The idea that Bob Dylan was a key influence on The Beatles is very well-known and accepted one. Dylan is often credited with opening The Beatles’ minds to wider horizons and encouraging them by example to write more personal, meaningful lyrics. Yet most writers have approached this subject in a rather superficial and generalised way. Of course one can hear the influence of Dylan on John Lennon’s style in songs like You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away or Norwegian Wood. But Dylan’s influence worked, I believe, in more profound and complex ways than this. One of the challenges I set myself when writing Who Could Ask For More: Reclaiming The Beatles was to look more analytically at how Dylan’s song writing methods affected The Beatles’ work. One of the more surprising results of this was the discovery that Dylan had an equal if not greater effect on Paul than he did on John. After all, Dylan came to fame as a ‘storyteller’ who invented characters in his songs. The precision and economy Dylan displayed in writing songs such as The Ballad of Hollis Brown or The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is reflected in McCartney’s narrative songs like Eleanor Rigby or For No One. In such songs the story is told in a detached way, allowing the listener to form their own conclusions.
Although John Lennon was clearly besotted with Dylan for a while, the influence here was more on Lennon’s ‘sound’ than on his actual songwriting technique (although songs like Norwegian Wood tell stories too). From 1964 onwards the main drift of Lennon’s song writing tended towards personal revelation. This can be seen in early songs like I’m A Loser and I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party. By the time The Beatles were folding up, Lennon had reached the point of writing quite specifically about himself (in songs like The Ballad Of John and Yoko). This, of course, is something Dylan hardly ever did. Even when Dylan wrote an apparently autobiographical song like 1976’s Sara he claimed the woman in the song was ‘the biblical Sara’, not his wife. Dylan never wrote a ‘Ballad of Bob and Sara’!
FROM ‘WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE’ CHAPTER TWO
When a young, earnest-looking Paul is interviewed on the British TV pop show Ready Steady Go in early 1964 he is asked what he thinks he will do when The Beatles have fallen from popularity. Quite straight-facedly he informs interviewer Keith Fordyce, a rather portly and distinctly square-looking dude in a dodgy check suit, that whatever happens he and John will carry on writing songs and that one day they …hope to write a musical, maybe… It’s clear that Paul (no mean purveyor of show tunes himself) is still looking at his career potential in terms of the old, ‘Tin Pan Alley’ type thinking. Despite his great love for and belief in rock and roll as a musical form, the assumption he’s clearly making is that while the life of a ‘pop sensation’ like The Beatles is bound to be short, professional songwriters can hope to have long and successful careers. And there’s no doubt that Paul and John already regarded themselves as adaptable musical craftsmen. As well as their own singles, they’d already written hit songs for Billy J. Kramer And The Dakotas, The Fourmost, Cilla Black, Peter and Gordon, The Applejacks, even The Rolling Stones. During 1963-65 it was not uncommon for there to be three or four Lennon-McCartney songs in the top twenty. A song was something that they, as professionals, could turn out in a few minutes if need be. It was a matter of technique as much as talent. After all, pop songs didn’t have to be profound or complicated or anything. And as far as John and Paul were concerned, you didn’t even need to be able to read music to write them. All you had to do was knock about a bit on your guitars, maybe sling a few unusual chord changes in. And you certainly didn’t need to be Shakespeare to write lyrics. You just started off with some typical boy-girl situation. Or maybe some love-triangle type thing like in She Loves You, get a bit of a different slant on it. The kids didn’t want anything too complicated anyway. …The birds in the sky will be sad and lonely/When they know that I’ve lost my one and only… chirps Billy J. Kramer on the rather delightfully innocent Bad To Me, one of four top ten singles John and Paul wrote for their fellow Liverpudlian and Epstein protégée. …So let it rain/What do I care/Deep in your heart I’ll still be there… warbles Cavern coat-check girl Cilla Black in the melodramatic tearjerker Love Of The Loved. All John and Paul had to do, it seemed, was keep on knocking ‘em out.
