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Gene Vincent: The hero before The Beatles


In the good times and the bad, legendary rocker Gene Vincent has always been an influence inexorably interwoven with The Beatles both in terms of style and trajectory. From their young upstart days as the Quarrymen covering Vincent’s rockabilly tracks to the bitter end and the band’s break-up, the presence of Gene Vincent seemed to linger over the fortunes of the Fab Four like a spectre weaving the threads of fate.

As John Lennon told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1980, just three days before he was killed: “Do I start where I came in, with ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’?’ The day I met Paul I was singing that song for the first time on stage.” From that quote alone it is self-evident that Vincent was a seismic influence on The Beatles.

Just as he was there at the very start, on the fateful day that the songwriting duo met on July 6th, 1957, he would preside over the band’s demise too; Lennon told author David Sheff: “Once I found the woman, the boys became of no interest whatsoever, other than they were like old friends. You know: ‘Hi, how are you? How’s your wife?’ That kind of thing. You know the [Gene Vincent] song: ‘Those wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine.’ Well, it didn’t hit me till whatever age I was when I met Yoko … that was it. The old gang of mine was over the moment I met her.”

However, Vincent’s influence was not purely as some sort of mystic figure of fate, spawning the band in Be-Bop song and then calling time at the bar with the sound of Wedding Bells, he had a rather more direct impact on the band’s make-up musicologically.

From the very early Quarrymen days up until the Get Back sessions of 1969, the band performed covers of at least 14 Gene Vincent songs, from ‘Summertime’ to ‘Baby Blue’. Sadly owing to the fact that most of these were at live shows, sketchy session rehearsals or featuring lead Star-Club waiter Fred Fascher on vocals, they’re no real bonafide high-fidelity recordings of the eponymous four-piece breaking out in professional studio-recorded Vincent song.

Thus, unless you were lucky enough to witness one of their early Live! At the Star-Club or Cavern Club shows then it’s unlikely you’ll ever be able to bask in the crisp sound of the defining moment when rockabilly collided with rock ‘n’ roll.

Albeit you can quite easily hear the reverberations of this collision pressed onto Beatles records thereafter. Songs such as ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ and ‘Act Naturally’ among others are irrevocably soaked in Vincent rockabilly stylings. Although always ineffably very much the bands own unique sound, they’re a few times in the back catalogue that their inaugural influences glint through all the brighter.

John Lennon even opened his 1975 album Rock ‘N’ Roll with a beefed-up version of Gene Vincent’s 1956 hit ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’, proving that he was the juvenile music love affair that the band could never get over. The almost mystic entanglement of the two acts is ever-deepening when you consider that Paul McCartney stated Be Bop was not only a song he couldn’t live without but also the first single he ever purchased, “So it’s a special record for me. Big impression,” he told the BBC.

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As fellow northern rocker Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys once said: “There is always that one band that comes along when you are 14 or 15-years-old that manages to hit you in just the right way and changes your whole perception on things.” For The Beatles, it would seem that the identity crafting act that changed their cultural landscape was the greased up songsmith himself, the so-called Screaming End, Gene Vincent.

From their early wayward teddy boy image through to the larynx shredding howls that feature on many of their later songs it is clear that Gene Vincent was a residing influence on the four-piece throughout. Whether it be John telling the BBC that in their early days: “[They] looked like four Gene Vincents, only a bit younger,” or the fact that Vincent firing off senseless syllables paved the way for the nonsense-poetry that Lennon, in particular, would propagate most notably in balderdash fashion on the inimitable ‘I Am The Walrus’, it is clear that the sound and style of Gene was key. Thus, if his hip-snaking songs seem a bit kitsch or archaic to you then you should at least be thankful to Vincent for helping form the beloved four-piece.

As Lennon once confessed to Barry Miles in 1969, regarding Vincent’s most seminal song ‘Be Bop A Lula’ “That beginning – ‘we-e-e-e-e-l-l-l-l-l!’ – always made my hair stand on end.”

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