Bob Dylan’s influence on the shape of British music is long and undeniable in what is an approach to song creation which stretches back decades.
As part of the upcoming feature ‘John Lennon at 80′, a radio show hosted by Lennon’s son Sean, Paul McCartney joined to discuss a range of topics surrounding his Beatles bandmate. The show will be a rare in-depth insight into one of Britain’s finest musical talents and is set air over the weekend. The programme will also feature conversations with Sean Ono Lennon’s brother Julian Lennon as well as Elton John, completing an in-depth look at John Lennon’s influence on music and his personal life.
In a sneak preview of the show, quotes from McCartney have been released in which he discusses the much-debated influence of Bob Dylan. The Beatles—prior to being the impact of Dylan— predominantly wrote songs on the subject of “boy-girl romance” but changed their approach somewhat after hearing their American counterpart. Sean Ono Lennon, touching on the topic, asked McCartney if the interpersonal and reflective approach to songwriting was a direct result of Dylan
“Yeah, we certainly got a lot from Dylan,” McCartney answered honestly. “And I know I had one of his first LPs at home before The Beatles. I used to play that quite a lot so I was steeped in him. And I think your dad was too… but that was just one of the influences, there’s an awful lot more because ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Penny Lane’, those are very much us remembering our youth. And, you know, it’s a funny thing we used to say when we were a little older, I mean ‘older’, like 20-something, which is like babies, but we thought we were kind of men of the universe, big, big men by then. But as we got a little bit older, if ever there was like a problem with a song or recording, we’d often say, ‘What would our 17-year-old self think?’ And we refer back because that was the wisest age, we reckoned, you know, 17. You go, ‘Nah, it’s a load of crap,’ or ‘Yeah, that’s great, needs more drums or…’ you know, just very basic thinking.
McCartney, focusing more specifically on his own material which was directly impacted by Dylan, added: “It was a whole very exciting time. And I say, with Strawberry Fields or Penny Lane, there, if I’d say Penny Lane and talk about ‘the barber shop’, John would know exactly what I meant, because that was his bus terminus, where he had to, if he was coming from the Liverpool City centre, he’d probably have to go to Penny Lane, and then change to go up Menlove Avenue.
“So we were very intimate with that place. And the same, as I say, with Strawberry Fields, these were places from our lovely days of our youth. And so when we were writing later, maybe five years later, or something, it was great to write about those things. I think it’s always good to write about memories.”
While a reflective look at the influence of Dylan can often seem 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 McCartney, wrote some of The Beatles most beloved songs but a few of them were lifted from the style of another singer.
There was one man who 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,” Lennon previously said of Dylan’s impact on him. “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.”
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.”
John Lennon at 80 from 9-10pm, Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th October on BBC Radio 2 and BBC Sounds.