The Beatles were absolute masters of absorbing influence from anywhere and everywhere, spitting it back out with sui generis stylings they blew through the mainstream in a benevolent whirlwind of originality and ensured that it would never be the same again.
They gave colour to a black and white world and shaped pop culture forevermore, taking everything from Johann Bach to Burt Bacharach and wringing it out onto a canvas that was entirely their own and never seen before. In short, the truth is that nothing since the invention of the wheel has been original in the absolute. In the words of the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, “Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul, if you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it.”
The issue for The Beatles on these five occasions, however, is that lent a little heavily on their influence and didn’t twist them enough, sometimes even legally so. Of the 229 songs that they crafted most are safe from the tag of ‘rip off’, but as you’ll see below, even the songs that snatch a little bit too much are gems that the original creators couldn’t begrudge once their pockets were suitably lined of course.
(As a caveat, George Harrison’s legal battle over ‘My Sweet Lord’ quite evidently borrowing from ‘He’s So Fine’ by The Chiffons is not included as it was a solo track, but if you’ve never heard about it then, take a listen.)
Let’s get down to business.
5 songs that The Beatles ripped off:
5. ‘Revolution’ and Pee Wee Crayton’s ‘Do Unto Others’
It’s one hell of a riff to repurpose in fairness, and after the intro the songs diverge on different musical trajectory but the likeness in the furious guitar work is simply unmistakable. They both race off on a B flat and make their way through a rip-roaring scale of repetition.
The fact that the very similar riff is transposed onto a disparate song structure shows the way in which musical imitation works – things that are near identical for a few bars can waltz into wildly different parties thereafter. The influence couldn’t be clearer in patches as you can hear below, but the songs stand apart.
4. ‘Come Together’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’
Chuck Berry wasn’t just an inspiration for The Beatles he was an idol, a guiding hand, and an occasional collaborator. For one of their best ever jams, however, they paid him the biggest compliment of imitation.
As Paul McCartney once said, “[John] originally brought [Come Together] over as a very perky little song, and I pointed out to him that it was very similar to Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’, John acknowledged it was rather close to it,” he told Miles B. in Many Years From Now, “I suggested that we tried it ‘swampy’ [and] we took [the tempo] right down.”
The shared line that gives the game away is “Here come a flat top, he was, moving up…” Chuck Berry’s publishers filed a lawsuit and it was sorted out of court on the proviso that John Lennon record a cover of ‘You Can’t Catch Me’.
3. ‘I Feel Fine’ and Bobby Parker’s ‘Watch Your Step’
The Beatles loved the blues and what they took from it they usually reinvented into pop, but this Sevenths melody remains a bit close to the original for Bobby Parker’s comfort. In an interview on MSNBC Parker spoke about the likeness, stating: “McCartney was a good friend of mine, he still is! But they should put a little leverage on some of the songs that they y’know…” at which point the interviewer blurt, “They stole your riff man!” And Parker humorously replies, “I’m pleased you said it!”
The forever upbeat Bobby Parker was simply flattered that they liked his work and when he met them, he was happy to shelve it with a handshake, even if he does joke that they should have maybe lined his hand with something other than a mere shake.
In fairness, the two riffs might sound similar but in a musicological sense one is a E7 and the other in G7 and they’re not identical thereafter.
2. ‘Yesterday’ and Nat King Cole’s ‘Answer Me, My Love’
The origin story of ‘Yesterday’ is one of the most well-known in music. McCartney woke up with the melody after a dream and ad-libbed the words “scrambled eggs” so that he wouldn’t forget it, but he was convinced that it came so naturally it must have been lifted from one of his dad’s old jazz records. When no similarities could be found the group ploughed on with the track.
Since that story emerged many musicologists have trawled the archives to see if a jazz origin actually exists. British music buff Spencer Leigh believes that the melody may have seeded itself in McCartney’s musical cranium via Nat King Cole’s 1953 version of ‘Answer Me’. When the orchestral flourishes of Nat King Cole are cast to one side the contours of the track are very similar, but Leigh’s argument gains traction with the lyric, “Yesterday, I believed that love was here to stay.”
Ultimately, if it wasn’t for McCartney revealing the origin it would probably have gone unnoticed as the tracks are very different in truth, and the main conclusion is that the unconscious mind is one hell of a strange place.
1. ‘Run For Your Life’ and Elvis Presley’s ‘Baby Let’s Play House’
John Lennon and Elvis Presley might have gotten on like a literal house on fire as opposed to the smitten figurative sense, but that still didn’t stop him worshipping the king in his early days. Nowhere is the seismic influence of the greased-up songsmith more clear than with ‘Baby Let’s Paly House’.
Not only is one of the very first available recordings of The Quarrymen available a cover of it, but Lennon also copied the lyric, “Well, I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man,” verbatim for ‘Run For Your Life’. The link is a hat tip to the past and a fascinating glimpse at cultures unfurling journey.