Lennon and McCartney constantly used Chuck Berry’s rhythms – Lennon’s “The Ballad Of John And Yoko” and McCartney’s “Get Back” being good examples. Lennon went a little too far with “Come Together’ and had to settle with Chuck Berry’s publisher. In July 1990, when asked about the bass line in “I Saw Her Standing There” by Guitar Player magazine, McCartney said, “I’m not going to tell you I wrote the bloody thing when Chuck Berry’s bass player did.” Lennon and McCartney’s candour in making such remarks is very refreshing.
Did the Beatles’ transform Elvis Presley’s “Oh yeah yeah” in “All Shook Up” into the “yeah yeah yeah” of “She Loves You”? Even if that wasn’t the inspiration, the high-pitched scream, the “whooo”, is lifted from the Isley Brothers’ version of “Shout” and “Twist And Shout”.
The intro of “I Feel Fine” is a dead ringer for Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step”, which in turn owed something to Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say”. Bobby Parker says that he is flattered that the Beatles knew his record, but “some residuals would be nice”.
When McCartney was struggling to complete “Michelle”, Lennon suggested that they borrowed “I love you, I love you, I love you” from Nina Simone’s “I Put A Spell On You”.
In “Run For Your Life”, John Lennon sneers, “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.” It’s a direct steal from Elvis Presley’s ‘Baby Let’s Play House”. Possibly Lennon thought that it was an old blues lyric and anybody could use it.
In addition to lifting snatches of lyrics or melodies for their own recordings, the Beatles paid tribute to their favourite genres and artists:
The initial version of “Please Please Me”, although it no longer exists, was a Roy Orbison-styled ballad. When I was with the Apple recording artist Jackie Lomax a few months ago, he played me ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ on his guitar: “Now,” he said, “I’m going to rearrange the notes a little differently and what do we have?” The answer was “Day Tripper”.
McCartney loved Little Richard and “I’m Down” is any Little Richard record with a Liverpool spin. Maybe the form had become a cliché but he had added some surprises to the style when he recorded “Helter Skelter”. On September 18, 1968, the Beatles took a break from a recording session at Abbey Road to watch a TV screening of The Girl Can’t Help It at Paul’s house. They returned for the frenzied “Birthday”, clearly inspired by Little Richard, the musical star of that film.
Another rock’n’roll pianist, Fats Domino, was the inspiration for “Lady Madonna” which was tempered with jazzman Humphrey Lyttelton’s 1956 hit, “Bad Penny Blues”. The mouth music in the middle of that record was because McCartney remembered a Liverpool band, the Fourmost, who did the same thing. When Domino recorded his own version of “Lady Madonna”, he didn’t have to change a thing as the melody was spot-on even if the words were psychedelic.
John showed his love of Del Shannon with “I’ll Get You”, the song containing shades of both “Hey Little Girl” and “Runaway” as well as the Kingston Trio’s “All My Sorrows”. The similar feeling in their songs was noticed by Shannon himself who covered “From Me To You” for the American market and became the first person to place a Lennon-McCartney composition on the US charts.
The Beatles often performed Tamla-Motown songs and although it didn’t happen, you could imagine the Marvelettes’ following “Please Mr. Postman’ with “There’s A Place”. Lennon loved Smokey Robinson’s ballad, “You Really Got A Hold On Me”, and as a result, “This Boy” sounds like pure Smokey.
In early interviews, Lennon and McCartney hoped that they would end up as a songwriting team like Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The love of the New York girl groups, which they wrote for, is evident in “All I’ve Got To Do”, which sounds like a Shirelles’ single. George Harrison’s fondness for the Chiffons was deeply embedded in his mind and he was successfully sued for plagiarism after basing “My Sweet Lord’ on “He’s So Fine”.
The echo-drenched “Oh! Darling” recalls the doo-wop era and it’s intriguing that it follows Frank Zappa’s tribute LP, “Cruising With Ruben And The Jets”. At a guess, McCartney heard Zappa’s record and then wrote his own doo-wop song. His song provided the inspiration for 10cc’s “Donna”. When Paul McCartney was writing with Eric Stewart, he told him, “I’ll be claiming royalties if you’re not careful.”
When McCartney wrote “Yesterday” he was sure he had heard the tune elsewhere and copied it subconsciously. Could it be that he had heard Nat “King” Cole’s “Answer Me” which has a similar mood and lyrics? Did “She was mine yesterday, In my sorrow I turn away” become “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away”? And if you speed up “Til There Was You”, don’t you arrive at “Little Child”? Maybe that’s why they sound so good next to each other on With The Beatles.
There are examples of the Beatles aping their contemporaries. With its melody, lyric and very title, “Dear Prudence” sound likes one of Donovan’s songs. I suspect that George Harrison owned the Byrds’ first album, Mr. Tambourine Man, as “Bells Of Rhymney” was surely the inspiration for “If I Needed Someone”. The start of “Something” – “Something in the way she moves” – may sound like James Taylor because it is. The American singer-songwriter had been signed to Apple but he didn’t expect the title line of his song to be used twice.
John Lennon copied Bob Dylan’s headgear and also what was inside it as both “I’m A Loser” and “I Should Have Known Better” reveal Dylan’s influence. John Lennon was flattered when Dylan took the melody for “Norwegian Wood’ for his own “Fourth Time Around”: the Beatles had never done anything so blatant, but they could scarcely object.
When Albert Goldman was researching his biography of John Lennon, he was keen to know what hymns he heard in church. This was not used in his text, but possibly he was thinking that hymns, with their preponderance for minor keys, found their way into Lennon and McCartney’s subconscious and hence, into their songs. When McCartney first offered “Let It Be” to Aretha Franklin, she turned it down. I’ve always thought that this was because she had been recording fairly straightforward lyrics and “Let It Be” with references to Mother Mary might be seen as strange. However, it could be that the song owes more to English church music than American spirituals and so Aretha didn’t see in the light that McCartney expected.
In their own way, the Beatles could be the Rutles, able to parody a leading act with wit and accuracy. “Back In The USSR” is a joke at the expense of the Beach Boys, although the lyrical idea comes from Chuck Berry’s “Back In The USA”. And John Lennon told Kim Fowley, “We liked Canned Heat but we thought they were humorless, so we wrote ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ which was our message to Canned Heat to put more humour in their music.”
Do all these examples detract from the Beatles’ legacy? No – quite the reverse, they strengthen it. Nobody works in a vacuum and every songwriter is influenced by what he hears. Between them the Beatles knew numerous genres and this is what separates them from the pack. Their very knowledge increased their own potential. They were so gifted both musically and lyrically and this was the springboard for their genius.
The Beatles even borrowed from themselves as several songs are inter-related. Compare “When I see you every day I say, mmm, hello little girl” with “In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs”.
It is also very significant that so many great names were at their most creative at the same time. It is hard to believe but the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson were inspiring and provoking each other. That clash of the Titans is not around today and it hasn’t occurred since the Sixties. That decade ended with the breakup of the Beatles, Bob Dylan going country and Burt Bacharach heading into a lost horizon while Brian Wilson was already there. John Lennon’s Jukebox shows exactly where he was at in 1965 and, 40 years on, I can’t see anyone make much sense of Noel Gallagher’s iPod.
The Beatle books invariably blame wives and girlfriends for the break-up, but that’s not the main reason. Lennon and McCartney were no longer listening to other records for inspiration and determined to be one step better.
Spencer Leigh is the author of “Twist And Shout! – Merseybeat, The Cavern, The Star-Club And The Beatles”, recently published in the UK by Nirvana Books.