10 Cover Songs By The Beatles That Helped Define Them

The Beatles established the idea for British beat groups that if you wanted to make your mark, you had to write your own songs.

But, before they were writers, they were music fans and record collectors – just like us! They had influences, like any other band. In their earliest days, The Beatles considered themselves primarily as a rock ‘n’ roll band. But, they pulled in a number of influences that allowed them to define their sound even early on; soul music, rockabilly, traditional pop, movie soundtrack music, Latin music, and more.

The Beatles 1964

A lot of the time, their choice in material was made so as to distinguish their sets from those of other bands working the same clubs as they did. And it also served them as a live act when they were a bar band in Hamburg, playing eight-hour shows. To play sets that long, you’ve got to cover a lot of ground, and make sure you’re ready to play anything for the sometimes volatile audiences. More material is better than less in those situations; better to know it and not have to play it, than having to play it, and not knowing it.

What this anything goes approach also helped them to do of course is to create a template for how wide their reach would be as songwriters on their own. So, which songs did they cover that helped them to do this best? Well, in the tradition of the Delete Bin, here are 10 to consider as great Beatle-starters, and as prime cuts of pure pop magic all on their own. Take a look!

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Shout!

Who did it first? The Isley Brothers

Hear the Beatles version on: Ready, Steady Go! (video), Beatles Anthology Vol. 1

How it helped the Beatles: The Beatles famously covered, some say outright usurped, another song by the Isleys; “Twist & Shout”.  Not only is it a great cover version, it helped to solidify the Beatles as a band who could wail as a rock ‘n’ roll band, and very early on too. But their version of the Isley’s “Shout!” added dimensions of its own, even if it is the lesser known cover.

Probably the most important thing that this cover song by the Beatles represents is that it helps to frame the dynamics of the band that would endure for the whole life of the group. To wit, it establishes that in the Beatles, there was no frontman. There was no leader. They all sang, and they all sang well – even Ringo!  At the time, when the pop music industry wasn’t interested in groups, but rather in teen idols, the Beatles kicked convention to the curb. And this song is a great statement to do the kicking. They were four, not one and three. Even now in 2013, they’re still four. Not even death can change that.

Too Much Monkey Business

Who did it first? Chuck Berry

Hear the Beatles version on: The Beatles Live At the BBC

How it helped the Beatles: Berry was an enormous influence on all of the members of the Beatles. For one thing, he wrote his own songs. For another, he made the guitar a key go-to instrument to play rhythm & blues as opposed to the less accessible, and more typical piano and sax combination. Plus, Berry was a great, great lyricist. It’s this last piece that is perhaps the biggest influence that would help shape how the Beatles would develop as artists, particularly John Lennon.

Where Lennon would rely on a number of sources for his evolution as a writer who played with language, with Lewis Carroll being another influence, it’s Berry’s agility and influence as a lyricist that would feed a song like “I Am the Walrus”. Of course another Berry tune, “You Can’t Catch Me”, would directly influence Lennon’s “Come Together”, also a tumble of language that was all about the rhythm of the human voice, and that led to a legal snarl in the 1970s for Lennon. But, that’s another story!

Soldier of Love

Who did it first? Arthur Alexander

Hear the Beatles version onThe Beatles Live At the BBC

How it helped the Beatles: R&B singer Arthur Alexander was among the greatest influences of the Beatles’ early career, providing a number of songs that would be featured in set lists from their days in Hamburg, to the Cavern Club, and even onto their first album.  This song is all about push-pull call and response vocal dynamics. It’s a song that proves that when the Beatles sang together, it was almost like a single voice. They understood the balance to which each of their voices contributed. That understanding is certainly showcased here.

This tune, made famous by Alexander, helped the Beatles to create pop songs with texts and subtexts just like this one. It also helped the Beatles understand not just the mechanics of a good love song, but also the psychology behind the drama found in them. That’s what “Soldier of Love” is really about; a psychological angle that affects love’s outcome.  “It’s Only Love”, “Girl”, and even “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” all benefit from this kind of songwriting sophistication.

Boys

Who did it first? The Shirelles

Hear the Beatles version on: Please Please Me

How it helped the Beatles:  This song was a B-side of the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”. B-Sides were more obscure, and therefore less likely to be covered by rival groups. So, covering them was in some ways a play of good marketing on their part. The fact that the song is sung from a woman’s point of view didn’t stop them from covering it, and changing the perspective slightly to account for a more heterosexual outlook.

