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When The Beatles Met Bob Dylan
When future generations look back on the music of the twentieth century, two names will loom larger than all others. In the British corner, The Beatles will represent musical innovation, melodic sophistication and the phenomena of global pop fame. In the American corner, Bob Dylan will stand for lyrical mastery, stylistic reinvention and unprecedented artistic longevity. And our awed ancestors will place particular significance on August 28, 1964.
This was the day, 45 years ago, that The Beatles met Bob Dylan, and everything changed.
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But let's begin this story in January of that year. The Beatles are performing a three week residency at the Olympia, Paris. Paul McCartney has brought with him a newly purchased album by an American folk singer. It's the singer's second album but the first the boys have heard. They play The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in their hotel room repeatedly. George Harrison later recalled it as, "One of the most memorable things of the trip."
To The Beatles, Bob's untutored, unadorned vocal, tearing through questioning political epics (Blowin' In The Wind, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall) and sophisticated relationship songs (Girl From The North Country, Don't Think Twice It's Alright) must've come as a stark contrast to their own repertoire, which still consisted largely of Motown covers and relatively simplistic boy/girl songs like I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Love Me Do.
For Lennon in particular it was the creative spark he'd been waiting for and he began writing I'm a Loser, introducing the personal and the poetic to his writing for the first time. The Beatles' Anthology quotes Lennon discussing the song (which would appear on Beatles For Sale): "The word 'clown' is in it. I objected to the word 'clown', because that was artsy-fartsy, but Dylan had used it so I thought it was alright."
On May 17, 1964, Bob Dylan is preparing to perform at London's Royal Festival Hall when he receives an unexpected telegram from John, apologising for being unable to attend due to filming commitments. Bob had heard of The Beatles. In Howard Sounes' biography Down The Highway, the author describes a drive to San Francisco in the middle of February, that same year.
The car radio is playing I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and the group have recently arrived at Kennedy Airport, amidst hysteria, and made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The friends who travelled with Bob that day describe him as being stunned by what he heard and by the way the music sounded like a reinvention of the rock & roll he'd grown up loving as a child in Hibbing, Minnesota.
On August 28, the rock journalist Al Aranowitz drives Dylan from Woodstock to the Delmonico Hotel in New York to meet The Beatles for the first time. The story goes that Bob introduced the band to cannabis but this is more likely a romanticised myth, not least on the part of Paul McCartney who claimed that when they met Dylan he asked, "Where's the joint, man?" and they'd no idea what he was talking about! But it's no secret that the band, like many hard working musicians of the era were already using pills, and weren't the innocents some accounts of this meeting like to make out.
Blame it on the funny cigarettes if you like but in Clinton Heylin's book Behind The Shades, McCartney is quoted as saying, "I discovered the meaning of life that evening." Dylan too lost his usual cool detachment and spent the night gleefully answering the hotel phone with the words, "This is Beatlemania here…"
While not a direct musical influence (although it's believed the cries of "No, no, no" in It Ain't Me Babe are Bob's answer to the "Yeah, yeah, yeah" of She Loves You) what The Beatles gave Dylan was the courage to experiment with music – a difficult path to take for an artist whose fanbase saw him as the antidote to rock & roll excess.
McCartney, however, acknowledges Bob's considerable contribution to both their music and subsequent image: "We all had his first album with his floppy cap," he recalls in Anthology, "I'm sure that's where the Lennon cap came from. John was a particularly big admirer. It shows in songs like Hide Your Love Away."
Lennon even went so far as to describe this as his "Dylan period."
The influence is evident too on 1965's Norwegian Wood. It has the ballad-like, chorus-less feel of one of Bob's oblique songs, which didn't go unnoticed by Dylan himself. A year later he rather naughtily records the remarkably similar 4th Time Around, on Blonde on Blonde. Lennon was never sure if the song was intended as a fond homage or a direct warning not to follow too closely in his footsteps. But there was never any animosity from Dylan, who told Rolling Stone several years later: "I always love to see John. He's a wonderful fellow."
Their friendship continued and on September 20, Bob is back in the USA, this time to see the band live at the Paramount Theatre - standing on a chair to get a better view over the screaming girls. He remarked on the difference between that and his own shows, where audiences would sit in silence, hanging on every word.
