Bob Dylan Goes Electric and 50 Years of Shocking Musical Transformations

photo: Michael Ochs Archives

Fifty years ago, on July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan shocked the music world when he put down his acoustic guitar and went electric for his set at the Newport Folk Festival. Some fans were so outraged by this supposed act of musical betrayal, they booed and cried, Judas!“— and popular music would never be the same again.

Through the years, other musicians have made their own often controversial transformations — sometimes alienating closed-minded fans, sometimes winning over new fans, but often reinvigorating their artistic vision in the process regardless.

Here’s a look at some of those transformative musical moments.

July 25, 1965: Bob Dylan Goes Electric

Prior to plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival, the folk singer was best known for such classic acoustic numbers as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changing.” But with release of 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan went electric with such songs as “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The album was the warning shot, but with his performance at Newport, the onetime protest singer proved that the times really were a-changing.

1967: The Beatles and Rolling Stones Go Psychedelic

You could argue that Dylan had his hand in this as well, since on Aug. 28, 1964, he reportedly introduced the Beatles to marijuana, which some might say expanded their minds and led them to further musical experimentation. Those explorations famously included “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” from their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which some claimed was written about LSD, as well as the mind-expanding “Within You Without You.”

The Stones followed suit in December 1967 with Their Satanic Majesties Request, featuring psychedelic freakouts like “2000 Light Years From Home” and a lenticular cover. Groovy, man!

July 3, 1973: David Bowie Kills Ziggy Stardust

Perhaps David Bowie had given us all a hint of what was to come in his career with his 1972 hit “Changes,” as he’s made more dramatic transformations than any other artist in the history of popular music. One of his earliest stunning moves was killing off his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust in a final concert with the Spiders From Mars at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. He’d continue to confound his audience in years to come with several other reincarnations, including the soulful Thin White Duke in the mid-‘70s, the tan pop star in the ‘80s, and the frontman of supergroup Tin Machine in the late '80s and early '90s.

1978 – 1979: The Stones, Rod Stewart, and KISS Go Disco

In the mid-'70s, some rockers had a violent reaction against dance music, adopting the “DISCO SUCKS!” rallying cry and even blowing up a pile of disco records in a baseball stadium. Other rock veterans opted to join the dance party, offering up their own version of the booty-shaking singles with the Stones and Stewart had #1 hits with “Miss You” and “Do You Think I’m Sexy,” respectively, but KISS had to settle for #11 with “I Was Made for Lovin’ You.” Still, it was the biggest chart hit that Gene Simmons and company ever had.

July, 4 1986: Run-DMC and Aerosmith Marry Hip-Hop With Rock

Hollis, New York rap trio Run-DMC had already proclaimed themselves the “King(s) of Rock” on its 1985 single and album of the same name, but they didn’t truly earn that title until producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin suggested they cover Aerosmith’s 1976 rock classic “Walk This Way,” with guest appearances by the band’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. As a result, the record helped bring hip-hop and Run-DMC into the mainstream, while simultaneously resurrecting Aerosmith’s career.

July 25, 1989: The Beastie Boys Go Sample-Crazy on Paul’s Boutique

Following their bum-rush into the mainstream with 1986’s nine-times-platinum Licensed to Ill, instead of attempting to duplicate their success, the trio flipped the script, splitting with producer Rick Rubin and Def Jam for a funky-fresh new outlook on Capitol Records with the Dust Brothers and Matt Dike behind the board. The result was Paul’s Boutique, a musical stew composed almost entirely of samples that Rolling Stone called “the Pet Sounds/The Dark Side of the Moon of hip-hop.” Many fans hated the album, and it was considered a massive commercial failure, barely going gold at the time. However, now Paul’s Boutique is considered a classic that influenced countless artists across various genres. The Beasties would switch it up again, busting out live instruments for the first time since their punk-rock days for 1992’s Check Your Head, but Paul’s Boutique remains their most dramatic transformation.

Nov. 18, 1991: U2 Gets Darker, More Modern, and Electronic on Achtung Baby

After the heartfelt earnestness of The Joshua Tree and the subsequent film and album Rattle and Hum, U2 found themselves at a creative dead end and felt the need to reinvent themselves for their next album. The result was Achtung Baby. Recorded in Berlin with producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, it featured the band dabbling with electronic and industrial influences, with Bono adopting the persona of “The Fly,” named for one of the tracks on the album. It was a risk for the biggest band in the world, but it paid off.

Sept. 27, 2000: Radiohead Goes Electronic on Kid A

After commenting on the influence of technology on 1997’s OK Computer, the British band ditched guitars for synthesizers and drum machines on the follow-up, Kid A. The album blended the influences of Krautrock, Icelandic act Sigur Ros, and free jazz to make something completely spellbinding. Miraculously, fans came along for the ride, and the band became more successful than ever.

2001: Prince Becomes a Jehovah’s Witness

The Purple One had long explored religious themes in such songs as 1984’s “Purple Rain” and its B-side, “God,” as well as 1987’s “The Cross.” In 2001, though, he became a Jehovah’s Witness, following a two-year dialog with fellow musician and Jehovah’s Witness Larry Graham. Years later, the PMRC-denounced artist formerly known for infamous sex anthems like “Darling Nikki” and “Erotic City” told USA Today: “I’m single, celibate, and sexy, I feel free.” His newfound religious beliefs were referenced in his 2001 album The Rainbow Children, but fans may have missed it, since it was a commercial failure.

Sept. 14, 2014: Lady Gaga Tones Down Her Monster Act

Although her outrageous costumes have often overshadowed her vocal talents, Gaga finally stripped it down and went full-on crooner on Cheek to Cheek, a Grammy-winning album full of jazz standards with the legendary Tony Bennett. This transformation continues with her surprisingly conservative, and surprisingly strong, tribute to The Sound of Music at the 2015 Academy Awards.

May 4, 2015: Mumford & Sons Go Electric

While it wasn’t nearly as shocking as Dylan’s transformation 50 years earlier, the band known for such acoustic-based tracks as “I Will Wait” abandoned its banjo-and-guitar formula for a straightahead rock approach on its third album, Wilder Mind, that had the band sounding a bit like Coldplay.

Feb. 3, 2015: Bob Dylan Goes Crooner

For years, naysayers have been saying that Dylan can no longer sing (or never could), but his royal Bob-ness silenced all doubters with the release of Shadows in the Night, an album full of songs once recorded by Frank Sinatra. It proved once and for all that not only can Dylan still sing, but he can do it quite well, thank you.