Review: Bob Dylan in London: Troubadour Tales

2021 for The Diversity of Classic Rock is starting off strong and I’m always happy to review any classic rock related books and music for the blog. I was contacted and asked if I would like to review Bob Dylan in London: Troubadour Tales by Jackie Lees and KG Miles. I of course said yes, and I got a press copy of the book. It’s always important to be honest to my readers and I will always let you know if I get any free albums or books in PR.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love two things a lot, classic rock and London. I write a whole blog on classic rock, we’d all hope that that’s something I’m passionate about. London is a city I’ve been to a bunch of times (like 7 times I think? I’ve honestly lost track) and it’s so magical to me and a city I always end up coming back to. I remember being 15 years old and watching The Boat That Rocked in the cinema and eagerly looking forward to visiting London. Leaving London, I was so sad because it’s such an incredible city: one where I’m never bored and I can always find something new that I haven’t seen before – there aren’t a lot of cities that I can say that about: definitely not any other city in the UK since a lot of them you can see in about a day or two. I know people from London who say that they haven’t seen everything in their own city. As someone who has travelled quite a bit (and misses it a lot! thanks a lot COVID!), I highly recommend everyone to visit London. It’s a city that has something for everyone: whether you like history, architecture, music, theatre, literature, food, shopping, museums, whatever!

While Bob Dylan spent way less time in London than he did in New York, London was more of an impact and he was like a sponge there, absorbing all sorts of information and influences there. Bob Dylan shouldn’t just be associated with New York, but also London and this book makes the case for that.

Being a classic rock enthusiast and Anglophile, I had to read this book! Since I don’t do things the typical way, I’ll be writing a review and a 10 things I learnt Buzzfeed like thing sharing the main takeaways from the book like I did for Decoding Dylan.

Review:

This book is a focussed topical book that follows Bob Dylan’s footsteps in London from his first visit in 1962, playing in folk clubs to his last performance there, in Hyde Park in 2019. In fact, it’s the first book to map out Bob Dylan’s journey through London and first book about Bob Dylan written by a female author (Jackie Lees) since 1982 and only the second book ever about him written by a woman.

The book is divided into 8 chapters, each one focusing on a different place that was important in Bob Dylan’s various visits to London and they’re in chronological order: The various folk clubs he went to on his first visit make up the first chapter, 9 Tregunter Road – where Bob Dylan partied is the focus of the second chapter, The May Fair – where Bob Dylan first stayed in London when filming a TV play for the BBC is the third chapter, The Savoy and the Savoy Steps next to it make up the 4th and 5th chapters – showing how Bob Dylan is moving up, the Royal Albert Hall is chapter 6, Earls Court and Blackbushe is chapter 7, and the final chapter is Camden Town and Crouch End. While reading, you’ll hear the story of Bob Dylan’s rise to stardom and metamorphosis from folk singer-songwriter and protest songwriter to proper rock star complete with electric guitar, how it changed his visits to London, and how it impacted his songs. At the beginning of each chapter before going into how each place has to do with Bob Dylan, a history is given on each of the different places, with lots of trivia and interesting things that will interest anyone who likes to learn about the history of London, even if they’re not die hard Bob Dylan fans. This book isn’t just about Bob Dylan, but about classic rock history and the importance of London to classic rock history. Being a geography nerd, I loved the illustrated map in the book.

Because travel isn’t possible for now, reading is the next best thing to take you to new places and the way that the authors write about it makes me feel like I’m on a tour of London and learning about Bob Dylan’s connections to the city. One thing that I love about classic rock is how all the musicians are connected to one another and even if there are rivalries, there’s a lot of respect and admiration for one another’s work and this book delivers on making connections between Bob Dylan and his 60s peers who admired his work and sharing those stories. Overall, it’s an easy to understand, clear, interesting read and you’ll definitely learn something new from it.

