"a running battle for a prize no one bothered to name: the greatest record ever made, or the greatest record that ever would be made.''
The comment comes in Marcus’s new book, Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan At The Crosroads,published to commemorate the song’s 40th anniversary. On its release, everything about the song seemed insurrectionary, from the dense intrigue of the lyric to the magisterial sneer in Dylan’s voice to the crackling electricity of the accompaniment. Even its length was revolutionary. At six minutes and six seconds, Like A Rolling Stone busted wide open every rule of radio formatting. And yet when CBS chopped the song in half with three minutes on each side of the 45rpm single and radio DJs
faded the song after side one, so many fans jammed station switchboards demanding to hear it in full that programmers across America caved in and played it in full. By September it had sold a million copies and risen to number two in America and number four in Britain. The Beatles joined Marcus’s ”running battle” and before the year was out had come up with Rubber Soul. But nobody else was really in the race.
Not that everybody got it at the time. When Dylan took Like A Rolling Stone on the road , the folk purists turned out in their droves to boo and jeer the prince- of-protest-turned-electric-messiah. The song received its first live performance at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965. It was also the first time Dylan had plugged in his electric guitar in front f an audience and there were howls of outrage. The boos reached a crescendo the following year on his world tour with the Hawks, culminating in the infamous incident at Manchester Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966. Immediately before playing Like A Rolling Stone , someone in the audience -which had been unremittingly hostile throughout Dylan’s electric set – shouted ‘Judas!’
”I Don’t believe you. You’re a liar!,” Dylan sneered back. Then he turned to his backing band and instructed them to ”play fuckin’ loud!”
The electrifying take that followed can be heard The Bootleg Series Vol 4: Live 1966.
So what is it about Like A Rolling Stone that means that after 40 years it still consistently tops lists as the greatest song of all time? Uncut attempted to find out when it asked an all-star panel for its Dylan special on the occasion of the magazine’s fifth birthday. ”A song structure and rhyme pattern that boldly went where no other rock tune had gone before and imagery that touched the imagination of every teenage malcontent in the western hemisphere,” Mick Farren reckoned.
”It’s the song I’d play for an alien who had just landed, asking to be taken to our songwriting leader,” Grant-Lee Phillips said.
Fairport Convention’s Simon Nicol reckoned it was simply ”the best song anyone has ever written, Gershwin, Porter and Schubert included.”
But we’ll leave the final word to Pete Wylie: ” When you hear it , you just think ‘how the fuck did he do that?’ ”
Nigel Williamson tells the full story of the writing and recording of Like A Rolling Stone in the June issue of Uncut. Greil Marcus’s book Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan At The Crossroads will be published by Faber & Faber on June 2 and will be reviewed as ‘book of the month’ in the July issue of Uncut.