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.
The 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.
Joe 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.
This 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” 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.
In 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.
John 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.
This 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.
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.
Paul 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.
Fiona 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.