July 25, 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. In the process of cranking up and kicking ass on a Fender Strat, Dylan infuriated a prominent section of his active supporters while also invigorating and inspiring still others—even if they didn’t know it right away.
For better or worse (and it was for the best), Bob Dylan’s bold transformation from an acoustic troubadour onstage to a full-blown live rock-and-roll frontman revolutionized music, which revolutionized culture, which changed the world.
Most immediately, Dylan’s daring move prompted the Beatles to expand their reach beyond just mop top melodies (as great as they are) toward Rubber Soul, Revolver, and, ultimately Sgt. Pepper; and giants on the order of the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and, frankly, everybody, became emboldened to expand and experiment artistically, even if it meant angering or perhaps losing long-term fans in the process.
Of course, not all the subsequent creative stretches that initially alienated a performer’s audience have paid off positively. Some have been downright disastrous. Still, even a gamble that craps out is exciting so, in honor of Bob Dylan’s plugging in at Newport half-a-century ago, here are ten times rock stars pissed off their own fans… electrically.
The Grateful Dead Goes MTV (1987)
No fan base in rock—or anywhere outside of the major world religions for that matter—is more fanatically devoted to the cause than that of the Grateful Dead.
Nonetheless, Jerry, Bob, and the rest of the boys first got some tie-dyes in a bunch with their 1980 Go to Heaven, in general, and its FM radio hits “Alabama Getaway” and “Shakedown Street” in particular. Naysayers decried both as “Disco Dead.”
Still, the Dead were never about studio stuff anyway, so all involved swallowed their upset—in whatever form—and tripped forward. The real outrage occurred seven years later upon the arrival of not just the Lite-FM-ready In the Dark album, but the group’s selection of a long-standing concert favorite “Touch of Grey,” to serve as their very first slick MTV video.
“Touch of Grey” went over huge in the mainstream (you probably heard it recently on a Walgreen’s overhead sound system) and brought with it a huge new influx of Deadheads. That was, of course, the band’s goal: to reach a fresh generation of listeners.
Veteran followers of the band disdainfully referred to these Jerry-come-lately fans as “Darkies” (relax: it’s a reference to In the Dark). Such bitterness remained essentially until everybody got what he or she needed in the parking lot right before the next Dead show. Then all was groovy again.
In time, all traces of harshed mellow evaporated, to the point that the Dead played “Touch of Grey” as their second-to-last live song ever at their July 5, 2015 farewell show in Chicago.
U2 Hacks iTunes (2014)
On September 9, 2014, anyone with an iPhone, Mac computer, and/or other iTunes-equipped Apple product discovered that they suddenly owned Songs of Innocence, the thirteenth studio album by U2. The problem was that even among those who may have looked forward to one day owning the record, nobody had actually asked for it.
U2 frontman Bono announced that the out-of-nowhere arrival was “a gift [from Apple] to all their music customers” and that U2 just wanted “to get it to as many people as possible, because that’s what our band is all about.” Added guitarist The Edge of the surprise delivery, “It’s incredibly subversive. It’s really punk rock, it’s really disruptive.”
Among the album’s 500 million(!) recipients, the mega-corporately financed “punk rock” promo campaign move royally annoyed approximately 500 million of those who instantly had a bunch of memory eaten up by Apple’s “gift.”
Even many of those who eagerly awaited new U2 music voiced unhappiness about having product forced upon them (although, in fairness, Apple says 81 million users ended up downloaded the album in full).
Both friends and enemies of U2 reacted to the file as though it were a virus. The Internet went ablaze the very same day with instructions of how to remove Songs of Innocence. Artists such as the Black Keys and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason vehemently decried the move, saying that it further devalued music, as did many in the record industry. Wired called the album “spam with forced downloads.”
