From his songwriting and lyrics, to his guitar playing and stage antics, perhaps nobody else short of Elvis Presley was as influential on the young Beatles as Chuck Berry. As John Lennon once put it, "When I hear rock, good rock, 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" (Anthology, page 11). Where Presley's strength was as a performer, as an interpretive artist, Berry was more creative and multi-dimensional: He wrote, performed, and recorded his own words and music.
Throughout the Quarrymen/Beatles' existence, they played a total of at least 15 Chuck Berry songs in their live shows (as dictated in Lewisohn, page 361-65), listed here in chronological order.
Unusually in this series of American Rock 'n' Roll and its influence on the Beatles, Beatles recordings survive of all but one of those 15 tunes.
In addition to 8 years' of stage performances, the Beatles also officially recorded and released "Roll Over Beethoven" on With the Beatles.
A live recording of the same song (with Lennon singing lead) was also made on an unknown date (it must have been no later than 1961 because that's when Harrison took over lead vocals) and later released on the album The Beatles Live at the BBC...
... and a different version (with Harrison singing lead) was recorded on an unknown date (must have been no earlier than 1961) and later released on the album On Air – Live At The BBC Volume 2, heard in the YouTube video below from 30:07-32:29.
The Beatles also played two sets at Carnegie Hall in New York City on 12 February 1964, opening both with "Roll Over Beethoven". Unfortunately, neither was recorded.
"Sweet Little Sixteen" was recorded twice by the Beatles. First at the Star Club in Hamburg in 1962 and released on the album Live! At the Star Club...
... and second on 10 July 1963 at the Aeolian Hall in London for the radio show Pop Goes the Beatles. This latter recording was included on the album The Beatles Live at the BBC.
Lennon also recorded and released the song on his 1975 album Rock 'n' Roll.
Many Berry tunes were included on the 1994 album The Beatles Live at the BBC, including "Johnny B Goode", "Roll Over Beethoven", "Carol", "Too Much Monkey Business" , "I Got to Find my Baby", and "Memphis, Tennessee".
This last number was recorded by the Beatles on New Year's Day 1962, as part of their ill-fated Decca audition.
After "Roll Over Beethoven", the only other Berry song to be released on an official studio album was "Rock 'n' Roll Music", included on Beatles for Sale.
Two Berry songs were also recorded in December 1962 and featured on the album Live! At the Star Club: "Little Queenie" and "I'm Talking About You".
Although the Beatles never recorded a cover of "Thirty Days", a bootleg series from the Get Back sessions (January 1969) was given that title. Similarly, although the Beatles never released an official recording of "Vacation Time", they did play through it on 29 January 1969 during the Get Back sessions, the recording of which may be found on bootlegged releases. Likewise, a recording of the Beatles playing "Almost Grown" only exists from 8 and 24 January 1969, which was released only on bootleg. The latter day also saw the recording of a cover of "Maybellene".
All of this shows very clearly that the young Beatles not only appreciated Berry's output, but also knew it intimately from covering the songs. But, it does not necessarily mean that Berry influenced the band. That can only be seen in comparing the Beatles' originals (rather than covers) to Berry's recordings.
Chuck Berry inspired the Beatles through both his lyrics and his music. Paul McCartney tipped his hat to Berry when writing "Back in the USSR", which is clearly modeled after Berry's "Back in the USA". In addition to the obvious similarities in the titles, they both also open with international flights:
Similarly, the opening lyrics of "I Saw Her Standing There" are strongly reminiscent of Berry's "Little Queenie".
McCartney borrowed not only lyrics, but also music from Berry. The bass line in "I Saw Her Standing There" is borrowed verbatim from Berry's "I'm Talking About You". Paul himself never attempted to hide the similarity: “I used the bass riff from ‘Talkin’ About You’ by Chuck Berry in ‘I Saw Her Standing There.’ I played exactly the same notes as he did and it fitted our number perfectly” (Flippo, page 181). Although the Beatles' cover of "I'm Talking About You" was in a different key (E major, where the Berry original was in C major), the notes are indeed identical, as the graphic below illustrates.
Lennon was also heavily influence by Berry, admitting to interviewer Jan Wenner, "Chuck Berry is one of the all-time great poets, a rock poet you could call him. He was well advanced of his time lyric-wise. In the Fifties, when people were virtually singing about nothing, Chuck Berry was writing social-comment songs, with incredible metre to the lyrics. We all owe a lot to him." (Wenner, page 140; Anthology, page 11).
Lennon borrowed Berry's lyrics and music from "You Can't Catch Me" (1956), which featured the lyrics "Here come old flat top, He come groovin' up slowly", which Lennon borrowed verbatim for use as the opening lines of "Come Together" (Abbey Road, 1969). Morris Levy, the legal owners of the original, eventually sued Lennon over the pilfered lyrics, and won. Part of the settlement was for Lennon to include "You Can't Catch Me" on his 1975 album Rock 'n' Roll.
Chuck Berry also pioneered a distinctive style of lead guitar playing that mixed single notes with double-stops (see "Johnny B. Goode" or "Roll Over Beethoven") that would prove hugely influential on countless up-and-coming musicians at the time - the Beatles included. Although they never wrote anything in that same style, the Beatles did occasionally employ something similar. Lennon's opening of "Revolution" is a good example, as is the exuberant guitar duet heard on "And Your Bird Can Sing".
Lastly, although Little Richard's stage antics are more flamboyant and thus demand more attention, Berry is quite well-known in his own right for his "duck walk". Although I've never found any quote or book that confirms the Beatles ever duck walked on stage, I would be very surprised if it never happened - especially during their long hours on stage in Hamburg, where the more ridiculous and gaudy the stage antics, the better.
Chuck Berry's influence on the Beatles, then, can be seen from the many covers the band played, but also by emulating and imitating his lyrics and music and stage presence. When introducing Chuck Berry on The Mike Douglas Show in February 1972, Lennon said, "If you had to give Rock 'n' Roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry." And that quote sums up how the Beatles idolized Berry as well as anything possibly could.
Beatles. The Beatles Anthology. Chronicle Books LLC, San Francisco, CA, 2000.
Flippo, Chet. Yesterday: The Unauthorized Biography of Paul McCartney. Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc, New York, NY, 1988.
Wenner, Jan S. Lennon Remembers. Verso, New York, NY, 2000.
Paul McCartney's inventive and melodic playing elevated the lowly bass to iconic levels, but some of his basslines are inspired/borrowed/stolen from others' work.
The bassline in "Drive My Car" is taken from Otis Redding's "Respect". The chord progressions are different, but the melodic patternand rhythm within each measure are the same.
The bassline in "I Saw Her Standing There" is taken from Chuck Berry's "I'm Talking About You", which the Beatles covered during their long Hamburg stints. Here is a live recording from 1962 of the Beatles performing "I'm Talking About You" at the Top Ten Club in Hamburg - with Paul playing the exact same bassline he would borrow two years later.
I have often been harshly critical of such blatant theft (I have often called John Williams a "musical kleptomaniac"), but I've been much more understanding of "borrowing" in the past few years as I've realized that all composers take what others have done and add to it/edit it to "make it their own". As Igor Stravinsky famously said, "Good composers borrow, great composers steal."
This blog is a workshop for developing my analyses of The Beatles' music.