The Beatles and Bob Dylan shared a rather one-way relationship, one which saw The Fab Four admire Dylan’s unique talent for lyrics and craftmanship. It was an aspect that became a constant source of inspiration for the four friends from Merseyside.
The two creative forces first met in August 1964, a time when Dylan introduced The Beatles to marijuana and opened up a brand new avenue of songwriting. After Dylan got his new Scouse friends stoned for the very first time, it would kickstart a love affair between the band and the mind-expanding plant. However, it would turn out to be less of a love-in between Dylan and The Beatles.
The Beatles and Dylan would remain competitive contemporaries throughout their career with Lennon and Dylan, in particular, often butting heads. Later, George Harrison and Dylan would become inseparable, a budding relationship which many have cited Dylan as the reason for the guitarist’s break out from the band.
In fact, McCartney went as far as on one occasion to state that Dylan was The Beatles’ biggest hero, labelling the freewheelin’ troubadour “our idol”, reflecting on the huge 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 their audience. While the band were experts in writing chart-topping hits, the idea of putting one’s soul into a 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 lyrically felt like they were written in the mould that the pioneering American had popularised.
Later, Bob Dylan even claimed that ‘Norwegian Wood’ was so similar to his style 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.”
It’s hard to ignore, too. Before their meeting, The Beatles’ lyrics were never at the forefront of their songs and the melody always being the most important factor. The group, in truth, were happy to include “nonsense” lyrics if they sounded correct. However, John Lennon was especially inspired by the singer-songwriter’s style and began to write in more of a storytelling tongue than he previously had done.
Tudor Jones, an academic historian with a strong background in political history and honorary research, collected one of his most recent studies into a book titled Bob Dylan And The British Sixties and, in it, he details Dylan’s significant impact on some of Britain’s most acclaimed icons.
Jones also details how The Beatles—prior to being influenced by Dylan— predominantly wrote songs on the subject of “boy-girl romance” but changed after hearing Dylan: “In Britain, the influence of Dylan’s songwriting was particularly evident during the 1960s in the case of The Beatles, and John Lennon and George Harrison especially,” Jones adds.
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 album Beatles For Sale, to which he added: “Part of me suspects I’m a loser and part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.” This track is poignant because it was deeper than anything they had previously done before and felt like it was a sign of their maturity as a group, who had begun to write about more than solely young love.
Lennon’s ‘Yer Blues’ from the White Album goes as far as mentioning the character from Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ and was another progression in John’s ability to tell a story with his songs which he had become a master of by 1968 when this track was released.
Another track that John mentioned was born out of his period of obsession with Bob 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.
In 1984, McCartney was happy to confirm the inspiration too, going one step further to suggest Lennon was trying to imitate Bob. “That was John doing a Dylan… heavily influenced by Bob. If you listen, he’s singing it like Bob.”
Although, Dylan’s influence was felt most notably over John — George Harrison would, of course, recruit Dylan to join his supergroup The Travelling Wilbury’s and the two of them shared an incredible friendship that was almost as strong as a brotherhood. He helped Harrison become the songwriter we know and love today, adding a solo Beatle to the list of careers he has helped shape.
Dylan’s influence on the art of songwriting is unparalleled and would help turn the craft of writing lyrics from an afterthought to arguably the most integral part of a song — which made The Beatles initially awestruck by his immense talent.