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Twist and Shout: A Classic Rock Song With Two Different Renditions

Twist And Shout (1962/1964)
Isley Brothers/The Beatles
composed by: Phil Medley and Bert Russell (Bert Berns)

While the two renditions of “Twist And Shout” don’t invite quite the proverbial “apples-to oranges” comparison, they are different enough that this R&B classic calls for close examination.

The Isley Brothers’ version is not, in fact, the first try on “Twist And Shout,” which was first recorded by a group named The Top Notes for the Atlantic label with Phil Spector at the mixing board. The version was a spectacular failure and marked the beginning of a short, mediocre run for Spector at Atlantic.

One of the writers of “Twist And Shout,” Bert Russell, was incensed at the shabby job Spector had belched up and took the song to the Isley Brothers, who, while having had enjoyed some success, had not put up a hit record since “Shout,” in late 1959. Everyone was hungry for success. (In 1964, when the Isleys moved from Cincinnati to New Jersey, Jimi Hendrix would be their lead guitarist for about 18 months, although the partnership produced no break-out hits.)

The Isleys’ work features loose-as-a-goose rhythm, propelled by the rubbery bass line of Chuck Rainey, having almost a Doo-Wop feel to it. The light-handed drumming rests on the backbeat, so the Isley version would be perfect for The Beatles once they got to it in an early ’63 recording session at what would eventually become known as the Abbey Road studio. It is the sexy sultriness that marks the ’62 platter. There is a big leer overarching the whole piece.

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Also playing on the track is master saxophonist, King Curtis, who along with bassist Rainey often backed such luminaries as Aretha Franklin (with his band the Kingpins) and The Shirelles. He also played the acclaimed sax break on The Coasters’ rocker “Yakety Yak.” Curtis injects a sort of comedic sound with his instrumental, or at least a raised eyebrow at all the rampant horniness throbbing through the tune.

Indeed, the phrase “twist and shout” is a code phrase if not for having sex itself, then certainly for what today we would call, thanks to the movie of the same name, “dirty dancing.”

There is plenty of shouting and screaming and layered soul harmony singing on the Isley Brothers version. Any way you serve up their “Twist And Shout,” it gives a glimpse into how much fun Rock-N-Roll was in this period.

This is not to say that The Beatles take on the song is not fun; it sure is. But it is an interpretation that is much closer to pure Pop-Rock than to R&B. And there is a certain precision in the work that, except for Ringo’s drumming – which is true to the spirit of the Isley recording – makes for a slight coolness of attitude. It gives the clear sense that it was recorded in a studio – even though it was a fairly primitive one, whereas the Isley version projects a feeling that those guys were doing the song as a sound check in a roadhouse that thrived on bawdiness.

Much kudos has to be given to John Lennon’s stunning vocal work. He was sick as a dog during the session. While there was an attempt at a second take, Lennon’s voice was gone, so what we have left is the first one and a few recordings “for radio” and a number of live performances. Lennon is hoarse, a little angry as he often sounds, straining to hit notes – a style that adds to the performance, and he has a sexual glow in his voice.

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Unfortunately, a rather weak break that throws the track into a leaden, no-man’s land tempo diminishes an otherwise terrific song. The guitar lead on the break is, well, lame, not to put too fine of a point on it. However, the cavalry is on its way…

There are less than a dozen earth-shattering screams in the history of Rock – screams that belong in the song, that are natural to musical and vocal integrity.

Augmented by Paul McCartney’s yelling, John Lennon’s epic scream coming out of the break of “Twist And Shout,” dive-bombing as it does through the fine little harmonies (ahhh, aaaaahhhhh, AHHHHH!) is a killer. Lennon hits it so far out of the ballpark, you can easily believe it’s still going and going.

Speaking of screaming, The Who did a number of outstanding live versions of “Twist And Shout.” Bruce Springsteen, who has done the song almost 400 times live, brings an endearing charm to the tune and captures well the original comedic side that the Isleys brought and the Beatles skipped.

Whichever cup you want to drink from, your thirst for hopin’, boppin’, screamin’ Rock will be slaked by “Twist And Shout.”

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