John Lennon’s song for The Beatles to defend Brian Epstein’s sexuality
There are a few moments in The Beatles history when members of the band stand up for the social injustices they see in the world. Whether it was their refusal to play to segregated audiences or indeed their pursuit of gender equality, sometimes the Fab Four knew what they were doing. One such case can be seen in their song ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’, a song which many have said was written in defence of the band’s manager Brian Epstein’s sexuality.
The song has often been lauded as the moment John Lennon began to truly connect with the pop music poet he would become and he himself suggested that the track was written during his “Dylan period.” Endlessly inspired by Bob Dylan, it’s no surprise that his influence can be felt right from the very moment the two sixties icons met. But, considering the subject matter and the timing of the song, many have suspected that, in actual fact, the song was written for Epstein as a sympathetic ear to living life as a gay man in 1960s Britain.
One of the undoubted highlights of the band’s film soundtrack record Help!, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, is notable for a few reasons. Of course, as a song, it is buoyant and distinctly Beatles-esque, as one might imagine, but outside of the song’s sonic pleasure, the track is also full of intrigue. As well as being the first time the band had used a session musician since 1962, the song also showed the growing influence of Bob Dylan on Lennon’s writing.
Having met in 1964, Dylan’s work as the freewheelin’ troubadour of his generation had seen him gain worldwide fame alongside The Beatles but with a very different MO. Dylan, unlike the band, had been extracting and extrapolating pieces of his own life for his songs for some time. For Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr this was a relatively new concept. It didn’t take long for Lennon to see the value of this turn of pace.
“That’s me in my Dylan period again,” Lennon told David Sheff when recounting the songs together in 1980. “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.” Speaking in the Beatles Anthology, Lennon once again reiterated the intent of the track: “‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ is my Dylan period. It’s one of those that you sing a bit sadly to yourself, ‘Here I stand, head in hand…’ I’d started thinking about my own emotions. I don’t know when exactly it started, like ‘I’m A Loser’ or ‘Hide Your Love Away’, those kind of things.”
He added: “Instead of projecting myself into a situation, I would try to express what I felt about myself, which I’d done in my books. I think it was Dylan who helped me realise that — not by any discussion or anything, but by hearing his work.”
Perhaps using the title above all else, many people have aligned this sentiment and the timing of the track with a relationship between Brian Epstein and Lennon. The song can easily be taken as a piece of empathetic songwriting in recognition of the difficulties Epstein faced as a homosexual man at this time.
The band were well aware of his sexuality and had always been more than fine with it. The group saw Brian as a father figure and the tragedy of his death later in 1967 shook the band to their very core. However, despite what is likely a sentiment of solidarity and friendship, it hasn’t stopped people from insinuating a more sordid structure to the song.
At the time the song was released, many suggested that Lennon and Epstein had been engaged in a brief romance with one another. The pair shared a holiday in Barcelona and it saw some onlookers suggest their relationship had escalated. Naturally, this was vehemently denied by both parties but the time spent away clearly had an impact on Lennon.
“I was on holiday with Brian Epstein in Spain,” Lennon told Sheff in 1980. “Where the rumours went around that he and I were having a love affair. Well, it was almost a love affair, but not quite. It was never consummated. But it was a pretty intense relationship.” It didn’t stop the rumours swirling.
“It was my first experience with a homosexual that I was conscious was homosexual. He had admitted it to me. We had this holiday together because Cyn[thia Lennon] was pregnant, and I went to Spain and there were lots of funny stories. We used to sit in a cafe in Torremolinos looking at all the boys and I’d say, ‘Do you like that one, do you like this one?’ I was rather enjoying the experience, thinking like a writer all the time: I am experiencing this, you know.”
Though this provided a piece of tittle-tattle for the tabloids around the world, the reality of what happened was likely something far sweeter than a Spanish romp. More likely, the time the two spent together, both brash yet sensitive in their way, formed an unbreakable bond. A bond which saw Lennon not only sympathise with Epstein but maybe, just maybe, write him a song too.