John Lennon had many heroes and, in truth, quite a few more enemies in the music industry thanks to his inability to keep his tongue from sharing his most inner thoughts. One person had the pleasure of being both a hero and an enemy to the Beatle after getting tangled in a lawsuit over the ‘Imagine’ singer’s “favourite Lennon track”.
“If you had to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry,” John Lennon once said, and it’s a point that anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of the genre can subscribe to. With his enigmatic duck-walking jams, Berry was the lynchpin that made rock and roll feel possible. Simply put, without Chuck Berry, you can kiss goodbye to the whole genre.
He is the forefather of modern rock ‘n’ roll and one of the primary influences throughout the early stages of The Beatles’ songwriting career. It wasn’t just Lennon in the band who was obsessed with Berry. Paul McCartney once commented, “To us, he was a magician making music that was exotic, yet normal, at the same time. We learnt so many things from him, which led us into a dream world of rock ‘n’ roll music.”
However, this would soon land Lennon in trouble as he accidentally transposed one of Berry’s numbers into his own song ‘Come Together’. It would land the Beatle in litigious hot water. Considering just how important Berry was at shaping the group’s first incarnation, it’s somewhat ironic that it would be one of the final songs Lennon would create for The Beatles album Abbey Road and Timothy Leary’s campaign trail, which would lead to the lawsuit.
The grievance came from the similarities between the track and Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’, with Lennon even including the lyric, “Here comes ol’ flattop”, from the aforementioned effort. It was no accident, and the Beatle knew what he was doing. Moreover, the only issue was that he thought he’d already done enough to differentiate the two efforts.
“‘Come Together’ is me writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing,” Lennon later admitted in 1980. “I left the line ‘Here comes old flattop.’ It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago. I could have changed it to ‘Here comes old iron face,’ but the song remains independent of Chuck Berry or anybody else on earth. The thing was created in the studio.”
In an attempt at defending his actions, Lennon continued: “It’s gobbledygook ‘Come Together’ was an expression that Tim Leary [who was then running for Governor of California] had come up with for his attempt at being president or whatever he wanted to be, and he asked me to write a campaign song. I tried and I tried, but I couldn’t come up with one. But I came up with this, ‘Come Together,’ which would’ve been no good to him, you couldn’t have a campaign song like that, right? Leary attacked me years later, saying I ripped him off.
“I didn’t rip him off. It’s just that it turned into ‘Come Together.'” continued Lennon. “What am I going to do, give it to him? It was a funky record, it’s one of my favourite Beatle tracks, or, one of my favourite Lennon tracks, let’s say that. It’s funky, it’s bluesy, and I’m singing it pretty well. I like the sound of the record. You can dance to it. I’ll buy it!”
‘Come Together’ is its own individual track, as Lennon passionately decried. Unfortunately, they were the biggest band on the planet at the time, and Berry’s publisher, Big Seven Music, couldn’t resist an easy payday.
Furthermore, if The Beatles were sued by everybody who influenced them in one way or the other, then they’d have made an army of millionaires. Lennon was always open about how he used other artists to shape his songwriting, whether Bob Dylan or Chuck Berry, but the fact he was such an open book was his greatest downfall. Although if anybody deserved their name on a Beatles record, it was the architect of rock ‘n’ roll.