In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Some housecleaning: While the Beatles’ double-A-sided single “Come Together” b/w “Something” was in the midst of its run on the US charts, Billboard changed its rules. All of a sudden, the tabulators at the magazine stopped counting the sales and airplay for those singles as separate things. Both songs were doing fine on their own before Billboard combined their numbers. The week before “Come Together”/”Something” hit #1, “Something” was at #3, and “Come Together” was at #7. In the years that followed, a lot of double-A-sided singles got to #1, and I’ve had to figure out how to deal with this.
So: Am I supposed to average out the scores of the two songs? Or take them together, as a cohesive statement, like they were an album? I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out. But for now, I think I’m just going to write this column about the first song listed on those singles. In this case, that’s “Come Together.” (“Something,” Harrison’s mystically gooey ode to the wife who would later leave him and marry his friend Eric Clapton, is an absolutely lovely song on its own. It’s a 9.)
“Come Together” is the first Beatles song that ever drew me in. My parents weren’t big music people, but they did own a vinyl copy of Abbey Road. I used to sit in my dad’s study and listen to “Come Together” over and over, trying to figure out what was going on. Who was old flattop? How could he be a flattop if his hair was down to his knees? Why did he have toejam football? When he shot Coca-Cola, was he just lining up bottles and using them for target practice? Doesn’t everybody have feet down below their knees? Eventually, I think I just chalked it all up to “adults are weird,” a theory that has yet to be disproven.
I paid all that attention to the song because of that groove, a slow and hypnotic rumble that kept growing and changing and adding on new things. It reminded me of acid house, some of the first music I ever loved. I’d listen to acid house and notice how, every four bars, something new would come in: A siren, a sample of an old TV announcer, a 303 riff. “Come Together” is more structured than that, but it piles riffs on top of riffs, sounds on top of sounds, and then it draws them back in ways that are simple and assured and instinctive. When the guitar solo arrives and the whole band kicks in, it’s probably the closest that the Beatles ever came to doom metal, and it’s genuinely thrilling.
I am not the only person who has puzzled over this song. When it was out, people frantically attempted to decode John Lennon’s lyrics, figuring that the whole thing was an elaborately veiled message about how Paul McCartney was actually dead. Lennon himself has admitted that the song was “gobbledygook” that he made up in the studio. Acid theorist Timothy Leary was staging a publicity-stunt campaign to become governor of California, and he asked Lennon to write him a campaign song. Leary’s fake run didn’t even make it to the fake-run stage once he went to prison for weed possession. But Lennon figured that the song wouldn’t have done Leary any good anyway: “You couldn’t have a campaign song like that, right?”
The “Come Together” single came out a week after the release of Abbey Road and two weeks after Lennon told the rest of the band that he was leaving. When Lennon was putting “Come Together” together, he and Paul McCartney were not on good terms. People disagree on whether or not McCartney sang backup vocals on “Come Together,” but he certainly didn’t sing them with Lennon. Lennon didn’t want to sing with McCartney, so all the backup vocals were overdubs, which bummed McCartney out.
And yet “Come Together” is clearly the work of a band whose members have that freaky psychic bond that only happens in really, really good bands. It’s all there in that groove, a heavy throb full of rapturous little touches like Lennon’s whispered “shoot me” interjections or the oddly satisfying rotary-phone sound that becomes a part of the bassline.
“Come Together” was also, it bears mentioning, a ripoff. Lennon swiped the song’s riff and the “here comes old flattop” line from “You Can’t Catch Me,” a 1956 single from his onetime idol Chuck Berry. Berry had sold the song’s rights to the mafia-connected music-biz mover Morris Levy, and Levy took Lennon to court over it. Years later, an exhausted Lennon settled out of court with Levy. He agreed to include a couple of Levy-owned songs, including “You Can’t Catch Me,” on his 1975 covers album Rock ‘N’ Roll, though Levy had to take Lennon to his own recording studio to make a second, final version of the album after producer Phil Spector stole the recording tapes.
In any case, “Come Together” was not the only time Lennon borrowed another artist’s work, and he was far from the only person doing that at the time. (Lawsuits like Levy’s are common practice now, but they weren’t then.) And “Come Together” is a better song than “You Can’t Catch Me” for reasons that go beyond Chuck Berry’s raw material. It’s all in that groove — the elemental metronomic pulse that fascinated me as a child. These days, I find Lennon’s surreal free-associative lyrics to be obnoxious and indulgent — the work of a man who was not being told no. But the power of that groove remains.
BONUS BEATS: Here is a video of Ike and Tina Turner covering the motherfuck out of “Come Together” in 1971, Tina singing those nonsense lyrics like they mean a whole lot:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the towering “Come Together” cover that Soundgarden recorded for their 1990 EP Loudest Love: