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.
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.
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.”
4. “I Saw Her Standing There”: Chuck Berry, “I’m Talking About You”
Sometimes a single element from another song would be the only thing the Beatles lifted: For example, the lyric “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man” on “Run for Your Life” was taken from Elvis Presley’s “Baby, Let’s Play House.” On “I Saw Her Standing There,” which kicked off the Fab Four’s debut album, the swipe was the bass line from Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You,” released only a couple of years earlier. McCartney said soon after, “I played exactly the same notes as he did and it fit our number perfectly. Even now, when I tell people about it, I find few of them believe me. Therefore, I maintain that a bass riff doesn’t have to be original.”
McCartney has always said that “Lady Madonna” was intended as a tribute to Fats Domino. The direct antecedent of the song’s piano part, however, was “Bad Penny Blues,” a 1956 Parlophone single by British trad-jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton. The head A&R man at Parlophone in 1956: George Martin.
The part was just different enough for McCartney not to get in trouble — unlike, say, George Harrison, whose solo chart-topper “My Sweet Lord” was ruled by a court of law to be too close to the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” Harrison was found guilty of “unconscious plagiarism” and ended up paying $587,000 in damages. Lennon commented, “George could have changed a few bars in that song and nobody could have ever touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price.”