Robbie Robertson recalls Dylan going electric: “Every night we played, people booed us and threw stuff at us”

Robertson was part of Dylan’s backing band for his controversial 1966 tour.

Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan

Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan in 1974. Image: Gijsbert Hanekroot / Getty

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Lead guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson of The Band has recalled audience reactions to Bob Dylan’s infamous 1966 world tour, on which he ‘went electric,’ drawing derision from hardcore folk fans.

Speaking in the latest issue of Uncut, which looks back at Dylan’s career in celebration of his 80th birthday, Robbie Robertson described the mild culture shock that came with Dylan hiring The Band, then known as The Hawks, both for the audience and the band members. “The Band came from a completely different side of the tracks,” he said. “With The Hawks, we played tough-ass bars, not coffee houses. We didn’t know folk music. Then this guy comes along, the king of the folk singers, with this audacious idea for an experiment.

“I started to really understand the magic of his talent. But every night we played [on the 1966 tour], people booed us and threw stuff at us. It was an amazing, crazy experience.”

Despite the hostile reactions, the band took the shows in their stride: “we knew we were getting better all the time,” Robertson added. “We just had to play to each other. Bob didn’t budge. The world was wrong and we were right.”

He then recalled how that tour set the stage for a new creative period for the group: “After that, in early ’67, with all of us moving up to Woodstock, we had the opportunity to invent some new music. At Big Pink, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Bob Dylan more relaxed. It was just fun. The Hawks became The Band and we made our first record. I distinctly remember the look on Bob’s face when he heard Music From Big Pink. You could see the pride in his eyes.”

The 1966 tour featuring The Hawks/The Band wasn’t the first appearance of electric Dylan – that was at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, to which audience reaction was mixed between cheers and boos. But, as Robertson notes, the controversy didn’t end there – famously, at the 17 May concert, an angry fan yelled “Judas!” at Dylan for his betrayal of a fully acoustic sound.

Find out more about the latest issue of Uncut here.

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