Inside Bob Dylan's Massive New 36-Album 1966 Live Box Set

Inside Bob Dylan's Massive New 36-Album 1966 Live Box Set


Inside Bob Dylan's Massive New 36 Album 1966 Live Box Set news

The inside story on how Bob Dylan’s legendary 1966 tour became a massive 36-album box set. Credit: Photofest

By the final date on his 1966 world tour, Bob Dylan was exhausted. Nearly every night for the previous three months, he had faced an avalanche of boos from folk purists, who were enraged he'd gone electric. That night, he vented his frustrations to a sold-out crowd at London’s Royal Albert Hall. "I realize it's loud music," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm and sleepless nights. "If you don't like it, that’s fine. If you've got some improvements you can make on it, that’s great. But I'm not going to disagree or fight with you"

That show, and that speech, have never been released. Like everything that happened onstage in the European tour in the spring of 1966, it was captured on tape by Dylan's sound engineer Richard Alderson. The tapes sat in cold storage for five decades, and the majority were never circulated within the fan community. But on November 11th, they're all coming out (along with a handful of dodgy-sounding audience tapes from earlier in the year) on The 1966 Live Recordings, a 36-CD box set. "We figured as long as we were doing this," says a source close to the Dylan camp, "we might as well be complete."

Dylan's camp was fighting a ticking clock. A European copyright law stipulates that all recordings enter the public domain if they remain unreleased for more than 50 years. (That same law compelled Dylan's team to release the complete Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde takes last year.) The sound quality on the 1966 recordings varies from night to night, but is largely excellent. Credit Alderson, who mixed the house feed while operating a Nagra reel-to-reel recorder every night. "I was on a cocktail of drugs back then that included LSD, amphetamines and alcohol," he says today. "So I don't quite remember how I did it."

Alderson first encountered Dylan five years earlier, shortly after the singer arrived in New York City and began playing local coffeehouses. "My first memories of him are he was just one of the guys who was hanging out on the street," he says. "He was very charming and very young. He hadn't written any songs yet and wasn't singled out as a particularly great singer or player, but peopled liked him. Then he went away for a little bit and when he came back he was on his way to becoming the Bob Dylan we all know."

Right around the time that Dylan signed to Columbia Records in 1962, Alderson was working at the Village Gate as the sound engineer. Chip Monck (best known today as Woodstock's master of ceremonies) was the club's lighting designer. "Chip told me that Dylan was doing private performances at the Gaslight and I should record him since he's doing new material," says Alderson. "There were two nights. The first was kind of the older folky material. The second night he did things like 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall.'" He sat about five feet away from Dylan both nights, capturing the entire show on his Nagra III mono recorder. (The tapes were traded in bootleg circles for years before Columbia officially released them as Live at the Gaslight 1962.)

A couple years later, Alderson took a job as Harry Belafonte's sound engineer. The calypso singer was headlining enormous halls, sometimes playing to 5,000 people a night. "Nobody really carried any sound system with them besides for Harry back then," says Alderson. "He was a pioneer. He had a rider in his contract that you had to use his sound engineer and use his sound equipment."

In late 1965, Bob Dylan's manager Albert Grossman approached Alderson about creating a sound system for the singer's upcoming world tour. He'd been playing electric sets throughout America the past few months with the Hawks, but they wanted to upgrade their sound system to something on par with Belafonte's setup. Alderson flew out to Los Angeles, met with Dylan's road manager Victor Maymudes, caught an Otis Redding gig with Dylan and was soon creating a sound system and shipping it off to Hawaii for the launch of a nearly two-month world tour.

This was a time when the Beatles were playing enormous baseball stadiums with primitive sound gear linked to the house's PA system. Alderson's setup was far beyond that, but at the end of the Australian tour on April 23rd he was told he'd have to leave it in Perth. To this day he doesn't know why, but he suspects shipping it to Europe would have been too expensive and slow, especially since they had a show booked in Stockholm just six days later. There was also a severe shortage of airplanes in Australia since many of them were being used to send troops to Vietnam. 

Alderson's memory is a little hazy on what happened next, but he remembers flying from Perth to Sydney to New York (not a quick trip in those days), recreating the entire sound system and then flying to Stockholm to put it together. "My friends at the time remember I didn't get any sleep during the couple days I was home," he says. "I do remember soldering wires on the stage in Stockholm when I got there."

A couple of days later, the tour moved to Copenhagen, Denmark and filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Howark Alk showed up to start filming Bob and the Hawks, onstage and off, for a follow-up to Dont Look Back, which at that point hadn't even been released. "Alk had a Nagra tape recorder that was supposed to have sync sound on it," says Alderson. "I hooked it up to the soundboard and would occasionally check what was going to the tape machine, though it was basically the same that was going everywhere since I only had one mix. But I would kind of tweak it a little based on putting on a pair of headphones."

