From Forthin Road’s front room to their final fracture, the Beatles were openly ripping off Chuck Berry, imitating and flattering the late, great rock and roll patriarch with complete sincerity.
The bass line to “I Saw Her Standing There,” for instance, is the bass line to Berry’s “I’m Talking About You.”
Here’s Paul McCartney, getting the message through in Beat Instrumental, via Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now:
I played exactly the same notes as he did and it fitted our number perfectly. Even now, when I tell people about it, I find few of them believe me.
This you can believe: The massive influence of Charles Edward Anderson Berry — who left the material world on Saturday at 90 — on the Beatles is quite impossible to minimize. The Beatles’ growth pattern wouldn’t have been the same if there was no Buddy Holly or Little Richard, Elvis Presley or Carl Perkins, Lonnie Donegan or Slim Whitman, Jim McCartney or Julia Lennon. But the mark Chuck Berry left was unique.
You’ve heard this quote for sure, if not before this weekend, then certainly since:
If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it “Chuck Berry.”
That was John Lennon in 1972, spoken in Berry’s presence on the Mike Douglas show. John’s adoration took many forms in the more than decade prior to that. Here’s Paul, as quoted in the Anthology book:
We’d go up to John’s bedroom with his little record player and listen to Chuck Berry records, trying to learn them.
And there was plenty of reason to learn them. The sheer velocity of the music was one. John explained the other in a 1972 interview, relayed in Anthology:
In the Fifties, when people were virtually singing about nothing, Chuck Berry was writing social-comment songs, with incredible metre to the lyrics. When I hear rock, good rock, of the calibre of Chuck Berry, I just fall apart and I have no other interest in life. The world could be ending if rock ‘n’ roll is playing.
As the Quarrymen moved things up a trifle further in becoming Beatles, their love of Berry’s music was written all over their performances, with more than a dozen of his songs covered live over their touring career (you can find many of those songs as performed by the Beatles on their two Live at the BBC compilations, plus the Bootleg Recordings 1963 release).
“Memphis, Tennessee” made the cut as one of the songs for their failed audition for Decca in 1962.
“Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over Beethoven” — the Beatles blessed record buyers with those tracks on wax and also live from the stage. The former was performed right up until their last live show in 1966, when it was the concert opener, while the latter made it as late as into their 1965 tours.
Two and a half years after that last concert — in the timeline we’re concerning ourselves with here on this blog, January 1969 — the Beatles turned to Berry’s music over and over again, if not for inspiration then at the least out of habit and comfort. For John, Paul and George, it meant filling moments amid the tension and tedium by jamming into a impromptu but completely sincere rehashes of “School Days” or “Sweet Little Sixteen” or “Thirty Days” or “I’m Talking About You” or .. or … or …
Even when they were fooling around with their own “Back in the U.S.S.R.” at Twickenham, it was just another reminder of Berry’s influence by way of “Back in the U.S.A.”
That the Beatles would play a song by Berry wasn’t in and of itself that telling, but their universal knowledge and comfort in playing his songs, said a lot.
Months later, in the Beatles’ waning days as a unit, Berry’s inspiration struck Lennon very directly in “Come Together.” John dismissed the claim that “You Can’t Catch Me” — a song he said he hadn’t heard in a decade, yet one that John belted out a few lines from in a jam the final week of January 1969 — sparked the Abbey Road opener.
Paul, who had no shame admitting he integrated Berry’s work into his own, felt pretty certain John did the same. As quoted in Anthology:
John came in with an up-tempo song that sounded exactly like Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me,’ even down to the ‘flat-top’ lyric. I said, ‘Lets slow it down with a swampy bass-sand-drums vibe.’ I came up with a bass line and it flowed from there. Great record.”
He’s right, it is a great record.
Turns out, they could catch John, and as part of an eventual settlement, John had a chance to re-make “You Can’t Catch Me” (as well as a few other songs owned by the prosecution) for his 1975 Rock ‘N’ Roll LP (another great record).
John’s love of that original era of rock and roll, which made him want to do it himself, gave his life and career meaning and shone on that record, and really whenever he had the opportunity to play it. The genuine glee felt by John, when he got to share the stage with Berry on the Mike Douglas Show in 1972 is palpable. If you haven’t watched it before, you should, both the performances as well as the interview segment.
John recalled that day during an interview/DJ session with Dennis Elsas on WNEW, September 24, 1974:
Because although I was there with Chuck Berry, and I’d been sitting backstage with him, I met him a few times over the years, I still have that feeling, that when I was sixteen, those were the records I listened to [in] what we called “milk bars” in England, with a jukebox. And I could never quite see him as a human ’cause there was one of my idols, actually talking to me. … It’s sort of an effort to see, “Oh, yeah, it’s a human, but it is Chuck Berry, isn’t it?”
Like John Lennon, Chuck Berry was indeed human and thus mortal, and the master was able to enjoy 50 more years on this earth than his apprentice. The Beatles were as innovative as any act as popular music has seen, but with Berry’s genius baked into the individual members’ DNA from youth, the group didn’t have to start from scratch. It wasn’t enough that the Beatles had a backbeat they couldn’t lose, the lyrics mattered too.
“Ever since I was in my teens I was acquainted with the works of Chuck Berry, whom I consider one of the original rock and roll poets,” John Lennon said after the Beatles’ breakup.
Said in a deposition.
Said in a deposition in which he was being sued for ripping off Berry.
But this spoke more of the litigious universe that enveloped The Beatles in the early ‘70s than anything else — Berry didn’t sue John over lyrics in “Come Together,” it was the people who owned the rights to “You Can’t Catch Me.” And the solution was simple: Just play some Chuck Berry music on another record.
Paul was never litigated for ripping off Berry, but he still went ahead and covered him decades later in 1999, cutting “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” for the most excellent Run Devil Run.
On Berry’s death, Paul (and/or his people) tweeted his condolences, and it was his turn to rip off John.
Or maybe he didn’t rip off John at all. Berry was a poet, and Paul just didn’t have any better word to describe him.
Berry’s music will live on through his own recordings and as a direct line through the Beatles, too. And as long as we’ve got a dime, the music will never stop.