Within a week, Apple released an official one-click mechanism to get rid of Songs of Innocence. The same day, after a U2 fan told Bono that the release was “really rude,” the singer replied: “Oops! I’m sorry about that. This beautiful idea, we kind of got carried away with it. Artists are prone to that kind of thing. Drop of megalomania, touch of generosity, dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years might not be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.”
Michelle Shocked Goes Anti-Gay (2013)
Indie punk-folkie and activist Michelle Shocked emerged from college radio in the 1980s to score a couple of alt-rock hits (“Anchorage”, “On the Greener Side”) and establish herself as popular singer-songwriter with a strong following that stuck by her through the years.
Part of what fans enjoyed most about Shocked’s live performances was her between-song banter, when she’d tell stories, voice opinions, and oftentimes rally the crowd to think differently or take action against the injustices she protested through much of her music.
Without a lot of warning, though, Michelle’s notion of “injustice” veered sharply in at least one unexpected direction that came to light on March 17, 2013. During a performance in (of all places) San Francisco, the once sexually ambiguous, still politically left-wing Shocked announced: “If someone would be so gracious as to tweet out that Michelle Shocked just said from stage, ‘God hates faggots.’ Would you do it now?”
It was part of a longer rant, arising, apparently, from Shocked’s current born-again Christianity. She also said: “Once Prop 8 gets instated and once preachers are held at gunpoint and forced to marry the homosexuals, I’m pretty sure that that will be the signal for Jesus to come on back.”
The assembled concertgoers objected, booed, walked out, and, modern times being what they are, Tweeted about the incident. The Internet then did what the Internet does now and Shocked’s remaining tour dates were immediately cancelled.
In the weeks following her outburst, Michelle attempted to explain her motivation as being perhaps ironic or misinterpreted, but the damage to her reputation remains permanent. Maybe in the next life.
Pat Boone Goes Heavy Metal (1997)
Squeakiest-of-clean 1950s rock-and-roll crooners revealed a cheeky sense of humor in 1997 with the release of In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy. This collection of lounge-jazz versions of hard rock classics includes Pat’s versions of Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” Dio’s “Holy Diver,” Ozzy’s “Crazy Train,” and AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll).” The album even features Ritchie Blackmore playing guitar on the Pat Boone-ified “Smoke on the Water”!
The cute joke did get a little weird when Alice Cooper introduced Boone at the American Music Awards and Pat strutted out shirtless in a leather vest and studded dog color. Still, In a Metal Mood was clearly a one-off lark, with the good-humored, Pentecostal family man sending up his own image while also finding universal entertainment inherent in examples of “the devil’s music.”
Pat Boone’s conservative, Christian core audience found his flirtation with the dark side, however it was intended, absolutely frightening. Thousands wrote and called his office to protest. Trinity Broadcast Network pulled Pat’s weekly Gospel America program off the air. In response, Boone went on a religious media tour explaining In a Metal Move as a form of evangelizing. “
“Some Christians were looking down their noses at me,” he said, “I have been identified n the minds of millions of people as another one of those metal scourges and scumbags, and I am being judged in the same way that I judged. Christians have got to deal with this judgmental, self-righteous, opinionated attitude that if somebody doesn’t dress like we dress, or doesn’t like the same music, or maybe rides a Harley-Davidson, he must be a heathen. That mindset—’we don’t want to have anything to do with you or anything like you’—is a turnoff to the very people we would like to reach!”
Celtic Frost Goes Hair Metal (1988)
Celtic Frost rewrote the rules of extreme heavy metal by following their first masterpiece, Morbid Tales (1984), with an even greater masterpiece, To Mega Therion (1985), before making it a masterpiece trifecta with Into the Pandemonium (1987).
Emerging from Switzerland as Europe’s black metal revolution took hold, Celtic Frost expanded the sounds, tones, and subject matter of rock’s hardest and deepest forms to forge a new genre altogether: avant-garde metal.
Their next move then seemed to stem from an entirely different school of art—surrealism—as the group reinvented themselves as poodle-headed glam-rockers for their 1988 release Cold Lake.
