It’s hard – if not impossible – to decipher who has had a more significant impact on the world of music between Bob Dylan and John Lennon. The pioneering songwriters are ubiquitous with pop culture, both of whom held a tremendous amount of influence over a wealth of artists across the last half a century — including each other.
While the two regularly wrote songs with the other in mind, it was Dylan who created material from a place of anger rather than that of admiration. It means that one of his tracks is often regarded as the freewheelin’ troubadour aiming a barb squarely at John Lennon.
While a lot has been written in retrospect of their impact, in truth, it’s fair to say that The Beatles and Bob Dylan shared a rather one-way relationship, one which saw the Fab Four admire Dylan’s unique talent for lyrical flair and craftsmanship. Dylan, meanwhile, would only really look to The Beatles for commercial tips and radio airplay promotion. There can be no doubt, The Beatles idolised Bob Dylan.
Dylan’s unique style of songwriting was something that became a constant source of inspiration for the four Liverpool locals. Having first met in August 1964, a time when legend has it that Dylan introduced The Beatles to marijuana, opening up a brand new avenue of songwriting in the process. After he got them stoned for the very first time, the band would kickstart a love affair between the four-piece and the green stuff. However, there would be less of a love-in on the flipside between Dylan and The Beatles.
The group and Dylan would remain friends with more than a hint of competitive edge throughout their career, with Lennon and Dylan, in particular, never fully seeing eye-to-eye. The bespectacled Beatle rubbed the American icon up the wrong way on more than one occasion. He made the Beatle change how he approached writing songs, and Lennon took on a more reflective and expressive sound in an attempt to emulate Dylan, a decision which the singer-songwriter didn’t take all that well.
However, it wasn’t just Lennon that was deeply impacted by the influence of Dylan. In fact, Paul McCartney, on one occasion, would state that Dylan was The Beatles’ biggest hero, labelling the freewheelin’ troubadour “our idol”, reflecting on the considerable impact he had on the band. “I could feel myself climbing a spiral walkway as I was talking to Dylan,” McCartney added. “I felt like I was figuring it all out, the meaning of life”.
After that first meeting with Dylan, their next record, Rubber Soul, saw the Beatles dip their toes into the water of folk-rock and open up their lives to a major audience. While the band were experts in writing chart-topping hits, the idea of putting one’s soul into the song was something they could only ascertain from the traditional values of Dylan’s work. The combination was a roaring success, and some of the tracks on the record felt as though they were written in a mould that the pioneering American had popularised in the years before its release.
The similarities became so widely spoken of that Bob Dylan even claimed that ‘Norwegian Wood’ was so similar to his style that he even made a parody of the Beatles song, naming it ‘Fourth Time Around’ and appearing to deliberately mock John Lennon. Listening to Rubber Soul, Dylan replied: “What is this? It’s me, Bob. [John’s] doing me! Even Sonny & Cher are doing me, but, fucking hell, I invented it”.
It’s hard to ignore, too. Before their meeting, The Beatles’ lyrics were never at the forefront of their songs with the melody always being the most essential factor. Prior to this moment, the group were happy to include “nonsense” lyrics if they simply sounded correct when attached to the music. The art of storytelling was never their forte until Dylan changed their mindset, and John Lennon was especially inspired by the singer-songwriter’s style, a factor which led him to write in more of a storytelling tongue than he previously had done.
The Beatles’ popularity was on a different stratosphere in comparison to Dylan during this period and, considering what he was creating was incredibly original, to have a watered-down version of his sound being lapped up by the masses quite rightly arrived as irritation. That said, whether the annoyance warranted him to write ‘Fourth Time Around’ is still questionable.
There is a degree of pettiness to Dylan’s actions, one which essentially saw him write a more eloquent version of ‘Norwegian Wood’, showing Lennon how it’s done — which is hard not to admire. Dylan even left Lennon a not-so-subtle message at the end of the track, knowing full well that his number one fan would undoubtedly study it. The last two lines see him sing, “I never asked for your crutch, Now don’t ask for mine” — which make his thoughts on Lennon hero-worshipping him evidently clear.
The star of Greenwich Village would change songwriting forever, his influence on advancing music by implementing poetry is immeasurable and would help turn the craft of writing lyrics from an afterthought and into the most integral part of a song. It was this factor alone that left The Beatles initially awestruck by his immense talent and, in truth, who can blame John Lennon for trying to channel his inner-Dylan?
While their relationship was a complicated one, there was one person who saw Lennon and Dylan together, interacting with one another, and that was D.A. Pennebaker, the acclaimed music documentarian. During one particularly famous taxi ride, one which saw the duo suitably stoned gibbering on, Pennebaker revealed their relationship.
In the clip below, we get far less than the two heavyweights of music they were. Instead, we receive an up close and personal vision of the icons a touch inebriated. Each one, bobbing and weaving, waiting for an opening to land a decisive killer blow for the camera as they jostle for pop star position. They discuss all manner of subjects from World War II and Winston Churchill to baseball and Lennon’s bandmates. They covered it all— even actual vomit as Dylan said to the camera: “Oh, god, I don’t wanna get sick in here, what if I vomit into the camera? I’ve done just about everything else into that camera, man. I might just vomit into it.”
Lennon reacts like any northern lad would and teases him with an ad-libbed but extremely professional fake commercial: “Do you suffer from sore eyes, groovy forehead or curly hair? Take Zimdawn! Come, come, boy, it’s only a film. Pull yourself together”. Director D.A. Pennebaker later remarked that Lennon, in fact, helped the pained Dylan to his hotel room at the end of the evening where Bob duly made good on his promise.
The filming was taking place as Dylan had been engaging with Pennebaker for some weeks, a time when the legendary filmmaker had been creating another documentary about the singer following the success of 1965’s Don’t Look Back. The clip would capture the morning after the night before, as the pair shared the ride through London’s Hyde Park after a particularly raucous Beatles bash.
“They had a funny relationship to begin with,” the late filmmaker remembered in an interview with Gadfly magazine back in ’99. “In this particular scene it was as if they were trying to invent something for me that would be amusing in some way, but at the same time they were doing it for each other.”
Adding: “It was not exactly a conversation by any means, Dylan was so beside himself and in such a terrible state that after a while I don’t think he knew what he was saying.”
It was a sentiment clearly shared as Lennon would later describe the scene with a deep sense of remorse when speaking to Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner in 1970: “We were both in shades and both on fucking junk, and all these freaks around us. I was anxious as shit. In the film, I’m just blabbing off and commenting all the time, like you do when you’re very high or stoned. I had been up all night. We were being smart alecks, it’s terrible. But it was his scene, that was the problem for me. It was his movie. I was on his territory, that’s why I was so nervous.”
See the clip, below.