Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s your favorite cover of your favorite Beatles song?
It was inevitable that the Beatles would eventually come up with the song “Revolution.” Having been a group that revolutionized music in so many ways, it was just a matter of time until they made the foray into the political world of rebellion. John Lennon, of course, led the charge. And by leading, what John was saying here with his commentary on the Vietnam War, was to think before you act. Have a plan. Consider the consequences of those actions. It was that lack of foresight by the world’s political leaders of the day that were at the foundation of so many of the world’s problems. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, Lennon himself was not completely insightful, as he was still struggling with heroin addict at the time. It was Paul and George who took the original slower blues version of the song (featured on the White Album as “Revolution 1”) and came up with that great intro fuzz guitar and scream as an attention grabber. The reworked “Revolution” pre-released the White Album as part of a classic single, serving as the B-side to “Hey Jude.”
The greatly missed and overlooked Modesto, CA alt-country band Grandaddy’s version of “Revolution” (featured in the movie I Am Sam, along with other Beatle covers) is true to the spirit and lyrical content of the song. Jason Lytle and the boys show that there’s no need to grab attention with heavy reverb guitar or destructive antics. There’s another way to change the world. As John would say later and on many occasions, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”
Before I start this quick take, I have to get something off my chest: I can’t name a Beatles album. I mean, yes, I know Abbey Road, but other than that? Well, my parents raised me on the Stones, and while I enjoy the Beatles music, I have never taken the time to study their discography in depth. When this Q&A came into my mailbox, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for considering myself something of a music journalist and having absolutely no grasp on the scope of easily the most influential band to have ever existed.
While other writers at Cover Me may have gone for more abstract or indie covers, as a self-confessed Beatles dunce, I had to go with a classic, Al Green‘s cover of “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” The original was written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon and had been intended for release on The Ed Sullivan Show. It became the Beatles’ best-selling single worldwide. Al Green’s rendition was recorded in 1969, but wasn’t released on an album until the 1980s. Green transforms the mega-hit from a fun pop-rock tune into a sweet, soulful plea. Take a listen to this and I promise I will diligently go through every Beatles album under the sun.
I appreciate the music of the Beatles. I recognize its quality and its influence over so much of the music that I love. But I don’t love The Beatles. They don’t grab me viscerally in the way that other, “lesser” bands do. I never intentionally decide to listen to them, but I’m pretty much always happy when they come on the radio, or appear in my iPod random shuffle. I am barely too young to really remember the Beatles as a going concern, and I just never adopted them as my own. So I really can’t say that I have a “favorite” Beatles song. In fact, I often became aware of a particular Beatles song through a cover, and it wasn’t until I heard 801’s version of “Tomorrow Never Knows” that I went back to the original and really listened to it.
The original is a brilliant studio concoction, mixing live playing with prerecorded tape loops and cutting edge recording techniques that are remarkable for 1966. The band, along with producer George Martin and 19-year old engineer Geoff Emerick (along with other EMI studio techs), created an otherworldly, Indian influenced swirl of drones and beats featuring John Lennon’s eerily affectless vocals. Just over a decade later, 801, a (it turned out) temporary band featuring Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno and some talented but lesser known sidemen, tackled the song live during their initial three-concert run. The version released on the incredible 801 Live album eschews the Indian influences for a more straightforward rock sound, underpinned by an almost funky bass line from Bill MacCormick and propulsive drumming from Simon Phillips. Being live, it also has space for some fine jamming and guitar playing by Manzanera. Eno’s typical emotionless vocals mirror Lennon’s, and a decade of technical advances permit a measure of sound processing and synthesizer oddness in real time that would probably have astounded the EMI crew who created the original.
Although the original is a truly amazing feat, I find that it engages me more intellectually, while the 801 version grabs me by the gut. Which is why I barely ever listen to the Beatles recording, but have listened to the cover maybe a million times since I first heard it in the early 1980s.
