Above image: © Apple Corps Ltd.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” on June 1, we’ll have a special on-air event dedicated to the most important band in popular music history. Beatles on the Bridge will be full of the songs and stories that have shaped the culture now for more than five decades.
We start the celebration early with a playlist that details the influences that shaped the Beatles’ sound.
As a creative force and popular phenomenon, the Beatles were unprecedented, but not unschooled. They began as music fans who consumed new sounds ravenously, foraging for the hippest American records or straining to hear the adventurous, almost radical programming wafting across the English Channel on Radio Luxembourg. The boys who would become the Beatles got their early musical education through recordings that came in over the air or in boxes through the Liverpool ports that had proven essential to the Allied victory in World War II. Few international recording stars made it to the industrial north of England in the late 1950s. The young John Lennon wasn’t even particularly interested in live music. He thought of himself as a “record man,” and he and his future bandmates spun singles incessantly. Some would become part of their repertoire in the coming years, and others would seep into their psyches and form the elements of the original songs that would later explode from their imaginations.
Based predominantly on information contained in Mark Lewisohn’s book “Tune In,” the exhaustive history of the Beatles before they achieved global fame, here’s a non-exhaustive list (and Spotify playlist) of the songs that shaped the Beatles.
“Rock Island Line,” Lonnie Donegan. Popular in England in the mid-1950s, skiffle was a rollicking folk music style with rhythm provided by primitive instruments including washboard and washtub bass. In Liverpool in 1956, some boys with the bare minimum of requisite skill formed a skiffle group called The Quarry Men. One of the charter members was John Lennon. John brought his friend Paul McCartney into the group in 1957, and Paul recruited George Harrison in 1958. This song by Scottish singer Lonnie Donegan was skiffle’s most famous anthem, and the first record that Harrison ever bought.
“(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock,” Bill Haley & His Comets. The first major rock and roll hit, “Rock Around the Clock” cast a spell on all of the burgeoning Beatles, and especially on Paul McCartney who forked over 15 shillings to see Haley in February 1957, when he became the first American rock and roll star to play in Liverpool. His reaction? “Chills.”
“Come Go With Me,” The Del-Vikings. July 6, 1957. The day that two teenage boys met and began a friendship that would tilt the world on its axis. Both were fervent music fans with tastes than ran beyond the most popular songs. Paul McCartney’s first encounter with his future partner came when John Lennon stood on stage with The Quarry Men and sang this song, which was not a hit in England. Though neither of the boys owned the record, they both knew and loved it from the occasional spin on Radio Luxembourg and from hearing it in record shops. Perhaps because he didn’t own the record, Lennon didn’t know the words. So he made up his own, an audacious act that left a deep impression on McCartney.
“Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis Presley. None of the Beatles knew one another in 1956, but they all had the same reaction upon hearing this game-changing single and seeing images of the new American icon who sang it. They were in awe. “Me whole life changed from then on,” Lennon said, “I was just completely shaken by it.” In addition to the song, McCartney was struck by the man. “He just looked perfect.” Ringo was impressed by Presley’s audacious stage presence and his youth, which made him relatable to boys then in their teens. “Before Elvis,” he said, “we’d always had to listen to men, as opposed to guys who were just a bit older or around our own age.” George Harrison recalled hearing the song for the first time: “I was riding along on my bicycle and I heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ coming out of somebody’s house. It was one of them things I’ll never forget: what a sound, what a record! It changed the course of my life.”
“Matchbox,” Carl Perkins. You could substitute “Blue Suede Shoes” here without any objection. Perkins’ early singles made an especially acute impression on George Harrison, who spent hours trying to mimic the “seemingly effortless rockabilly guitar playing.” The band later added the song to their repertoire and recorded a version (with Ringo on vocals) that appeared on the 1964 EP “Long Tall Sally” (now available on the “Past Masters” compilation).
