Thinking of a world where Bob Dylan and The Beatles didn’t exist is a thought experiment akin to thinking of a new colour. It pushes the mind to the inconceivable edges where imagination fails. Their impact was all-encompassing. They picked the world up by the scruff of the neck and rattled it about like a coin in a washing machine and when the cycle was finished nothing would ever be the same again. As the writer, William S. Burroughs once said, “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”
Beyond their music, the reason why they are such notable entities in the cascading unfoldment of culture is how supercharged and instant their impact seemed to be. Scholars of the arts might be able to look at nebulous movements like postmodernism and link them back to societal changes and so on, but any Tom, Dick or Harry from Timbuktu to Tahiti can look at The Beatles and Bob Dylan and say when they came along something changed. Therefore, there has always been one question that has lingered over the seismic shift in sensibilities: who led the charge?
“He was our idol. It was a great honour to meet him, we had a crazy party that night we met. I thought I had gotten the meaning of life, that night,” said a bemused Paul McCartney. He was of course referring to the night that The Beatles met Bob Dylan on the 28th of August in 1964 at New York’s Delmonico hotel. It was a meeting akin to something from Greek mythology and the fateful offering of marijuana from Dylan to The Beatles is now ascribed in history as a moment that shaped their back catalogue in the kaleidoscopic hue of psychedelia thereafter. And this is far from a mystic miasma that The Beatles tried to temper, if anything they mythologised the meeting even further as Paul McCartney once said: “I could feel myself climbing a spiral walkway as I was talking to Dylan. I felt like I was figuring it all out, the meaning of life.” However, his influence had been felt in a much more direct sense long before that.
Although Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut might have only featured two original songs, his iconic follow-up in 1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, featured introspective folk lyricism that would turn the ear of many a songsmith. In The Beatles Anthology, John Lennon is quoted as saying: “In Paris in 1964 was the first time I ever heard Dylan at all. Paul got the record [The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan] from a French DJ. For three weeks in Paris we didn’t stop playing it. We all went potty about Dylan.” There is no doubting that after this period the songs that the Fab Four were crafting became more complex, lyrically more probing and literary, and more outwardly politically liberal.
This transition from wholesome pop ditties about holding hands wasn’t lost on Bob Dylan either. When the iconoclastic folk star first heard ‘Norwegian Wood’ he recognised so much of himself in it, that he even made a parody of the song called ‘4th Time Around’ which seemed 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.”
One track that, Lennon later admitted to David Sheff in 1980 came from ”me in my Dylan period” was ‘I’m A Loser’ from the December 1964 record Beatles For Sale, to which he added: “Part of me suspects I’m a loser and part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.”
Another track that Lennon mentioned was spawned from his hero-worshipping of Dylan was ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ on Help!: “That’s me in my Dylan period again. I am like a chameleon, influenced by whatever is going on. If Elvis can do it, I can do it. If the Everly Brothers can do it, me and Paul can. Same with Dylan,” Lennon said about the track. Paul McCartney even took the term inspiration a step further in 1984 and claimed it was a direct imitation, stating: “That was John doing a Dylan… heavily influenced by Bob. If you listen, he’s singing it like Bob.”
On that evidence alone, it is not only likely that The Beatles copied Bob Dylan, it is quite frankly patently obvious. However, the fact of the matter is that this is how music and art functions. Copying is a blunt and heavy term for what could otherwise be described as inspiration. As the filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch once said, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.” This is a sentiment that has also been further by Nick Cave on his Red Hand Files Forum: “The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation — everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time. It’s a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music — the great artistic experiment of our era.”
Therefore, the same can even be said of Bob Dylan in relation to The Beatles. He may have been more laconic with his praise of the Fab Four, thus propagating the notion of a one-way relationship, but he has on occasion let his stiff upper lip loosen to eulogise his contemporaries and acknowledged their influence on him. “I just kept it to myself that I really dug them,” Dylan told biographer Anthony Scaduto.
And the songsmith even went on to say, he’d begun thinking the Fab Four was “doing things no one else was doing. I knew they were pointing the direction that music had to go,” he told Scaduto. “It seemed to me a definite line was being drawn. This was something that never happened before.”
It is worth noting that Dylan was not the only one left unchanged by that fateful meeting in 1964 either. It was a sunny afternoon on July 25th, 1965, when he stepped out on stage at the Newport Folk Festival with one of the most vilified Stratocasters of all time under his arm. It was a move that cemented his status as an iconoclast and in the process became one of the most influential ‘I’ll go my way’ moves in the history of music. And although the story goes that this embracing of Thomas Eddison and the caustic middle-finger it represented to the near-Amish arbiters of folk standards, was in retaliation to a comment made by one of the festival organisers, there is no doubting that he saw how The Beatles had paired the poignancy of introspective songwriting with the visceral scimitar of adrenalized rock ‘n’ roll and wondered how that might work out for him.
In short, saying did The Beatles copy Bob Dylan is a bit like saying that Richard Branson copied The Wright Brothers, but that still doesn’t make it a moot point or any less interesting or important to look at where our great societal shifts come from and marvel at the cosmic melee that the orchestra of culture proves to be.