Bob Dylan and the Judas Call

Bob Dylan and the Judas call are legend. What’s less well known is that this seminal moment in rock history had roots going back to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819.

Dylan playing illustrated Bob Dylan and the Judas Call.

They sat there not knowing what to expect. The atmosphere was tense – one fan described it as ‘electric.’ He’d seen amplifiers and a drum kit on the stage when he entered by the side door. The word had spread. ‘It wasn’t as if we didn’t know what was going to happen,’ Mark Makin is reported to have said. ‘We just hoped it wouldn’t.’

Mark had a camera. He took two pictures, the only known shots from that night of 17 May 1966 at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, cloudy outside, warm and tense inside the arena.

Dylan had played the first set on acoustic and harmonica. This is what they’d come for: folk music with a subtext that made you widen your eyes, see the absurd, the abstract, the existential. They followed this 24-year-old skinny guy from Minnesota like a guru, like a deity, a messenger. They read the Melody Maker. They knew what had happened in ’65 when Bobby at the Newport Folk Festival plugged a guitar into an amp and Pete Seeger risked his life taking an axe to the cables.

The Judas Call Cometh

Bob Dylan and the Judas call illustrated by event poster.The intermission came to an end. The curtain opened and there was the Hawks with Dylan up front wielding a black Fender Stratocaster like a sniper rifle. Mickey Jones beat out the opening drum roll for Tell Me, Momma. It was like a bomb had exploded. People in the crowd were shell shocked. They cat-called, they booed, they slow hand clapped. Others stamped their feet and applauded. They had taken sides in a civil war. There was no doubt who was going to win.

The set continued. Robbie Robertson hit the opening chords for Like a Rolling Stone – on some lists the best rock song ever– and in a microsecond pause a lone voice rang out as if from another dimension with a single word that has become myth: ‘Judas.’

The insult hung in the air. Dylan, unfazed, stared into the ring of lights, into the shifting shadows gripping the audience like cinemagoers on the opening night of Psycho. ‘I don’t believe you,’ Dylan spat back.

What did that mean? Was it a reference to his song of the same title about a lover falling out of love? Was it: I don’t believe you could be so stupid? I don’t believe when you came here tonight you weren’t aware that the world is changing and you have to shake off the dust and change with it?

‘You’re a liar!’ Dylan then exclaims and turns to Robbie Robertson on lead: ‘Play it fuckin’ loud.’

What aspect of the Judas call was the lie, exactly? It’s unclear, edgy, spur of the moment, Dylanesque.

The history maker screaming out Judas that night was Keith Butler, a student at Keele University, a folk fan grabbing his 3 minutes of fame Andy Warhol promised us all. As he left the hall, Butler said, ‘Any pop group could produce better rubbish than that! It was a bloody disgrace! He’s a traitor!’ Older and wiser, in 1999 Butler took part in the BBC Radio documentary Live 66. When asked about the Judas call back in 1966, he replied, ‘I kind of think: You silly young bugger.’  

Blowing the Roof Off

Robbie Robinson slashed at his six-string like Pete Townsend on an acid trip. They turned the dials up to 11 and the band played on. The windows shook. The axis of the earth shifted. Metaphorically, they blew the roof off – reenacting the literal devastation by the Luftwaffe thirty years before.

And not for the first time, according to Andy Gill in an article in the Independent.

The Free Trade Hall was built in the 1930s from public subscription on St Peter’s Fields to pay tribute to those who died in the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. Chartist orator Henry Hunt came to the fields and gave a speech urging the crowd of labourers and factory workers to fight for equal rights. He was before his time. The world wasn’t ready.

As some of those in the crowd waved their fists to salute the rebellion, the local rich men who owned the town sent in the militia with drawn swords – 21 died, many more were injured. The Peterloo Massacre was a seminal event in the working class movement and people raised the cash from their meagre savings to build the Free Trade Hall. It mysteriously burned down and so they found the money and built it again, bigger, sturdier. The building was damaged by German bombers in an air raid and restored again after the war ready for Mr Dylan walking in the bootheels of Henry Hunt to blow the minds of his audience in May ’66

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2 Comments

  1. Whether it’s writing, or music, or whatever the form of artistic impression, so many fans take it on themselves to assume a proprietary perspective. To them, it’s their story, their song, and it damn well better be done their way … or else!

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