“Long Tall Sally,” Little Richard. In April 1956 John Lennon’s friend Michael Hill returned from a trip to the Netherlands with a 78 rpm record by a guy who Hill said was better than Elvis Presley, a declaration of pure heresy to Lennon. At that moment, Little Richard was wholly unknown in Britain, but he was about to become a central figure in Lennon’s life. “When I first heard [‘Long Tall Sally’], it was so great I couldn’t speak. . . I didn’t want to leave Elvis. Elvis was bigger than religion in my mind. How could they be happening in my life, both of them?” McCartney, for his part, discovered Little Richard independently, and his introduction was “Rip It Up,” which helped form the foundation of his singing style. “Little Richard was this voice from heaven or hell, or both,” he said. “This screaming voice seemed to come from the top of his head. I tried to do it one day and found I could. You had to lose every inhibition and do it.”
“Be-Bop-A-Lula,” Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps. The first record purchased by Paul McCartney, and one that struck John Lennon with the same feral intensity he found in Little Richard and Elvis. “That beginning – ‘we-e-e-e-e-l-l-l-l-l!’- always made my hair stand on end,” he said.
“Twenty Flight Rock,” Eddie Cochran. The movie “The Girl Can’t Help It” opened at Liverpool’s Scala Cinema in March 1957, and it blew the minds of the Beatles-to-be. In addition to Jayne Mansfield, the film featured performances by some of the boys’ favorite rock-and-rollers, including Little Richard and Gene Vincent. There was also a then-unknown 19-year-old named Eddie Cochran who played a Gretsch electric guitar that they swooned over. Paul McCartney headed directly to the record shop and ordered “Twenty Flight Rock” and then had to wait patiently until its English release date.
“All I Have to Do is Dream,” The Everly Brothers. Two lead singers working together and harmonizing? What could have been a more perfect template for the Lennon-McCartney relationship? “When we first heard [‘All I Have to Do is Dream’],” McCartney said, “it blew us away.” The dual lead-vocal style of the Everlys would become a staple of the Beatles’ early style, beginning with “Please Please Me,” the title track to their first album.
“That’ll Be the Day,” The Crickets. The similarity in names between Buddy Holly’s band and the Beatles is no coincidence. Lennon was thinking specifically of Holly when he coined his band’s moniker. It was, in part, a tribute to the incalculable influence the man had over the Beatles. Unlike the conventional assembly-line style of music-making where singing, songwriting and playing were distinct responsibilities of different people, Holly and the Crickets were a self-contained unit who did it all themselves. By writing his own material, Holly projected his own unique artistic voice. This song helped unlock the mystery of songwriting for Lennon and McCartney, who spent hours teaching themselves to play it. “Practically every Buddy Holly song was three chords,” Lennon said, “so why not write your own?” Holly’s loose-limbed jangle would go on to be a key element in the Merseybeat sound.
“Little Queenie,” Chuck Berry. Speaking of self-contained units, no composer-lyricist-singer-musician provided more fuel for the Beatles’ imaginations than the architect of rock and roll. “He’s the greatest rock ‘n’ roll poet,” Lennon said. “When I hear rock, good rock, of the caliber of Chuck Berry, I just fall apart and have no other interest in life.” You could pick almost any Berry song for inclusion here (“Roll Over Beethoven” and “Memphis” would be good places to start), but this one proved valuable in the way it freed the budding songwriters from established rules. “’Little Queenie’ was the first time we heard somebody talk in a record,” McCartney recalled.
“She Said Yeah,” Larry Williams. Larry Williams enjoyed only moderate success as a performer (“Boney Moronie” is probably his most famous single), but he made a sizeable impact on the Beatles, who recorded his songs “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and “Bad Boy” and turned them into two of the hardest rocking tracks of their career. John Lennon especially was a fan of this song, which was later recorded by the Rolling Stones.
“To Know Him is to Love Him,” The Teddy Bears. Phil Spector would go on to massive fame as a producer, but in 1958 he was a member of the vocal trio the Teddy Bears, for whom he wrote this song. It was a favorite of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, and when they added it to their repertoire, it became their first effort at three-part harmony. It’s not currently available on Spotify, so here’s the impeccable original.