Celtic Frost even made a cheesy, MTV-ready music video for the single “Cherry Orchard” that showcased them with huge hair in front of projections of Marilyn Monroe, ripping it up in mascara and sharing microphones as in the manner of Poison, et al.
Fans did not take well to the change. However, the iron loyalty of headbangers and the monumental greatness of Celtic Frost’s first three efforts assured that the Cold Lake backlash would pass. It did, but not among the group itself.
Celtic Frost mastermind Tom G. Warrior has since explained that Cold Lake was his attempt to escape the personal darkness that had previously fueled the band. Still, he’s not forgiving of himself. “It was the absolute worst I could do in my lifetime,” Warrior has said of Cold Lake, “[and] an utter piece of s—t, possibly the worst album ever created in heavy music.”
Celtic Frost reissued their entire back catalogue in 1999, with one notable exception. And you can count on it being a cold day somewhere far south before Tom G. Warrior ever again officially open up access to Cold Lake.
Dee Dee Ramone Raps (1987)
What punk rock was to New York City in the 1970s, hip-hop had become in the mid-1980s: an exploding underground music scene that would launch superstars and forever redefine popular music with its image and influence.
One of the most outspoken original punk proponents of hip-hop was Dee Dee Ramone, bassist and frequent songwriter for the group that famously shares his last name and the voice you hear shouting, “1-2-3-4!” at the beginning of all those Ramones classics.
In 1987, “Funky Man” appeared suddenly in New York record stores. It was a 12-inch single by “Dee Dee King,” the new hip-hop persona of Dee Dee Ramone (the name is a play on B.B. King). The bassist, who had been in an out of drug rehab many times, became obsessed with rap during his last cleanup and came out ready to throw his Run D.M.C.-style hat into the ring.
“I like rap, and hip-hop/I like hardcore and punk rock,” Dee Dee raps. “I like hot dogs, franks and beans/I grew up in Forest Hills, Queens!”
Fans could accept Dee Dee King “Funky Man” as a novelty act and, really, few people noticed the record, let alone bought it. Dee Dee stuck to his rhymes though, even arriving clad in full hip-hop gear to Ramones concerts.
Upon leaving the group in 1989, Dee Dee released Standing in the Spotlight, a full-length rap album that incorporates punk sounds and features backup vocals from Debbie Harry, guitar by Blondie’s Chris Stein, and Marky Ramone on drums.
Standing in the Spotlight bombed instantly, eventually becoming a cult item to be enjoyed only for mocking purposes. In the 2003 documentary End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, Dee Dee shrugs off his aborted rap career by lamenting, “Maybe it’s because I’m not a Negro.”
Rush Raps, Too (1991)
Rush’s Roll the Bones album has both plenty of admirers and (as with any other album) its share of detractors, but one element unites everyone opinion wise: the “rap” that occurs three minutes, twenty-two seconds into the title track. It’s awful. There’s simply no possible debate about it.
Of course, Rush has always been a truly progressive metal outfit, stretching and experimenting with seemingly disparate genres such as reggae and new wave to great effect (“Spirit of the Radio” alone provides an example of both). Alas, on record, Rush’s foray into hip-hop is awkward and doesn’t work. Adding a visual component, however, turns the whole mess into a cringe-tastic disaster.
The “Roll the Bones” music video showcases a retro-on-arrival CGI skeleton jawing out rhymes, slapping on a pair of Wayfarers, flashing a police badge, sprouting a Mohawk, morphing into a jack-in-the-box, and, uh, “dancing.” Worse, still, is that Rush projected the skeleton video behind them while performing “Roll the Bones” in concert.
The Rush audience picked up on how wrong-headed this experiment was and, with a degree of respect, let the band know it.
Kiss Goes Disco (1979)
“I Was Made for Lovin’ You” is such a part of the Kiss canon today that it’s funny to think that it was stirred up such outrage among even the most committed and highest-ranking members of the Kiss Army.
