John Lennon’s inspiration often came from the records he played.
This feature appeared in the US magazine Goldmine, 11 November 2005. There could be many other examples – just sing “Stewball” to the tune of “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)”. Send any comments to Spencer Leigh.
When I met the maverick record producer Kim Fowley for Goldmine 618 (April 2, 2004), I thought that one of his passing remarks about meeting John Lennon at the Toronto Rock’n’Roll Festival in 1969 was highly significant. Fowley told me, “I asked John Lennon what his secret was. He said, ‘The Beatles were based on one idea – to improve our record collection. We would take our favourite records and then we would make better versions of them. We stopped being a group when we stopped trying to improve on the records that we liked.’” That quote did not appear in the feature because I was writing about Fowley himself and also because it merited further investigation. It appeared to me that John Lennon had made an insightful, very revealing comment about his songwriting.
Around the same time as my interview, a 2CD set, John Lennon’s Jukebox was scheduled for release with an edition of the TV arts programme, The South Bank Show, devoted to it. The portable jukebox weighed 10 pounds and was apparently used on tour by Lennon around 1965. My immediate reaction was to call Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ press officer, and ask him if he was the muggins who carried it around. “I don’t remember it at all,” he said, “so I certainly didn’t transport it. Surely he had some singles in his bag and a record player in his hotel rooms. It doesn’t really make sense.” Making sense or not, there is a list of contents in John Lennon’s handwriting on the jukebox and they throw some light on his tastes: vintage rock’n’roll, soul music and early folk-rock.
Here are some Beatle songs that were directly influenced by earlier records.
When the Beatles were in Hamburg in 1961, John and George Harrison wrote an instrumental, “Cry For A Shadow”, and as the title implies, it was a homage to the Shadows – or was it? See if you can get your hands on John Barry Seven’s 1958 single, “Rodeo” and speed it up.
It was start as you mean to go on. Paul McCartney based “Like Dreamers Do” on one of his stage favourites, “Besame Mucho”.
The genesis of the Beatles’ first Parlophone single, “Love Me Do”, was probably the melody for the verses of “Don’t Be Cruel”, and the arrangement followed the voice and harmonica combination of Bruce Channel’s 1962 hit, “Hey! Baby”.
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”.