Monday, July 27, 2009

All of Chuck's Children Are Out There Playing His Licks

As everyone reading this blog already knows, the first lines of the Beatles' "Come Together" are "Here come old flat-top, he come/Grooving up slowly." There is a line in Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" that goes: "Here come a flat-top, he was movin' up with me." Morris Levy, the music industry macher who owned the rights to "You Can't Catch Me," somehow decided that John Lennon had appropriated too much of Chuck's song for "Come Together" and sued.

When I first heard this story, I thought, What? You can sue someone for using half a line of a song? How is it that Bob Dylan is able to walk the streets a free man?

The upshot of this is that Lennon reached a settlement with Levy, out of court, that he'd include three songs Levy owned on his next album, the nostalgia collection called Rock 'n' Roll. (During the making of the record, to get that proper Fifties feel, Lennon and May Pang went to far as to visit the set of "Happy Days.") The Levy songs Lennon agreed to cut were "You Can't Catch Me," Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen," and, I believe, "Ya Ya."

Lennon started making Rock 'n' Roll (at first called Oldies but Mouldies) in December 1973 with Phil Spector during his infamous Lost Weekend, but soon went back to New York to make Walls and Bridges, leaving the oldies collection unreleased. When Walls and Bridges came out, in October 1974, Levy was po'd that the record didn't have his promised three songs, and threatened to sue again. Lennon went back into the studio, quickly finished Rock 'n' Roll, then sent the rough tapes to Levy to assure him that everything was OK.

Then things got even weirder: Levy suggested that he and Lennon would make more money if they sold the album via mail-order, on late-night TV, with Lennon appearing in the ads. Bizarrely, Lennon agreed. Capitol, however, wasn't so excited, and reminded Lennon that he already had a recording contract. Putting out albums via late-night TV was apparently not permitted by that contract. Lennon told Levy the deal was off.

But Levy still had the tapes, remember? So for three days in January 1975, before Lennon and Capitol got their lawyers in gear, if you were watching TV at the right time, you could have bought yourself a vinyl copy of Roots: John Lennon Sings the Great Rock 'n' Roll Hits. Lennon was reportedly very upset by the crappy cover art - as well as the fact that it took a month for his own mail-ordered copy to arrive.

All because of "You Can't Catch Me." Aside from the one line, Chuck's song has the vaguest resemblance to "Come Together" in the meter of the lyrics and a couple of similar chords, but you can be the judge:


Gavin said...

I thought it wasn't just that Lennon included that lyric, but that in an interview at some point he admitted that "Come Together" had begun as a rewrite of "You Can't Catch Me." With that in print, he had a losing hand.

Innocent Bystander said...

What a tantalizing question! After watching the video, I would definitely say that the chorus of CT bears, in melody, a very strong resemblance to YCCM. And of course, the two lines are unmistakably "borrowed".

However, it is very instructive to contrast the similarity of CT to YCCM with, say, the similarity of My Sweet Lord to He's So Fine.

For, even after hearing YCCM, when I listen to CT, I still hear a completely different song.

Whereas, when I hear MSL, I most definitely still hear HSF. It's the same song, with merely a different arrangement.

Having said that, I vastly prefer both CT and MSL to the "originals".

MJN said...

I would guess that "John Lennon Sings the Great Rock & Roll Hits" is even more rare than the Beatles Christmas Album, isn't it?

Alex said...

I think the Morris Levy version also contained two songs not on the original "official" release: "Angel Baby" and "Be My Baby" (although "Angel Baby" would appear as a CD bonus track later).

Kinky Paprika said...

"Walls and Bridges" includes a tossed-off version of "Ya Ya" featuring 12-year-old Julian Lennon on drums.
I think that was part of what pissed Levy off -- the appearance that John was thumbing his nose at him.

Marshall said...

I've got the Beatles' Christmas album. Is it worth cash money?

Tom Nawrocki said...

What does this look like, eBay?