The Beatles as a favourite band may be an unoriginal choice. But, there it is. Sometimes, a band chooses you, not the other way around. If you’re a regular reader of the Delete Bin, you’ll know that the Fabs tend to come up a lot, despite my own fairly wide tastes. My own preferences aside, I think one of the things which can be said of the Beatles is that their songs have a quality that go beyond individual performances, even their own. They are great songs, no matter who is performing them.

This is a handy thing since they’ve been covered so much by so many artists from different backgrounds, genres, and (let’s face it) levels of competence. But, here are 10 notable cover versions. Some of these are so good, they threaten the originals for the number one spot . Others are unique statements of their own just by being in existence, so much so that they simply deserve a mention for their temerity.

Hey Jude – Wilson Pickett

Wilson Pickett Hey JudeThe Wicked Pickett covered this song in 1969, the year after the original Beatles single which had stayed on the number one spot for 9 weeks, despite it being over 7 minutes long. Pickett included it on his album named after this cover version, Hey Jude. The arrangement dials up the gospel overtones of the original, while also bringing in the truly supernatural guitar chops of Duane Allman. Wilson Pickett made a career of singing soul music as if fighting for his life, and this is a great example of Pickett’s approach – a rough and ready tone that belts out the lines of encouragement in a way that Paul McCartney would have done it, had he been born a Southern Baptist preacher. The soulful evocations of “It’s gonna be alright!” in the famous coda section, along with the heavenly horn section and Allman’s fiery guitar make this a contender for best version ever.

Allman’s work on this track gained the attention of Eric Clapton, who would work with Allman on the Derek & The Dominos album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs in 1970. Wilson Pickett would continue to have an impact on the rock world by covering “Fire and Water” as written and recorded by (the very underrated) British blues-rock band Free, who had written and the song recorded themselves all the while with Pickett’s voice in mind.

With A Little Help From My Friends – Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker With A Little Help From My FriendsJoe Cocker recorded his first album With a Little Help from My Friends named after this cover version , in 1969. On doing so, he employed several musical luminaries which include Jimmy Page on lead guitar, Merry Clayton on vocals, Carole Kaye on bass, Henry McCulloch on guitar, and Steve Winwood on organ, among many others. The record is aptly named, then. And Cocker is a powerhouse vocalist, probably one of the most gifted blue-eyed soul vocalist Britain had yet produced. His delivery here is muscular-yet-vulnerable, backed by an imaginative arrangement, some fine playing from Page, and a great interplay between Cocker’s lead, and the back-up vocalists. Like the Pickett version of “Hey Jude”, this cover of “With A Little Help From My Friends” seriously threatens to overshadow the Beatles original from Sgt. Pepper.

Cocker would of course go on to record two other famous Beatles cover songs in “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Something” on his second album Joe Cocker!, which again ratchets up the bluesiness of the songs in question. Having reached the heights with these covers, and those covers of songs by Traffic, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen, Cocker would find greater fame in his recording of “You Are So Beautiful” and “Up Where We Belong” in the late 70s and early 80s respectively. But this first single and his first two albums remain to be his best work.

Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds – William Shatner

William Shatner the Transformed ManThis is a legendary recording, possibly for different reasons than were originally intended. William Shatner of course is no singer – he’s an actor of stage and screen, possibly most famous for his role as James Tiberius Kirk, Captain of the starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek series. Here, the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” becomes less thelysergic anthem from Sgt. Pepper, and more of a (very) dramatic reading of the song’s lyrics (which actually turns out to be pretty trippy too…). Where this version of the song may not rival the original as some of the others in this list, it remains to be something of a bold approach, if unintentionally humourous at the same time. And to me, this is why it warrants inclusion. And because it throws a wrench in the works as far as what you were expecting of this list – right?

The version was a part of Shatner’s album The Transformed Man, released in 1968 at the height of his tenure as the Captain of the Enterprise, while also pulling from his stage acting background. Shatner would make more of these types of recordings through out his career, even into the present day with his spoken word album Has Been, made with songwriter Ben Folds in 2007.

