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.