It seems like it must mean something that these two albums, released at the very tail end of 1967, run so counter to the pervasive trends of the time. Both are quiet, thoughtful affairs, old-fashioned in feel, with sparse instrumentation; no Mellotrons, wah-wah pedals, or sitars for these cats.

John Wesley Harding was Bob Dylan’s first album after dropping out of sight for a while following his July 1966 motorcycle accident. Perhaps fearing that excessive expectations would be placed on this low-key piece of work, Dylan pressured his record company to release it with relatively little fanfare in the post-Christmas dead zone.

There were no expectations at all for the debut album by Leonard Cohen, a 33-year-old Canadian poet just embarking on a music career. His song “Suzanne” had been a hit for Judy Collins, who convinced him that he could be successful as a performer. And she was right: Amazingly enough, the minimalist, melancholic Songs of Leonard Cohen would get up to #13 on the UK Albums Chart.

Even more amazingly, John Wesley Harding would go all the way to #1 in the UK, and #2 in the U.S. (where Songs of Leonard Cohen peaked at #82, establishing his lifelong pattern of being much bigger in Europe than on his home continent). This is doubly remarkable when you consider that JWH contains none of Dylan’s most famous songs — unless you count “All Along the Watchtower,” which got a big boost in late 1968 when Jimi Hendrix grabbed it and ran a million fucking volts through it.

The success of these two albums shows that there was a pretty substantial appetite among the record-buying public for something different from the psychedelic flavor of the month. No doubt this affected the direction that The Beatles took on the White Album with songs like “Dear Prudence,” “Blackbird,” and “I Will.”

The Beatles were influenced by Dylan throughout the Sixties; it’s unclear how much influence, if any, ran the other way. But in an odd footnote, rock legend has it that the faces of the four Beatles appear upside-down in the tree at the top of John Wesley Harding’s cover photo:

The photographer, John Berg, was for many years vague about whether this was done on purpose. but in 1995 he told Rolling Stone that it wasn’t. “I mean, if you wanted to see it, you could see it. I was as amazed as anybody.”

You could also, if you wanted, see The Beatles in the back cover of Songs of Leonard Cohen:

Keep looking. They’re in there somewhere.

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