Paul McCartney is one of the most gifted songwriters the 20th century ever produced. Alongside John Lennon. the duo created a plethora of songs that transformed rock ‘n’ roll into pop music. It was a shift of society that saw Americana be given a British makeover — complete with a smart suit, long hair and dry wit — and perhaps done better than ever before. It means The Beatles have several key influencers they can look back on from the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll in the US.
Of course, Roy Orbison was a huge influence on the band, as was Buddy Holly and The Crickets, but if there was one man who had a direct influence on the group most effectively, it has to be Chuck Berry. “If you had to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry,” once said John Lennon and it’s hard to disagree with him. Without a doubt the forefather of modern rock ‘n’ roll, Berry’s ability to not only perform but write some of the most vibrant music the group had ever heard at the time captivated McCartney.
In fact, it even helped inspire one of The Beatles most famous songs, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. To go one step further, Macca has even said that he “lifted” the notes directly from Berry and played them over the structure the band had already begun to create for the song. It’s a candid admission similar to the one which saw Lennon sued by Berry for ‘Come Together’ some years later. However, this track managed to escape the attention of the Granddaddy of rock.
Recorded in 1963 but likely written much before that, the track was actually composed between Lennon and McCartney at the latter’s childhood home, a time when Macca was still in school. “I wrote it with John in the front parlour of my house in 20 Forthlin Road, Allerton,” he once explained. “We sagged off school and wrote it on guitars and a little bit on the piano that I had there.” It’s the kind of song utterly imbued with youthful exuberance, so infectious that it’s impossible to avoid tapping your toes along with the song.
“Sometimes we would just start a song from scratch,” remembers McCartney of writing the song for Barry Miles in Many Years From Now. “But one of us would nearly always have a germ of an idea, a title or a rough little thing they were thinking about and we’d do it. ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ was my original, I’d started it and I had the first verse, which therefore gave me the tune, the tempo and the key. It gave you the subject matter, a lot of the information, and then you had to fill in… It was co-written, my idea, and we finished it that day.”
The duo were in the throes of finding stardom and it appeared nothing could stop them from achieving their goal. The pair were devoted to achieving it and wrote most of the lyrics to these songs as they were still learning their craft. “We were learning our skill,” remembered McCartney, “John would like some of my lines and not others. He liked most of what I did, but there would sometimes be a cringe line, such as, ‘She was just seventeen, she’d never been a beauty queen.’ John thought, ‘Beauty queen? Ugh.’ We were thinking of Butlin’s so we asked ourselves, what should it be? We came up with, ‘You know what I mean.’ Which was good, because you don’t know what I mean.”
It was this interplay of talented individuals that would see the band’s success become impossible to avoid. But while Lennon and McCartney were equals writing songs, in the studio, Macca possessed an ear for a hit. Musically trained from a young age, Macca was never afraid to push himself and the band forward creatively, even if that meant looking back sometimes.
On moment came when McCartney began playing the notes to ‘I’m Talking About You’ by Chuck Berry. He realised how easily he could implement the note structure on to this new track he and The Beatles were recording. The band had recorded a cover of Berry’s original in 1961 but this time Macca was being a little bit sneakier. “I played exactly the same notes as he did and it fitted our number perfectly,” he told Barry Miles. “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.”
Look back through the history of great songwriters and such magpie behaviour is far from uncommon. In fact, for much of The Beatles early songwriting career, John Lennon and Paul McCartney would trade their lyrics and songs and they’d both be undoubtedly influenced by one man, Chuck Berry. “To us, he was a magician making music that was exotic, yet normal, at the same time,” Paul McCartney wrote on his website following Berry’s death. “We learnt so many things from him which led us into a dream world of rock and roll music.”