‘Come Together,’ The Beatles, November 1969
It was 1969 and a former Harvard professor turned LSD advocate named Timothy Leary wanted to challenge Ronald Reagan for the governorship of California.
Leary had created a catchy campaign slogan — “come together, join the party.” Now if there was just some way to turn that slogan into a song, he would be able to use it at rallies and in commercials.
On June 1, 1969, Leary and his wife, Rosemary, were invited by John Lennon and Yoko Ono to meet them at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel, where the celebrity pair was holed up while promoting a “bed in” for world peace. Once they arrived, the Learys were persuaded to become part of the chorus of Lennon’s clunky but catchy recording of “Give Peace a Chance,” which was taped live in the hotel bedroom.
When Lennon asked Leary the following day if there was anything he could do to help with his campaign, Leary seized the opportunity to tell the Beatle how appreciative he would be if Lennon would compose a song utilizing Leary’s campaign slogan. But before “Come Together” came together as a finished work, Leary was charged with marijuana possession and sent to prison.
Lennon restructured “Come Together,” although he later dismissed the new version as being “gobbledygook.” The future No. 1 disc was recorded in the Abbey Road studios for inclusion on the Beatles’ final studio album. The single release of “Come Together” — backed by George Harrison’s masterpiece “Something” — became Abbey Road’s opening track.
In “Come Together,” Lennon purposely lifted a couple of lines from an obscure 1956 Chuck Berry song called “You Can’t Catch Me.” Compare:
Berry: Here come a flat-top, he was movin’ up with me
Lennon: Here come old flat top, he come groovin’ up slowly
While Lennon defended his lyrics as being a respectful nod to one of his early rock heroes, Berry’s publisher saw things differently and initiated a lawsuit in 1973. As a result, Lennon agreed to record three tunes held by the publisher when Lennon recorded his nostalgic Rock ‘n’ Roll album, which was released in 1975. His LP selections included Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” as well as Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya.”
Years later, a bitter Lennon discussed the iconic, million-selling single: “ ‘Come Together’ is me — writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing. I left the line in ‘Here comes old flat-top.’ It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago.”
To Lennon, Leary being sent to prison ended any commitment Lennon might have had to the drug guru.
“Leary attacked me years later, saying I ripped him off … I didn’t rip him off. It’s just that (the song) turned into ‘Come Together.’… It was a funky record. It’s one of my favorite Beatle tracks, let’s say that. It’s funky, it’s bluesy, and I’m singing it pretty well. I like the sound of the record. You can dance to it. I’ll buy it!”