It ‘s Paul McCartney’s birthday this coming Saturday. And for the ocasion this year, I thought I’d take a look at some of the cover versions of his songs, both with the Beatles and without, that stand out as shining gems in tribute to Sir Paul on the occasion of his 69th (!) birthday, born as he was on June 18th, 1942.
One of his greatest strengths as a songwriter was his ability to ‘write in the style of’, which allowed him access to all kinds of musical genres, and helped to expand the reach of pop music as a whole. This of course means that he was celebrated by a wide range of artists in turn, on the rock, pop, soul, punk, and other points on the musical spectrum besides. Here are 1o favourites, some being classics on their own, while others are simply just notable for how far Macca’s reach is as far as what sort of act can take up his material.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the list!
1. Bill Withers “Let It Be”
Taking the churchy flavour (although more C 0f E in the Beatles’ case, rather than Southern Baptist) of the Beatles’ version as it appeared on the final Beatles album of the same name, Bill Withers amps up the gospel on this tune, complete with handclaps, tambourines, and bona fide church organ. He gets bonus points for not putting a choir on it, and relying instead on the supreme soulfulness of his own voice.
2. The Faces “Maybe I’m Amazed”
Blooze-rock champions The Faces kick one of Macca’s best loved love songs, one of my favourites, and with one of my favourite renditions to boot. Ronnie Lane and Rod Stewart share lead vocals, with some fine gospel-flavoured playing on piano and organ from Mac McLagen, and razor sharp licks from future Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood. This is the Faces at their sloppy best, and on a track that would become something of a live staple for the band too.
3. Aimee Mann & Michael Penn “Two of Us”
Married couple and singer-songwriters Mann and Penn take on the 1969 tune on Let It Be that eventually appeared on the soundtrack album for the film I Am Sam, starring Penn’s younger brother Sean, who in turn portrayed a Beatles fan and mentally challenged father. The song is one of the first love songs by McCartney about his soon-to-be wife Linda, and their habit of taking off on journeys with no specific destinations. The subtext of what a marital relationship is often like – a journey which is enjoyed in the moment, even with an uncertain outcome – is striking on this one. And what a great version, with the two leads’ voices meshing so well.
4. Siouxie & The Banshees – “Helter Skelter”
Punk and noise-rock collective Siouxie & the Banshees somehow make this tune even more ferocious, as included on their 1978 album The Scream. This tune had always come off as a proto punk song. And Siouxie makes it official, showing too that even if Macca was in his “Mull of Kintyre” phase by the time this version was laid down, his range as a writer was no less varied.
5. Earth, Wind, and Fire – “Got To Get You Into My Life”
Funky radio-hitmakers Earth Wind and Fire deliver a ebullient, super bluesy-jazzy version of this Beatles song, with which they had success despite its inclusion in Robert Stigwood’s craptacular 1978 Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band feature film, in which they also appear. This is a bright and shimmering tune that irradiates a life-affirming charm. Not bad for a song about pot dressed up as a love song, appearing on the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver.
6. Elliott Smith “Blackbird”
Massive Beatles fan Elliott Smith delivers a brittle and tender version of McCartney’s 1968 paean to civil rights as it appears on The Beatles (aka The White Album). Here, because it’s Elliott Smith, it feels in places like he’s singing it to himself, and you hope that he’s going to listen.
7. Red House Painters “Silly Love Songs”
If this tune had been written by Neil Young, this is probably how it would have sounded. Mark Kozelek and company turn this lightweight pop song (with a storming bassline!) from Wings’ 1976 album Wings At The Speed of Sound, into something of an extended, jagged jam. And somehow too, the delivery here makes the song sound more desperate, and light years away from its breezy, pop radio origins.
8. Anne Sofie Von Otter & Elvis Costello “Broken Bicycles/Junk”
Taking Tom Waits’ “Broken Bicycles” and coupling it with Macca’s 1970 album track “Junk” is one of the highlights of opera singer-turned-pop-vocalist Von Otter’s For the Stars album, produced by Costello, and co-sung by him here on this track. If you didn’t think McCartney could do melancholy, this is proof positive that he could indeed, with a song that is about abandonment and waste, perhaps a couple of things on his mind during the time of the Beatles’ break-up.
9. Shonen Knife “Jet”
This is actually pretty faithful to the original, but with that patented buzzsaw guitar, and the sweet, Japanese-accented vocals in contrast to it. This song always rocked, but the ‘Knife underscores the point, with some impressive playing that maybe you wouldn’t expect on a McCartney song as covered by a (albeit revered, and rightly so) punk rock band from Japan.
10. Donny Hathaway “Yesterday”
There have been thousands of cover versions of this song, and many of them from Elvis to Frank Sinatra are widely, and rightly celebrated. But, one of my favourites is this one by Donny Hathaway, recorded in front of a very vocal audience, and losing none of its poignancy in the master interpreter’s hands. When Hathaway sings, you can’t imagine that it could have been laid down any other way, despite it being one of the most covered songs of all time.
Bonus cover version: Bettye Lavette “Maybe I’m Amazed”
I couldn’t not put this one on here, as version of a mighty, mighty McCartney song as taken from Bettye’s 2010 Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. This song becomes less the power ballad, and more the soulful torch song, with sumptuous-yet-subtle strings, smooth guitar, and Bettye’s textured, and impassioned vocals. Magic!
Happy birthday, Macca!