It’s strange to imagine two figures more influential than John Lennon and Bob Dylan. Throughout their careers, they continually re-established themselves as pioneers of pop music. Without Dylan and Lennon, the whole notion of music being something that could be used to trigger social consciousness might never have been born. Both musicians would argue that they simply captured the mood of the time. Still, despite their protestations, Lennon and Dylan’s songwriting had an undeniably profound impact on the countercultural movement of the 1960s, giving voice to a disquiet that had been bubbling under the surface throughout the post-war period.
However, despite being two of the biggest names in music in the first half of the 1960s, the music of Bob Dylan and The Beatles came from very different places. Whilst Dylan’s output was the product of dimly-lit Greenwich Village coffee houses – where a leftist political attitude was felt to be almost as essential to a musician’s act as their guitar – Lennon’s songwriting had been forged in the fires of raucous Hamberg beat clubs. So when Lennon heard Dylan’s album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1964, he was stunned by the intellectual depth of his songwriting. “For three weeks in Paris, we didn’t stop playing it,” Lennon would later say. “We all went potty about Dylan.”
Dylan’s songwriting seemed to Lennon far more stimulating than the stadium-friendly pop hits he had been writing with The Beatles at that time. Although The Beatles’ early hits are surprisingly structurally complex, it’s hard to escape the fact that they were designed to be easily digestible. Dylan’s music, however, seemed witty, angry, confrontational, and far more introspective than Lennon’s. John’s reaction was to adopt a Dylan-esque style and, in Dylan’s opinion, exploit it for all it was worth.
‘Norwegian Wood’ comes from 1965’s Rubber Soul and evokes the same blissed-out stoner sensibility that Lennon seemed to regard as a key feature of Dylan’s liberal New York lifestyle. The track centres around a chord progression played on a jangly acoustic guitar, obviously influenced by Dylan’s minimalist style on his early recordings, and it seems to bleed with the same wry observations which characterise the song’s on records like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
Dylan himself noticed the stylistic similarities between ‘Norwegian Wood’ and his own catalogue. On hearing the track for the first time, Dylan reportedly said: “What is this? It’s me, Bob. John’s doing me! Even Sonny & Cher are doing me, but, fucking hell, I invented it.”
Dylan’s problem with Lennon – which would lead him to write ‘Fourth Time Round’ in mockery of The Beatles singer – was that Lennon had adopted a songwriting style informed by a life that was not his own. In Dylan’s eyes, like life itself, music was the expression of an accumulation of lived experiences.
To appropriate someone’s songcraft in the way Lennon did with ‘Norwegian Wood’ was akin to stealing somebody’s shadow. Dylan’s music was the result of a set of geographically specific influences. Without Woody Guthrie, Greenwich Village, and the countless books Dylan read on the floor of his friends’ apartments, his songwriting wouldn’t have been imbued with the same unique characteristics. In Dylan’s opinion, Lennon’s behaviour was an example of the burgeoning commercialism already making its way into the heart of the music industry.
Lennon saw that Dylan’s songs conveyed an individualistic perspective on the world, one that captured something previously unspoken. Instead of honouring that individualism, Lennon took it and re-packaged it only to sell it off under a different name. Dylan’s problem with Lennon was one that still plagues the music industry. He took aim at Lennon because he was concerned with the authenticity of popular music. Even in its embryonic years, Dylan seemed to recognise that the industry had the capability to turn music into something which conveyed the richness of human life into something with the artistic value of a cheap plastic toy.