson Renaissance Hotel.

By chance, I met Susan Grey who was at the Manchester concert in 1966, and understood my desire to know more. Susan is a clinical psychologist, based in London; she grew up in the south Manchester suburbs in the 1960s. I wanted to know more about the Dylan gig, but also what she felt about it all now, looking back. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, very little edited:

RW: You said these were your first gigs.

SG: The first was in 1965, when I was 14. The second was 1966.

RW: Fourteen’s quite young. What was the appeal of Dylan to you at that age?

SG: If I had to pick one thing it would be the words. But I think it was much more complicated than that. I remember hearing the buzz about a Pete Seeger concert that some friends of my elder brother had been to. Some of them played the guitar, banjo or harmonica and they started up an evening folk club at school, so I used to go to that. They played a mixture of traditional folk and the newer Pete Seeger style of songs. But there was one boy who used to turn up and do Bob Dylan songs. I liked pop and rock music –  I’d spent years listening to Radio Luxemburg and Radio Caroline. When folk came along it was an introduction to a whole new genre – especially the political and protest songs. ‘Little Boxes’, or ‘We Shall Overcome’, for example, challenged the accepted order of things and couldn’t have been more different from what was usually in the charts. Dylan had that folk sound, but was a bit different – sometimes bluesy, poetic and often rather mysterious. Songs like ‘Masters of War’ were incredibly powerful and like nothing else I’d heard before.

RW: Did the political context matter?

I think the context was important. As children in the 50s we’d heard a lot about world war – supposedly as a thing of the past. But now we were seeing very shocking images of the Vietnam war on television night after night…we forget that in those days media coverage wasn’t managed the way it is now. Not long before we’d had the Missile Crisis and extremely alarming talk of World War 3. Protest movements were gathering momentum, not just about the war, but also about civil rights, apartheid, nuclear weapons etc. Young people were questioning the establishment. There was also beat poetry, pot and jazz – and I was on the threshold of all that.  So for me I think the folk revival in general and Dylan in particular represented an entry into something very exciting and grown-up, both musically and in terms of involvement with bigger issues.

RW: What did your family think of him? He’s an unkempt, rebellious character in Pennebaker’s film.

SG: My parents didn’t think much of him – especially his singing voice. But they were pretty tolerant and didn’t stop me monopolising the family record-player.

RW: That sounds familiar. My folks never ‘got’ Dylan because they couldn’t understand what he was singing. Anyway, back to ’66. Who liked Dylan in Manchester back then? Who was the audience?

I think they were mainly youngish people. People who were excited by songs with a message. It was about entering a much more serious and grown-up world.

RW: The second gig, when Dylan ‘went’ electric – how did it strike you? Was the music a shock?

SG: Yes, it was rather. I wasn’t aware of what he’d been doing over the year between ‘65 and ’66. In 1965, at 14, I was absolutely enthralled. I’d never experienced anything like this before. He came on stage and stood in the spotlight – just a slight figure with guitar and harmonica.  He said very little, just worked his way through all these wonderful songs. Everybody loved it. Afterwards my friend and I went round to the stage door with a dozen or so other people in the hope of seeing him and getting his autograph. Of course he didn’t appear, so eventually we had to accept that the evening was over and get the train home.In 1966 I suppose we expected more of the same – and this time I knew more of the music. The first half was fine then the second half was a real surprise. I didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t just that he’d added the band and electric sound, the arrangements were different as well.

RW: Did you identify with him, this all-new, ‘electric’ Dylan?

SG: Part of me felt cheated that he’d changed his style and we weren’t hearing what we expected to hear, but I was intrigued too. I didn’t want Dylan to give up what I thought were his principles, but also I didn’t want to give up on him. It didn’t take me long to get on board and I bought the single ‘Like Rolling Stone’ as well as the album, ‘Bringing it all back home’.

RW: The electric band’s so rough – it sounds close to punk now. God knows what it was like in ’66. Can you say a bit more about your reaction? 

The quality of the sound? Well, the electric set was noisily dramatic. Very loud in comparison with the accoustic set – and the words were hard to follow, as much as anything because we couldn’t hear them properly. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the electric numbers – but it was still Dylan and, after all, you had to work at it a bit with some of his accoustic songs too. So for me it was a case of waiting to see what happened next.

RW: When the guy upstairs shouted ‘Judas’, you told me you earlier that you heard him loud and clear. What went through your mind?