We Can Work It Out – Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder Signed, Sealed, and Delivered“We Can Work It Out” is a pretty dark tune in the end. It’s about a struggling relationship, possibly on its last legs. The narrator of the tale is becoming pretty tyrannical in his approach to making his relationship better – “why’d you see it your way?”, “think of what I’m saying…”. In his 1970 cover version of the song found on his Signed, Sealed and Delivered, Stevie Wonder infuses this love-gone-wrong tune with an effervescence that draws a striking contrast to the darkness and desperation in the lyrics. You find yourself smiling at this tale of a man trying to push all of the blame on his partner. Who knew that narrow-mindedness and trivializing the opinion of a lover to get your own way in a relationship could sound so joyous?

Stevie Wonder would go from here to create some of his own pop classics, and of course make a contribution to a song which talks about relationships of another kind in duet with the author of “We Can Work it Out” – Paul McCartney. That tune of course is the immortal “Ebony and Ivory”, taken from McCartney’s excellent 1982 Tug of War album. Now, that song is annoying beyond belief, of course. But, at least the two voices behind each version “We Can Work It Out” were expressing the value in respecting different perspectives in a relationship, side by side on the piano keyboard as they are.

Eleanor Rigby – Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin Live at the Filmore WestIn keeping with the trend of a dark theme against a celebratory arrangement, Aretha Franklin’s “Eleanor Rigby” is downright chirpy. The original song, found on The Beatles 1966 album Revolver, is about a lonely old spinster – the titular Eleanor Rigby – who “picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been”. This is a person who has missed the happiness in life enjoyed by others, left behind to live only off the remnants of what others have enjoyed, lonely, isolated, and ultimately doomed. Yet, Aretha’s Eleanor has the funk, pushed along by pulsing basslines, push-me-pull-you vocal exchanges, bold hornshots, and a tempo that just won’t quit.

Found on her Live at the Filmore West album released in 1971, the live version is my absolute favourite take on the song just because it’s so incongruous. When listening to it, I often wonder what she was thinking when she arranged it. Maybe, she wanted to reveal that Eleanor Rigby had a richer inner life that no one knew about, and that when she was “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door”, it was the face of someone who was not lonely, but content in being alone.

Come Together – Ike & Tina Turner

Ike & Tina Turner Proud MaryJohn Lennon allegedly wrote “Come Together” initially for a political campaign anthem for LSD guru Timothy Leary. While nothing came of Lennon’s involvement in the campaign, or indeed of Leary’s political career, the song was the lead track off of the Beatles final album Abbey Road. What doesn’t come off quite as clearly in that version is the double entendre in the phrase come together, which it surely does in Ike & Tina’s version. This 1971 cover version is simply dripping with coital sweat, a fully loaded sexual explosion of throaty vocals, stabbing guitar lines, and a rhythm section that goes like a train. As such, this version makes the song into something entirely new, less a series of absurdist images, and more about sheer physicality which makes the words secondary to what lies underneath.

Ike and Tina’s version of the song can be found on for their Proud Mary compilation. They would make a number of cover versions of popular rock songs, which in many ways brought them full circle having inspired many of the artists who would write those songs, including the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart, both of which Tina Turner would tour with in the ensuing years after her partnership with Ike ended.

For No One – Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris Pieces of SkyThis version of the song from Emmylou’s 1975 album Pieces of the Sky endures because I think this tune was always meant to be a country song, specifically a hurtin’ song. Everything about the way it’s arranged here – the spare instrumentation, the slow tempo, and Emmylou’s own plaintive delivery – is entirely true to the material, which is documents the feelings of sadness that go along with one person of two who has fallen out of love. Where Aretha re-invents Eleanor Rigby, Emmylou drills to the emotional centre of a song that is ultimately about helplessness. The clip here is a later take on the tune, yet the approach remains the same.

It is amazing to me that the same guy who wrote the patronizing lyrics to “We Can Work It Out”, also wrote this tune, with lyrics that are about respecting someone’s space, about letting go. McCartney was 24 when this song was recorded, which probably worked against him. Yet, the song he came up with works across the board, particularly as a country song sung by the best in her field.

Anytime At All – Nils Lofgren

Nils Lofgren Night Fades Away By the early 80s, the era of a possible Beatles reunion was crushed. Yet, it was also a time when the songs the group recorded were being looked at again as being examples of great songwriting beyond the era to which they had been attached. In 1981 on his Night Fades Away album, Nils Lofgren took an unassuming album track (found on the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night), and made it into a stadium anthem. The pure joie de vive of his version reveals it to be a mark of the time in which it was written. But, it also captures the feeling that the innocence of young love is ultimately pretty timeless.

