LIVES OF THE GREAT SONGS / Shake it up and scream it out: Twist and Shout: It's the most famous Beatles number the Beatles didn't write. Phil Johnson tells the tale of the ultimate show-closer

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IT'S a rock'n'roll Boy's Own story: on Monday 11 February 1963, the Beatles were at Abbey Road studios, coming to the end of a 12-hour shift spent recording the whole of their first album. John Lennon strips to the waist before going for a take on a last number which has only just been agreed. Taking a swig of milk, a last Zubes cough sweet from the glass jar on top of the piano to ease his throat, and a final counteractive puff on a Peter Stuyvesant, he sits out the intro to a song then best known as a hit for the Isley Brothers. Then he begins: 'Well shake it up baby, twist and shout.' His voice is nearly gone, a wild, hoarse roar, thick with mucus, lisping at the consonants. By the time he gets over the penultimate bridge of harmonies - the soon-to-be-famous aaahs - Lennon is screaming. Although George Martin coaxes him into a second take, his voice has gone completely and it's the first take that makes it on to wax. It's long past the studio's bedtime and when the Beatles ask to hear a playback of the song, Brian Epstein has to agree to take the second engineer home in his Ford Anglia, in case he has missed the last bus.

Just as 'Twist and Shout' closed Please Please Me, it also closed the Beatles' concerts, remaining their most popular live number for years. In its many subsequent interpretations, the song has remained a closing number, held back for encores - notably by Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and Sting on their Amnesty International tour of 1988 - to summon up the essence of uncomplicated good-time pop and soul. At its worst, in cynical versions by Lindisfarne or Black Lace, say, it's the musical equivalent of a Party Four can of bitter, but for all that, it remains 'Twist and Shout'. Like 'Louie Louie', it is strong enough to survive the abuse to which it has been subjected.

On the Beatles recording Lennon's laryngitis came across as the nearest a white, English boy had yet got to soul. 'Twist and Shout', like 'Money (That's What I Want)' on the second album, was Lennon in extremis, so out of control, so cheeky-rough (as opposed to Paul's cheeky-nice), and so sexy that at the time it seemed to mark a peculiarly English catharsis; to be able to see and hear a white man scream was, in 1963, quite new. When 'Twist and Shout' was released on an EP in July, with its cover shot of the Fab Four caught in a mid-air jump, the song and the photo became the group's most powerful icons yet. In the playground at primary school we practised the jump, sang the aaahmonies and trilled Paul's trademark 'oooh'. 'Twist and Shout' also became important in retrospect, as proof that the Beatles could indeed rock, and weren't just boring latter-day Schuberts, as the critic Tony Palmer would have them.

Like the rest of the songs on the album, 'Twist and Shout' had been in the Beatles' stage act for at least a year. You can hear an early version of the song recorded live at Hamburg's Star Club in 1962 and it's faster and even more raucous than the studio track. Lennon is only slightly less hoarse, so maybe the legend of the cold has been tricked up a bit for posterity.

Credited to the pseudonyms Russell and Medley, the song was actually written by Bert Berns, the songwriter-producer who understudied Leiber and Stoller at Atlantic Records. The very first version of 'Twist and Shout' was by the Top Notes, produced for Atlantic by Jerry Wexler and Phil Spector in 1961. While it's customary to prefer the original to a copy, the Top Notes' version is unbelievably bad - the Coasters crossed with Duane Eddy - and almost unrecognisable as the classic it was to become. 'It was horrible,' Jerry Wexler later remarked, while Berns, who had watched the session from the control booth, told Wexler and Spector: 'Man, you fucked it up.'

Berns took the song to the Isley Brothers and it is their version that becomes the de facto original, providing the model for the Beatles, 'ooohs', 'aaahs' and all. Though it became a big hit, it's hard to rate the Isleys' version over the Beatles'. The vocals are soulful, but the arrangement is poppy and the middle-eight (which the Beatles did as a foot-tapping Shadows-ish guitar break) is a horn arrangement with a Mexican feel that sounds rather lame today. The Mexican elements are important. Listen to any version of 'La Bamba' and then start singing the words to 'Twist and Shout' and you'll find that they fit remarkably well. 'La Bamba' was a hit for Richie Valens in 1958, but the melody is based on an ancient Mexican fisherman's song whose words reputedly changed according to how many fish were caught that day. Berns may well have borrowed the chord sequence from Valens, slowed it down and made it into just the kind of Latin-based call-and-response tune that was then all the rage in R&B.

After the Beatles came the deluge. Fellow beat group Brian Poole and the Tremeloes took the song to No 4 in July 1963 with an awful version, treacle-thick with echo; the Searchers and the Dave Clark Five tried it, and so, unable to resist a song with 'twist' in the title, did Chubby Checker. The Shangri-Las did it as unconscious surrealism, all booming sound- effects (engine noise? rain?) with the girls' voices coming from an echoey distance in a Spectorish wall of sound. A live version by a still obscure Jimi Hendrix, who had once played guitar with the Isleys, sounds terrible but is full of morbid interest. Picking up the chunka-chunka ska-like rhythm-guitar figure on the Isleys' version, it offers potential dissertation material: did Hendrix invent reggae?

For the next truly entertaining version we have to wait until 1969, when the song is sufficiently established even for Tom Jones's Las Vegas show. Jones's opening enquiry, 'Do you feel all right?' is delivered with all the leery menace of 'Did you spill my pint?' The effect is much more British working men's club than Vegas lounge and Jones is in glorious voice, tearing into quotes from 'Land of a Thousand Dances' and Stevie Wonder's 'Uptight' before the song succumbs to audience screams and the inevitable reprise of 'It's Not Unusual'.

When punk came along, there was a revival of interest in old beat stompers. In 1976, as part of the 100 Club's Punk Festival, a band of Siouxsie Sioux, Sid Vicious, Marco Pirroni and Steve Severin performed a medley of 'Twist and Shout', 'The Lord's Prayer' and 'Knocking on Heaven's Door'. An A&R rep from Island Records was reported as saying: 'God, it was awful.' A version by The Who from 1982, recorded live on an American tour, sounds like a closer not only for the show but for the song itself. It ends in a frenzy of guitar feedback, finally dissolving in a razor-slash of angry chords that continue to buzz resentfully until the fade. Sadly, the song seemed doomed to be history repeated as farce, with Lindisfarne's ghastly version on C'Mon Everybody: The Greatest Party Hits Album Ever and a less than crucial rap by Salt'n'Pepa.

Now 'Twist and Shout' is back in the charts, as a reggae number by Chaka Demus and Pliers. It has come full circle. 'I heard the Isleys' version in an elevator in New York,' producer Sly Dunbar told me, 'and I reflected on 'Tease Me' and saw that it was the same tempo. If you divide rock'n'roll tempo by two, you get ska, and if you divide ska by two you get reggae.' It's a joyful sound, bubbling with life, and they even do the 'aaahs' and the 'ooohs'. But, ultimately, this is 'Twist and Shout' as post-modernism; the original innocence has gone, drained away through a sink of all the other versions.

To hear 'Twist and Shout', tune in to Virgin 1215 at 9.30-10am today, when Graham Dene will be playing two of the versions discussed here. Virgin is on 1215 kHz medium wave (AM).

(Illustration, by Paul Burgess, omitted)