As it transpired, however, John and Paul were never to write that ‘musical’ (unless their bizarre ‘psychedelic home movie’ Magical Mystery Tour qualifies as such). When Paul was speaking, rock’n’roll itself was but a small branch of what was still popularly known as ‘showbiz’, an international entertainment industry centred in the US, and in New York and Hollywood in particular, and dedicated as much as possible to ‘wholesome’, bland, unthreatening fare. That was what, it seemed, kept the dollars safely rolling in. Adopting showbiz conventions allowed artists to keep what later became known as the ‘moral majority’ – the mass of religious, conservative middle class America – at bay. ‘Showbiz’ was the behemoth that had sucked The Beatles’ hero Elvis Presley dry of the angry, leather-clad smouldering youthful energy he had once oozed and had turned him into a dumb ‘B’ movie hero, a piece of soggy, undercooked Hollywood meat. The Beatles had already laid a number of concessions at the feet of the beast. The identical suits, the stage bows, the dutiful waving at fans, the appearance in front of the Queen Mum, their apparently happy participation in ‘variety’ stage and TV shows, their ‘cute’ boy-next door personas that those Yanks loved so much, were all signs that they were sailing safely towards a career as ‘all round entertainers’. The showbiz establishment drooled and slavered over them, anxious to incorporate them. Yet, by the epochal year of 1967, a remarkable change had taken place. Rather than cheerfully engaging themselves in fabricating pleasantries, rock musicians were now expected not only to write their own songs but to pour their souls out in poetic expressions of a personalised artistic consciousness or to ‘blow their listeners’ minds’ with new sounds that had surely only been heard before in interstellar space. Where guitars had once been tunefully swung in unison, they were now vibrating with feedback or being ritually incinerated. Rock music had suddenly, unexpectedly, become an art form which, like surrealism in the 1900s or Dadaism in the 1920s, was at the cutting edge of contemporary culture. It had sucked in the influences of modern art, the avant garde, the beat poets, Eastern mystics and gurus, and had rapidly spewed them out again at ear-shattering volume. In this, the decade where the world had almost ended in a conflagration of fire and deadly, invisible rays, rock music had adopted a language of suitably apocalyptic noise. And Tin Pan Alley was on the run.
Two factors in particular had made this sudden revolution possible. One was the musical collision of the most influential popular songwriter/performers of the ‘60s (and by extension, of the late twentieth century), The Beatles and Bob Dylan. The other was the impact of the new kinds of drugs – all illegal or about to become illegal – that had rapidly spread in popularity during those years, and which were so radically to alter the perceptive mindsets of both the performers and their audiences. The most important of these were marijuana and LSD. Thus the story that when The Beatles first met Bob Dylan he turned them on to marijuana (‘proper’ marijuana, that is, rather than whatever inferior type of ‘shit’ John may have tried before) may appear to be apocryphal. However, although the above account is of course highly embellished, the story is – as the main participants have themselves testified – essentially true. On that day the ‘educated’, bohemian, middle class world of ‘folk’ (which Dylan himself had so dramatically connected to the American literary mainstream) and the commercial, working class world of teenage ‘pop’, which had seemed so far apart from each other, collided dramatically. The moment Dylan passed over that doobie, the cultural revolution of the sixties was kick-started into life. Marijuana’s effects were radically different to those of alcohol and speed, which had been The Beatles’ main indulgences thus far. First of all, it slowed the world down around you. It made everything seem interesting. Weird thoughts like you’d never dreamed of before kept occurring to you, about, say… the meaning of life, or the significance of the colour of your socks… It made you aware of what was going on in bits of your brain you’d never even known were there before, although now and again it might make you just a little paranoid. And it seemed to encourage a kind of ‘lateral thinking’ that in some way rewired your brain circuits and helped you make mental connections you’d never thought possible. Of course, if you were so disposed you could just smoke yourself into oblivion, scramble your brains, blot out everything… But if you used it creatively, it might, as jazz musicians had long known, help to stimulate spontaneous and rich creativity. The Beatles really went for it. For the next few years, they (along with millions of others) were stoned pretty much all of the time…