As a point of comparison, Manzanera re-formed 801 the following year for an album (Listen Now, one of my favorite semi-obscure prog gems of the ’70s) and another tour, this time with a slightly different group of musicians — most notably, Simon Ainley replaced Eno – and this lineup also performed “Tomorrow Never Knows.” This version, from a concert at Hull, isn’t bad, but it is missing something that made the 801 Live version so memorable.
“My favorite piece of me is what I did on ‘Rain.’… I think it’s the best out of all the records I’ve ever made. ‘Rain’ blows me away. It’s out in left field. I know me and I know my playing… and then there’s ‘Rain.'”
That’s Ringo, talking about his drumming on the B-side to “Paperback Writer” (and what other band would release one of their most adventurous tracks as a non-album B-side?), but it could just as easily have been Paul, whose bass was up-front and agile and HUGE, or George, who created sounds as Eastern, detatched, and heavy as a Gibson SG could get, or John, whose lyrics got deeper the more thought you gave them. Revolver is now considered the Beatles’ most groundbreaking album, but by dint of being released a couple of months earlier, “Rain” broke that ground first.
“Rain” appears on Humble Pie‘s 1975 album Street Rats, their last album before their first breakup. It’s not really a Humble Pie album – Steve Marriott recorded it for a solo album, but the tapes were, ahem, “confiscated,” remixed, and released against the band’s will. The “Rain” cover (one of three Beatles covers on the album) isn’t as joyous as the original, but it’s no cheap echo, either – something different’s been brought out here, making a whole new song of it, and I’m always happiest with a cover when the artist sets out to put their own stamp on the song. However unhappy Humble Pie were, they provide that fresh stamp here, and I for one want to thank them for it.
When people say they like the Beatles, it tells you absolutely nothing. Do they like the boy band of the ’60s? Do they like the more “mature” albums that followed Bob Dylan turning the band onto weed? Or do they like the full wigged-out heroin/OMG Yoko/Maharishi final days? Count me in the latter group.
“Don’t Let Me Down” is a pretty raw song, untouched by Phil Spector for Let It Be and relegated to B-side status. But a Beatles B-side is something special, isn’t it? Stereophonics recorded this cover for the movie I Am Sam, which has a Beatles cover soundtrack so great you’ll find staff favorites all over this page. It’s also a movie where Dakota Fanning won five movie awards at age seven, and Sean Penn didn’t win anything, if that tells you how bad it is.
I’m posting a live version of the cover to mix things up a bit (bonus: it appears to have been recorded on VHS!). Here, Kelly Jones channels his best Rod Stewart in front of tens of thousand of fans at Glastonbury Festival, healing the crowd with a little of John Lennon’s pain.
While on the set of the Beatles’ film Help!, George Harrison picked up a sitar for the first time. Soon, he was incorporating sitar into the Beatles’ sound. The potential was, perhaps, most fully realized on “Within You Without You,” which leads off side two (for those of you with the LP version) of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Indian musicians and a British string section were brought in to provide additional instrumentation. The sounds of eastern and western instruments were merged brilliantly by producer George Martin. Except for Harrison, there are no Beatles on the track.
In the version of “Within You Without You” by fellow sound experimentalists Sonic Youth, white noise, carefully controlled feedback, and pedal effects substitute for the drone of Indian instruments. Otherwise, the arc of the song stays close to the original path. As in the Sgt. Pepper version, the lyrics and instrumentation are a perfect match.
Sonic Youth recorded their version of “Within You Without You” for the obscure late ‘80s tribute album, Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father. It shows up later on the deluxe edition of Daydream Nation. Listen closely for a few seconds of sampled sitar.
My introduction to the Beatles was through a family friend. He brought me a VHS copy of Yellow Submarine, and by the end of its 90-minute run time I was hooked. The fab four sang “Nowhere Man” to a furry little guy with a million names, and even at age 6, I was bowled over by how sad and thought-provoking this pop song really was. It was the first time I remember sitting and listening to the lyrics of a song, trying to make sense of them. The juxtaposition of upbeat “ahh-la-las” while describing someone that doesn’t have a point of view completely blew my tiny mind.