After you’ve worked with Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen which Lofgren had, I guess the next logical step is to try the Beatles out. This song would remain to be a concert favourite. What I love about it is that Lofgren’s fondness for the Beatles, for Lennon, and for this song, just burns through. It’s infectious.

Blackbird – Dionne Farris

Dionne Farris Wild Seed Wild FlowerPaul McCartney’s “Blackbird”, orginally recorded for the band’s self-titled album (otherwise known as “The White Album”) has been interpreted in a political way before of course. Nina Simone recorded it, and the implications are pretty undeniable as a statement about equality and dignity for the black community in America. I have no idea whether or not Dionne Farris meant this to be a political statement or not when she recorded it for her Wild Seed — Wild Flower album in 1994 (I suspect she did, given other political content on the album). But for my money, this is a shining jewel of a version which made me wonder whatever happened to Dionne Farris, frankly, until I found the Dionne Farris MySpace page.

Where very few takes on this song (if any) can touch the original, I marvel at this, a solid R&B version with a bit of an acoustic blues flavour that keeps this from being the overproduced mess that has plagued (and plagues even today) other examples of the genre. The clip here is a live version which turns the song into a bit of a singalong. But the album version is a stark voice and guitar arrangement that is entirely different from McCartney’s own similar building blocks for his original recording.

Across The Universe – Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple Across the UniverseFiona Apple’s take on this song originally found on 1970’s Let It Be was featured in the closing credits of the film Pleasantville, the story of two modern-day teens who are thrust into the black & white world (in all senses of the term) of a 1950s TV show universe. The teens introduce new ideas into the minds of those who live in that world, revealing new possibilities to them. And the inhabitants cease to be characters in a TV show, and are transformed into real people. Fiona Apple’s take on Lennon’s song (written in India in 1968 while studying TM) about the complexities of love and the mystical nature of universal connection is the perfect, perfect, addition to the themes of the movie. This is not even mentioning Apple’s languid, dreamy delivery, which fits the song like a velvet glove.

The lines which are repeated in the song are all the more powerful given their cinematic context – “Nothing’s gonna change my world”. Apple’s version reveals that one’s world is changing all the time, that we’re all dependent on each other, moving as we are from one moment to the next. As a result, this song is given new life for me.

***

When people tell me they don’t like the Beatles, I just don’t believe them. To me it’s like saying “I don’t like kissing”. The very statement is preposterous, to the point where I think that there must be something wrong with someone who would say something like that. I have perspective of course. I know that those are just my perceptions. Yet one thing remains which is hard to deny, whether you like the Beatles or not. Beatles songs are universal, and wonderfully open to interpretation. They’re like Shakespeare that way.

Here you’ve seen 10 examples. I could have talked about a number of others, including Earth Wind and Fire’s joyous “Got To Get You Into My Life”, or the Breeders’ ferocious “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, or even Elton John’s Lennon-abetted version of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. All different, all wonderful. Saying the Beatles is your favourite band may be unoriginal. But the choice is pretty clear, leading as it does to great music of all kinds.

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46 thoughts on “10 Beatles Cover Songs Which May Be Better Than The Original

  1. You’re joking about Shatners’s version of Lucy being better than the original, right? Come on… and what about Jim Carrey’s I am the Walrus?

  2. Hey treadmarkz,

    I threw it in there to mess with you. It worked!

    Seriously, thanks for comments. I was kind of shooting for the idea that the Beatles’ songs are open to interpretation. Is the Shatner LitSwD a festering turd? Well, maybe. But, it has a certain fascination attached to it which has endured. Here it’s the 21st century and we’re still talking about it, which probably won’t be said of Carrey’s “I Am the Walrus”.

    Thanks again for comments!

  3. Hi Rob

    thanks for your list. I’m a beatles fan from Germany collecting information about cover versions that i publish on my website beatles-covers.de. i hope you don’t mind that i enclosed your list there (see the section “charting the covers”) and put a link to your site.

    Well, if I were to chose my favourite covers there wouldn’t be even one of your picks included although I agree with you in most cases that they are indeed good versions, i.e. Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Stevie Wonder and, yes, William Shatner;)

    One question: is your list arranged as a ranking?

    Keep up the good work;)

    Uwe Fischer

  4. Hi Uwe,

    Thanks for reading, for linking, and for comments. All are appreciated! This is how it’s supposed to work!