Within a year or so from this meeting, The Beatles had began exploring drug-influenced, Dylanesque wordplay in songs like You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, Day Tripper and Norwegian Wood while Dylan had produced surreal, poetic rock’n’roll records like Subterranean Homesick Blues, Highway 61 Revisited and Like A Rolling Stone and had shocked the middle class ‘folkie’ audience at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival by appearing backed by a noisy, raucous, rock and roll band. Meanwhile, The Byrds had taken their rock version of Dylan’s poetic ‘mind trip’ Mr. Tambourine Man to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks were all having hits with songs featuring sharp, streetwise social commentary. …Can’t be a man because he doesn’t smoke/The same cigarettes as me… runs the satirical Stones classic Satisfaction. …Hope I die before I get old!…cries the teenage antihero of The Who’s My Generation. The Beatles and their contemporaries now wanted to be poets and philosophers rather than mere ‘craftsmen’, while Dylan now wanted to be a rock star rather than a folk singer. When he’d first heard I Want To Hold Your Hand Dylan immediately sensed that the energetic, rebellious spirit of the original ’50s rock’n’roll that had so inspired him as a teenager had been dramatically revived. In a way that surprised and shocked many of his bohemian intellectual contemporaries (who generally turned their noses up at ‘pop groups’ like The Beatles, regarding them as mindless teen fodder), he embraced the vitality of The Beatles’ music immediately, professing a great admiration for the chord changes in their songs, their vocal harmonies and the warmth and intimacy of their sound.
By the time they met Dylan, The Beatles were already pretty much in awe of him. When they heard The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), his second album and the one on which his talent as a songwriter really first emerged, they were totally (as they might have expressed it a year or so later) ‘blown away’. His voice was a shock at first. It was jarring, abrasive, harsh – decidedly not nice…you certainly couldn’t just have him playing in the background. You had to either turn him up or switch him off. Some people thought he was a genius, others screamed in horror at that screechy adenoidal racket that came out of his mouth. You took your choice. But it was hard to deny that Dylan wrote amazing poetry, in songs that might be up to ten minutes long. He wrote about racism and war and social injustice and what it was like to be young in a world gone fucking mad …You’ve thrown the worst fear… he sneered …that can ever be hurled/Fear to bring children into the world… How could you top that? What he was writing was light years away from I Want To Hold Your Hand or even Heartbreak Hotel but, as The Beatles stared out the window of that Paris hotel, replaying that LP over and over again, they realised that somehow he was expressing exactly how they felt. But Dylan, at this point, was nothing like them. First of all, he was a folk singer. He didn’t have a band, just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. He didn’t have anyone doing harmonies, or anything like that. His songs were mainly based on ancient folk ballads, and he often avoided choruses, middle-eights and other basic songwriting tools. Yet there was something about his attitude that they could immediately relate to, something very edgy and …rock’n’ roll…
A few weeks after their discovery of Dylan in Paris, The Beatles found themselves in Abbey Road studios, recording material for the soundtrack album for their first film. Already, Dylan’s influence can be heard. On the three albums they made between March 1964 and May 1965: A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale and Help!, The Beatles’ sound comes closer and closer to what they had heard on Freewheelin’. They had occasionally used acoustic guitars before on the earlier records but this had usually been on their non-rock’n’roll ‘cabaret turns’ like A Taste of Honey or Till There Was You. Now they begin to experiment with them more and more, using them to create softer sonic textures, so that the words they were singing could seem invested with more sensitivity. Rather than concentrating on finding ways to ‘thrill’ their listeners, as they had done so dramatically and successfully in their stage act and in their early ‘ecstatic’ songs, their songwriting begins to shift towards the expression of ‘authentic’ emotions. Increasingly, John in particular is frequently to be found playing acoustic rather than electric rhythm guitar. In fact, by the time of Help! the use of acoustic guitars has become the norm on most of John and Paul’s original songs. Two of Help!’s most memorable tracks, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away and Yesterday, dispense with the guitar-bass-drums format completely. On both these songs, The Beatles’ distinctive vocal harmonies, which more than anything else had defined their sound, are also abandoned. The emphasis is now on presenting a truthful and individual voice. They did not (as yet) try to emulate Dylan’s political and generational statements or imitate his complex use of imagery and metaphor in their lyric writing. But what Dylan (and their experience of marijuana) had shown them was that a songwriter should be dedicated to expressing his own inner truths, even if they weren’t really that pleasant or easy to deal with. Over the next few years Dylan’s example was to inspire a whole generation of ‘confessional’ singer-songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Tim Buckley, Buffy Sainte-Marie, James Taylor, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, David Bowie, Laura Nyro, Melanie and many others; creating in effect an entire genre in which music and literature met. What makes these artists distinctive is not that they sound like Dylan – most of his musical imitators fell by the wayside – but that they sound like themselves.
