The Beatles and Bob Dylan enjoyed a fruitful relationship when they first met back in a hotel room in 1964. As well as being officially recognised as the first man to give the Fab Four a taste of marijuana, Dylan’s influence over the group stretched far further than recreational revelry. Equally, with their buccaneering pop credentials, Dylan also picked up a few noted nuances from the Liverpudlians too. But that doesn’t mean they always saw eye to eye on everything.
In truth, when they first met, the two factions operated on different ends of the spectrum. Bob Dylan was a highly regarded songwriter who had begun to assume the role of the “voice of his generation” with a vinegary disdain. Revered among his peers, Dylan had struggled to have the commercial success of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Paradoxically, The Beatles may have achieved pop fame, but their desire to be seen as bonafide artists was often whitewashed by their cavalier commercial career. It meant that as the two acts grew into their respective roles, they flitted between friendship and competition.
Though perhaps not aiming for the same audience, there was clearly a sense of tension between Dylan and The Beatles. While both have always shared their admiration of the other, sometimes they’ve let out a snidey barb and shot it across the boughs of the music world. The opportunity to send out such a barb was available with every new song they released, and by 1966, things between Dylan and the Fab Four were growing.
In 1966, Dylan did just that when he commented on two Beatles songs, ‘Michelle’ from Rubber Soul and the triumphant ‘Yesterday’ from Help!, which Dylan referred to as “cop-outs.” The freewheelin’ Dylan starts off his tirade against the Liverpool band by remarking: “I’m not gonna be accepted, but I would like to be accepted by the Hogtown Dispatch literary crowd who wear violets in their crotch and make sure they get all the movie and TV reviews and also write about all the ladies’ auxiliary meetings and the PTA gatherings, you know all in the same column. I would like to be accepted by them people. But I don’t think I’m ever going to be, whereas The Beatles have been.”
The interviewer, seizing his opportunity to put two of the decade’s biggest stars in the same story, then probed Dylan on his comments about The Beatles, to which he replied: “I’m just saying The Beatles have arrived, right? In all music forms, whether Stravinsky or Leopold Jake the Second, who plays in the Five Spot, the Black Muslim Twins, or whatever.”
He added: “The Beatles are accepted, and you’ve got to accept them for what they do. They play songs like ‘Michelle’ and ‘Yesterday’, a lot of smoothness there,” sneers Dylan with a glint in his eye. Perhaps he knew the potential the band had, or perhaps he was eating sour grapes, but Dylan didn’t hold back when confronted with the idea of Joan Baez performing a Beatles number. “Yeah, it’s the thing to do, to tell all the teeny boppers ‘I dig The Beatles’, and you sing a song like ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Michelle’. Hey God knows, it’s such a cop-out, man, both of those songs.”
But there’s another song from the Fab Four that perhaps annoyed Dylan more — ‘Norwegian Wood‘. A classic Lennon number, the singer saw the song as almost a direct copy of his style. While Lennon was always happy to admit that he enjoyed a “Dylan period” during his songwriting career, ‘Norwegian Wood’ pushed Dylan so far that he wrote a song in retaliation titled ‘Fourth Time Around’.
Listening to Rubber Soul, Dylan replied: “What is this? It’s me, Bob. [John’s] doing me! Even Sonny and Cher are doing me, but, fucking hell, I invented it.” It’s hard to ignore, too. Before their meeting, The Beatles’ lyrics were never at the forefront of their songs; the group were happy to include “nonsense” lyrics if they sounded correct. The art of storytelling was never their forte until Dylan changed that, and John Lennon was especially inspired by the singer-songwriter’s style, a factor which led him to write in more of a storytelling tongue than he previously had done.
There is a degree of pettiness to Dylan’s remarks. But the fact he backed it up with a song that essentially saw him write a more eloquent version of ‘Norwegian Wood’ and showing Lennon how it’s done is hard not to admire. Dylan even left Lennon a not-so-subtle message at the end of the track as he knew that his number one fan would undoubtedly study it. The last two lines see him sing, “I never asked for your crutch, Now don’t ask for mine” — which make his thoughts on Lennon hero-worshipping him evidently clear.
Of course, over time, Dylan’s viewpoint on The Beatles softened, and his influence over them as a band became a badge of merit rather than an unwanted albatross. He even worked extensively with George Harrison to bolster his creative output during the final days of the Fab Four. There can also be no doubt that The Beatles adored Dylan throughout their career, often labelling him their “idol”. But, as with every friendship, there are always moments of dispute, and for these two behemoth figures of pop culture, it all came down to the music. Well, of course, it would.
Three songs by The Beatles that Bob Dylan hated:
- ‘Norwegian Wood’