10 Things I Learnt/Top Ten Takeaways:

This book is full of so much great information and tidbits, but here are 10 important takeaways:

1. The purpose of Bob Dylan’s first visit to London in 1962 was to take part in a TV play for the BBC

At this point, Bob Dylan wasn’t a superstar, known all over the world. This was even before his famous performance at the March on Washington, in August 1963! Screenwriter Philip Saville saw Bob Dylan performing at a Greenwich Village club and was so impressed with what he saw, he thought he would be perfect to play a young songwriter in a BBC play. That play, Madhouse on Castle Street, was Bob Dylan’s first ever TV performance. Unfortunately, The BBC being the BBC, they erased that tape (and a lot more classic rock history) so there is no surviving video of that performance.

In the end, Bob Dylan performed four songs in that play: “Blowin’ In The Wind”, “The Ballad of the Gliding Swan”, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, and “Cuckoo Bird” and spoke one line “Well I don’t know, I’ll have to go home and think about it.”

2. His first visit to London directly inspired two songs on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

The two songs are “Girl From The North Country” and “Bob Dylan’s Dream”. The latter was inspired by Martin Carthy’s rendition of “Lady Franklin’s Lament”. “Girl From The North Country” also has a connection to Carthy because Bob Dylan surprised him with the song when he came back from Italy and he played it for him at the Troubadour. Imagine Bob Dylan showing you a song he wrote before it was released to the public!

3. While Bob Dylan had a lot of fans, the London folk scene wasn’t the most welcoming at first

It’s well known that Bob Dylan didn’t become a superstar overnight and it was a grind to get there. A lot of people associate the criticism he got with his switch from acoustic to electric, but really, he was criticised before that by folk purists. It’s important to understand that London’s folk scene was different from New York’s. Different songs would be sung and a lot of British folk musicians sang traditional folk songs from the British Isles. Within the folk scene in the UK, there were different factions and levels of strictness in the different clubs as to what songs could be performed and how they could be performed (a cappella or with instruments) but artists being artists, some of them didn’t care about the rules. Another divide in the folk scene was between the pro-Dylan and anti-Dylan camps. Some criticisms of Bob Dylan were that he churned out too many songs and his lyrics were nonsense.

4. Poet Robert Graves was a big influence on Bob Dylan. They met at a party at 9 Tregunter Road

9 Tregunter Road was an elegant Chelsea townhouse that Eton-educated polymath Rory McEwen lived in and was a place where Bob Dylan, Richard Fariรฑa, and Eric Von Schmidt would party and play songs for each other. It was a real creative hub. One night, Bob Dylan met poet Robert Graves at a party there and that meeting was life changing for him. His book, The White Goddess was an influence on him and he acknowledges it on his website under “books of interest”. It was a popular book among the 60s counterculture. It’s said that “Visions of Johanna” was inspired by The White Goddess.

5. At first, Bob Dylan didn’t like luxury accommodations, but he later grew to like them

The first hotel Bob Dylan stayed at in London was the May Fair, a hotel known for being one of the most stylish in Europe and gaining a reputation for being a home away from home for show business royalty. When he first stepped in there, he knew it wasn’t his cup of tea: being waited on hand and foot and all of the employees looking after him demanding tips and looking at him in a judgemental way. Bob Dylan being the rebel that he is, he wore what he wanted, stayed up late at night playing guitar, and brought back groupies to the hotel with him and the hotel wasn’t happy with that and he wasn’t famous enough for that behaviour to be tolerated so he was moved to the Cumberland Hotel. As he got more famous, luxury grew on him. He stayed at the Savoy in 1965. Certainly he wasn’t going to stay in a hostel!

6. 1966 was a year of change for Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan changed a lot from 1965 to 1966. Both years he played concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, but there were some differences. By 1965, he was world famous and achieved star status and had Top 10 hits with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “The Times They Are A Changin'”. He had crossover appeal. Not only folk music fans loved him, but he won appeal among mainstream audiences for his cool image and his songwriting genius. What changed in the yearlong period? His style and stage presence changed. He went from wearing leather jackets to a more formal looking tailored suit and his hair grew even more, to his iconic big and curly style by 1966. In 1965, he joked around with the audience a bit and had a relaxed demeanour, but in 1966 he rarely interacted with the audience, and sometimes made snarky, mocking comments.

