Accused of exploiting other artists’ songs in the Beatles, John Lennon defended himself by saying, “It wasn’t a rip-off; it was a love-in.” Paul McCartney’s take: “We pinch as much from other people as they pinch from us.”
“In the early years, I’d often carry around someone else’s song in my head,” Lennon said. “And only when I’d put it down on tape — because I can’t write music — would I consciously change it to my own melody, because I knew that otherwise somebody would sue me.” Perhaps the best example of the Beatles transforming a piece of music is in “Because”: It was drawn from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, but Lennon reversed the chord progression and then mutated it into something else.
While the Beatles drew inspiration from artists both famous and obscure, they almost always made whatever they were borrowing into something new, because they were a creative group of lads and because they were careful to cover their tracks. That’s almost always. Here’s five examples where their pinches got more blatant.
1. “Revolution”: Pee Wee Crayton, “Do Unto Others”
This 1954 single by California bluesman Pee Wee Crayton featured some high-quality electric blues — but it’s the introduction that will sound screamingly familiar to you, if you’ve ever heard “Revolution.” It’s an homage if you’re feeling generous, a blatant swipe if you’re not.
2. “Come Together”: Chuck Berry, “You Can’t Catch Me”
When Lennon played an early version of “Come Together” for the other Beatles, McCartney pointed out that it was very similar to Chuck Berry’s 1956 single “You Can’t Catch Me.” McCartney said, “John acknowledged it was rather close to it, so I said, ‘Well, anything you can do to get away from that.'” So they slowed it down and McCartney added a “swampy” bass line.
The lyrics, however, included “Here come old flat-top/He come groovin’ up slowly,” a fairly direct lift of Berry’s “Here come a flat-top/He was movin’ up with me.” In an interview, Lennon acknowledged the song’s source, which proved inconvenient when Morris Levy, music-world heavy and publisher of “You Can’t Catch Me,” sued Lennon in 1973. That resulted in a sequence of suits and countersuits, but the bottom line was that Lennon agreed to cover three songs owned by Levy, which he did: a straight-up cover of “You Can’t Catch Me” and two different versions of Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya.”
3. “I Feel Fine”: Bobby Parker, “Watch Your Step”
Bobby Parker, a bluesman based in Washington, DC, hit Number 51 on the pop charts in 1961 with the propulsive “Watch Your Step.” The Beatles performed the song live in 1961 and 1962 — and later borrowed the central guitar lick for “I Feel Fine.” John Lennon named “Watch Your Step” as one of his favorites, so much so that he later tweaked the guitar part into a second Beatles single, “Day Tripper.” He wasn’t alone in his love for the song; Led Zeppelin, whose magpie habits were much more blatant than the Beatles’, used it as the basis of “Moby Dick.”
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