In fact, hard rock has for so long incorporated dance music elements, that this once bright-and-shining mirror-ball anthem doesn’t even necessarily sound “disco” anymore—it’s just another kickass Kiss classic.
After Saturday Night Fever temporarily turned all of pop music into coke-spoon-and-bell-bottoms boogie fodder, classic rockers the Rolling Stones to Rod Stewart scored huge disco hits and, moneymakers in makeup they so proudly are, Kiss wanted in on the light-up floor fun (and funds).
Alas, 1979 proved to be the year that the great Rock vs. Disco culture war reached peak conflict, as embodied by Chicago disc jockey Steve Dahl’s notorious “Disco Demolition” stunt that turned a White Sox double header into a riot.
So Kiss released “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” and their hard rock faithful loudly howled. Louder still, though, were record store cash register rings, as the single quickly racked up a million sales.
Metallica Cut Their Hair (1996)
The road to Metallica becoming the band most hated by their own fans began in 1991 with the release of their self-titled mainstream breakthrough LP, popularly known as “The Black Album.”
The leather-and-denim faithful that had stuck by Metallica through their first four original thrash masterworks and the brilliant Garage Days Re-Revisited EP groaned at the group bringing in Motley Crüe producer Bob Rock to commercialize their sound. The bellyaching only got louder as, powered by monster radio smashes like “Enter Sandman” and “Nothing Else Matters,” Metallica by Metallica went on to sell more than 16 million copies.
Seeing their heroes lumped with sudden superstars like Nirvana and embraced by the newly wide-open audience for commercial rock in the ’90s, many among the group’s first generation of devotees lambasted them as “Alternica” and declared the band traitors to true metal. Five years after that first impact, even many of Metallica’s post-“Black Album” decried them as sell-outs.
The rage began somewhere at a barbershop. In 1996, on the verge of releasing the album Load, Metallica appeared in public all freshly shorn of their signature long hair. The restyling was meant to convey a message and that it did, loud and clear. This was a new Metallica and you could hate them all you want, but their aim was to do what it took to reach millions upon millions of more potential listeners (and buyers) worldwide.
By the time Load hit, with its fancy-ass abstract art cover and songs mechanically built to get radio and MTV airplay, the metal world exploded with fury. The rest of the universe, in the meantime, just kept buying more and more Metallica stuff.
The fact is that Metallica has angered its audience so many times that we’ve already run a similarly themed list of infractions made by drummer Lars Ulrich alone. No matter what, even the most wounded former fan has to at least kind of respect that.
Bob Dylan Goes Electric (1965)
By the time he took the stage for a second night of shows at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan had already up-ended the popular folk craze of the 1950s and early ’60s. His visionary lyrics and unprecedented songwriting had already produced the anthemic hits “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Reportedly annoyed by a festival organizer disparaging earlier act the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Dylan came on with, among other players, Mike Bloomfield on guitar and Al Kooper on organ. They plugged in, powered up, and rocked out, eliciting jeers and boos from the crowd. It’s often said that numerous concertgoers felt so betrayed they shouted “Judas!”
The general consensus regarding the audience hostility is said to stem from the folk crowd disliking Dylan’s move away from political lyrics and their frustration at the surging popularity of the Beatles and other rock groups. Others maintain that people were booing the terrible sound quality of the equipment. Still another theory holds that fans were disappointed that Dylan only got to perform a 15-minute set, as was the standard slot for the show.
Whether any one (or none) of those scenarios holds true only adds to the moment’s legend. Entire books and multiple documentaries have been dedicated to analyzing Bob Dylan’s “Electric Controversy” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
Fifty years later, Dylan is still out there, writing and performing as only he can. And multiple generations of artists still arise in the wake of his genius before, during, and ever since going electric at Newport—risking it all in pursuit of greater, truer, and, yes, more electrifying rock-and-roll.