It is worth mentioning here that the early Dylan wrote – in addition to his political and satirical material – what may be called ‘love songs’, although perhaps ‘songs dissecting relationships’ would be a more accurate description. Two examples from his second and third albums are Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right and One Too Many Mornings, where he demonstrates eloquently that a ‘love song’ can be emotionally complex enough to go beyond the sense of sentimental or lustful longing that characterises the conventionalised approach to the form. In both cases the narrator is saying goodbye to the love-object in a tone of philosophical resignation. Rather than pleading with the girl, or wallowing self-indulgently in ‘misery’, the protagonists of the songs accept that what two people want out of a relationship may actually be very different. …I gave her my heart…he sings in Don’t Think Twice …but she wanted my soul…In One Too Many Mornings he concedes that …you’re right from your side/And I’m right from mine… The narrator of Don’t Think Twice even accepts that the affair was not really that important to him: …You coulda done better but I don’t mind… His fourth album Another Side of Bob Dylan, released in 1964 (in between A Hard Day’s Night and Beatles For Sale) was his farewell to political ‘protest’ singing and focused mainly on such ‘relationship’ songs, the most celebrated of which, It Ain’t Me, Babe, is a song of explicit rejection of a lover’s idealisation of him. The song’s refrain …No, No, No…has often been seen as a downbeat answer to The Beatles’ famous cry of …Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!…
It would, however, take some time for The Beatles’ songwriting style to absorb such a radically different influence. Almost all of their original compositions on their three ‘transitional’ albums are still based on a lyrical formula in which the narrator directly addresses (or, less frequently, reports the details of an assignation with) a female love-object who is never named. However, this approach needs to be seen primarily as a framing device for their songs. Their music always had, from their first recordings, certain qualities which transcended the simplicity of their lyrics. But prior to their encounter with Dylan’s music, they had viewed words largely as functional parts of the musical structures they were creating. In their ‘ecstatic’ songs the ‘innocent’ nature of the lyrics acted, as we have seen in the previous chapter, as a kind of ‘disguise’ for the expressively sexual nature of the performances. Above all, their success was based on the way their songs radiated a sense of joy at being alive. Such an approach was clearly at odds with the kind of cool detachment, political sensibility and wry understanding of the dynamics of relationships that they heard in Dylan’s work. Yet hearing Dylan had shifted the earth’s axis for them. They desperately yearned to be that cool… Elements of Dylanesque objectivity are already hinted at on a number of the songs on A Hard Day’s Night. This is less true of the songs especially written for the film that make up side one of the album, but even these (with their prominent acoustic guitars) are influenced by his ‘sound’.
I Should Have Known Better, I’m Happy Just To Dance With You and Tell Me Why are three charmingly ‘professional’ songs written for the soundtrack with the teenage audience in mind. All three actually feature as ‘live’ performances in the film. Musically they are all characterised by the great audacity and exuberance The Beatles specialised in, and they fit well with the film’s bright, cheerful tone. I Should Have Known Better carries a faint sense of regret, but chugs along merrily, showcasing a dextrous vocal performance by John, who features on breezy harmonica. I’m Happy Just To Dance With You, written by John for George, fits well with George’s naive ‘kid brother’ persona and, like the earlier Do You Want To Know A Secret (from Please Please Me) conveys an appealing, humble innocence. Tell Me Why is supposedly about a lover who has told lies to the singer, but very little regret or remorse is conveyed by the song, to which George and Paul contribute enthusiastically breathless backing vocals. Along with the supposedly sad but actually pretty jovial-sounding I’ll Cry Instead (not featured in the film), these songs make light of the emotional troubles they supposedly recount. There is little of Dylan’s emotional realism here, although the presence of acoustic guitars successfully creates a far more introspective feeling than had been present on the raw With The Beatles album. These songs also work fairly hard at ‘telling a story’ and occasionally attempt some rather Dylanesque self-examination. …I got a chip on my shoulders bigger than my feet… John confesses rather chirpily in I’ll Cry Instead. Even such a simple, direct song as I Should Have Known Better is rather self-deprecatingly honest.
