The Beatles Song John Lennon Accused Rod Stewart of Plagiarizing
When The Beatles were starting out, they were like every rock band in that they played Chuck Berry covers. And when they began writing their own songs, the Fab Four weren’t above borrowing from their idol. Exhibit A was 1963’s “I Saw Her Standing There.”
On that track, you’ll hear Paul McCartney playing the exact bass line from Berry’s “I’m Talking About You” (1958). Paul didn’t deny it. “I played exactly the same notes as he did and it fit our number perfectly,” he said afterward. “When I tell people about it, I find few of them believe me.”
From that experience, Paul’s takeaway was, “It’s OK to steal a bass line.” However, everyone knew you couldn’t steal a melody or a song’s lyrics. (John Lennon later faced a lawsuit from Berry’s publisher over a single line in “Come Together.”)
By the late ’60s, The Beatles were the biggest name in rock and had to be on the lookout for thefts of their music. In 1976, a song by Rod Stewart got the attention of John, who saw it as a copy of a track he wrote for the Let It Be sessions. It’s hard to argue with that assessment.
John heard a lot of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ in Stewart’s ‘Killing of Georgie’
When John sat down with Playboy’s David Sheff in 1980, he agreed to discuss every song he ever wrote (or played on) with The Beatles. It remains a fascinating document 40 years later for many reasons, but his takes on music really stand out.
On the subject of “Don’t Let Me Down,” John casually mentions he wrote it for Yoko Ono. After Sheff moves on, John stops him. “By the way,” he says, “Rod Stewart turned that into ‘[Georgie] don’t go-o-o.’ That’s one the publishers never noticed.” Indeed, the second part of Stewart’s “The Killing of Georgie” song sounds a lot like Lennon’s classic track.
Stewart’s lyrics and melody are as close to John’s original as you can get. If Stewart sang, “Don’t let me down” rather than, “Don’t go a-way,” its doubtful anyone would realize it was a Rod Stewart song. (Even the drum part before the vocal resembles the Beatles original.)
But John didn’t sound too bothered by it. In fact, he understood why Stewart did it. “Why didn’t he just sing ‘Don’t Let Me Down’? The same reason I don’t sing other people’s stuff: because you don’t get paid.”
‘Nothing wrong with a good steal!’ Stewart said later
So did Stewart get offended by the plagiarism charge? Not in the slightest. In fact, he basically admitted he took it from John. “It does sound like it,” he told The Guardian in 2016. “Nothing wrong with a good steal!”
At the same time, he noted that music didn’t come from nowhere. “I’m sure if you look back to the 60s, you’d find other songs with those three chords and that melody line.”
Maybe that’s true, but you could argue Stewart’s theft was considerably more blatant than Lennon’s take on “You Can’t Catch Me” (on “Come Together“) or George’s lift of “He’s So Fine” (on “My Sweet Lord”). And both of those cases prompted lawsuits — both of which the former Beatles lost.