HOW BOB DYLAN’S SOCIAL RANT MADE MUSIC HISTORY
Decades ago, prior to the enlightenment age of social media, Bob Dylan had a lot to say. It was 1965, and he’d just returned from a tour of England, exhausted and a bit disgruntled. Public expectations were weighing heavily on him, and he was considering getting out of the business. He didn’t have the options of taking to Facebook and pouring out his grievances in a late-night rant, or reducing his dissatisfaction to a 140-character tweet. Drowning them in a bottle would only shelve them for another day. Instead, he put pen to paper and turned out a twenty-page (though accounts vary) piece of “vomit,” as he called it. Eventually, it took musical form, and he condensed it into four verses and a chorus. He’d never written a song like this before and never thought it would become one. It was hatred, directed at a piece of paper, that turned into revenge and a taunting chorus. Seated at the piano, the musicality of “How does it feel?” began to take shape. This wasn’t about swiping back at an individual in the manner of a Taylor Swift song, as Bob Dylan had no picture to burn. It was the beginning of a monumental shift in attitude. The folk music revival, which Dylan was a part of, often provided the soundtracks for the Civil Rights Movement and the peace movement of the early to mid-60s. In the spirit of Martin Luther King, the music reflected a peaceful presentation of the collective ideal. Acoustic ballads were popular. Electric guitars were not. When Dylan began to question himself as much as the world at large, his rant turned into a rock song, and he became the flag bearer for an evolving genre of music.
Perhaps it was foretelling that Dylan condensed the hateful manuscript into the verses and chorus of a song in Woodstock, New York. It would be four years before the Woodstock Festival would take place at that site, recognized as one of the defining moments of Rock and Roll history. The recording sessions took place in Studio A at Columbia Records in New York City on June 15-16, 1965. The musicians brought in for the session had no sheet music to play from, so everything had to be played by ear. Both days of recording were described as chaotic, with the assembled group feeling their way to the sound Dylan wanted on the song. The two-day session produced 20 takes, and the final master was 6:13. Sent to Columbia for release, it was placed amongst those going nowhere. There was concern over its length and “raucous” rock sound, being unconventional for the time. Following its rejection, a demo was leaked to New York’s popular new discoteque, Arthur. The crowd insisted that it be played repeatedly that first night, until it wore out. The next morning, two of the city’s leading Top 40 stations called Columbia and demanded copies of it. On July 20, 1965, “Like a Rolling Stone” was released as a single, with “Gates of Eden” as its B-side.
The public’s reaction to Dylan’s musical rant was unanimous. They couldn’t get enough of it. Stations that tried to play only half the song, due to its length, were inundated with demands to play the entire song. Several weeks after its release, it peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and went to number one on the Cashbox Top 100. It was the tip of the iceberg for the impact the song would have on pop culture, rock music, and his contemporaries. This was a time when Elvis, Brenda Lee, Chubby Checker, Ray Charles, and The Four Seasons held the top spots on radio. The British Invasion seemed unstoppable, and suddenly, an American folk singer comes out with “Like a Rolling Stone.” The Boston Tea Party was likely less shocking to the British than the revolutionary sound of this song from an American musician. The combination of electric guitar licks, organ chords, and the sound of Dylan’s voice, dripping with cynicism, was unlike anything they’d heard before. It was a challenge as much as a statement.
Rolling Stone puts this song at the top of their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and for good reason. Not only did it push the genre forward in ways previously unimagined, it forced the business side of music to change its conventional ways. It didn’t just edge past the usual three-minute single rule, it doubled it, forcing labels to be less restrictive and taking creativity off the stop watch. With just one song that defied the artistic norms of the day, Dylan gave rock music permission to rebel, loudly. Hip-shaking stage theatrics would become a mere distraction for the rebellious nature songwriting would soon take. The boundaries of musical creativity were taken down by a musician who was fed up, pissed off, and had the ingenuity to turn it into an art form.
Throughout history, music has been at the center of most social gatherings, large or small. It could be considered a form of media in its ability to spread a message and inspire a movement. Combine the two, and music becomes social media. Mark Zuckerberg is not a musician, yet his instrument of choice, Facebook, is arguably responsible for more incidents of bad behavior than you could ever lay at Bob Dylan’s feet for his social rant. It’s all in the way you spin things, and when rants were spun into vinyl discs, we had the most inventive time in our music history. Lyrics on paper that became verse and chorus were valued beyond the price of an album. On June 24, 2014, Sotheby’s sold Dylan’s original, hand-written lyrics, for $2 million. I find it highly unlikely that a post on social media will ever garner such a price. Had social media existed in 1965, and Dylan had simply posted his angry thoughts rather than writing them down for the sake of music history, what might we have listened to for the past 50 years? Classic rock may not exist, nor anything that emerged from it. If I have to hear a rant, I much prefer Bob Dylan’s, accompanied by electric guitar, harmonica, and a sassy organ. What a crime it is that the value of music has dwindled to nothing, yet the creator of Facebook lives like a king. Perhaps the creative forces that wrote the impressive catalog of original rock music were able to do so because they were not enslaved to followers, likes, or views on YouTube. I can only imagine what Bob Dylan must think of the music scene today. Perhaps we should ask him. Bob, “How does it feel?”
Listen to “Like a Rolling Stone” on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/3AhXZa8sUQht0UEdBJgpGc
Dare to listen to the entire album: https://open.spotify.com/album/6YabPKtZAjxwyWbuO9p4ZD
Go old school and purchase the album! Highway 61 Revisited is available for download through iTunes:
Producer on “Like a Rolling Stone”- Tom Wilson
Musicians who contributed to the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone”:
Bob Dylan – vocals, guitar, harmonica
Mike Bloomfield – electric guitar
Charlie McCoy – guitar
Al Kooper – organ
Frank Owens – piano
Harvey Brooks – bass guitar
Bobby Gregg – drums
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