And so it went for the next four weeks as the tour moved from Denmark to Ireland to Wales, Scotland, France and all over England. When an enraged fan called Dylan "Judas" in Manchester on May 17th, Alderson's tape was rolling. "There was a lot of booing," says Alderson. "There was a lot of discontent. They did not like the idea that Bob was playing with a rock and roll band. Frankly it mystified me because I thought it was very natural. As a matter of fact, I thought Bob with a rock and roll band was a more natural thing than Bob standing up and being Woody Guthrie."

All in all, he taped 16 shows, wrapping up May 27th at the Royal Albert Hall. (A live album was being contemplated, so Columbia had their own team tape Sheffield, Manchester and both London shows.) Alderson remembers handing the tapes over to Columbia when he got home, but a source close to the Dylan camp maintains he actually gave them to Albert Grossman's office. Either way, the public first heard an Alderson tape just weeks after the tour ended when "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" from the May 14th show in Liverpool appeared as a B-side to "I Want You." "It sounded awful," says Alderson. "They wrecked the sound on it. I was heartbroken."

Somehow or another, bootleggers got their hands on Columbia's Manchester tape in 1970. It circulated for decades as the Royal Albert Hall show either by honest mistake or a desire to make the "Judas" moment seem more monumental since it was the last night of the tour. It was officially released as the fourth volume of the Bootleg Series in 1998, right around the time bits and pieces of other shows began hitting the bootleg community, though the vast majority of Alderson's tapes never leaked.

With the copyright limit approaching at the end of this year, Dylan's camp and Sony Legacy began sorting through the tapes to prep them for official release. (Every existing 1965 show was offered via download to fans that shelled out for the complete Cutting Edge box set.) "The CBS engineers [that captured four of the shows] were completely overwhelmed by the prospect of recording Bob," says the Dylan source. "Their tapes sound better than Richard's when they got it exactly right, like they did at Manchester, but Richard's tapes are cleaner and more well-defined."

The CBS engineers put a limiter on their tapes. "That basically means they used compression," says the source. "If something got loud, the limiter automatically doesn't let the sound go higher so you don't get distortion. You can hear it on Manchester where the sound ebbs and flows. When Bob stops singing, the band gets louder. They didn't record Sheffield very well. They just didn't know how to record rock music. The first night in London is pretty good, so that's the one we're releasing on its own."

Alderson's tape had their own problems. "I used a Nagra III A, similar to the one I used at the Gaslight," he says. "Early on in the tour I used a sync head, which makes a noise you can hear. It didn't work and we stopped using it. When I spoke to [Sony Legacy Vice President] Steve Berkowitz he said, 'Yeah, it was a big pain in the ass taking the sync head noise off the tapes, but luckily you stopped using it halfway through.'"

To round out the box set, Dylan's team scoured the planet for other 1966 live tapes. The Sydney and Melbourne shows were recorded for TV broadcast, with the surviving tapes appearing on the set. American fans also taped February shows in White Plains, New York, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Hempstead, New York. "We got those from the collector community," says the source. "Some people spend their lives, a lot more time than we have, trying to find first generation tapes." The sound quality on these is pretty subpar, so they were placed outside of chronological order at the end of the box set. "They aren't the reason to buy the set," says the source. "They're more for historical purposes."

Dylan's set was essentially the same every single night of the 1966 tour, so only the most devoted Dylan nuts will listen to all 36 CDs on the box set. The Dylan source points to Cardiff and Leicester as two of the best, while Alderson feels that Dublin and Liverpool are the standouts. Unlike other recent archival Dylan packages, this one is not a limited set. Early sales have been extremely strong. (Amazon UK sold out of their entire 1,000 box allotment in a single day.) "We'll make more of them if the marketplace demands them," says the source. "They won't be available digitally. It makes it very confusing if you go to Bob's iTunes and see the same show 35 times. But the Royal Albert Hall show will become available digitally and every other way."

Bob Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin wrote the booklet that accompanies the collection, and his book JUDAS!: From Forest Hills to the Free Trade Hall: A Historical View of Dylan's Big Boo will be landing on shelves later this year. It tells the definitive history of the entire 1966 tour.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of John Wesley Harding, but there won’t be any copyright-protection release of the raw sessions for a simple reason: bootleggers never got their hands on the session tapes. But as the years tick by, expect enormous Dylan sets like this to become the norm.