In October 1973, John Lennon enlisted the help of infamous producer Phil Spector to record an album. However, it didn’t all go exactly to plan for Lennon as he had recently split from Yoko Ono, became a regular at clubs all around Los Angeles, and fashioned a reputation for drunken antics as he slipped into his self-proclaimed “lost weekend.”
Meanwhile, a rapidly deteriorating Spector wasn’t holding up much better. He took the tapes from the sessions that they had actually managed to record and left Lennon with nothing. Ordinarily, this would have been bad enough, but the threat of legal action already hung over the former Beatles member’s head. “It started in ’73 with Phil and fell apart. I ended up as part of a mad, drunken scene in Los Angeles and I finally finished it off on my own,” Lennon later told Rolling Stone. “And there were still problems with it up to the minute it came out. I can’t begin to say, it’s just barmy. There’s a jinx on that album.”
The record, which would finally go on to be released in 1975, was entitled Rock and Roll and featured 13 covers from the ’50s and ’60s which Lennon had a particular fondness for. The whole reason for it being made in the first place though stemmed from six years earlier when the Beatles were recording Abbey Road. Come Together was the first track on the album which was released 47 years ago this week [September 26th]. Initially devised as a campaign song for psychologist and political activist Timothy Leary, Lennon changed it significantly once he got it into the studio.
In June 1969, Lennon conducted a “bed-in” with his wife Yoko to promote peace in the world. Among the guests who came to see him at his hotel where he was staying was Leary. Seen as a key component of the counterculture movement of the ’60s, Leary had designs on getting into power. He visited Lennon in the hope that the Beatle would be able to write a campaign song for him, as he plotted against Ronald Reagan in the race to become governor of California.
“Come together, join the party,” was Leary’s slogan that he was planning to run with.
Lennon agreed to support him and tried to come up with a song which utilised the slogan. However, he was unsuccessful. “I tried and tried, but I couldn’t come up with it,” Lennon remembered in Playboy. “But I came up with this – Come Together. It would’ve been no good to him. You couldn’t have a campaign song like that, right?”
Ultimately, Leary wouldn’t end up running for the position after he was imprisoned for cannabis possession. This freed Lennon up and allowed him to then take the song into the studio to show his bandmates. “The thing was created in the studio,” Lennon said.
However once Leary was released from jail, he wasn’t too impressed when he heard the reworked version of the song that was meant to be for his campaign. He subsequently sent a letter to Lennon expressing his disappointment. “He replied with typical charm and wit,” Leary said of the response he got back. “He said that he was a tailor and I was a customer who had ordered a suit and never returned. So he sold it to someone else.”
When Lennon played one of the first incarnations of the song to the other Beatles, Paul McCartney immediately voiced his concern. “John acknowledged it was rather close to it,” McCartney said, when discussing its similarities to Chuck Berry’s 1956 single You Can’t Catch Me. “So I said, ‘Well, anything you can do to get away from that?’ I suggested that we tried it swampy – ‘swampy’ was the word I used. So we did, we took it right down. I laid that bass line down which very much makes the mood.”
Despite the instrumentation being changed significantly, Lennon decided to keep the opening lyric “Here come old flat-top, he come grooving up slowly.” When the executives at Chuck Berry’s label, Big Seven, eventually heard the song though they sued Lennon for plagiarism. They cited it as being too similar to Berry’s original lyric, “Here come a flat-top, he’s moving up with me.”
Morris Levy, Berry’s publisher, sued Lennon in 1973, after the singer had admitted to its similarities in an interview. This then resulted in a number of suits brought against Lennon, while he countersued Levy in an ugly exchange. By the end of it Lennon settled out of court and agreed to record three songs which Levy’s company owned the copyright for. The Beatles had long since broken up and all four members were now solo artists. So Lennon agreed that his next album would feature the chosen songs; however, he abandoned the ’73 sessions and released Walls And Bridges instead.
Yet more legal issues were caused by this release. Sensing that Lennon wasn’t going to hold up his end of the bargain, Levy rush-released a bootlegged album of the former Beatle performing covers. Entitled Roots, this move actually ended with Lennon suing Levy and winning the case. Roots was promptly removed from the shops and Rock and Roll was put out as a standard version of the covers album. It would prove to be the penultimate one from the Beatle though, as he withdrew into a quiet life with Yoko and their new son after it.
Come Together would prove to be his last politically influenced song within the Beatles and still stood as a favorite for the man himself despite the problems which later arose from it. “It was a funky record – it’s one of my favourite Beatles tracks…It’s funky, it’s bluesy, and I’m singing it pretty well…I’d buy it!” Lennon enthused of the number one single.
It remained in the charts well past the dawn of the new decade, but its consequences would stretch far beyond that for the songwriter.
Image: Joe Sia