    The list, like all of the lists found here in the ‘Bin is not ranked in any way. That would take too much work – too hard to justify why one song is better than another. I’ll leave that to others. With the “10 Songs” lists, and other lists you might find here, it’s just a bunch of songs I like, or that I think are worth talking about even if I don’t like them (there are a few examples of songs like this to be found here).

    Thanks again!

  5. I just did a blog post on amateur and professional takes on “I Will.” Most are amateur, but Ross Copperman would qualify as pro. I like his version a lot:
    http://donnatrussell.com/2008/11/14/your-song-will-fill-the-air/

    Maura O’Connell’s “I Will” is great, but unfortunately I could not find a video of it.

    Check out Steve Earle’s “I’m Looking Through You” on his album Train a’Comin. On some days I like it better than the original.

  6. Thanks Donna – I saw that post!

    “I Will” is a lovely piece, just a great tune in a particularly erratic section of the White Album that disparately calls out for a song like that to bring the whole into balance.

    “I’m looking Through You” is a greatly underrated track, kind of like an evil cousin to “We Can Work It Out”. Here’s the Earle version, and thanks for the recommendation.

    Cheers!

  7. Not to be too technical, but Lofgren actually had not worked with Springsteen by the time of that 1981 album. He joined the band for the ’84 tour.

  8. Interesting list. There are not many Beatles tunes that have been done better than the originals but two you should check out are April Wine’s interpretation of Tell Me Why and Jeff Healey’s version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Both of these are Canadian bands.

  9. Another great cover, in my opinion, is Richie Havens doing “Here Comes the Sun”. I’ll check out some of your favorites. Thanks!

  10. Great list, there are several on here that I had never heard before. I’m a big fan of Wes Montgomery’s version of “A Day In The Life,” but I know that to a lot of people his stuff sounds like elevator music.

  11. Before a year or two ago, I wouldn’t have considered the idea of covers of Beatles songs being better than the originals. That was until, I heard the Stevie Wonder and Wilson Pickett ones you listed, and Marvin Gaye’s version of Yesterday, which is available on Youtube. Those Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gay versions are cases, where I like the covers better than the originals I think. And the Wilson Pickett cover is just interesting imo. The Joe Cocker cover of “With a Little Help from my Friends” sounds like it should work, and doesn’t quite, but I couldn’t stand his version when I first heard it. I think that had more to do with his voice though.

  12. I can’t remember which album Marvin Gaye’s version of Yesterday is on, but I know it’s readily available.

  13. > A possible interpretation. But, not much fun. 🙂

    Ditto. Lennon and McCartney did not write shallow lyrics.

    I ALWAYS interpreted that line as happy in public, sad in private. Even in my teens.

    THINK.

  14. I would add The Clarendonians’ version of “You Won’t See Me”, and Fanny’s “Hey Bulldog”. Also maybe the Rolling Stones’ “I Wanna Be Your Man”, though that’s not really a cover–it actually came out before the Beatles’ version.

  15. OH man you forgot “Ticket to Ride” covered by Vanilla Fudge. From their first album with the gold girl on the cover. Absolutely fabulous!

  16. Greetings from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Rob

    I just posted the fact that the Beatles were my favorite group on my Music Discussion group !!!!

    Although my musical tastes are broad ranging and eclectic , I still go back to The Beatles !

    Thanks for the insight into the Beatle Songs …the fact that they are so damn good that countless artists cover them !

    Recently I asked my music discussion members to list covers of Beatle songs and the response was phenomenal to say the least !

    A Day in a Life cover by the country folk duo The Kennedys(Maura and Peter Kennedy) is really worth checking out on You Tube as well as the Stereophonic’s version of Don’t Let Me Down among countless others !!!

    Thanks for this article.

    Steve McGraw …….from the right coast

  17. Great list. I had never heard of Dionne Farris before but was quite impressed with her version of this classic song.

    For me, there are some other contenders for this list, but it’s all opinion isn’t it!:)

    For what it is worth, I would add my personal favourites:

    Grant Lee Phillips: Here comes the sun. Beatlemania – Volume 2 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ADdo9i5AlM)

    Nick Cave: Here comes the sun (yes again!). I am Sam soundtrack (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cOT93IoiYc)

    Stereophonics: Don’t Let Me Down. Also from the I am Sam soundtrack (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0E2UnYjEeg)

    1. Hi Paul,

      I have been a Beatles fan(atic) since 1964 at the age of 11. I have been listening to all genres of music for over 40 years. I still firmly believe that all music namely rock pales to that of the Fab Four !

