Jul 122013

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

Considering The Beatles’ impact on music, pop culture and beyond, surprisingly few filmmakers have taken on the challenge of telling the legendary band’s story on the big screen. Director Iain Softley stands apart as one of the few who wasn’t daunted; his very first film, Backbeat, tells the story of the Beatles’ raucous early years as a cover band, performing in the seedy red-light district of Hamburg, Germany. The film concentrates on the love triangle amongst John Lennon, then-bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, and German photographer Astrid Kirchherr.

Released in March 1994, the film received somewhat middling reviews, but the soundtrack… ah, the soundtrack. Grunge was the music of the moment in the early ’90s, and Kurt Cobain was still a month away from choosing to burn out rather than fade away. Producer extraordinaire Don Was assembled a veritable who’s who of the grunge/alternative scene to make up the Backbeat Band and record the soundtrack. Members included Dave Grohl (Nirvana), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), Greg Dulli (The Afgan Whigs) and Don Fleming (Gumball). Trust us, this was as close to a super-group as you could get in 1994. Partially to serve the story and partially out of necessity (they couldn’t get the rights to any original Beatles numbers for the unauthorized biopic), the Backbeat Band performed a set of covers straight out of the Beatles’ setlists from those Hamburg years. Check out the results below.

Money (That’s What I Want) (Barrett Strong cover)

The band wastes no time, ripping into Motown’s first hit (#2 on the US R&B chart in June 1960). A staple of The Beatles’ repertoire in the early years, “Money” later became the closing track on their second album, With The Beatles. The Backbeat Band’s version channels the rawness and energy that characterized The Beatles’ Hamburg performances, which often found the band playing hours-long set lists for drunken, debaucherous crowds.

Bad Boy (Larry Williams cover)

Afgan Whig Greg Dulli handled the vocals for much of the album, and you can see why on “Bad Boy.” He delivers all of the youthful bravado and sneer that John Lennon did when singing hard-edged rock’n’roll in his early years. The rest of the band brings authenticity to the table as well, except perhaps for Dave Grohl – he drums circles around anything Pete Best or Ringo Starr ever did. On the other hand, with talent like his and music this exciting, who can blame him?

Roadrunner (Bo Diddley cover)

Mike Mills takes his turn at the microphone on “Roadrunner,” a novelty (beep, beep) number originally recorded by Bo Diddley. This is about as far away from “Near Wild Heaven” as you can get, but Mills pulls it off, urging us to “let this man by.” The simple, grinding 12-bar blues and its prominent backing vocals make this an ideal pick for the early Beatles.

Twenty Flight Rock (Eddie Cochran cover)

Never one to be left out of the mix, Dave Pirner sings lead on three of the album’s twelve tracks, including this Eddie Cochran number. It’s a testament to the influence of Cochran on The Beatles that Paul McCartney still regularly features “Twenty Flight Rock” in his live outings. This performance exemplifies everything that makes the Backbeat soundtrack such a treat:  no-nonsense instrumentation, snarling vocals, and an unhinged guitar solo, all in under two minutes (the entire album falls short of the half-hour mark).

Video: The Backbeat Band live on the MTV Movie Awards, June 4, 1994

As far as we can tell, the Backbeat Band performed live only once, at the 1994 MTV Movie Awards. They faithfully rip through two tracks from the soundtrack, “Money” and “Long Tall Sally.” The performance is every bit as chaotic and punk as you could hope, with Dulli and Moore playfully jumping all over each other at the end of “Sally.” As a special bonus, they also perform the classic proto-punk Beatles original “Helter Skelter.” Luckily for us, we’re only subjected to one minute of a collection of punk superstars absolutely nailing the track before the director cuts away to the far more important footage of celebrities chattering inanely and acting like idiots.

You can buy a used copy of the soundtrack for as low as $1.16 on Amazon.

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