Besides putting across music from America in their own Liverpudlian way, I think a song like “Boys” was also  great example of their ability to present any kind of song from any perspective they wanted to perform (see also their version of “Please Mr. Postman”), and later to write as composers in their own right while making it all sound Beatley. This provided a platform to open up ideas for characters, for stories, and for perspectives not made for them either, but that definitely work anyway. For instance, “She’s  Leaving Home”, “Lady Madonna”, “For No One” are all songs about women, about women’s thoughts, and women’s feelings, just as “Boys” originally was.

You Really Got A Hold On Me

Who did it first? Smokey Robinson & The Miracles

Hear the Beatles version on: With The Beatles

How it helped the Beatles: The Beatles had covered dozens of soul and R&B songs. But, few rival their command of this one, recorded for their second album. It some ways, it would have been hard to mess it up, considering the calibre of the source material from Smokey Robinson. Yet, The Beatles, and Lennon in particular, take this song to such a level that many consider it to be the better version – a very debatable position, but an arguable one.

But, more important than which version is best, is the question of what it added to their repertoire of playing, singing, and writing. And that was a sense of vulnerability, desperation, and emotional ambiguity. To a point, the Beatles’ early career is peppered with songs about girls, boys, and teenaged love. But, this isn’t about that; it’s a dark romance, full of sexual tension and dysfunction. This song stands out from “Thank You Girl”, “P.S I love You”, and “Love Me Do”. The spirit of “You Really Got A Hold On Me” is carried through, a bridge to songs like “I’ll Cry Instead”, “Things We Said Today”, “If I Fell”, all of which approach love more cautiously.

The Honeymoon Song

Who did it first? Marino Marini quartet

Hear the Beatles version on: The Beatles Live at the BBC

How it helped the Beatles: This song written by Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis is taken from the 1959 movie Honeymoon. The Beatles were movie fans of course which is why they were so open to the idea of making A Hard Days Night. So, chances are, they heard this one and added it to their repertoire after seeing this film, and hearing the Marino Marinis quartet play their version as featured in that film.

But this song opened traditional pop music, and movie music areas to draw from as writers. This is particularly true of lead singer on this – Paul McCartney. Although he’d drift well into maudlin territory often particularly during his solo career, the general structure and tone of this would inform a number of songs written and performed while he was playing with the Beatles. This is particularly true of “And I Love Her”, which uses this same tone, and with a Latin touch to boot. It helped establish that gushy romance and rock ‘n’ roll could live together quite happily. ‘Here There And Everywhere”, “Michelle”, and “I Will” would follow.

Long Tall Sally

Who did it first? Little Richard

Hear the Beatles version on: Long Tall Sally (British EP, Canadian compilation album)

How it helped the Beatles: Little Richard was a musical colossus in the world of the Beatles as they made their way as a young band. Later, they’d get to meet him of course when his popularity among British rock ‘n’ roll fans brought him to England. But one of the things that Little Richard taught the Beatles was how to perform, how to bring exuberance to a performance.

The Beatles and Little Richard

Paul in particular would take Richard’s scream of a voice as a guide first to a write song like “I’m Down”, and then to sing it confidently and very convincingly.  Then, he’d take this song as the basis for creating songs about other people, written in third person just like this one, from “Eleanor Rigby”, to “Fool on the Hill”, to “Rocky Raccoon”. McCartney would also have a means to balance off the sweet-voiced croon that he’d picked up on a song like “The Honeymoon Song”, and have a growling, bestial rawk voice upon which to draw on for songs like “Oh Darling!”, “I’ve Got A Feeling”, and “Maybe I’m Amazed”.

Words of Love

Who did it first? Buddy Holly

Hear the Beatles version on: Beatles For Sale

How it helped the Beatles: Everyone needs a role model when it comes to excelling at anything. One big hero to the Beatles was Buddy Holly, who like Chuck Berry wrote many of his own tunes, and played on them with an out-of-the-box approach to everything. These elements ranged from non-rock instrumentation, to non-standard strumming techniques, to delicate string arrangements. Buddy Holly was directly involved in arranging his music, and helming the production of it in the studio. With the help of George Martin, the Beatles would begin their own apprenticeship in the world of making records as collaborative artists, following in Holly’s footsteps.

Like the original track from Holly, they made this one quirky and spare, diverging from the standard two-guitars, bass, and drum kit. Here, instead of a prominent rock backbeat, this song features gentle eighth-note handclaps, supplemented by Ringo playing a packing case rather than his drum kit. This willingness to adjust their usual set-up to serve the material better would in turn serve them well through out their career as true innovators. “Words of Love” is an early example that would be followed by an ever more sonically adventurous Beatles later on.

Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby

Who did it first? Carl Perkins

Hear the Beatles version on: Beatles For Sale

How it helped the Beatles: This list would not be complete without a mention of George Harrison’s approach to the lead guitar, and his instinctual sense of melody and countermelody as a player (you can sing everything he played) while always keeping things simple. It’s not just that Harrison nails the quality of that ’50s Sun Records guitar sound – and he certainly does that. Harrison would take this skill of melodic instrumental prowess, and create music you wouldn’t think could be tuneful in a Western pop sense, but is anyway; “Within You, Without You”, “Love You To”, “The Inner Light”.

But here’s another important aspect of what “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” tells us about Harrison. His performance of it makes a sly comment on the Beatles’ situation at the time, of everyone wanting a piece of them while they dealt with being famous. Subject matter-wise, this would become common ground for George as he grew into a songwriter to match the output of Lennon and McCartney; “It’s Only A Northern Song”, “Savoy Truffle”,”Here Comes The Sun”.  As a songwriter, he’d provide a sort of spiritual state of the union where life in the band was concerned, starting here.

Money ( That’s What I Want)

Who did it first? Barrett Strong

Hear the Beatles version on: With The Beatles

How it helped the Beatles: Berry Gordy founded Motown in Detroit in 1959. This was the first hit of many, which is perhaps appropriate, seeing how financially successful Motown would be as a label, a company, a brand. The original version of the song was never a big hit in Britain. But, the Beatles loved R&B, and obscure sides, and this was both. What a bunch of hipsters! Still, it would provide John Lennon with a high-point vocal performance. And like every song on this list, there’s more to it than that besides.

To me, the key event in this song is Lennon’s “OH YEAH! I WANNA BE FREE!”  He’d sound that barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world (to quote Walt Whitman) first heard here and later to be heard on with songs like “Yer Blues”, “Revolution”, “Don’t Let Me Down” (with real rooftops that time!) and “Mother”. This song would be a constant Lennon favourite. He’d even record it during his appearance at the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival festival in 1969, toward the end of the life of the Beatles six long years later. But, while recording it for the first time for With The Beatles, it’s as if Lennon saw the future in that moment, with innocent 1963 far behind him, and all of the wars he’d later come to protest, and the personal demons he’s try to scream away in the future perfectly clear to him.

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The Beatles made enormous impact on pop music; how it’s made and by whom, and in the several forms it can take. That is a matter of historical record. But, when they first became performers, recording artists, and songwriters, they drew on sources of inspiration just like any other band. Some material they used simply for the purposes of building a stage act, later to be left behind. Other songs impacted them long afterwards, even when they transcended their roots and rose into the upper echelons of pop music history. They informed how to approach the business of songwriting, arranging, and even tonal choices in the studio.

Either way, even if they are hailed as a key act to define 20th Century pop and rock music, they stood on the shoulders of giants all the while.

For more information about how the Beatles developed as composers from a more technical perspective, do watch this excellent program about the Beatles hosted by composer Howard Goodall. This is a 48-minute show about how the Beatles brought complex, revolutionary ideas back into Western composition, while still making their songs accessible to the average listener.

Enjoy!

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3 comments

  1. Wow – a lot of work in this Rob!

    Going off at a tangent slightly: cover versions in general are amazing things… I find I can get quite snobby about them “oh yeah, well it’s just a cover version… you should really listen to the original”. But then I find tracks that I’ve loved for years turn out to be covers & I realize how flawed my argument is – just this week I discovered The Bangles September Gurls is a cover – … and in doing so also discovered the original versions of two This Mortal Coil tracks in Big Star’s repertoire.

    1. That’s one of the fascinating things about great cover versions. They tend to reveal the DNA make up of the band doing the covering. That Bangles/Big Star example is a great one. You get a better sense of the Bangles as a band when you discover the kind of stuff that turned them on.

      Like the Beatles, Big Star is responsible for a lot of those kinds of musical ripples, even if (unlike the Beatles!) a lot of casual music fans may not know who they were.

      Thanks as always for comments!

      1. Yes, great point. Like with your Beatles covers, it’s a kinda “we think these bands are cool. If you think we’re cool then you might like them too” statement.

        I’d never heard of Big Star before & now I’m in the middle of tracking family trees, influences, covers etc… certainly a band well-regarded nowadays and under-appreciated at the time.

        This musical genealogy reminds me of the fascinating Rock Family Trees that used to be inside the NME: http://blog.familyofrock.com/

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