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The Who's Pete Townshend on how Bob Dylan changed music forever

Pete Townshend is one of rock music’s most outspoken voices. His fierce tongue is unrivalled when it comes to snarling criticism, and you have to be an impressively exceptional talent to avoid his vicious wrath. That said, one person who even Pete Townshend agrees is a force of nature is Bob Dylan. Dylan’s brilliance captivated the Who guitarist, and Townshend is a firm believer that Dylan changed the game forever.

There aren’t many music fans you’ll find who will argue that Dylan hasn’t had a significant favourable influence on the world of music. Few people have gone to the same lengths in proving this, however, as Tudor Jones, an academic historian with a strong background in political historian and honorary research, collected one of his most recent studies into a book titled Bob Dylan And The British Sixties and details Dylan’s significant impact on some of Britain’s most acclaimed icons.

“Dylan’s influence on songwriting in modern British popular culture during the 1960s was profound and far-reaching,” says Jones who has vast experience having researched at Coventry University. It’s an assessment that, if one grew up in the sixties, can certainly attest to.

Jones continues: “The effect of his influence was felt on three main levels: first, in widening the range of subjects and themes that could be addressed in the lyrics of popular music; second, in conveying the notion that lyrics could have something reflective and significant to say about contemporary society, human relationships or even the existential realities of the human condition; and third, in fostering a more personal and emotionally direct mode of address.”

Townshend is in firm agreement with Jones’ analysis, telling Rolling Stone in 2012: “Dylan definitely created a new style of writing. Dylan was the one who I think got the message across to The Beatles, that you could write songs about subjects other than falling in love.” It was something John Lennon, perhaps most of all, picked up on right away. He quickly ditched the rock tropes of old and focused his expressions into personalised pop songs.

“When I started to work on ‘My Generation’, I started to work on a Mose Allison/Bob Dylan hybrid of a talking folk song y’know. ‘People try to put us down’,” Townshend sings before adding, “That’s a bit Mose and a bit Dylan. You can take any song of his and find something in it that’s pertinent to today.”

Bob Dylan might be the only musician on earth who is notoriously more difficult to please than Pete Townshend. When the bohemian singer-songwriter once showed up to watch The Who, the guitarist was eager to impress. In BBC Four’s documentary The Who: The Story of Tommy, Pete Townshend recalls how on one night during the tour Dylan showed up to watch them and after the show devilishly only said: “I’ve got another appointment,” then made a swift exit.

Even if Dylan didn’t dig Townshend’s rock opera Tommy, just spending a moment in his presence was enough of a reason to celebrate for him. The impact of Dylan on songwriting is genuinely unparalleled. He showed that there was another way of songwriting. The great folkie proved that it was possible to tell nuanced, intricate stories through the medium of song and, it’s safe to say, the world of music has been a better place in the wake of Bob Dylan.