Bob Dylan at 80: Recalling the legendary night in Glasgow when Dylan went electric

In 1966, Bob Dylan was at a crossroads, with his sudden decision to forgo his folk roots and play electric guitar provoking fury of Biblical proportions on both sides of the pond. It would be in Glasgow of all places that he was able to seek a little shelter from the storm.

Bob Dylan performs on stage at the Olympia Theater in Paris May 25, 1966.
Bob Dylan performs on stage at the Olympia Theater in Paris May 25, 1966.

The show, Dylan’s first in Scotland and coming hot on the heels of his infamous ‘Judas’ performance at Manchester Free Trade Hall just 24 hours earlier on May 17, is recalled by music historians as the one of the moments the tide began to turn in the songwriter’s favour.

While hecklers were certainly not absence from the crowd at the Odeon cinema – Glasgow’s Young Socialists group had tried and failed to drown out the band when they came out for the second half – it’s recorded that Dylan’s new electric warriors far outnumbered his folkie detractors.

Responding to the chants from the Young Socialists of “we want Dylan,” the music legend, who turns 80 today, quipped: “Dylan got sick backstage. I’m here to take his place”.

Bob Dylan at a press conference in London, 1966. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

Evidence of Glasgow’s overwhelming support for the man who had only recently released the majestic Blonde on Blonde is clear the moment you speak to anyone who attended the gig.

Fifty-five years on, and the anti-electric mob are nowhere to be seen – at least this writer was unable to tempt any of them to come forward.

Expat Frank Carolan says the minority intent on spoiling the second half of the gig that night left him scratching his head.

Mr Carolan, who now lives in Canada, said: "I just couldn't get my head around the booing. Here was one of the most amazing songwriters ever on stage and trying to take his music into a new vein.

Bob Dylan taking a stroll along Edinburgh's Princes Street in 1966.

"His expansion of the music was to me total eye opener. Bob wasn't content unless he was trying new things.”

Shocking as it was, the sudden rejection of Dylan by his legion of older fans had come as little surprise.

Before 1966, Dylan, real name Robert Allen Zimmermann, had been hailed as a hero of folk music, carrying the torch of the likes of Woody Guthrie and distributing that same energy and ethos to the masses.

That was until he decided to plug in his Fender Telecaster and fly in a new direction with The Hawks, to the disgust of the traditionalists who had followed him up until that point.

The former Odeon in Renfield Street, Glasgow, which was the venue for Bob Dylan's first gig in Scotland in May 1966.

It was at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival that he made the first leap towards amplification, alienating almost his entire army of fans in the process.

Bob Dylan’s introduction to Glasgow – the first of many – was a memorable one for Sadie Lawn. She’d been gifted the tickets as part of her 21st birthday.

When Dylan plugged in for the second half, she says there was the same knee-jerk reaction that had been witnessed elsewhere – but the ill feeling would prove short-lived.

She said: “There was nearly bloodshed when the electric guitars started. People were walking out and shouting about him being a sell-out and things like ‘you’ll never be a Woody Guthrie’, but it soon calmed down into a fantastic concert.

"We had the best night ever”.

Reflecting on the crowd that evening, Mike Robinson reckons the band’s volume played a part in eventually conquering the folk purists.

"It was the most incredible performance,” Mike, now 72, recalls. “The first half was brilliant, and then the chaos started with, ‘Judas!’ and ‘”where’s Dylan?’.

"My recollection is that God had arrived, that sort of thing. I’ve no memory of any noise or shouting in the first half, but, literally, as soon as they came out with the band and plugged in the electric guitar, it all started.

"There was one song they did in the second half, and they got around half the way through before stopping because of the heckles.

"Dylan then communicated to his band to simply play louder, and they really went for it from there.

"Funnily, one of the things I remember most was the price – 15 shillings for the front stalls. I’d been to see The Beatles four times, and the total cost had been just £2.”

While the show passed without major incident, there were other ugly moments during Dylan’s Glasgow stay, including the tour bus being smashed up and equipment stolen.

One incident came from the unlikeliest of sources.

Bob and his entourage were staying at the North British Hotel adjacent Queen Street Station, and had ordered food to their room.

When the waiter arrived, Dylan was met with a mouthful of abuse from the employee, who allegedly screamed “f**k him” at the American star and branded him “a f*****g traitor to folk music”.

Dylan’s security man Tom Keylock received a nasty injury in his attempts to usher the man out of the room.He once recalled: “He pulls a knife on me. I've still got the scar to prove it. So I gave him a good kicking.”

The day after the Glasgow gig, Dylan and The Hawks, which later became The Band, made their way to Scotland’s capital to play another cinema, this time the ABC Regal on Lothian Road.

In contrast to the night before, the trad folk crowd were out in full force, and a portion of the more militant among them produced mouth organs and attempted to disrupt the amplified second half of the show.

As it turned out, the harmonicas were a puny match against the Minnesota music icon and his thunderous new electric sound.

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