The world of rock ‘n’ roll is full of copycats and poetic imitations verging on the border of plagiarism. Rock and pop are predominately built on simplicity, and the ethos of the ‘less is more’ approach. As Lou Reed once famously said: “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” After all, aren’t there a limited amount of chord progressions and sequence of notes to pull from? Is there a finite amount of possible songs? If this were the case, Chuck Berry, the ‘father of rock and roll’, would have already written all of the songs by the time the 1950s were over. Known for smash hits such as ‘Maybellene’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Rock and Roll Music’, and Johnny B. Goode’, all of which were released during the ’50s, his music forever changed the cultural landscape and paved the way for the British Invasion as well as a bunch of American bands, like The Beach Boys.
The Beach Boys were, in today’s standards, a ‘boy band’, mostly all related to one another, where they unabashedly took what Chuck Berry was doing and revolutionised it into the Californian surf sound. This isn’t such a crazy concept; afterall, Chuck Berry took what T-Bone Walker was doing and made that kind of music his own. Such is the nature of rock n” roll and music at large; it is a chain reaction all fueled by inspiration and imitation.
Supposedly, when Brian Wilson heard Chuck Berry song ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, the inventive songwriter was hit with a jolt of excitement when he picked up on Berry’s use of locational descriptors in his lyrics. “They’re really rockin’ in Boston/In Pittsburgh, PA/Deep in the heart of Texas/And round the ‘Frisco Bay.”
Brian Wilson decided to take the framework of Chuck Berry’s number and ‘Californianize‘ it. It would be the white man’s and west coast’s answer to Chuck Berry’s commercialised blues brand – just like the Rolling Stones took a hint from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and brought their music to England. Perhaps Brian Wilson’s approach may have been a little too on the nose, however. When listening to ‘Surfin’ USA’ and ‘Little Sweet Sixteen’ back to back, it’s not a question of ‘if’ or ‘maybe’; The Beach Boys’ number is a blatant rip off of Chuck Berry’s song.
Brian Wilson recalled his feelings when he heard the number: “I was going with a girl called Judy Bowles, and her brother Jimmy was a surfer. He knew all the surfing spots,” he said. “I started humming the melody to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and I got fascinated with the fact of doing it, and I thought to myself, ‘God! What about trying to put surf lyrics to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’s melody? The concept was about, ‘They are doing this in this city, and they’re doing that in that city’ So I said to Jimmy, ‘Hey Jimmy, I want to do a song mentioning all the surf spots.’ So he gave me a list.”
The Beach Boys’ leading songwriter claimed, during an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 2015, that there was absolutely no maliciousness or bad intent involved, stating: “I just took ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and rewrote it into something of our own.” Brian Wilson has always possessed somewhat of innocence in his demeanour which has been reflected time and again in the music of The Beach Boys. According to the biopic, Cadillac Records – a film about Leonard Chess – the man responsible for bringing Chicago blues and R&B to a wider audience; actor, Mos Def, portrayed Chuck Berry as having been angry upon hearing ‘Surfin’ USA’. However, Chuck Berry was civil about it. Carl Wilson from The Beach Boys would recall: “We ran into Chuck Berry in Copenhagen and he told us he loves ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.'” In reality, Chuck Berry was a fan of the song, but this didn’t stop him from approaching The Beach Boys’ manager, Murray Wilson.
With the imminent threat of lawsuits, Murray Wilson – who also happened to be the overbearing and controlling father of Brian Wilson and his brothers – handed over the copyright to Chuck Berry’s publishing company, Arc Music. While Berry began receiving royalties for the song, the father of rock ‘n’ roll’s name wouldn’t be officially accredited until 1966. After all was said and done, Brian Wilson’s father turned manager, was so domineering that the Californian band didn’t know they weren’t receiving royalties from ‘Surfin USA’ until 25 years later.
Throughout the years succeeding the issue, there were never any grudges held between Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys. Randy Lewis in The Los Angeles Times wrote: “Brian still regularly includes Berry songs in his live shows. And has even slipped ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ lyrics into his live rendition of ‘Surfin USA'”.
Was it a rip off? Find out for yourself.