In 1965, the January 9 edition of Melody Maker proclaims: 'Beatles say – Dylan Shows The Way'. And with The Fab Four publicly endorsing Bob, the stage was set for his to move from folk idol to fully fledged star in the UK. April sees his biggest British concerts to date, and the first with The Beatles in attendance.
During his stay, Bob visits John and Cynthia at their homes in Weybridge and Hampstead. Lennon claimed they exchanged ideas for songs but the collaboration never happened: "He said he sent me things," he told biographer Robert Shelton, "but he got the address wrong and it never arrived. Maybe that's why we got on so well – we're both pretty disorganised blokes."
Typically, Dylan remembers their collaboration quite differently, writing in the notes to his Biograph collection: "We played some stuff into a tape recorder, but I don't know what happened to it. I don't remember anything about the song."
By the time Bob next sees The Beatles he's transformed. Gone is the scruffy, acoustic troubadour, in its place sharp suits, boots and rock & roll. The much documented booing, that greeted Dylan's electric reinvention was originally attributed to outraged purist folkies, but contemporary interviews with eyewitness such as Pete Seeger reveal that many were simply angry they could no longer hear the words. Could it be Bob's experience among the hysterical Beatles audience that led him to realise that, in the live arena at least, words are less important than sheer volume and raw energy? Could the primal scream of Like A Rolling Stone be Bob's own Twist and Shout?
On the day of his May 27 show at the Royal Albert Hall, Dylan and Lennon attempt to film an improvised segment for a documentary intended to be called Eat The Document. A half hour outtake shows the two rather worse for wear (and with Dylan distinctly green about the gills) as Lennon fires typical quips at his ailing friend: "Do you suffer from sore eyes, groovy forehead, or curly hair? Take Zimdon!" All the while Bob looks like he's about to hurl out of the car window. It's been widely speculated the two had taken heroin, though this has never been confirmed. That evening The Beatles witness Bob booed at the concert.
But things weren't all grim. McCartney recalled, in an interview with Paul Du Noyer, that he played Bob the as-yet unreleased Sgt. Pepper's album, to which Dylan jokingly responded: "Oh I get it, you don't want to be cute anymore!" In the same interview, Paul reveals that when Bob first heard I Wanna Hold Your Hand, he'd mistaken the lyrics in the middle eight to be "I get high, I get high", which may explain why he thought the loveable moptops would be so interested in his 'herbal' cigarettes.
When Dylan finally returns to the stage, in August 1969, it's at the Isle of Wight festival and Lennon, Harrison and Starr are once again in attendance. Prior to the show, the three Beatles play Bob freshly minted acetates of the Abbey Road album and they jam together, in a barn on the island. In September Dylan plays piano on a session with Lennon, attempting a version of Cold Turkey. No recordings have ever emerged.
It takes till May 1, 1970 for the first official collaboration between Bob and a Beatle, when George Harrison joins the recording sessions for Dylan's Self Portrait and New Morning albums, and Dylan reciprocates for George's All Things Must Pass, which includes a song they'd written together: I'd Have You Any Time. The pair also perform together at 1971's historic Concerts for Bangladesh, at Madison Square Garden.
It was a creative partnership that would continue for many years, culminating in the late 80s supergroup Travelling Wilburys, that resulted in the most successful album either of them had that decade. At the time of the Wilburys, Harrison paid a lovely tribute to his longtime friend in an interview with Jenny Boyd: "Can you imagine what a world it would be if we didn't have Bob Dylan? It would be awful."
Bob's opinion of Liverpool's finest ran just as high, he once told an interviewer: "America should put statues up to The Beatles". And the bond between the two artists remains, with McCartney recently declaring his desire to collaborate with Dylan, and in May Bob snuck in a cover of Harrison's Something, when he performed in Liverpool.
45 years on, the significance of their influence on each other can't be overstated. While Bob's songs were already rapidly changing by 1964, it's safe to say that hearing The Beatles on the car's transistor changed Dylan's approach to his art forever; they pointed the way forward. If Bob helped The Beatles find their poetic soul, then The Beatles showed Bob how to become the pop star he'd secretly always wanted to be.
We'll give the last word to Ringo, who simply stated in Anthology: "Bob was our hero. He was just great."
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