A Look Back at Bob Dylan’s Infamous ‘Judas’ Concert
Bob Dylan’s decision to go electric didn’t sit well with a lot of fans, who felt that he had sold out folk music for a rock 'n’ roll payday. It all came to a head on May, 17, 1966, during one of the last stops on his world tour.
Thanks to wrongly titled bootlegs, it was widely believed for years that the concert was held at London’s Royal Albert Hall at the tour’s final night on May 27. But it was eventually figured out that the concert had taken place a week and a half earlier at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. (When Dylan gave an official release to the show in 1998, the second installment in his Bootleg Series, he stuck his tongue out at the bootleggers by calling it Bob Dylan Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert.)
After a controversial three-song performance with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Al at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan worked out a compromise to placate his longtime fans. The first set would be performed acoustic and solo, while his backup band would come out for the second electric half. While there are conflicting reports about the reason for, and the amount of booing at Newport, at his next performance at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, N.Y., the electric set was met with a near riot, even though Dylan had by this time scored the biggest hit of his career with “Like a Rolling Stone.”
This frenzy continued as he toured the U.S. in support of Highway 61 Revisited with his new partners-in-crime the Hawks, a mostly Canadian quintet that used to back up rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. The negative reaction took its toll on the group’s lone American, drummer Levon Helm.
“I’d been raised to believe that music was supposed to make people smile and want to party,” he wrote in his autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire. “And here was all this hostility coming back at us.”
When the group learned it would be going overseas with Dylan in early 1966, Helm conveyed his feelings to pianist Richard Manuel. “I said, ‘Richard, it seems a long way around — England — to get where I wanna go. I can take getting booed here. This is my country. But I can’t see taking it to Europe and hearing this s—. And anyway, I don’t really wanna be anybody’s band anymore.”
Helm left the Hawks and drifted to New Orleans, working for a while on an oil rig outside of Houma. He was replaced by New York studio drummer Bobby Gregg, then Sandy Konikoff for the North American dates in February and March 1966. As they headed to Australia in April, Mickey Jones, a Texan who had played with Johnny Rivers and Trini Lopez, was hired.
Dylan had developed a particularly close friendship with the guitarist, Robbie Robertson, whom Dylan described as "the only mathematical guitar genius I've ever run into who does not offend my intestinal nervousness with his rear guard sound." Barney Hoskyns’ book Across the Great Divide: The Band and America paints a scenario of the two together in a hotel room every night, writing song after song, but they were too wired on amphetamines to remember them or write anything down.
In Manchester, Dylan’s acoustic set consisted of seven songs — three from the as-yet unreleased Blonde on Blonde, three from Bringing It All Back Home and one from Highway 61 Revisited. The audience greeted the material warmly, even rapturously at times. But it was during the electric set where, as had been the case for nearly a year, the atmosphere got ugly.
After “Tell Me, Momma,” which Dylan has performed only on the 1966 tour and has never released on a studio album, he introduced the next song, one from his last all-acoustic album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, and practically egged on the audience by telling them that his folksinger days were behind him: “This is called ‘I Don’t Believe You.’ It used to be like that, and now it goes like this.”
That was all the crowd needed to hear. Though there was plenty of applause following each song, it was during the numerous tuning breaks that things took a darker turn for Dylan and the band. Many in the audience clapped in rhythm — a sign of derision in Britain — and there was some shouting. It picked up in intensity by the end of the fifth song, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” and Dylan decided to have a little fun at their expense. He started mumbling nonsense syllables into the microphone. After about 20 seconds, the hecklers stopped to listen, at which point he said, “… if only you wouldn’t clap so hard.”
Beaten, they laughed, but it wasn’t enough to win them over. It didn’t help that the next two numbers, “One Too Many Mornings” and “Ballad of a Thin Man,” appeared to be directed at the purists. On the former, he spat out the final lyrics, “You’re right from your side / And I am right from mine / We’re just both too many mornings / And a thousand miles behind.” On the latter, he sneered at those who didn't want to follow him along on his new journey, as Garth Hudson’s keyboard swirled.
Then came the reason why this concert has become a part of rock history. In a rare moment of quiet, somebody shouted, “Judas!,” which was followed by laughter and applause. “I don’t believe you,” Dylan shot back as he strummed his guitar and the Hawks began to fall in line. “You’re a liar,” he continued. Then he turned his back to the crowd and gave a single instruction to his band. “Play f—ing loud!”
Drummer Jones may have lacked Helm’s versatility and sense of swing, but he brought the hammer down on that snare drum something fierce, leading into possible the most savage version of “Like a Rolling Stone” that Dylan has ever performed.
After the concert’s official release, a 52-year-old man named Keith Butler stepped forward and claimed to be the one who shouted “Judas” at Dylan. "I was very disappointed about what I was hearing," he said. "But I think what really sent me over the top was when he did those lovely songs … `Baby Let Me Follow You Down,’ and the other one was `One Too Many Mornings.’ I was emotional, and I think my anger just welled up inside of me. I think it was `One Too Many Mornings' that really sent me over the top."
Dylan’s response embarrassed Butler, and he and his friend walked out during the song, at which point they were met by the crew that was filming a documentary of the tour. He told them, “Any pop group could produce better rubbish than that! It was a bloody disgrace! He's a traitor!"
The movie, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, became known as Eat the Document. It was intended to be shown on ABC TV in the U.S., but was rejected by the network after Dylan edited it. Even though it has never officially been released outside of screenings at festivals, some aspects of it, including the “Judas” scene, made its way into Martin Scorsese’s 2005 Dylan documentary No Direction Home.
Following the tour, Dylan retreated to Woodstock, N.Y., where, two months later, he would be involved in a mysterious motorcycle accident and spend the next few years in seclusion. The Hawks joined him in early 1967, where they recorded The Basement Tapes. Helm returned to the fold toward the end of the year as the Hawks prepared to make their own music, on their own terms, as the Band.