The top music singles of 1965 are — even after 55 years — surprisingly recognizable: ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin,’” “Downtown,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Do You Believe in Magic,” “It’s Not Unusual,” and “I’ve Got You Babe.”
The Beatles would have eight top ten hits by the year’s end; crowding out The Turtles, Herman’s Hermits, and the Dave Clark Five. It was a time marked by teen idol-type songs — popular and catchy dance music full of adolescent angst and lost chances at romances.
All that, was about to change.
In July of that year, a single drumstick bounced off the snare in time with the foot pedal; then came a pause shorter than a full breath; then came the music; then came the lyrics. Lyrics so original and wonderful and devastating:
“Once upon a time you dressed so fine / You threw the bums a dime in your prime / didn’t you?
Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” was a song which was almost not recorded; almost not produced; and almost not played by radio stations. When it was, it ripped a space into popular music which is still being felt today.
Recorded in June of 1965, Dylan pieced the lyrics together from various notes he wrote during an exhausting European tour. He was so weary from that tour he seriously considered quitting music altogether. The song he wrote from these notes lifted him out of this funk, and gave him what he called a career “breakthrough.”
The musicians he assembled at the recording studio in New York knew there would be very few takes. Dylan would often tire of a song, or become disinterested, or forget what he wanted, and would simply just scrap whatever they were trying to do. There was never any sheet music. “Like A Rolling Stone” went through five takes, the fourth one being used as the master for public release.
Which almost didn’t happen. The song is over six minutes, making it ineligible for radio play. Columbia Records cut the song in half, releasing it as parts one and two on both sides of a 45 single. It was also pressed on red vinyl instead of black, hoping this would make it stand out against the truckloads of other 45s radio stations were sent daily in hopes of airplay.
DJs familiar with Dylan’s name played side one only, which abruptly cut the song in half. Calls came in by thousands, demanding the song be played in full, which they soon did. “And then,” one music journalist wrote. “It seemed that was all your station played.” They also noted the marked effects the lyrics were having: “Nothing would ever follow it.”
A young Bruce Springsteen heard it that summer: “I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” An even younger Declan McManus was “shocked” by what he heard, but like Springsteen inspired enough to become a songwriter himself (later changing his name to Elvis Costello). Frank Zappa was overcome after first hearing it, quitting music altogether (he later returned to it).
The residents of 1650 Broadway felt the song’s immediate effects the hardest. Known as Aldon Music, this was a collective of commercial songwriters, all under twenty-five, and responsible for a number of the hit songs mentioned above (minus the Lennon & McCartney ones). These were major league songwriters (Carole King, Neil Sedeka, Paul Simon, etc.), and Dylan’s song horrified them.
“There is no overstating how terrified they were,” said 60s guitarist and fellow songwriter Al Kooper. “You’re fakes” he said, comparing what Dylan did was like adding sound to silent pictures. “You’re fakes and this real … It put a lot of people out of work.”
While Aldon Music struggled to up their game, musicians were finding ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ difficult to even play. The Turtles tried to record it for their upcoming album, but gave up in the studio after the second verse. The Young Rascals released a version, but it was a career embarrassment. Dino, Dezi & Billy released a truly horrible version.
No one heard it at the time, but history shows an unknown Jamaican trio called the Wailers (Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh and Bob Marley) released a version with adapted lyrics reflecting Jamaican folklore.
Jimi Hendrix tackled it during the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. By then audience knew the song by heart, and were startled when Hendrix accidently skipped a part of it. “Yes I know I missed a verse,” he said with a huge grin. “Don’t worry about it.” David Henderson—Hendrix’s biographer—wrote that the song spoke straight to Hendrix like nothing else. Trying to make it as session musician, Hendrix—with no money for food or shelter—would walk from club to club to keep warm and offer his services—only to be thrown back into the street and laughed at. “Like a Rolling Stone” was his story.
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Jann Wenner thought the song was about him as well, only he was one of the people laughing. Turning his back on his upper-class upbringing he “dropped out” and joined the counter culture. He also launched a magazine about it, naming it ‘Rolling Stone.’
Dylan would later call it the best song he ever wrote. Others would call it, even half-a-century later, “the greatest record ever made.”
Is it? Taste is all subjective; even die-hard Dylan fans absolute hated it. Only five days after “Like a Rolling Stone” was released, Dylan performed it at the Newport Folk Festival. At least he tried to. The booing, the jeers, and the name-calling was all that could be heard at first. Dylan’s use of an electric guitar had upset this audience—his audience—to no end. They wanted “Froggy Went A-Courtin,” not electric guitars and musical lyrics that made them think. Dylan refused to play Newport ever again (he eventually did, but 40 years after the fact).
Mike Selby is Information Services Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library