American Culture

Random thoughts about the record album – part 2: the Beatles up the ante…

“Full grown men, full of emotion and on top of the world. Meet the Beatles.” – Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone 

Bob Dylan and the Beatles, dedicated followers of fashion (image courtesy Jewish Currents)

(Part 1 here)

When Bob Dylan met the Beatles in late August of 1964, the exchange was significant for both artistic and cultural reasons. The artistic reasons should be obvious: the two most significant artistic forces of the sixties cross pollinated in significant ways. For Dylan, the seed was planted that led him to shock the folk music world by going electric, and making his decision to do so public, at the Newport Folk Festival, folk music’s most prestigious event. Dylan’s act freed him from the traditions and restraints of the folk genre and allowed him to embrace rock stardom (whether that was in his best interest is open to debate).

What did Dylan give the Beatles?

Well, he gave them marijuana (whether that was in their best interest is debatable). And he also fascinated them as they fascinated him.

The result of that mutual fascination changed the record buying habits of their target audiences.

Dylan’s audience, who skewed college aged and older, bought Dylan albums rather than singles. One obvious reason for this was, as was noted in part 1 of this series, that folk music aficionados were album buyers rather than singles buyers. They expected a new Dylan album once a year which gave him time to write material with depth. Beatles fans, on the other hand, were singles buyers and skewed much closer to 14 than 24. They expected a new single every couple of months – a new song that appealed to the Beatles’ demographic – primarily young teen aged girls – love songs with lots of personal pronoun use.

Let’s try a thought experiment.

Picture Dylan performing during his rise to fame? What do you see? Rapt listeners quietly drinking in the words and music of – a troubadour, a bard, an – artist.

Now picture a Beatles concert. What do you see? Thousands of girls screaming so deafeningly over the mop tops that the Beatles – pop stars, teen idols, sex symbols – couldn’t hear themselves play.

The Beatles wanted to be taken seriously as artists – as they felt Dylan was. Dylan wanted some of that unbridled adulation that he saw the Beatles receiving.

What the Beatles really wanted was to be able to make an album that was not an eponymous collection of hits mixed with cover songs from their Hamburg days. They wanted to do what Dylan was doing – make an album of all original songs, songs with the kind of depth of Dylan’s, songs that moved beyond “From Me to You” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

They listened to Dylan even more avidly after they met. They also began smoking pot regularly. And they began to compose songs that reflected all that listening to Dylan – and pot smoking. The results showed up sporadically at first – John’s songs “I’m a Loser” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” are early examples.

Dylan, as I’ve noted, went electric, obviously influenced by the Beatles. The result of that was one of his finest albums, Highway 61 Revisited. What that album gave Dylan was – a hit single, the classic “Like a Rolling Stone.”

The evolution from mop tops singing “yeah, yeah, yeah” to troubadours singing songs gave rock music Rubber Soul. It was the first Beatles album that was not a singles dominated compendium. And it was a great leap forward for the Fabs – and, as a result, for the record album. Rock music began to move from singles to album orientation as a result.