There may be no more influential—and, at times, vexed—musical relationship than the Beatles’ artistic debt to Chuck Berry, who recently passed away at age 90. As John Lennon remarked way back in 1972 as he introduced the legendary guitarist on the Mike Douglas Show, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”
Indeed, the Beatles’ artistic heritage finds much of its roots in the pioneering rock and roll sounds of Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, and a host of other American practitioners. Not surprisingly, as their own career as songwriters began to take off, John Lennon and Paul McCartney naturally returned to their most cherished rock idols. But the Beatles’ musical interplay with Berry went way beyond mere influence, which was sizable enough in its own right. At times, they resorted to out-and-out musical theft, barely making an effort to hide their tracks.
As McCartney later admitted, “We were the biggest nickers in town. Plagiarists extraordinaires.” As it turns out, the evidence of the Beatles’ musical borrowings was hidden in plain sight. Take “I Saw Her Standing There,” the opening track on Please Please Me (1963), the band’s debut album. With “I Saw Her Standing There,” McCartney’s introductory lyric echoes Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie”—“too cute to be a minute over seventeen”—and he appropriates his walking-bass line directly from Berry’s “I’m Talking about You.”
This incidence of petty musical theft is a critical aspect of the Beatles’ songwriting proclivities, as well as of popular music and the creative arts in general. Years later on The Beatles (The White Album, 1968), the bandmates pilfered Berry’s work yet again—in this case, in the service of “Back in the USSR,” McCartney’s sendup of life behind the Soviet Union’s reviled Iron Curtain. In “Back in the USSR,” the Beatles offer a tongue-in-check pastiche of Berry’s “Back in the USA” and the Beach Boys’ fun-in-the-sun, bikini-clad “California Girls.” The song finds its origins in India, when McCartney and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love took to singing “I’m Backing the USSR” as a parody of the recent “I’m Backing Britain” campaign spearheaded by the government’s effort to lower the UK’s growing national debt.
“This incidence of petty musical theft is a critical aspect of the Beatles’ songwriting proclivities...”
The most notorious example of the Beatles’ plagiarism of Berry’s work involves “Come Together,” the standout track from Abbey Road (1969), their musical swan song. During his composition of “Come Together,” Lennon was influenced by Chuck Berry’s 1956 hit, “You Can’t Catch Me,” in which the pioneering rock-and-roller sings, “Here come a flattop he was movin’ up with me.” Only scant months earlier, the Beatles had improvised a version of “You Can’t Catch Me” during the January 1969 Get Back sessions.
For “Come Together,” Lennon’s slight revisioning of Berry’s lyric into “Here come ol’ flattop he come groovin’ up slowly” would find him on the losing end, at least initially, of a protracted lawsuit with Berry’s publisher Morris Levy. The lyrical borrowing was obvious, and the bandmates’ lawyers shrewdly began to negotiate with Levy. In an out-of-court settlement with Berry’s publisher, Lennon promised to record other songs in Levy’s stable, several of which were slated to appear on Lennon’s 1975 solo album Rock ’n’ Roll.
But as it turned out, the saga involving “Come Together” was only just beginning. The recording sessions for Rock ’n’ Roll were fraught with challenges, including Phil Spector’s absconding of the album’s master tapes, which led to Capitol Records paying some $90,000 in ransom to the eccentric producer for their return. Impatient with Lennon over the disposition of the out-of-court settlement, Levy marketed a television mail-order version of the album’s rough mix entitled Roots.
In so doing, Levy had miscalculated, giving away the upper hand that he had originally enjoyed after settling his lawsuit regarding “Come Together.” In short order, Capitol Records’ subsequent lawsuit against Levy plunged the music publisher’s label Adam VIII, Ltd. into bankruptcy. The lawsuit also directed Levy to pay Lennon $42,000 in damages for harming his professional reputation.
The entire episode made for a bizarre conclusion to the Beatles’ longstanding plagiarism of Berry’s words and music—a series of infractions that resulted in a trio of unmistakable rock classics. Whether it takes the form of such high-octane cover versions as “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll music” or the musical borrowings inherent in “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Back in the USSR,” and “Come Together,” the Beatles’ debt to Berry is writ large across their unparalleled career.
Ken Womack is an internationally renowned Beatles authority regarding the band’s enduring artistic influence. His latest book, Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966), is forthcoming in 2017. His previous Beatles-related books include Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles and The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four. You can learn more about Ken’s work at kennethwomack.com.