Desert Island Dylan

Bob Dylan in The Madhouse On Castle Street (BBC, 1963).

As with a lot of ‘Classic Rock’ legends, I’m only really interested in the very early part of Bob Dylan’s career, before he really made the breakthrough to superstardom and was actively chasing that goal with an impressively calculated yet also somehow ferociously genuine artistic integrity. The message and the image were as important as the music and indeed as exposure, and that exposure was almost unbelievably limited in that pre-multi-channel age, yet somehow he actually managed to make it work; whether he was scowling out With God On Our Side on a BBC news show whilst apparently dressed as though he was itching to race off and build a snowman, or walking out of The Ed Sullivan Show because they refused to allow him to perform the fascist-baiting Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues, every appearance – or indeed non-appearance – seems to have a fascinating story all of its own. What’s more, no doubt due to that desire to get noticed, the music was more raw and abrasively-delivered, and those first couple of albums stand up much better than a collection of stripped-down folk songs that sound like the political atmosphere of their time looks have any right to, and more importantly actually work as albums in their own right. After he started crooning, finally figured out how to actually play the harmonica, and decided for some reason that what everyone actually liked about Like A Rolling Stone was the length, I lose interest very quickly indeed.

There is no interesting story more interesting than that behind The Madhouse On Castle Street, a post-kitchen sink drama BBC television play exploring dark themes in which Dylan – so unfamiliar to UK audiences at that point that a certain schoolboy named Syd Barrett had reputedly been going around mispronouncing his surname for months beforehand – played one of the tenants in a boarding house, performing several otherwise unheard songs as part of the narrative. This was shown once in 1963 and wiped before the end of the decade – high profile searches for a rumoured extant copy have so far turned up nothing – and needless to say, as it involves so many of my areas of interests colliding, I’ve been asked to write about The Madhouse On Castle Street on a number of occasions. I’m most fond, however, of this short piece that I did for my own entertainment on discovering an additional piece of information about this surprisingly little-documented broadcast in a rather unexpected place. You can find a longer version of this feature – with even more ‘new’ detail – in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

It’s always a mistake to assume that you know everything about the popular culture of the past. Especially so if it’s regarding a long-wiped television show that went out once and of which little evidence remains. No matter how hard you might think that you’ve looked, there’s always some new detail to find, and sometimes you’ll find it entirely by accident and in the most unlikely places.

If you’ve been rifling through the amazing archive of old episodes of Desert Island Discs that the BBC have made available as free downloads, then you’ll be aware of just how much of an unexpected treasure trove of context and trivia they really are, especially the early editions from the fifties and sixties. Pick a random one and you might stumble across, say, Arthur Askey stating that while he can’t stand pop groups, there are some young new chaps called The Beatles who conduct themselves like entertainers and could go on to do something rather interesting. Or, more hauntingly, Benny Hill freely admitting very early on in his career that his style of humour has a shelf life, and with that in mind he was wanting to move towards becoming a writer and director for younger comics, but was having trouble convincing the television bigwigs that this was a good idea. If you’re really lucky, you might even chance upon something that offers a new angle on one of your longstanding obsessions.

The Madhouse On Castle Street, the long lost BBC TV play from early 1963 starring a then little-known Bob Dylan – of which only a partial off-air audio recording now survives – has long been one such longstanding obsession of mine. I’ve written about the play several times, and if you’ve read my anthology Not On Your Telly (which you can find out more about here), then you’ll have seen a feature on The Madhouse On Castle Street which was originally commissioned for a book to accompany an academic presentation on ‘Rock In Film’ or something vaguely along those lines, which fell through for dull admin-y type reasons that I can’t really recall. As such, I had pulled out all the stops to try and make it as informative and accurate a piece as I could, and felt at the end that unless an actual copy of the finished programme turned up, I would have needed whatever the research equivalent of a tension-leg deepwater drill was to find out much more of any practical contextual use.

Bob Dylan in The Madhouse On Castle Street (BBC, 1963).

On the 18th October 1980 edition of Desert Island Discs, actor Brian Glover chose Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone as one of the eight records he’d like to be cast away with; a popular selection with guests on the show, which also made the lists of Greg Dyke, Andy Kershaw, Jack Vettriano, Adrian Noble, Paul Hogarth and Professor Peter Piot. Like Dyke and Vettriano, Glover also picked Like A Rolling Stone as his favourite of the eight, alongside his chosen book Card Games by John Scarne, and as his somewhat impractical luxury item an MG TD Series sports car. Talking about his reasons for choosing the track, Glover told presenter Roy Plomley about how he had become a fan of Dylan very early on in his career, after hearing his music in small clubs while touring the UK as a professional wrestler. After the record had played, quite unusually for Desert Island Discs, Glover volunteered an extra bit of anecdotage about Bob Dylan – namely that he’d seen him perform live at The Troubadour Coffee House on Old Brompton Road, while he was in London “to make a film for TV, for the BBC, before he actually made it”.

Sure enough, it turns out that Dylan did indeed play at The Troubadour on 29th December 1962, the night before the original intended recording of The Madhouse On Castle Street; due to the harsh adverse weather conditions that had swept across the nation, this had to be abandoned and production was remounted on 4th January. His setlist for that show is sadly not on record, though given that he was about to perform them on camera and this gig was to all intents and purposes a warm-up, it’s more than likely that he would have thrown in renditions of Hang Me, O Hang MeCuckoo BirdBallad Of The Gliding Swan and the newly-composed Blowin’ In The Wind. Dylan is also known to have introduced himself onstage that night as ‘Blind Boy Grunt’, doubtless provoking a laugh of recognition from the pseudonym-toting wrestlers in the audience.

Accurate details of any performances that Dylan had made during the production of The Madhouse On Castle Street had proved frustratingly elusive back when I first wrote the article, but there you have it; one throwaway mention from someone you wouldn’t necessarily have expected, and there’s a whole new bit of context and detail that could have gone into the piece.; and for the record, I’d probably choose Ballad Of The Gliding Swan for Desert Island Discs

Roy Plomley presenting Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio.

Buy A Book!

You can find an extended version of Desert Island Dylan, with more new detail and much more on my love of early Bob Dylan, in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. My original feature on The Madhouse On Castle Street can be found in Not On Your Telly, a collection of columns and features on the theme of ‘lost’ television. Not On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. You never know, a folk singer might come on stage saying they’re ‘Dob Bylan’ while you’re in there.

Further Reading

The Wind Cries Mickey Murphy is a feature looking at what Jimi Hendrix might actually have been watching when he wrote The Wind Cries Mary; you can find it here.

Further Listening

Nobody is quite sure whether Bob Dylan listened to Goodness Gracious Me while he was making The Madhouse On Castle Street, but you can listen to me chatting about the Peter And Sophia album on Goon Pod here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.