The Beatles were diverse enough in their listening habits to take on multiple different genres. Their bread and butter, especially in the early years, was fast-paced rock and roll along the lines of Chuck Berry and Little Richard. But the band could also do approximations of country, music hall, and ballads, alongside their emerging reputation as masters of pop. One genre that didn’t seem to follow The Beatles, however, was funk.
It wasn’t really their fault: these were four white Englishmen who were expected to crank out twee teeny-bopper tracks. Funk wasn’t even really a term yet, James Brown was in the midst of pioneering the genre as The Beatles were moving towards folk and psychedelia. But as black American R&B was evolving at a rapid pace, The Beatles tuned into the label that was cranking out classic song after classic song: Motown.
As early as 1963, The Beatles were taking on Motown classics and putting them out on their albums. A cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ ‘You Really Got a Hold On Me’ appeared on With the Beatles, while John Lennon admitted that ‘This Boy’ was his attempt to replicate Robinson’s signature soulful sound. Paul McCartney was a fan as well, channelling a very Motown-esque guitar line into a classic Rubber Soul album cut.
“This was written around two little notes, a very slim phrase, a two-note progression that I had very high on the first two strings of the guitar: the E and the B strings,” McCartney recalled in Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now. “I had it high up on the high E position, and I just let the note on the B string descend a semitone at a time, and kept the top note the same, and against that I was playing a descending chromatic scale. Then I wrote the tune for ‘You Won’t See Me’ against it.”
After fleshing out the basic chord structure of the song, McCartney doubled down on his Motown influence when it came time to record the bassline for ‘You Won’t See Me’. Although he didn’t know him by name at the time, largely thanks to Motown’s dicey history of crediting backing musicians at the time, McCartney paid homage to a bass player who would quickly become one of his favourites, James Jamerson.
“To me it was very Motown-flavoured. It’s got a James Jamerson feel,” McCartney recalled. “He was the Motown bass player, he was fabulous, the guy who did all those great melodic bass lines. It was him, me and Brian Wilson who were doing melodic bass lines at that time, all from completely different angles, LA, Detroit and London, all picking up on what each other did.”
The bouncy bassline helped turn a slightly bitter and jealous lyric into a jaunty and uptempo romp. ‘You Won’t See Me’ also benefitted from some solid rhythms from Ringo Starr to help propel it into a groovier place than most of The Beatles’ records at the time. Over the next few years, Motown’s influence could be clearly heard in The Beatles’ material, with George Harrison even keying into the classic sound on his own album cut ‘Taxman’.