The Beatles are famed for their originality. The years the group spent in Hamburg forced them to drink from their own thumbs, so to speak. According to McCartney, “There was nobody to copy from. We played what we liked best, and the Germans liked it as long as it was loud.”
Certainly, the Beatles’ songcraft grew organically, developing in tandem with the 1000 hours of live performance time the group thrashed through in those early days. Very few artists can hold a candle to the sheer imagination of The Beatles’ back catalogue. From their early pop records to their more experimental phases, they were always one step ahead of everyone else, forging the sound of popular music as they went, rather than taking instruction from it. Perhaps that’s why so many fans talk of “the purity” of The Beatles’ songwriting.
But, that’s not to say that Lennon and McCartney didn’t take inspiration from outside sources. In fact, to say otherwise would be shamefully ignorant. No artist is entirely self-generating, not even the hallowed Beatles. Some of their earliest records were inspired by Roy Orbison tracks Lennon and McCartney had heard on the radio in hotel rooms, or in their bus on the way to a gig.
For example, ‘Please Me’ took inspiration from Roy Orbison’s love ballad ‘Only The Lonely.’ But thanks to George Martin, and the open-mindedness of The Beatles members, the song was developed to the point that its source became impossible to guess.
This is all to say that The Beatles’ genius lay not in their ability to write startlingly original tracks straight off the bat but to build on pre-established musical ideas in an innovative and original way. And this went beyond songwriting. Paul McCartney once described the way he essentially “nicked” the playing style of Motown bassist James Jamerson and used it in his work with The Beatles.
When asked who had influenced his style most, McCartney replied: “I think James Jamerson, him and me, I’d share the credit there. I was nicking a lot off him. Yeah, it became a bit more skilful. I wouldn’t personally credit myself, but thanks for that.”
Of Jamerson’s virtuosic playing style, McCartney went on to say: “That was the thing, though, it did become a lot more of a funky instrument: it was becoming almost like a drum, the rhythmic possibilities. It was very exciting, that, and it also gave me something to keep me interested. The danger with bass is that everybody else has got the interesting jobs, and you’re just the last guy to get a part, and literally, you get the root notes, two in a bar. But actually… now, I quite like that, I like the simplicity. Sort of country and western bass playing.”
James Jamerson, whilst often uncredited, played on almost all of the classic Motown records of the 1960s. At that time, Motown Records did not credit the musicians on its records, but today, Jamerson is regarded as one of the most influential bass players in the history of popular American music. As McCartney pointed out, many bassists are required to play little more than root notes in simple repetitive patterns. Jamerson, however, bought a heavily chromatic and syncopated playing style to his recordings, imbuing them with colourful jazz inflexions. Jamerson’s ability to play the bass melodically, whilst still holding a groove, opened McCartney’s eyes to the possibilities of his instrument and inspired him to develop his own playing style with The Beatles.
The influence of Jamerson can be heard throughout much of The Beatles work, but notably in ‘Come Together’. Listen to the classic track below.