The choice of a song to represent the Beatles is an extremely difficult and subjective one. Every one of their songs is somebody’s favorite and somebody’s least favorite. There are people out there who like “Yesterday” and not “I Am the Walrus,” “She’s Leaving Home” and not “I’m So Tired,” and those people have a right to live, I suppose.
I am picking “Come Together” for a couple of reasons. One is that, as the first song on the last Beatles album, it represents a turning point in the history of rock — the end of the Beatles and the end of the 60s, post-Altamont, post-the MLK and RFK assassinations, and post-the 1968 Democratic convention — what Hunter S. Thompson called the point where “the wave finally broke and rolled back.” After that, we have the beginning of the 70s, where rock, the pot culture, and political idealism gave way to disco, cocaine culture, and self-serving decadence.
The other reason I’m picking this song is that — socio-cultural analysis aside — it is, when push comes to shove, my favorite Beatles song. So I’m going to cut short the screed and just talk about the song a little.
“Come Together” begins with a sort of call and response between the bass and drums. This song may be the finest moment of the Beatles’ vaunted rhythm section: Paul is at the top of his game on the bass, combining melodic complexity with a bedrock groove that’s downright funky, while Ringo contributes inventive, jazzy drumming heavy on the cymbals and tom-toms. The production is key here. Even a few years earlier, I doubt you could have delivered these instruments to tape in a way that makes it possible to rely so heavily on a bass-and-drum foundation. As it is, this interplay hints at future developments in rhythm-centric music like dub and even the aforementioned disco.
At the end of each bar of the intro Lennon interjects “Shoot me” — at least I’m told that’s what he’s saying — with a reverb-heavy handclap drowning out the “me.” (Putting this request out into the world was maybe not the best idea John Lennon ever had.) This is absolutely and without question a John Song, although Paul apparently made a major contribution by suggesting that the tempo be slowed to a swampy crawl. After four times around, the first verse starts:
Here come old flat-top
He come groovin’ up slowly
This is a clear reference to the Chuck Berry song “You Can’t Catch Me,” and in fact caused Lennon to be sued by that song’s copyright owner (unfairly, if you ask me; this is a quick quote, not a meaningful lift). But then things start to get weird:
He got juju eyeball
He one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker he just do what he please
Surfing around I read a bunch of theories about what the lyrics of this song mean. They were all interesting, and they were all ridiculous. I think Lennon just liked to play with words. He was taking a lot of drugs, he was under the influence of a crypto-dadaist witch-lady, and at this point in his career he was pretty much king of the world. In short, he was a joker, and he could do what he pleased.
The chorus shifts into the imperative:
I didn’t know until very recently that “Come Together” began as a campaign song for Timothy Leary’s ill-fated 1970 gubernatorial bid, which ended when Leary was imprisoned for pot possession. (I did not know, to be honest, that Leary had an ill-fated gubernatorial bid at all.) According to Lennon,
Come Together was an expression that Tim Leary had come up with for his attempt at being president or whatever, and he asked me to write him a campaign song. I tried and I tried, but I couldn’t come up with one. But I came up with “Come Together,” which would have been no good to him — you couldn’t have a campaign song like that.
Musically, “Come Together” is a pretty straightforward blues chord structure with a psychedelic twist. The result is something both familiar and futuristic — even now, almost 40 years later. This has made it very attractive as a song for people to cover; some of the artists who have performed it are Aerosmith, the Bee-Gees, Joe Cocker, Desmond Dekker, Eurythmics, Elton John, Syl Johnson, Tom Jones, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Meters, Tito Puente, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Ike & Tina Turner, and Paul Weller. (A surprising number of soul artists on that list; how they keep a straight face while singing “He back production, he got walrus gumboot,” I’m not sure). My personal favorite version is the very funky one by the Brothers Johnson.
And one final note: “Come Together” ends precisely at the 4:20 mark. Make of that what you will.