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Credit: Wikimedia/Bent Rej

Music

John Lennon’s scathing attack on Bob Dylan

@TomTaylorFO

Thinking of a world where Bob Dylan and The Beatles didn’t exist is a thought experiment akin to thinking of a new colour. Such was their all-encompassing impact It pushes the mind to the inconceivable edges where imagination fails. 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: how much of an impact did they really have on one another?

“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 1963The 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.”

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.”

However, this eulogising soon turned sour for Lennon. “So here we sit, watching the mighty Dylan and the mighty McCartney and the might Jagger slide down the mountain [with] mud and blood in their nails,” drawls out Lennon in disdainful tones into a home Dictaphone. It is hardly the sort of chat you would associate with peace and love, residing somewhat closer to cynicism and scorn. Duality is present within all works of art — but particularly music. Given its existence in music, it is therefore present in musicians too, and in all of us to some degree. 

Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher very much on Lennon’s radar, once stated: “The inexpressible depth of music so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being.” It would seem that Lennon has purged that innermost depth many times in wondrous songs that we all love, but likewise, it would seem that in this surfaced home recording from 1979 he was purging his innermost depth in a way that is a lot harder to listen to.

A look back at when John Lennon interviewed himself

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Sat at home — presumably from the bird twittering background noise, in some sort of outdoor space — Lennon records himself in a ramble during which he dissects the state of pop music and lambasts many of his contemporaries. “Well, I was listening to the radio,” he begins, “And Dylan’s new single or whatever the hell it is came on.” The Bob Dylan single that he’s referring to is ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, or as Lennon jokingly calls it ‘Everybody’s Gotta Get Served’, from Dylan’s 1979 record Slow Train Coming, the first in a series of born-again Christian records with heavy biblical overtones. “He wants to be a waiter for Christ,” Lennon adds laughing to himself, thereafter his critique becomes a bit more caustic adding, “The backing is mediocre […] the singing’s really pathetic and the words were just embarrassing.” 

Later, he would take this attack in a rather more musical direction with his response on ‘Serve Yourself’. Lennon sang: “You tell me you found Jesus/ Christ! Well that’s great, and he’s the only one/ You say you just found Buddha?/, and he’s sittin’ on his arse in the sun?” The home-recorded parody, which you can listen to below, was first released in November 1998 as part of the John Lennon Anthology boxset. 

Around the time that the home recording was made in 1980, Lennon remarked to David Sheff: Anybody who wants to hear Dylan just because of who he is isn’t gonna understand what Dylan is saying now or then. They’re just following some kind of image. They’re the sheep anyway. Still, the whole religion business does suffer from the ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ bit. There’s too much talk about soldiers and marching and converting. I’m not pushing Buddhism, because I’m no more a Buddhist than I am a Christian, but there’s one thing I admire about the religion: there is no proselytizing.”

Later adding: You have to think in terms of process. Relying on your own spirit is healthy. If Dylan is into Jesus because of needing to belong, whatever, perhaps the next step will be to see the good of the experience as well as the other side.” In short, Paul McCartney may well have drawn a line under the whole thing by simply saying: “Too many people preaching.”