Paul Westerberg (of the Replacements, duh!) has such an amazing, mature rock and roll voice that proves why “Nowhere Man” is a timeless hit. He strips the track down from melodic ’60s pop to a lone man and his guitar, which probably embodies the lyrics’ existential crisis even better than a handful of mop-topped young dudes. This cover taps into my imagination and my memories, reminding me why I loved “Nowhere Man” from the start.
Most people will tell you it is impossible to pick a favorite Beatles song. This is not because each song is so singularly perfect that plucking just one would be like playing whack-a-mole: as soon as you decide on one, another pops up. The reason it is so difficult to pick just one favorite Beatles song is simply due to the well documented ever-evolving nature of their music.
The human experience in general is full of constant change and evolution. So for Beatles fans, each phase, song, or album speaks to a different part of our own evolutions and experiences, making it difficult to chose a favorite song. I’ve always been an Abbey Road girl, but “Norwegian Wood” has long stood out to me as a gateway song to a more progressive, worldly direction for the Beatles – a new phase of their evolution.
Of all the Beatles covers out there, there aren’t many of “Norwegian Wood.” Perhaps it gets lost in the shuffle of so many songs, or maybe no one wants to tackle a sitar. (However, we’ve been lucky enough to find five good ones in the past.) Whatever the case, the Waylon Jennings cover of “Norwegian Wood” stands out as completely different than the original, becoming another evolution of the song itself.
On the cover, John Lennon’s softer, lilting vocals are replaced with Waylon’s deep and powerful singing; Waylon’s vocals on the chorus are fervent compared to Lennon’s. The simple instrumentation of the original is replaced with a wall of country sound in spots, where the swaying strength of the instrumentation creates a forcefulness and the harmonica creates the lonely, country feel.
Waylon’s version certainly has the ’60s/’70s glittering country vibe, and his swagger is a good reminder of what the lyrics are actually about. Based on John Lennon’s varied affairs, but told through the story of being led on by a girl and seeking revenge by setting her place on fire, the darker nuances of Lennon and McCartney’s lyrics do not get lost in Waylon’s cover. Recorded a mere year after the original for his album Nashville Rebel, Waylon’s cover highlights the outlaw lyrics, sung by the original outlaw countryman.
My dad doesn’t like the Beatles. I rode in the car with my dad a lot, and so as a kid I didn’t have much of an appreciation for the Beatles either. I grew up on Creedence, Grand Funk, and Bad Company. So when I was about 11 years old and my Beatles-obsessed friend played “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” for me, I was blown away. The Beatles don’t just make kids’ songs and oldies? They actually know how to rock out? Whoa.
I’ve since found an appreciation for most of the Beatles catalog (except the White Album; I just don’t get it, I guess), but this mammoth anthem has always maintained the top spot. I’ve heard a few decent covers of it, but I have fallen into the trap of loving the original so much that I will never be fully satisfied with the other versions. I think that’s why Minnesota-based Tapes ‘n Tapes‘ cover, with its admitted lack of creativity, appeals to me. They don’t get too fancy, or stray too far from the original. They’ve modernized it by picking up the tempo, adding some alt-rock sensibility and distortion, and they keep it under five minutes. Even though there are some better takes out there based purely on musical talent (check out Eddie Hazel’s version), this one is still my favorite.
I can’t read sheet music very well, but I imagine transcribing “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” would be a mess. It contains, depending on how you count, 4 or 5 totally separately and barely-related sections. It changes keys regularly. At one point it bounces back and forth between different time signatures every bar. Reportedly it took the Beatles almost 100 takes to nail it because of the complexity.
Which makes it the perfect choice for Marc Ribot to cover. The avant-garde guitarist, best known for providing the weirdest parts in some of Tom Waits’ weirdest songs, thrives on the sort of weird beauty this song exudes. Which just a solo electric guitar – no singing – he wraps his fingers around Lennon’s oddball melodies and shifting rhythms with something approaching grace.
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