Rock & roll has its roots firmly in the marriage of despair and exultation that was seeded on the plantations from which it flowered. Any white rock and roller, therefore, has propagated a black sub-culture. For the most part, the unifying nature of art and collaborative culture is something to be championed. There are a few times, however, when the boundary between inspiration and appropriation can become awkwardly blurred.
‘Twist and Shout’ is one of The Beatles’ more quintessentially rock and roll tunes. The song was first recorded by a Philadelphia R&B vocal group, The Top Notes, back in 1961. The following year it became a big hit for The Isley Brothers and journeyed through various transmutations before arriving with the eponymous four-piece.
The song’s roots, which are drenched in black origins, prompted John Lennon to declare in a 1963 interview, “I always hate singing the song, ‘Twist and Shout’ when there’s a coloured artist on the bill with us. It doesn’t seem right, you know. I feel sort of embarrassed… It makes me curl up. I always feel they could do the song much better than me.”
The Beatles’ themselves were built on a love of black music, as John later made clear in 1971, stating: “The more interesting songs to me were the black ones because they were more simple. They sort of said shake-your-arse, or your prick, which was an innovation really. The blacks were singing directly and immediately about their pain, and also about sex, which is why I like it.”
That same year, an article published in the New York Times slammed The Beatles for “ripping off” black musicians. The article in question came to Lennon’s attention while on a Transatlantic flight and the Liverpudlian rocker didn’t even wait for the plane to land to pen his irate response. On a hand-scribbled napkin, Lennon wrote the famed final line: “It wasn’t a rip off. It was a love in.”
The song itself became a big hit for the band. In 1965 when they played the first-ever rock concert held in a sporting arena at the Shea Stadium, they chose it to open the show. It is a song that has since made an indelible mark on public cultural consciousness and Lennon’s unique performance is a large part of this.
Lennon’s iconic gruff vocal on the record has more to do with circumstance, however, than an ode to gravel-voiced artists like Little Richard. As Paul McCartney once said, “There’s a power in John’s voice [On ‘Twist and Shout’] that certainly hasn’t been equalled since. And I know exactly why– It’s because he worked his bollocks off that day. We left ‘Twist And Shout’ until the very last thing because we knew there was one take.”
As Ringo later added, “We started [recording the album] about noon and finished it at midnight, with John being really hoarse by ‘Twist And Shout.’” With John remarking that by the end of it, his throat was “like sandpaper.”
It is a soaring song that stands as a testimony of the unifying power of art, which at its best transcends boundaries and champions the beauty in joyous performance. Of course, this celebration of independent sub-culture must be done judiciously, but as Lennon said, when it is done with the sincerity of love, then it comes from the right place – even if it was a little bit awkward for those involved.