      The Beatles are the most covered band in music so that’s living proof that they are above all the rest ! Interesting to hear the Beatle covers but nobody does them better than The Beatles themselves!

      Steve McGraw

      1. Apparently, Clapton was nervous about doing it. Up until then, there hadn’t been any other rock musicians on a Beatles cut. He’d given George Harrison a lift into town, and George said “why don’t you come into the studio, and play on this song I wrote? It’s my song, so I want you on it”. And thus, we have Clapton’s solo on that song.

  18. I never use the word “BEST” or “BETTER” when categorising the arts ! I believe it’s a very subjective topic so I don’t think the Beatle covers are better than the original. I think of it as a different version or approach to an original Beatles masterpiece !

    SteveO

  19. I would liked to have seen “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” as performed by The Silkie, but you’ve a solid list here (sans the Shatner)-

    Cheers!

  20. I’ve been searching for a recording that my brother Jim said was the most bizarre thing he ever heard. It’s I Am the Walrus done by a children’s choir. Yep, you heard me. Jim died in Feb, this year, but he told me decades ago that he heard this little gem on the house tape at Minder Binder’s, Tempe, AZ around 1970-71. We’ve never heard it since, but then, why would we? Anyway, I’d love to find it now. Does anyone know of this or where it might be found? Thank-you

    1. Never mind, good people. Two doors down, I found what what I was looking for. Turns out, it’s on Youtube after all. I looked there first but missed it. It is a recording of I Am The Walrus by a very small chorus of 3 or so kids with decidedly British accents. They are backed up by even smaller kids on piano & percussion who are trying to figure out what the instruments are used for. Yes, it is bizarre. Kudos to the musical director, who’s name is Lol Coxhill and the album name is Ear of the Beholder. Aptly named. I actually feel strange after listening to that. I don’t think I should drive or operate machinery for awhile.

  21. Thank you for the list. I particularly love “Across The Universe” by Fiona Apple too. The song gave a nice tone for movie Pleasantville. I went to a cafe and listened to this song, and thanks to this song, I knew about Pleasantville. What a queer way. I also heard other cover Beatles songs in the cafe and it seems that the songs were all from a CD. The cover of ‘Hey Jude” is spot-on too. But what a shame that I couldn’t track the singer.

    1. It’s great to hear a Beatles cover! There are many good ones here! However if you realise who wrote the songs in the first place the covers pale in comparison! The more today’s artists cover Beatle songs, the more evident it is that today’s music is good but not great!

      A Beatle fanatic since 1964!

      Steve McGraw

      1. Hi Steve,

        Well speaking as a fellow Beatles fan (they are my favourite band – I’m stuck with them), I gotta disagree about the “good not great” ruling on today’s music. There’s plenty of great stuff out there, and plenty more places to find it than ever before. We are living a golden era as music fans.

        Thanks for comments!

      2. yes plenty of good stuff…where…I am overwhelmed with the tremendous music overload…I like all genres…any recommendations ROB ///…I APPRECIATE IT…

        STEVE MCGRAW

      3. It is pretty easy to get overloaded, that’s for sure. An important aspect of music fandom is having trustworthy curators. This is why I lament the passing of music shows on mainstream TV, not to mention local radio stations not owned by huge conglomerates. But, here on this humble blog I do what I can, as do so many others with the same mission.

        As for recommendations, I can only direct you to what is currently turning me on, and that is the latest album from The Barr Brothers Sleeping Operator. See also their EP Alta which is a five song release taken from the same sessions. Pay particular attention to the song “Burn Card”. It’s not very “Beatley”, more of a folk-blues-country hybrid full of gravity and understated beauty. I’m seeing the band play at the end of the month. Look out for a feature on them around that time.

        Thanks for comments, Steve.

      4. Hey Rob!

        I have heard of the Barr Brothers but I have neither the time or inclination to listen to them. Like I said, there are so many artists out there that I really never know where to start. Thanks for the recommendation….Sleeping Operator it shall be!

        Do you go to a specific website to search for new music? I like this one:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kscope

        Cheers,

        Steve

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