It’s hard to think of another musician with the reach of Bob Dylan. His music — at once minimal and rich in imagery — captured the imagination of people from every section of society and every quarter of the globe.
Through albums like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Highway 61 Revisited, the singer revealed a startling ability to capture the spirit of the age with a sleight of hand that has allowed his songs to endure for so long.
It’s no surprise, then, that he became something of an idol for other popular musicians working at the time, musicians who — like Dylan — wrote songs that were both accessible and expertly crafted. The elitism of the jazz age was fading, and something fresh, vital, and democratic was needed to fill the gap. It was in this niche that pop acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones found their home.
One thing that both artists had in common was their shared appreciation of Dylan. In the eyes of Lennon, who, in 1965, used Dylan’s blend of bookish-folk to inspire many of the tracks on Rubber Soul – he was an artist writing on a unique level. He placed him on some transcendent plain far beyond the arena tours and bubblegum pop hits that Lennon felt he had become a prisoner to. For Jagger, too, Dylan’s ability to write music that had the power to shape the identity of the youth must have felt some sort of supernatural gift.
Yet, for decades, these three artists have remained fairly distinct in the eyes of music historians. While they were likely to have taken influence from one another, nobody was prepared for the revelation by renowned producer and studio engineer Glyn Johns in his book that Dylan nearly made a collaborative album with The Beatles and The Stones.
In his book Sound Man, Johns recalls how Bob Dylan expressed an interest in ‘The Fab Four’ and The Stones’ music. Johns, who had just finished working with The Beatles, bumped into Dylan in the studio, at which point: “[Dylan] asked me about the Beatles album I had just finished and was very complimentary about my work with the Stones over the years. In turn, I babbled about how much we had all been influenced by his work.”
Johns was flattered that Dylan had taken the time to compliment his work with The Beatles but didn’t expect the famously solitary songwriter to suggest any sort of collaboration. After all, Dylan had made a career out of performing alone, his only companions being his guitar and his beloved harmonica.
“He said he had this idea to make a record with the Beatles and the Stones,” Johns recalled, “And he asked me if I would find out whether the others would be interested. I was completely bowled over. Can you imagine the three greatest influences on popular music in the previous decade making an album together?”
Johns, surprised and excited by the prospect of the three acts working together, promptly reached out to the musicians. “Keith [Richards] and George [Harrison] thought it was fantastic,” he noted, “But they would since they were both huge Dylan fans. Ringo [Starr], Charlie [Watts] and Bill [Wyman] were amicable to the idea as long as everyone else was interested.”
However, others were not so excited by the idea of working with the ‘Tambourine Man’ himself. “John [Lennon] didn’t say a flat no, but he wasn’t that interested. Paul [McCartney] and Mick [Jagger] both said absolutely not,” Johns recalled.
It’s fair to say that Johns was understandably bitterly disappointed with the outcome. He’d had it all figured out in his head, the sound, the arrangments, everything. “We would pool the best material from Mick and Keith, Paul and John, Bob and George, and then select the best rhythm section from the two bands to suit whichever songs we were cutting. Paul and Mick were probably, right, however, I would have given anything to have given it a go.”
It is fascinating to imagine what that record would have sounded like. It was 1969 when Dylan expressed an interest in working with The Beatles and The Stones, a year in which they released Let It Bleed, meanwhile ‘The Fab Four’ shared Abbey Road and the freewheelin’ troubadour put out Nashville Skyline — all records of the highest calibre.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason the likes of Lennon didn’t want to commit to a collaborative record. As wonderful as it would have been, this was the era of the super-group, after all. Potentially, The Beatles and The Stones were worried they would be somehow sacrificing their own artistic integrity for the sake of a marketable record. In truth, their reasoning is something we’ll never comprehend, and it remains one of rock’s greatest mysteries.