The Triad: How Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and the Beatles Changed Popular Music
by Jennifer W. Jacobs
Looking back now, what they accomplished seems impossible. After all, they were in the beginning, as it is described now, two “boy bands”, and one niche artist on the fringe of the music world. All barely out of their teens, and considered to be nothing more than passing fads in popular music. Yet, somehow they fed off each other’s musical ideas to form a synergy that would result in a seismic shift in popular music, and arguably, world culture itself. Seems highly unlikely doesn’t it? Well, this actually happened in the 1960s. The “boy bands” were The Beach Boys & The Beatles, and the fringe artist was Bob Dylan.
In the early 1960s, the first wave of the post war baby boomers was coming of age. A small counterculture was taking shape on the campuses of US colleges. Folk music was revived as a form of youthful protest against political issues such as civil rights. This musical movement soon grew in popularity outside the New York and San Francisco coffee houses and spread nationwide. Artists such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter Paul and Mary became stars within the genre, but the brightest star emerging was a young Minnesota native by the name of Bob Dylan. Dylan’s lyrical prowess caught the attention of the protest movement, and he quickly became the darling of the folk scene.
In sharp contrast, across the country, a young Californian named Brian Wilson had been writing songs about the lighthearted pursuits of the California teenager: Cars, Girls, Sun and Surf. Wilson formed The Beach Boys as a teen with his brothers and cousins, and taught them how to recreate the harmonies of his favorite vocal group, The Four Freshmen. Through The Beach Boys, Wilson’s own compositions soon conquered the pop charts and captured the imagination of teenagers all over the world, depicting an almost mythological image of the California lifestyle.
These two American acts were about as disparate as you could imagine. While Dylan sang about harsh realities, The Beach Boys offered escapism. But both acts had already caught the attention of a band from another part of the world that would manage to bridge the gap and usher in a new era in popular music and culture.
Interestingly, on November 22nd, 1963, the very day of the Kennedy assassination, CBS news ran a small morning TV news story on a phenomenon happening in Great Britain and all across Europe. Four young men from the port-industrial town of Liverpool, England had become the sensation of the country, playing to frenzied fans and breaking all British sales records. It was presented it as oddity piece, with more than a little amusement at the latest rage gripping England’s teenagers. It wasn’t intended to be taken seriously, seen in current terms as a young men with what seemed like women’s haircuts, bringing back the “fad” of rock n roll that had seemingly fizzled out in the late 50s. Plans were already in place to bring the band to the states, but expectations were low, as no British band had ever had any noticeable impact in the US. Needless to say, that tiny American intro to the Beatles was quickly forgotten as the tragic events of that fateful day unfolded.
On that day, there would be no escape from reality. President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas Texas. That evening, still in the same state of shock as everyone else in the country, Brian Wilson sat down and composed a song to help express his feelings. The song was “The Warmth Of The Sun”. With lyrics by Mike Love, the song was in a way, a melancholy goodbye to the innocence of youth and the country, ushering in for Wilson a period of more serious and introspective work.
In the somber months after the assassination, Americans seemed ready for a new distraction from the turmoil that was going on around them. With the original fifties rock n roll icons out of the picture for various reasons, pop music was largely inhabited at that time by folk music, show tunes, and sanitized teen idols, all which while pleasant, did nothing to stir the passion of the nation’s youth. As 1964 began, the top songs were “Dominique” by the singing Nun, and “There! I’ve Said It Again” by Bobby Vinton. So in February 1964, when the Beatles arrived on the U.S. airwaves, it seemed like a jolt of electricity, with a rawness & energy not seen since the heyday of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, or Little Richard nearly a full decade earlier. Thus began a grip on the charts that soon had the Beatles holding the top five spots on the Billboard hot 100, a feat that to this day has never been repeated.
It is said when Bob Dylan first heard the Beatles, he was on an extended road trip with friends, searching for inspiration on what direction his music should go. Although Dylan was a folk/protest hero and deeply entrenched in acoustic folk music, he was also a fan of rock n roll from the early days, and immediately realized that thru the Beatles, rock music was being reawakened in an entirely different and important way. He later explained in an interview: “We were driving through Colorado, we had the radio on, and eight of the Top 10 songs were Beatles songs…’I Wanna Hold Your Hand,’ all those early ones. They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid…I knew they were pointing the direction of where music had to go.” The Beatles were already fans of Dylan’s as well. George Harrison had picked up a copy of “The Freewheeling Bob Dylan” and according to Harrison, while on the road, the Beatles “wore [the record] out”.
Dylan and the Beatles had a chance to meet later that year at the Delmonico hotel in NYC. As legend has it (and later confirmed by McCartney & others) this was when Dylan first introduced the Beatles to marijuana. Actually, Dylan had assumed the band were already users, mistaking the “I Want To Hold Your Hand” lyrics “I can’t hide” with “I get high”. Despite that initial awkwardness, the Fab Four shared a few joints, and took to it immediately. Going forward, the hallucinogenic seemed to have a profound effect on their creative songwriting process. The Beatles had been no strangers to drugs, having previously taken various stimulant pills to get through their late night gigs in Hamburg, but the introduction of marijuana into the band seemed to slow down the tempo and produce more relaxed and multi-layered compositions. As an example, one can compare Lennon’s composition “A Hard Day’s Night” written in early 1964 to “Norwegian Wood” written merely a year later.
