The truth behind the relationship between Bob Dylan and The Beatles is a continually greying one. Far from the finality of monochrome mundanity, Dylan shared a relationship with the band that ebbed and flowed as one might imagine. Having been such pivotal figures in music simultaneously, one would expect the two acts to have crossed paths. Still, there was one instance when Dylan heard the band on the radio that would change not only Dylan’s career but arguably the course of musical history.
Most people believe that Bob Dylan was a huge influence on The Beatles and, sure enough, the freewheelin’ troubadour can be seen as the reason for two major changes in the Fab Four’s lives. Firstly, the singer introduced the band to marijuana for the first time in ’64, providing the band with their very first joints and even provoking Paul McCartney to deciphering the meaning of life — we’ve all been there. But he also helped John Lennon to see the light when it came to making music too.
Before Lennon had truly become acquainted with Dylan, the bespectacled Beatle had heavily relied on the classic rock tropes of old to furnish his songs lyrically. Using a tried and tested formula of singing about love, lust, and fast cars had gathered the band a serious amount of chart success, after all. But once Lennon had met Dylan, and the pair discussed songwriting styles, it became clear that he needed to make pop music more personal.
From then on, Lennon continually experimented with using his songs as a place for personal expression, once saying, “I only know how to write about me,” as a signifier of the change of stance. More often than not, after recalling how Dylan also helped George Harrison to find his own songwriting nouse during some esteemed sessions, the connection between Dylan and The Beatles is muted. But, the truth is, Dylan was also hugely influenced by the Fab Four and their ubiquitous appeal. In fact, it may well have encouraged him to make the biggest change in his life and ‘go electric’.
In Anthony Scudato’s definitive biography on Mr Zimmerman, the write notes Dylan recalling the moment a lightbulb went on in his brain thanks to switching on the radio: “Then, when we were driving through Colorado we had the radio on and eight of the ten top songs were Beatles songs. In Colorado! ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand,’ all those early ones.” It wasn’t just the songs’ popularity; it was the way they were being played too.
“They were doing things nobody was doing,” he continued, “Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid. You could only do that with other musicians. Even if you’re playing your own chords, you had to have other people playing with you. That was obvious. And it started me thinking about other people.” Up until this point, Dylan had been a one-person show, and he rather liked it that way. He was the man in charge, and he used the spotlight to share his singular view of the world. But hearing the collaboration of the four musicians on the radio sparked something within him.
“But I just kept it to myself that I really dug them,” says Dylan, having not only been friends with the band but also audibly criticised them at points in their career too. “Everybody else thought they were for the teenyboppers, that they were gonna pass right away. But it was obvious to me that they had staying power. I knew they were pointing the direction of where music had to go. I was not about to put up with other musicians, but in my head, the Beatles were it.
“In Colorado, I started thinking it was so far out that I couldn’t deal with it — eight in the Top Ten. It seemed to me a definite line was being drawn. This was something that never happened before. It was outrageous, and I kept it in my mind.” Popularity had never been a concern for Dylan before this, but there was something different about how the band operated — how they refused to be confined to a particular style or genre. “You see, there was a lot of hypocrisy all around, people saying it had to be either folk or rock. But I knew it didn’t have to be like that.
I dug what the Beatles were doing, and I always kept it in mind from back then.”
The road trip was in February of 1964, and Bob Dylan would meet the band in August of that year for their smoking session. It was a meeting of minds that would propel The Beatles and Bob Dylan to the top of the respective fields and then unify the two. In March of 1965, with The Beatles’ popularity swirling around his head and the need for a band becoming ever more pressing, Dylan plugged in his electric guitar, invited a full band on stage, and turned folk music on its head.
The folk audience would routinely boo the singer, and Dylan would struggle to establish his voice within that circle for some time. But the reality of Dylan’s decision to plug in that guitar changed music forever. It ensured that folk music could stay relevant and confirmed that few genres operated solely in their own waters. Bob Dylan built a bridge between rock and folk, and he did it all after being inspired by The Beatles.