How The Beatles inspired Daniel Johnston to start writing his own songs
Daniel Johnston may well be one of his generation’s most underrated songwriters. The singer-songwriter, who operated largely on the peripheries of the music industry, if not the society as a whole, created songs so simple in their structure and so honest in their sentiment that it becomes impossible after hearing them to discount Johnston’s sincere talent.
The late singer sadly passed away in 2019 following a myriad of health conditions that he fought throughout his life, tragically leading to a heart attack. Aged just 58, the singer left behind a legacy of authentic and honest work that will forever shine on in his name and provide inspiration for other equally gifted outsiders. The singer battled mental and physical health issues throughout his life, struggling in particular with his bipolar disorder. But one fascination always stood out for Johnston — The Beatles.
Like many other artists, Johnston was hugely influenced by witnessing The Beatles songs, either on TV or through the radio. In fact, for Johnston, they were arguably the sole reason he began his songwriting odyssey in the first place after one note from the band’s drummer Ringo Starr led Johnston to reevaluate his musicianship: “When I learned how to play I was always trying to write with Queen … but I could never quite get a song. And then I started listening to the Beatles and got more into the knack of songwriting,” Johnston told Pitchfork.
“And then, finally, my dad bought me a book called Complete Beatles, and … I played every song in that book again and again, and I did develop a rapport with the Beatles songs,” remembered the singer. “I began to re-work because of what Ringo said in an interview. He said, ‘We took other people’s songs and rearranged their chord structures to write songs,’ and I go, ‘Wow!’ and I started doing that with their songs. And it was like magic, rearranging the chords. It was like a mathematical situation.”
For Johnston, who had struggled thus far to properly put himself on the page as the Fab Four had taught him, this book provided him with the gusto to continue making music. “It was just a phenomenal theory for me,” he continued, “Of course, if the Beatles heard about this today they’d roll over in their graves, but you know, that’s what I did and it was revolutionary to me and that went on forever. This book was like a bible to me and I knew all their songs and I played them, and then I kept … writing with the Beatles theory over and over again. Millions of songs.”
Johnston was famed for trudging around his native Austin, Texas and handing out the songs he had recorded to his casette tape. It was a pretty primitive way to begin a career in music but it was the only way Johnston knew how to get his music out there and the “millions of songs,” he was now beginning to write. Asked what his favourite Beatles song ever was, Johnston’s reply is that of a true fan: “Well, I wouldn’t know what to say. From Yesterday to I Am the Walrus to… Yer Blues … so many. I wouldn’t do without any of them. I love the Beatles, they are my favourite band.”
To prove that fact even further, Jhnston even composed a song for the Fab Four, aptly titled ‘The Beatles’, which you can listen to below.