The Beatles' 'Come Together:' Song Meaning, Lyrics, And History
The Beatles. Source: Wikimedia Commons
"Here come old flat-top" it begins, then describes a man with "ju-ju eyeball," "toe-jam football" and "monkey finger" -- "Come Together" contains lyrics that are bizarre even by Beatles standards. We'll probably never know the meaning of every single line, but the history of the song gives us some insight into John Lennon's state of mind.
When it comes to singles The Beatles are a band unmatched in quality. Year after year, album after album John, Paul, George, and Ringo put out non-stop bangers and “Come Together” is easily one of their most groovy tracks. Paul’s bass line doesn’t sound like anything else from their catalog, and the sludgy, funky chorus informed rock n roll throughout the 1970s.
This killer track from Abbey Road got its start as a quickie acoustic song written for Timothy Leary, but once Lennon brought it to the group “Come Together” took on an entirely new life. In spite of the lawsuits and covers that have stemmed from the track it’s still one of the all-time great Beatles tracks that sounds as fresh today as it did in 1969.
John Lennon Wrote The Song For Timothy Leary
While hosting one of their bed-ins in Montreal, Canada on June 1, 1969, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono were joined by Timothy Leary, a psychologist and author who advocated for the use of psychedelic drugs in order to open consciousness and better understand your fellow man. Leary and his wife ended up singing on “Give Peace a Chance,” the first single by the Plastic Ono Band and thanks to that Lennon and Leary struck up a friendship.
The next day Lennon asked Leary if there was anything he could do for the author’s political campaign. At the time he was running for governor in California against Ronald Reagan and the author could use all the help he could get. The campaign’s slogan was “Come Together,” a reference to the I Ching as well as an invitation to join Leary’s political party and Lennon thought that was a pretty good place to start.
Leary’s Bid For Governor Failed But The Song Had Legs
After meeting with Leary in early June, Lennon worked out an early version of “Come Together" on his acoustic guitar and recorded a demo of the track and handed it off to Leary. Believing the song to be his property the candidate for governor had the song played on alternative radio stations in California as his personal campaign song. His run for governor came to an end in December 1969 wen he was charged with possession of marijuana. He was held without bail in Orange County throughout the election making it impossible for him to campaign. In that time Lennon brought the song back to England without any thought for Leary’s campaign. He explained:
The thing was created in the studio. It's gobbledygook; 'Come Together' was an expression that Leary had come up with for his attempt at being president or whatever he wanted to be, and he asked me to write a campaign song. I tried and tried, but I couldn't come up with one. But I came up with this, Come Together, which would've been no good to him—you couldn't have a campaign song like that, right?
The Final Track Was Knocked Out Quickly By The Band
During the session at EMI Studios in London for “Come Together,” John Lennon introduced the track by playing it on acoustic guitar but knew that it wasn’t the final version by a long shot. He later explained:
'Come Together' changed at a session. We said, 'Let's slow it down. Let's do this to it, let's do that to it,' and it ends up however it comes out. I just said, 'Look, I've got no arrangement for you, but you know how I want it.' I think that's partly because we've played together a long time. So I said, 'Give me something funky,' and set up a beat, maybe, and they all just join in.
In his book Many Years From Now, Paul McCartney explained that Lennon’s version of the song was initially much faster and that it shared multiple similarities to Chuck Berry's “You Can't Catch Me.” The bassist says that he suggested slowing the song down and making it a little more funky. McCartney writes:
John acknowledged it was rather close to it 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. It's actually a bass line that people now use very often in rap records. If it's not a sample, they use that riff. But that was my contribution to that.
As killer as this bass line is, McCartney is noticeably absent from the vocal track. He doesn’t harmonize with Lennon and in 1970 he said that he’s disappointed in himself for not suggesting that the two songwriters share the microphone:
Even on Abbey Road we don't do harmonies like we used to. I think it's sad. On ‘Come Together’ I would have liked to sing harmony with John, and I think he would have liked me to, but I was too embarrassed to ask him, and I don't work to the best of my abilities in that situation.