Beyond that, Dylan and the Beatles perhaps saw in each other an element that was missing in their own music. The Beatles were still writing songs with fairly simplistic lyrics. They were inspired by Dylan to write songs that were lyrically more complex and meaningful. Conversely, Dylan, through the Beatles, was pointed to a more powerful rock n roll sound, a sound that would better fit the urgency of his words. Through the Beatles, and the rock renaissance they inspired, Dylan was ready to “plug in”. In what would become known as an infamous moment in rock history, he brought out a full rock band with electric guitars at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival. It was a move that angered many acoustic folk purists in attendance. He was subsequently booed at that event, but from that point musically and artistically, there was no turning back.
Like Dylan, Brian Wilson had a significant reaction to the Beatles’ triumphant arrival and takeover of the US charts. Before that, The Beach Boys were arguably America’s most popular band, and Wilson saw the Fab Four as both a source of direct competition and artisic inspiration. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, that respect, particularly with Beatles co-songwriter Paul McCartney, was very much a mutual admiration society. McCartney was already an avid fan of The Beach Boys’ soaring vocal arrangements and beautiful, almost spiritual melodies. In turn, Wilson was instantly captivated by the Beatles album “Rubber Soul”. According to this interview Wilson explains: “Listening to Rubber Soul didn’t clarify my ideas for Pet Sounds, exactly. But it inspired me. When we were listening to it that night I said to myself, “Now I’m gonna make an album just as good as Rubber Soul.” Not the same album. Obviously there can only be one album that’s Rubber Soul, just like there can only be one Pet Sounds. But it inspired me to do my own thing, and so the next morning I went to the piano and wrote “God Only Knows” with Tony Asher.”
By this time Wilson had begun to be plagued with panic attacks while traveling, and had subsequently stopped touring to devote more time to his first love, studio production. Brian Wilson was a groundbreaking artist in the respect that he also acted as studio producer on his own music. His answer to the Beatle’s Rubber Soul” would be “Pet Sounds”, an album that like Rubber Soul, would have each track integral to the album, with no filler songs. The common thread running thru all the songs was sounds such as trains, dogs barking and unconventional musical instruments. In “Pet Sounds”, he created an aural atmosphere never before heard in recorded music. His painstaking attention to every detail led to long and unconventional sessions in the studio, which now are the stuff of legend. Although it was initially spurned by the record company, and even the Beach Boys band members themselves, “Pet Sounds” was released to critical acclaim and went on to be regarded as one of the greatest and most influential albums in rock history. “Pet Sounds” ushered in the golden era of the concept album, and defined Wilson solidly as a worthy peer to Lennon & McCartney.
When the Beatles heard Pet Sounds, they were in Paul’s words, “blown out of the water”. Like many of his musician contemporaries, McCartney spent hours listening to Pet Sounds, taking note of the songs’ intricate construction. Particularly notable to him as a bassist, was the melodic bass lines that Wilson used. McCartney explains: “I don’t really understand how it happens musically, because I’m not very technical musically. But something special happens. And I noticed that throughout [Pet Sounds] that Brian would be using notes that weren’t the obvious notes to use. As I say, ‘the G if you’re in C—that kind of thing. And also putting melodies in the bass line. That I think was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded Pepper, it set me off on a period I had then for a couple of years of nearly always writing quite melodic bass lines.”
Brian Wilson aside, no rivalry was any keener than within the Beatles themselves. Lennon and McCartney, and later on, George Harrison were always trying to outdo each other with their songwriting chops, and trying to score as many singles as they could. McCartney dove head first into Sgt. Pepper, conceptualizing the theme and writing the title track, and John was soon answering the challenge with songs such as “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. More significantly, Lennon and McCartney produced the best true co-writes than they had ever done on any album, most notably on “A Day In The Life”. Unlike Wilson who took a leading role in the studio, Lennon & McCartney relied heavily on their producer, George Martin, who was equally up to the task. Martin’s technical contributions to Sgt. Pepper cannot be underestimated, in fact at the time, he was sometimes referred to as “the fifth Beatle”, utilizing groundbreaking studio techniques that would be emulated in years to come.
As it played out, the release of “Sergeant Pepper” in 1967 was perhaps the apex of rock as a cultural focal point. After that summer, rock music began to diverge from the foundation these three acts had built, with the blues, hard rock, country/southern rock, psychedelic pop, singer/songwriter and AM pop each drawing out their own tribes of listeners. The innovators themselves began to drift in in separate directions. Dylan would continue to explore rock, his electrified song “Like A Rolling Stone” becoming an all-time classic, landing the number one spot in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs Of All Time”. Wilson withdrew from the limelight, split from the Beach Boys and battled mental issues for many years before reemerging as a successful solo touring act in the 21st century. The Beatles slowly grew apart due to artistic/business differences, eventually disbanding for good in 1970. Yet, the work of each of these artists in less than a 5 year period, would lay the groundwork for almost every popular musical artist that came after them. Approaching a half a century later, the work of this musical “golden triad” still stands up today, leaving a legacy that continues to capture and inspire new generations of music lovers.
The Sunday Times Bob Dylan: behind the Shades Revisited by Clinton Heylin
Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band That Shook Youth, Gender, and the World by Steven D. Stark