In the mid-sixties, after meeting Bob Dylan, the Fab Four became one of the most autobiographical pop groups in the world. ‘Norwegian Wood’ is one of the more beautiful numbers by The Beatles, which is some achievement considering their back catalogue, but one man who certainly isn’t a fan of the 1965 track is Bob Dylan who believes the song was The Beatles’ attempt at trying to copy his distinct style.
The track, of course, featured on 1965’s Rubber Soul as a gorgeous acoustic number à la Dylan and it marked the first time that George Harrison would debut his soon-to-be trademark sitar on a Beatles track as his love of Indian music added another dynamic layer to the Fab Four’s sound. That said, aside from the instruments in use, Dylan was disgruntled about the way the band had structured their new song. It would provoke a scathing retort from the freewheelin’ troubadour.
Dylan was angered to see mainstream pop acts such as The Beatles and Sonny & Cher gain global attention that he could only dream of, a time while he struggled to fight off the folk scene who were still trying to draw blood. He felt as though their sound was directly copying him but without the singer seeing his own benefits. The latter’s ‘I Got You Babe’, Dylan believed to be a rip-off of his own anthem ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ — then when he heard Rubber Soul, the pioneering artist was not best pleased, to put it politely.
Rather than take this as a compliment that he was clearly doing something right, he was instead fuming that the Fab Four were apparently using his trademark style. So much so that he clearly felt John Lennon especially was trying to steal the gimmick that he invented, the use of his own expression within his pop songs. In reference to Rubber Soul, Dylan said: “What is this? It’s me, Bob. [John’s] doing me! Even Sonny & Cher are doing me, but, fucking hell, I invented it.”
One track from Rubber Soul that especially rubbed him up the wrong way was ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, in which he ended up hilariously parodying on ‘4th Time Around’, a song quite clearly aimed at John Lennon. The Dylan track ends with the lovely if not bruising swipe at Lennon: “I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine”.
Lennon sat on the fence when he was asked about his opinion on the track by Rolling Stone in 1968 as he wanted to avoid further confrontation with an artist whom he saw as a contemporary if not an inspiration, Lennon stated: “I didn’t like it…I was very paranoid. I just didn’t like what I felt I was feeling – I thought it was an out-and-out skit, you know, but it wasn’t. It was great.”
Dylan famously first met The Beatles in August 1964 as they partied in his hotel room after a show at New York’s Forest Hills Stadium, a period when the troubadour would introduce The Fab Four to cannabis for the very first time. This was a habit that the Merseysiders had well and truly got into when it came to recording Rubber Soul, a record Lennon labelled their “pot album” so Dylan influenced them sonically as well as recreationally for the record, something that was clearly not lost on him.
It would all be water under the bridge in the years that would follow with Dylan ending up being a convert to at least one member of The Beatles. He would form The Travelling Wilbury’s with George Harrison who became a close friend of his and someone he clearly thought more of than Harrison’s former bandmate John Lennon. “George got stuck with being the Beatle that had to fight to get songs on records because of Lennon and McCartney,” Dylan once said of Harrison. “Well, who wouldn’t get stuck?” He added: “If George had had his own group and was writing his own songs back then, he’d have been probably just as big as anybody.”
In the end, Dylan would move on and continue to find commercial success as The Beatles would eventually peter out. While we’re sure there was some bristling animosity between the two groups for a few periods of time, these were largely fleeting moments of frustration than a long-held feud.
Listen to the beautifully bitter ‘4th Time Around’ and the Dylan inspired ‘Norwegian Wood’ below.