But most importantly, his sound changed. It wasn’t a surprise though to the Royal Albert Hall audience because it wasn’t the first time Bob Dylan did two different sets: an acoustic first set, and an electric second set with a backing band. His electric debut was at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when he played a set backed by the Butterfield Blues Band. In fact, this half acoustic, half electric approach was used on the album, Bringing It All Back Home. Famously, he was heckled and folk purists felt like he was alienating them.

He later hired Canadian band The Hawks as his backing band and they later became The Band, best known for their hit, “The Weight”. They came with him on the US tour, but drummer Levon Helm didn’t join Dylan in London because he was so dispirited by the heckling. One famous heckle that Bob Dylan received was at a show in Manchester when someone in the audience shouted “Judas!” at him.

7. Not everyone hated Bob Dylan’s electric sound

Still, it’s important to note that not everyone hated Bob Dylan’s new electric sound. Not everyone walked out and even those who walked out, it wasn’t because of the music, but about a feeling of betrayal. Many stayed to enjoy the music and liked seeing him try something different and evolve musically. Bob Dylan didn’t give up, if anything, the haters motivated him to keep going and give the audience an amazing show. In the book, the authors say that Bob Dylan was punk before punk because he did what he wanted on his own terms and would clap back at the audience’s jeers.

8. Music video history was made at the Savoy Steps

In my music video history blog post, I briefly mentioned Bob Dylan’s music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, often considered one of the first music videos, however it isn’t the first. One common misconception is that the music video was filmed in New York, but in actuality, it was shot in London! The alleyway background may look seedy and gritty, but don’t be fooled! That’s the Savoy Steps, just a stone’s throw away from the luxurious, five star, Savoy Hotel. Other takes of the music video were shot at other locations around the hotel, but ultimately those didn’t make the final cut, since it was a one continuous shot video. London’s not quite California like weather worked against them. A simple, iconic music video, Bob Dylan came up with the idea of flipping cue cards with lyrics on it following the song. Joan Baez and Donovan wrote some of the words on the cue cards. It wasn’t just a music video, but also the trailer for Dont Look Back and the intro for that film.

9. Even after Bob Dylan took a break from touring and London, he was as loved as ever when he returned

Bob Dylan stopped touring after he got into a motorcycle crash in July 1966 near his home in Woodstock. For almost a decade, he made few public appearances and didn’t tour. Of that crash, he said in Chronicles that he wanted to get out of the rat race. However, while he wasn’t touring, he kept recording and releasing albums. It wasn’t until 1978 that he played in London again, this time at Earls Court Exhibition Centre and and even bigger concert at Blackbushe, where 200,000 people attended and with Eric Clapton and Joan Armatrading supporting him.

There’s this expression that absence makes the heart grow fonder and Bob Dylan was no exception to that, but tour organisers didn’t know that at first. They thought that after a long absence from touring Europe that just a few small shows would meet the demand, but they were proven wrong. Passionate fans camped out to get tickets. Even 6 nights at Earls Court didn’t meet the demand so Bob Dylan did a huge concert at Blackbushe.

10. Bob Dylan really liked Camden

Camden is associated with punks, goths, and alternative subcultures and you wouldn’t think that would be Bob Dylan’s thing, but in the 90s, he did a walkabout in Camden and liked what he saw! In typical Bob Dylan fashion, he went on his walkabout there with no fanfare or warning. He loved it so much there, he considered buying a place there and when he went to a showing for a home there, the owners were surprised when they realised that the little guy visiting them was Bob Dylan. Banners Restaurant in Camden is a popular pilgrimage destination for Dylan fans, where they’ll go and have their picture taken at the exact table he sat at, marked with a plaque that simply reads “Bob Dylan sat at this table, August 1993”. London continued to inspire him, even 30 years after his first visit, and Camden particularly influenced his album, World Gone Wrong, the album cover photo taken at Flukes Cradle Cafe Bar.

Bob Dylan in London comes out on ebook format on 4 February 2021.

Shoutout to my friend Patrick for supporting the blog!

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