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(Credit: Bent Rej)

Music

Why England loved Bob Dylan before everybody else

@TomTaylorFO

The chronicles of cultural history are a funny old thing to study. With Bob Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the general consensus is that he changed the world in one fell swoop. When you look back in retrospect you picture the streets of Manhattan crowded with disciples as the troubadour regaled the crowds with his words of wisdom… the album peaked at number 22 in the US charts. Could you even begin to hazard a guess at who number 22 is this week?

Interestingly, however, over in dear old Blighty, Dylan’s first Promethean masterpiece rightfully rose to the top of the charts. The subsequent records ranked as follows: The Times They Are a-Changin’ peaked at 20 in the US and fourth in the UK, Another Side of Bob Dylan wallowed at 43 in America and eighth in the UK, and it wasn’t until Dylan went electric with Bringing It All Back Home that he finally broke the US top ten, scoring sixth place Stateside and reclaiming his rightful top spot in the UK once more. 

Why was this the case? Well, firstly, Dylan had travelled to London in December 1962 and as he rambled his way through the various folk bars of Bond Street and beyond, he developed somewhat of a name for himself. Over in Greenwich Village, six-string superstars were more ubiquitous than plumbers, but a genuine American folk act in England was a rarity that the locals lapped up. 

As Britain pulled away from the rationing days after the beleaguering effects of World War II and entered the bright new future that pop culture was ushering in, anything from America was imbued with a sense of modern wonder. Thus, a radical new troubadour who seemed to be Jack Kerouac spawned, extolling wisdom and wordplay, represented something fresh, whereas in the States he represented something challenging.   

What’s more, Britain had a long-running tradition of musicians who were a little more literary in their style. Folk singers like George Formby were hardly the polished new slicked-back variety that the emerging pop culture engine of America was peddling. Thus, Dylan’s lack of snake-hips, greased hair and silken vocals were a little more familiar in the rough and tumble world of spit and sawdust pubs down in London and beyond. He seemed to be both fresh and hark back to a timeless tradition of lowly fellows singing songs of the street. This was relatable to the working classes masses of the UK so they lent him their ear.

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Finally, if pop culture was primarily being driven by the engine of rock ‘n’ roll, then Britain already had its early uptakes in that regard. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were already entities in the UK when the introspective wonder of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan turned heads towards something with bottomless depth. The Fab Four’s debut record Please Please Me reached number one in the UK charts, but it failed to do anything in America. Thus, the nightclub acts and artists towards the more visceral edge of rock ‘n’ roll were already sewn up on UK soil presenting a niche for Dylan, in which his records of rather quieter reflection soared. 

If anything it shows that Dylan was right when he groggily groaned that his records were universal when he bemoaned the ‘Voice of a Generation’ tag that was bestowed upon him when America slowly began to listen. His anthems of solidarity and the ways of humanity were ones that even a bluebottle fly trapped in the studio could relate to, and as such it was only a matter of time before the world followed in the UK’s footsteps.