“Raunchy,” Bill Justis. George Harrison adored the guitar sound that emanated from Sun Studios in Memphis, particularly that of Carl Perkins and Elvis’s guitarist Scotty Moore. But no song proved more influential to him than this 1957 Sun track, an instrumental that featured guitarist Sid Manker (Bill Justis, under whose name it was recorded, played saxophone). George meticulously taught himself the song, impressing his friend Paul McCartney. When Paul coaxed George to play it for Lennon, John excitedly invited George to join the Quarry Men.
“Searchin’,” The Coasters. The first of several hits written for The Coasters by the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, this and subsequent efforts impressed Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, who in 1959 had begun performing as a trio called Japage 3. They admired the songs for their humor, their harmonies and their fully-developed stories. This was evidence that songs for youth could be smart and ambitious. When Lennon and McCartney became songwriters, they’d have no patience for treacly “moon-June-spoon” material.
“What’d I Say, Parts 1 & 2,” Ray Charles. All of the Beatles loved this stomping rhythm and blues masterpiece, and Paul bought it on the day it was released in Britain. It “was one of our favorites,” Paul said. “This record blew our socks off.” It proved essential to their development as a band. Just a couple of years later, when the Beatles were playing marathon sets in the seedy clubs of Hamburg, Germany, it became a staple of their show, often extended to 15 minutes or longer.
“Anna,” Arthur Alexander. What great ears they had. Arthur Alexander enjoyed only minor success as a recording artist, but the Beatles adored him, and they included their cover of this song on their debut album.
“Hey! Baby,” Bruce Channel. A smash hit in 1962, the Beatles added the song to their set, and, accordingly, the harmonica to their sound. John later said that after “Hey! Baby,” they hoped to be the first British group to use harmonica on a recording, which they did with “Love Me Do.”
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow” / ”Boys,” The Shirelles. The two sides of this 1960 single represent two sides of the Beatles. On the A side is the exquisite composition by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, one of the most inspired pairings of words and music of the era. The Goffin-King credit on a record, Mark Lewisohn writes, “would become nothing less than a trademark of quality, sufficient in itself to make [Lennon and McCartney] listen to or buy a record, and rarely were they disappointed.” As John said in 1971, “when Paul and I first got together, we wanted to be the British Goffin and King.” The B side, composed by writer-producer Luther Dixon, is all about feel. It rocks forcefully, and the backing singers are featured almost as prominently as the lead vocalist, an ideal arrangement for a band in which three-fourths of the members actively sought to front the band. So there was some irony when the Beatles recorded the song and included it on “Please Please Me” — and the lead vocals were provided by the fourth member, Ringo.
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” Bob Dylan. In his book “The Beatles,” Bob Spitz writes that McCartney bought “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” in late 1963 or early 1964, and that the band played it nonstop during a three-week residency in Paris. Dylan’s facility with language and his rejection of conventional pop song structure was creatively liberating for the Beatles, and especially Lennon, whose work turned introspective as he sought to rise to the challenge of the only songwriter who ever intimidated him.
“God Only Knows,” The Beach Boys. If Lennon felt compelled to rise to the challenge presented by Dylan, McCartney’s greatest external motivation came from Brian Wilson, whose work with the Beach Boys reached its artistic apex on 1966’s “Pet Sounds.” “Paul dissected [‘Pet Sounds’] with the ear of an accomplished musical magpie,” Jonathan Gould writes in “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “scavenging ideas for production, orchestration and arrangement. Beyond the specifics, the single-most inspiring feature of Brian Wilson’s work was his refusal to be bound by the very conventions of guitar group rock that the Beatles had brought to a peak of refinement in the songs on ‘Rubber Soul.’” The Beatles were deep into recording “Revolver” — the album that immediately followed “Rubber Soul” — when “Pet Sounds” was released on May 16, 1966. Accordingly, Wilson’s influence on McCartney would be felt most acutely on the album that came after, 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Next week: The Beatles album that never was.
Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the novel “Mellow Submarine,” which Publishers Weekly calls “a fast-paced delight.” He’s on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.