Was John Lennon and Bob Dylan’s relationship really one-sided?
Something that probably doesn’t need to be said is that Bob Dyan and The Beatles are monumental influences on popular music and culture. Their music still rings out all around the world, and they have genuinely solidified the idea that music is universal, and by singing this language, they have brought many different kinds of people together. It is also understood and has been plentifully documented that Bob Dylan had an indelible influence on all four members of The Beatles, individually and as a band.
Dylan had a considerable impact on John Lennon in particular when The Beatles finally heard The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan released in 1963. Upon listening to this album, Lennon and McCartney realised that the pop medium doesn’t have to just be about girls and ‘oh baby this, and oh baby that’. The revelation came that the pop medium, artfully fused with folk and a poetic sensibility, has more to offer not just the listener but primarily the songwriter, prompting them to take a deeper look inside and to express their truths.
This influence would result in Lennon writing ‘I’m a Loser’ to be included on The Beatles’ 1964 album Beatles For Sale. Lennon said of the writing process: “Instead of projecting myself into a situation,” John divulged, “I would try to express what I felt about myself. I think it was Dylan who helped me realise that.” Lennon would perhaps find a kind of better version of what he himself could be, within Dylan. As Scott Beauchamp and Alex Shephard describe in their article for The Atlantic: “Dylan came from a world of New York coffee houses and Old Left socialists who demanded some level of intellectual weight from their artists. People listened to his music sitting down, quietly taking it all in.
Adding: “It was a far cry from both the beer halls of Hamburg, where Lennon cut his musical teeth, and the stadiums he was then playing. His artistic output after hearing Dylan suggests he was challenged and inspired by the New York troubadour’s seriousness. Almost immediately, Lennon began to write more introspective and acoustic songs, first in ‘I’m a Loser’, which was recorded in August of 1964. He finally mastered the folk form with the fully Dylan-esque ‘Norwegian Wood’, released on 1965’s Rubber Soul, in which the singer takes a detached, and somewhat stoned, look at an elusive female figure.”
In Dylan’s typical scathing and sardonic way, which should always be taken with a grain of salt as he is very temperamental, he would respond with ‘Fourth Time Round’ on his Blonde on Blonde album which would further complicate an already complicated relationship. We go into full depth on this particular detail in our article, ‘The song Bob Dylan wrote to make fun of John Lennon‘.
Our particular story takes us to Dylan’s previous album, Bringing It All Back Home, which was released on March 22nd, 1965. This album is significant in that it marks Dylan’s shift to writing songs meant for an electric band as opposed to his usual acoustic folk setting. Half the album features songs of this nature, with drums to provide a rock ‘n’ roll spine to give the songs more of a youthful attitude. This would be four months prior to his infamous appearance at the Newport Folk Festival – an event he performed at annually, as it was providing a source for exposure for him. However, 1965 would prove to be somewhat controversial.
According to a Time article by Elijah Wald, the author describes Dylan’s aura at the famous festival: “On the evening of July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival in black jeans, black boots, and a black leather jacket, carrying a Fender Stratocaster in place of his familiar acoustic guitar. The crowd shifted restlessly as he tested his tuning and was joined by a quintet of backing musicians. Then the band crashed into a raw Chicago boogie and, straining to be heard over the loudest music ever to hit Newport, he snarled his opening line: ‘I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more’.”
Of course ‘Maggie’s Farm’ appears on his milestone album, Bringing It All Back Home. Half his audience on that summer night were livid, while the other half were wearily enjoying the show, beginning to understand that it is pointless to expect Dylan to cater to his audience, as it would be a contradiction to the kind of artist he is.
This significant shift in Dylan, from the rambling troubadour to the self-referential mystic poet in dark shades and black clothes, while may be impossible to truly say one way or another. That said, I believe that The Beatles – and more directly, John Lennon – had a significant impact on Dylan and could be partly held responsible for this shift in Dylan. Dylan saw the amount of success The Beatles had and were increasingly gaining, which can be claimed is a big reason why Dylan went electric.
As our very own Joe Taysom wrote, “The Beatles’ popularity was on a different stratosphere in comparison to Dylan at this time and, considering what he was doing was incredibly original, to have a watered-down version of his sound being lapped up by the masses quite rightly arrived as irritation.”
It could also be argued that while John Lennon and The Beatles’ influence on Dylan had more to do with his aesthetic and stylistic changes in the mid-60s, his Blonde on Blonde album would also represent Bob Dylan’s shift – with some exceptions – to more of a pop sensibility and songwriting approach; Dylan’s songs on this album would mark a departure from his American-heartland folk to psychedelic surrealism via Andy Warhol’s pop art and Beat generation literature. This is a direct influence traced, mostly, back to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul.
Not to mention, many claims that Dylan wrote ‘Fourth Time Around’ as a parody of Lennon’s ‘Norwegian Wood’; I would make a claim that this perspective is merely a different spin on the fact that it was John Lennon who influenced Bob Dylan to write this song in the first place, albeit it a parody or not. Nonetheless, I believe it is a farfetched claim that Dylan invented this particular pop song structure that ‘Norwegian Wood’ was written within. Put another way, one can easily trace the lineage and ancestry of ‘Norwegian Wood’ back to earlier Beatles’ material, and that outside influence – considering it not as an imitation – is ultimately inevitable, and so, therefore, the claim that Lennon’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ is derivative, is a moot point.
All in all, I believe this notion that Dylan and Lennon’s relationship was one-sided, is, in fact, false, and that somewhere along the way, Dylan played it off like he was a God – a bitterness or envy that Dylan may have secretly harboured for The Beatles. Lennon and The Beatles had just as much of an influence on Dylan as he did on them. Both still remain massive influences on popular music and culture as we know it, and I will maintain that they are both equal and helped each other along the way.
Listen to Dylan’s ‘I Want You’: a song from his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, and is dangerously close to something Lennon would have written…