These cheery rockers are balanced by two harmonically ambitious ballads, John’s If I Fell and Paul’s And I Love Her. Both feature clichéd lyrics, but somehow manage to seem sincere in the emotions they convey. If I Fell begins to hint at a ‘confessional’ style, with John and Paul’s harmonies on …I couldn’t stand the pain…being highly affecting. And I Love Her demonstrates Paul’s innate talent for composing very beautiful original melodies, even if the lyrics are rather jarringly twee. There is some attempt at natural imagery …Bright are the stars that shine/Dark is the sky… and the song has a certain unspoken regretful tone, even if Paul takes refuge in clichés about love that will ‘never die’. Similarly, John’s ‘revelation’ in If I Fell that he has discovered that love is about more than …just holding hands… while suggesting some emotional progression from the simplicities of I Want To Hold Your Hand, is hardly original or profound. Yet both songs represent attempts to take a more emotionally realistic stance, and both are led by acoustic guitars, with And I Love Her featuring a particularly attractive ‘Spanish’ flavoured acoustic melody. Even these ‘sad’ songs radiate a kind of sunny, youthful optimism, a bright, dizzy engagement with the world. The dynamic Any Time At All, which opens Side Two, is perhaps their most open and generous song, suggesting that The Beatles’ music is a kind of panacea, a way of cheering yourself up you can tune into any time you want. The two singles that open and close Side One, A Hard Day’s Night and Can’t Buy Me Love, frame this perspective eloquently; the first through its blunt sexuality and the second through its irrepressible exuberance.
The A Hard Day’s Night album is far more than a mere soundtrack to the movie. Like the film, it presents the group at the height of their youthful self-confidence, at a moment when the pressures of fame have yet to become overbearing. It is the last Beatles album in which the zesty bravado that had fuelled their rise to fame remains a real motivating force. Never again would The Beatles sound so ‘up’. The album drives relentlessly through a number of moods, some more convincing than others, but it has an admirable unity of purpose. Already the coyness of much of With The Beatles and Please Please Me is gone, replaced by a remarkable degree of musical self-assurance. The group, now working smoothly and intuitively with their inspired producer George Martin, is already effectively manipulating recording studio technology to give considerable depth and variety to their material. The groundbreaking use of 12-string acoustic guitars, with their distinctive ‘chiming’ sound was soon to inspire and provide a musical template for The Byrds, the first influential ‘post-Beatles’ rock group to emerge on the US pop scene in late 1964. The Byrds’ style was an amalgam of Dylan-influenced folk music with three-part Beatles style harmonies and a rock beat. In itself it was a blueprint for the whole ‘West Coast sound’ typified by Jefferson Airplane, Love, Grateful Dead, Spirit and Quicksilver Messenger Service, which was to provide the essential soundtrack to the rise of the hippie subculture in California from 1965 onwards. In many ways the Hard Day’s Night album is the triumphant climax of the early Beatles’ style. It captures them in the full flower of their world-shaking optimism. While the lyrics of their songs may still say very little, the untamed spirit of their music is always inspiring.
