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How Bob Dylan influenced The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who

Bob Dylan’s influence on the shape of British music has been examined in great detail music historians for decades. 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, detailing Dylan’s significant impact on some of Britain’s most acclaimed icons. In his study, Jones details how Dylan significantly influenced Beatles duo John Lennon and George Harrison as well as the peacocking Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger. Dylan’s far-reaching influence also had a prominent effect on Pete Townshend of The Who.

“Dylan’s influence on songwriting in modern British popular culture during the 1960s was profound and far-reaching,” says Jones, who has vast experience having conducted research through Coventry University.

Jones continues: “The effect of his influence was felt on three main levels: first, in widening the range of subjects and themes that could be addressed in the lyrics of popular music; second, in conveying the notion that lyrics could have something reflective and significant to say about contemporary society, human relationships or even the existential realities of the human condition; and third, in fostering a more personal and emotionally direct mode of address.”

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.

While conceding that songs written as “further reflections on aspects of contemporary British society” are still prevalent in the music of all the aforementioned bands, Jones adds: “Paradoxically those were songs written by the one major British popular songwriter of the 1960s,” in reference to The Kinks’ Ray Davies and added: “Who was probably least influenced by Bob Dylan.”

The Who frontman Townshend is in firm agreement with Jones’ analysis, telling Rolling Stone in 2012: “Dylan definitely created a new style of writing. Dylan was the one who I think got the message across to The Beatles, that you could write songs about subjects other than falling in love.” It was something John Lennon, perhaps most of all, picked up on right away. He quickly ditched the rock tropes of old and focused his expressions into personalised pop songs”.

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“When I started to work on ‘My Generation’, I started to work on a Mose Allison/Bob Dylan hybrid of a talking folk song y’know. ‘People try to put us down’,” Townshend sings before adding, “That’s a bit Mose and a bit Dylan. You can take any song of his and find something in it that’s pertinent to today.”

While a reflective look at the influence of Dylan can often seem like an obvious one, his significant impact was also felt during the height of fame for all the aforementioned artists. During John Lennon’s all-too-brief career, he was a self-confessed chameleon in songwriting. Lennon, alongside his partner Paul McCartney, wrote some of The Beatles’ most beloved songs. However, a selection of them were lifted from the style of another singer, a certain Bob Dylan.

In 1965, Lennon was asked which songs of The Beatles he liked most. His answer revealed a crossroads for his career. “One I do which I like is, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.’ But it’s not commercial.” This sentence said it all. The Beatles were dominating the charts but with songs that were pure pop and without much gravity. It was something that Lennon would change during the Fab Four’s career and one song that saw the beginning of that movement was the 1965 Help! cut ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’.

The song acted as a bridge away from the pop fodder which Lennon-McCartney had become so adept at writing and, instead, towards a more reflective and expressive sound. In 1971, Lennon quite succinctly described the track: “It’s one of those that you sort of sing a bit sadly to yourself, ‘Here I stand/Head in hand.’ I started thinking about my own emotions”.

It was a breakthrough moment for Lennon and the band, though it’s unclear when the decision was made. Lennon continues: “I don’t know when exactly it started, like ‘I’m A Loser’ or ‘Hide Your Love Away,’ or those kind 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.”

However, there was one man that the band had met the previous year that may have had a helping hand in the decision to approach songs differently. “I think it was Dylan helped me realise that,” the bespectacled Beatle continued. “I had a sort of professional songwriter’s attitude to writing Pop songs, but to express myself I would write ‘Spaniard In The Works’ or ‘In His Own Write’ —the personal stories which were expressive of my personal emotions.”

While the track certainly has it’s own merit, it is hard to not hear Bob Dylan’s influence. The group had met the artist in ’64 and by the time Help! came around were certainly working to a new structure. As Lennon describes the song in his 1980 Playboy interview: “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.”

In 1984 McCartney was happy to confirm it 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.”

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