John Lennon wrote this Beatles song inspired by Bob Dylan and it changed everything
The connection between Bob Dylan and The Beatles is a supremely strong one. It is very well documented how the freewheelin’ troubadour helped the Fab Four reach their potential after he met them back in 1964. Dylan’s profound and poetic lyric writing showed John Lennon and Paul McCartney how to give themselves over to their art without compromising on commercial success. However, there were some tricky moments.
In 1964, The Beatles were still firmly ensconced in Beatlemania. The world was positively reeling from the huge hysteria these four lads from Liverpool had caused and continued to cause with every new release. The band were global superstars and the furore surrounding their chart-topping hits wasn’t going away anytime soon. But the truth of the matter is that Lennon and McCartney had become tired of their roles as toe-tapping pop makers—they wanted to be artists.
As any artist worth their salt would tell you, becoming one means giving oneself over to the art and not being scared of the consequences. This was a brand new ideal for Lennon and McCartney. They had previously worked so hard to gather fame and fortune and now, in the peak of it, they were determined to change the course of the ship and set sail for more dangerous waters. It would see the band become icons of music rather than just another group.
Making the jump from pop to personal was a big step to take and the band certainly knew it. Lennon once said of the change: “I don’t know when exactly it started, like ‘I’m A Loser’ or ‘Hide Your Love Away,’ or those kinds of things. Instead of projecting myself into a situation, I would just try to express what I felt about myself which I had done in me books.” Considering the timing of the releases we’ll say that ‘I’m A Loser’ was Lennon’s first real foray into storytelling.
Featuring on the Beatles for Sale album, ‘I’m A Loser’ isn’t exactly revered as a classic song for the Fab Four. Considering there are over 300, this isn’t exactly a damning verdict. But the track does show all the promise of what was to come—the clear and definitive moment The Beatles decided to reject the glittering gold of commercial success and instead headed for artistic integrity.
“That’s me in my Dylan period,” laughed Lennon when speaking to David Sheff about the song. “Part of me suspects I’m a loser and part of me thinks I’m God Almighty. [Laughs]” Prior to this in 1974, Lennon also recognised the song’s strong links back to Dylan, “‘I’m A Loser’ is me in my Dylan period, because the word ‘clown’ is in it. I objected to the word ‘clown’, because that was always artsy-fartsy, but Dylan had used it so I thought it was all right, and it rhymed with whatever I was doing.”
As well as Dylan being a hugely influential figure in the change of course for the songwriters, there was also another meeting which put Lennon on edge, this time with Kenneth Allsop. Meeting in March, Allsop told Lennon of how much he enjoyed his book In His Own Write and conveyed how disappointed he was that his songs lacked the depth shown in his books. It sparked a fire in Lennon and encouraged him to write ‘In My Life’ a year later.
While it can be easy to think of ‘I’m A Loser’ as a pivotal moment for Lennon, his longtime songwriting partner, Paul McCartney, feels rather differently about the song, “Looking back on it I think songs like ‘I’m A Loser’ and ‘Nowhere Man’ were John’s cries for help,” recalled Macca to Barry Miles for Many Years from Now. “We used to listen to quite a lot of country and western songs and they are all about sadness and ‘I lost my truck’ so it was quite acceptable to sing ‘I’m a loser’. You didn’t really think about it at the time, it’s only later you think, God! I think it was pretty brave of John.”
It was brave. To put himself, while already being the biggest band on the planet, firmly in the firing line both artistically and emotionally, it was something that had rarely been done before. It was a moment that Lennon fully immersed himself in music creation and the moment he and the rest of the band changed their lives forever.