On the last four songs on Side Two, however, The Beatles are already showing signs of moving into darker, more emotionally complex territory. Paul’s Things We Said Today, which begins with, and is mainly focused on, a rather haunting acoustic guitar riff, is based, like All My Loving, around the idea of the narrator missing a lover who has to go away. But there is more of a sense of both physical and emotional distance here, with the romantic clichés now being reported at second hand …You say you’ll be mine girl/Till the end of time… The song is much ‘tougher’ than And I Love Her, rising as it does into rhythmic passages which seem to suggest a certain inner turmoil, tension and uncertainty. We get the sense that the singer is reassuring himself that ‘everything will be OK’ while continually looking back to a time of emotional honesty which has passed. Much of this is kept ambiguous, but the song’s shifting tone suggests a more ‘adult’ recognition of the way in which time and circumstances can pull lovers apart. Things We Said Today is the first Beatles song to focus on the passage of time as a theme, and it provides a strong hint of the greater maturity to come. I’ll Be Back, the closing number on the album, is another ‘confessional’ acoustic-led duet between John and Paul in which the narrator suggests that the emotional games he has been playing with his lover have backfired, leaving him rueful but powerless to change things. …This time… he tries to reassure her …I will try to show that I’m/not trying to pretend…but it’s hard to believe that she’ll fall for his protestations. John’s vocal has a regretful tone, but he sounds (like Dylan in Don’t Think Twice) philosophical, rather than truly sad. His pronunciation of …but I got a big surprise…is delivered with a sudden ‘uplift’ which suggests he understands that he has deserved his comeuppance. Paul’s harmony singing supplies a more consistently regretful tone, which gives the song a challenging emotional resonance.
The two songs that precede I’ll Be Back are less ‘Dylanesque’, though both also attempt to provide a sense of ‘distance’ in their narrative. John adopts a particular type of rather arrogant narrative voice, attempting to apply the sense of moral ambiguity which characterised Money on the previous album to his own songs. Here The Beatles once again show their awareness of contemporary American rhythm and blues and soul music. Both When I Get Home and You Can’t Do That are heavily influenced by the tough contemporary soul sound then being developed by the Stax record label’s house ‘session band’ Booker T. and The MG’s. When I Get Home has a pronounced staccato rhythm which is very appropriate for the ‘macho’ tone of boastfulness that its narrator adopts. You Can’t Do That is a little slower and more lugubrious in its tone, but both songs feature fearsomely committed vocals by John. When I Get Home begins with a lustful cry of …Whoooho-hi!…and seems, at first, to have a similar theme to A Hard Day’s Night, with the singer beginning by boasting of what will happen when he gets home to his ‘baby’. Again we are clearly in adult territory here, as the lovers are obviously married or cohabiting. But after another lustful cry leads us into the second verse, it now seems that the singer is having an affair with another girl, who he is seeking to dismiss rather cruelly …I got no time for trivialities… John sings, pronouncing the last word rather dismissively, and with some considerable relish. Later he declares that …I got no business being here with you/this way… In the somewhat bizarre middle-eight he declares that when he gets home to his ‘baby’ he will …love her till the cows come home…an odd if certainly striking use of a cliché which is anything but romantic. The narrator of the song is clearly pretty mixed up. Certainly not a guy you would trust… In You Can’t Do That the singer is even crueller, threatening to dump his girlfriend for merely talking to another guy. He goes onto to boast of how jealous his friends were when he ‘won her love’ but seems more concerned about being publicly embarrassed by her supposed transgression than any feelings he might have for her. His only excuse is that he ‘can’t help’ such feelings. Again, the narrator is profoundly unsympathetic… a horrible chauvinist dickhead, no less…
In such songs John is actually pursuing a technique that owes little to Dylan, who was never one for self-parodic macho boastfulness, but is playing to his own strengths by presenting himself as emotionally invulnerable and intolerant. To some extent he is imitating contemporary black male American soul singers who, like the rap artists of today, conspicuously trade in ‘over the top’ boasting. As with Money John makes himself appears so unsympathetic that we begin to wonder what he is really getting at. In such songs John is satirising himself, a supposedly happily married man who, by his own admission in later years, had numerous sexual liaisons whilst on the group’s tours. Here he adopts the tone of what literary critics would call an ‘unreliable narrator’, providing us with a ‘story’ that we need to read through. It seems clear that he is now finding the brisk optimism of The Beatles’ ‘hit formula’ rather limiting.