SG: I thought – did he really say Judas? By that time there’d already been plenty of noises from the audience – slow-handclapping and so on – so it was clear not everyone was happy.  Dylan was clearly not happy. After ‘Judas’, he said ‘I don’t believe you, you’re a liar.’ There were some other comments at various points but they were difficult to hear.

RW: Did you think you’d witnessed something historic at the time?

SG: This individual hostile exchange was quite dramatic, but I think at 15 my sense of history was limited, so I’d have to say no. Obviously I was aware of the fuss in the press afterwards, but I don’t remember that particular incident being singled out until the official album came out years later and Andy Kershaw wrote about it, and interviewed the chap who shouted ‘Judas’. I remember thinking ‘Ooh I was there!’ But looking back it was only one of many turning points for him. He turned out to be even more versatile and extraordinary than he seemed in the 60’s.

I think some people in the audience felt that we might have lost a hero for no good reason – other than his own wilfulness. – and I could relate to that. In retrospect it’s clear there were a lot of unwarranted assumptions being made about his interests and motivation. But at the time we were at a loss as to how it would all pan out – would he continue to be interesting and sing songs with a message, or would he become just like any other rock and roll band? After the concert a small crowd of people sat down on the floor in the foyer in protest. My friend and I hung around for a bit to see what would happen, but nothing much did. We knew by now that stage door appearances were not Dylan’s style, so we headed off for the train. Such antagonism between a performer and the audience was all very strange. But it was exciting to be there when things were happening that people cared about. Sit-down strikes and protests were like a new language for young people, so it seemed like a natural way to react.

RW: What do you think of the Pennebaker movie ‘Don’t Look Back’?

SG: I didn’t see that film until many years later. I think it pretty much showed how Dylan and others in that scene behaved at that time. I’d followed all the coverage of Dylan’s tours in the newspapers, so I knew he liked to be challenging or contrary with interviewers. I’d like to have felt I knew more about him, but that didn’t make me any the less fascinated.

RW: The Free Trade Hall was an extraordinary place. What else do you remember about it?

It was good that it wasn’t a very big venue, so you could always see. By today’s standards it was quite intimate and they even had seats on the stage behind the performer. As far as I can remember the tickets were reasonably priced. I don’t count them as a gigs, but I’d been there a couple of times as a much younger child with my family to see our next-door neighbours’ Scottish Country Dancing Nights, so it was familiar. The venue was near to Oxford Road station and concerts always ended in time for the train back to the nearest station in Cheadle Hulme (RW: southern suburb, ten miles south). If my parents had any concerns about me going to a gig in town at 14 they didn’t say so.  I’m not sure how interesting it is to read lists of names, but over a few years following the first Dylan gig I saw acts like Simon and Garfunkel, Julie Felix, Incredible String Band, and Donovan. One gig had a young David Bowie doing a mime act supporting Tyrannosaurus Rex. Then there were acts like Manitas De Plata with his flamenco guitar group. I collected a few autographs as some of them were stage door friendly and didn’t mind chatting with a few of us who stayed behind after the show. The Free Trade Hall was also home to the Halle orchestra – where I saw Daniel Barenboim, Vladimir Ashkenasky and Jaqueline Du Pre. There were a couple of other gigs I went to during those years – The Beatles at ABC Ardwick, and I think Charles Aznavour was at The Palace, but those venues didn’t have the intimacy of the Free Trade Hall.

RW: There’s not much left of the original Free Trade Hall – it’s just the foyer of the Radisson. How did you feel when it was redeveloped?

SG: I remember feeling dismayed by a newspaper story that the Free Trade Hall might be demolished or developed in some way. So, although I knew the battle had already been lost, when I was visiting Manchester a few years ago I felt compelled to go into what’s left of the building to have a look. I stood in the foyer and felt quite bereft. I had to go over to the receptionist and tell her how sad it was and how much those concerts meant to me growing up. She was very nice and friendly and said they understood. In fact they’d tried to acknowledge these events by naming rooms after some of the artists. So that was it. Not much else to be said. I felt stupidly emotional and my eyes were welling up a bit so it was time to leave.

Very many thanks to Susan Grey for sharing her experiences.

REFERENCES

Ian Bell, Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan (London: Mainstream, 2013)

D. A. Pennebaker (dir. ), Don’t Look Back (1967)

Martin Scorcese (dir.) No Direction Home (2005)

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