Timothy Leary Wasn’t Happy About Lennon Reusing His Campaign Song
After the release of Abbey Road, Timothy Leary was shocked to hear the full version of “Come Together” on the radio while he was still in prison. He couldn’t believe the gall of the Lennon to take the song that was initially written for his campaign and turn it into something for his own personal gain. He writes:
I was a bit miffed that Lennon had passed me over this way... When I sent a mild protest to John, he replied with typical Lennon charm and wit 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.
Lennon gave his side of the story to Playboy magazine in 1980, and he essentially corroborates Leary’s complaint while finding no fault in his decision. He explained:
They'd asked me to write them a campaign song. I tried and tried and tried and couldn't come up with it. But I came up with this 'Come Together,' which would have been no good for them. They couldn't have had a campaign song like that, right? But Leary attacked me years later, saying I ripped him off. Well, I had written another little thing called 'Come together and join the party...' It never got further than that. And they never came back to ask for the song. I didn't rip him off. I had the song there waiting for him.
The Lyrics To 'Come Together'
Here come old flat-top, he come groovin' up slowly
He got ju-ju eyeball, he one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker, he just do what he please
He wear no shoeshine, he got toe-jam football
He got monkey finger, he shoot Coca-Cola
He say, "I know you, you know me"
One thing I can tell you is you got to be free
Come together, right now
He bag production, he got walrus gumboot
He got Ono sideboard, he one spinal cracker
He got feet down below his knee
Hold you in his armchair, you can feel his disease
Come together, right now
He roller-coaster, he got early warnin'
He got muddy water, he one mojo filter
He say, "One and one and one is three."
Got to be good-lookin' 'cause he's so hard to see
Come together, right now
Chuck Berry’s Estate Sued Over The Song
When Lennon first brought his acoustic version of “Come Together” into EMI Studios it was lyrically similar to Chuck Berry’s song “You Can Catch Me.” McCartney pointed this out to him but Lennon was well aware of the way the songs mirror one another, specifically the song’s opening line, “Here come a flat-top / he was moving up with me.” In an interview from 1970 Paul McCartney explained that the lyrics were certainly a nod to Berry but that they weren’t ripping off the famous rock n roller:
I think it's a compliment to Chuck Berry, not a f*cking... I mean we resurrected him. [Here comes flat top] was a lyric John could NOT let go of. And he couldn't better it, so he just used it. And I said, 'Well, it's a bit of a nick, isn't it?' He said, 'No, it's a quote.' I said, 'OK, fair enough.’
No matter the intentions, Big Seven Music, the publisher of Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me,” filed a lawsuit against Lennon, stating that it not only shared lyrics with the track but that it was musically similar. The suit dragged on for years until 1973 when Lennon settled out of court and agreed to record three of the publisher’s songs on his next album. Lennon and the owner of Big Seven continued to sue one another until the singer’s death.
Michael Jackson Was The Last Person To Own The Song
In the late ‘60s The Beatles lost control of their stake of Northern Songs, a publishing company set up by Paul McCartney and John Lennon. “Come Together” was a part of the catalogue, and without control of it no one in the band could sign off on its use. In the mean time McCartney purchased the publishing rights of other artists’ catalogues as a business investment and he encouraged his friend Michael Jackson to do the same thing.
In August 1985 Jackson purchased ATV, the company that owned Northern Songs, for $47.5 million. McCartney was less than enthused about the deal because it meant he would never have legal ownership over it again unless he wanted to pony up some serious dough. The song has since been used in commercials for Nortel (a multinational telecommunications company) and Macy’s, and it’s been covered by dozens of bands, with the most egregious version coming from Jackson himself who recorded a version for his film Moonwalker.
Today, “Come Together” and most of the other songs in the catalogue is owned by ATV/Sony as the Jackson estate sold it to the company following the death of Michael Jackson. The songs are worth the GDP of a small country so buying them back doesn’t make much sense. As one of the final bearers of the torch for the band McCartney explained:
The trouble is I wrote those songs for nothing and buying them back at these phenomenal sums… just can't do it.
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