Two years ago, along the way on my journey of Beatles discovery, I published a similar post titled “Beatles Covers”. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was merely scratching the surface.
The songwriting team of Lennon/McCartney, George Harrison (and two for Ringo) collectively wrote over two hundred songs. Their output of self-written hits is unparalleled in the rock era.
The Beatles themselves recorded most of what they wrote, with exceptions made for when they wrote for others, some of which they recorded anyway, or when they were covering another artist’s tune. Yet, as great as The Beatles were, I’m finding that when other artists remake songs from their vast library, it’s almost as if it’s a new song, yet, one I already love.
My first list included eight songs, and at the time I could have probably listed twenty. Part II lists ten covers, and at this point I could probably list over a hundred. In reality, thousands of artists have covered Beatles songs, which means that there will likely be more lists to come.
What I find particularly interesting about these selections is the who, what, where and why of it all. Each great artist covering a great Beatle track makes them seem all that more great, and some of the stories behind them are as interesting as the song or the artist themselves. Even more so, as each artist performs their version, a duality is created; we recognize the familiar songs, while we recognize the artist’s individual style.
And if you don’t feel like reading, skip to the bottom and hit the play button…
The music speaks for itself.
“Hey Jude” by Wilson Pickett
In December of 1968, as The Beatles version of “Hey Jude” began a slow decent from #1 on the Billboard Top 40, Wilson Pickett’s cover was just entering the charts. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated on April 4 of the same year, and racial tensions were running high, even in the recording studios where previously blacks and whites would meet on common ground. This makes it all the more interesting that a young and – at the time – relatively unknown white guitar player by the name of Duane Allman had been hired to play guitar on the Album. This combination of soulful Wilson Pickett teamed with Duane Allman – whom many consider to be a father of southern rock – makes this track both unique and interesting, both for its time and all time. Sadly, Allman would be killed in a motorcycle accident three years later at the age of twenty-four.
“Come Together” by The Brothers Johnson
The Brothers Johnson’s cover of “Come Together” was released in 1976 on their debut album Look Out For #1, which, unsurprisingly, was produced by none other than Quincy Jones. This pseudo-disco track was more funk than disco, and like another Brothers Johnson hit “Strawberry Letter 23”, it has a strong driving bass line that lent a unique and soulful groove, while retaining an almost soul-psychedelic feel true to the original John Lennon classic.
“Across The Universe” by Fiona Apple
In the waning days of Beatlemania, there was a loose-knit group of die hard (mostly female) fans known as Apple Scruffs that would hang around the Apple Corps building hoping to catch a glimpse of one of The Beatles. Fiona Apple has always seemed to me to be a modern version of an Apple Scruff, both in name and style, while her attitude of “I’ll say whatever is on my mind is Lennon to a tee. When I asked Beatles journalist Larry Kane his favorite Beatles song, without hesitation he said “Across The Universe”. As for Miss Apple’s version, it’s melancholy and dreamy, while sexy love-making like only Fiona Apple can do. She does the song great justice. I think John would have liked you… I know I do.
“Run For Your Life” by Nancy Sinatra
This tune is just fun for all kinds of reasons. First, it’s like a Beatles “Boots Are Made For Walking”, as if that was Nancy Sinatra’s only style, but it adds a light go-go Austin Powers feel to the otherwise dark and brooding John Lennon lyric, which John himself pulled off with an air of light hearted fun, yet, one never knows. Nancy changes the lyric slightly to make it gender specific, yet, I chuckle when I hear it because it is much less believable that Lennon’s delivery. It’s just fun.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by Jimi Hendrix
So the story kind of goes like this; The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was released in the U.K. on June 1, 1967. Jimi Hendrix – who was in London at the time – purchased the album on the day of its release, and three days later performed it live at the Saville Theatre in London. Paul McCartney and George Harrison were in the audience. Now, some believe Sgt. Pepper’s is one of the most important albums ever released, while others just know it as fact, but regardless, Hendrix knew a thing or two as well, as he shows us on this live track. The original footage of Jimi Hendrix Saville performance – for those interested – is available on YouTube. This cover combines the high-art of McCartney’s concept album with the sheer power of Hendrix guitar playing.
“In My Life” by Ozzy Osbourne
In a 1991 interview with the German magazine Rock Hard, Ozzy Osbourne, Prince of Darkness, front man for Black Sabbath and beloved Reality TV celebrity had this to say;
The Beatles had such an effect on my whole life, my whole structure, my whole being. My room was littered with Beatle stuff; I’d go twenty miles to get a poster of the Beatles.One thing I learned is that if you’ve got a good melody, you’ve got a good song. There are so many bands out there that try to impress other bands with their musical ability, which I respect, but the Beatles had only three chords—but they were such top-line melodies. I mean, Lennon and McCartney were just, for me, the perfect combination.
In another interview, he merely called them the Mozart’s of our time. I’m guessing Ozzy’s a Beatles fan.
“Eleanor Rigby” by Aretha Franklin
Of all the tracks on this list, I think Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin does the best job of making the song her own. Aretha turns this Lennon/McCartney classic into gospel, literally, and she does it with the soulful power that only soul royalty can deliver. This 1969 cover of the 1966 Beatles hit climbed to #17 on the charts, and virtually re-invents the tune. Not all that much more to say about it, as this one may be the gem of the list. Even better, it isn’t the only Beatles song she covered… but that will have to wait for another list.
“Two Of Us” by Aimee Mann and Michael Penn
Mann and Penn may have collaborated on many things, but this cover of “Two of Us” is a masterpiece, and fits the duo well, just as it fit the duo who wrote it. It’s one of my favorite Beatle tunes on this list, and being an Aimee Mann fan from way back when she fronted the band Til’ Tuesday, I was glad when I discovered this rendition. It also happens to be the first cover I’ve used from the I Am Sam soundtrack which included nothing but Beatles covers, yet, this one may have been one of the best of the bunch. What I really feel is the win of this recording is that Aimee Mann and Michael Penn inject a very earthy, or ‘Granola’ feel to the track, that is necessary to the intimate feel of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s song about a relationship between two people.
“Something” by Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra said that this George Harrison composition was the greatest love song ever written, and on this cover track he shows us how it’s done Sinatra style, even riffing a few added words. Yet another giant of performers adding his own style and flavor to one of The Beatles biggest hits. As for Sinatra, well the great significance here is that his testament to the greatness of “Something” is an affirmation of approval from an artist more use to working with the work of songwriters like George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harry Warren, Cole Porter and countless more who were churning out the hits of an earlier era. Songwriters who – in the first half of the Century – amassed a body of work collectively as significant as that of The Beatles. Young teenage Bobby-Soxers would scream for ‘Swoonatra’ as he was called in the mid 1940s, a prototype of the modern-day teen idol. When Frank Sinatra says “greatest love song ever written”, that’s counting “Something” amongst love songs over an entire century.
How about that Mac?
“Lady Madonna” by Elvis Presley
The King gets silly in the studio with this informal track, flubbing lyrics he obviously didn’t have down yet, but that’s the charm of this short (just over a minute) throw-away track. You can hear Elvis having fun singing and not taking it too seriously, but being that he is Elvis Presley, it’s still a brilliant and charming recording.
I hope you had as much fun listening to the playlist as I had compiling it. Feel free to list any covers you think I may not know about in the comment section… a third sequel to this list may be coming sooner than you think.