May 112020

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

It is a rare Beatles song that just doesn’t get much love. Or that almost anyone can cover and claim to have improved on the original. But these things are true of George Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way,” from Magical Mystery Tour. The song has its defenders, but it gets a shrug from most listeners. Luckily, though, for each underdog song like this, there are plenty of cover versions that pull out of the original song way more possibilities than its naysayers could ever imagine. We have three “Blue Jay Way” covers here to demonstrate how this works.

But let’s give credit where credit is due: “Blue Jay Way” is one of the best examples of sonic psychedelia by any band of any period. Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn said, “It seized upon all the studio trickery and technical advancements of 1966 and 1967 and captured them in one song. […]’Blue Jay Way’ makes fascinating listening for anyone interested in what could be achieved in a 1967 recording studio.”

Harrison wrote “Blue Jay Way” at the start of his U.S. West Coast trip in 1967, when he found himself jet-lagged in the Hollywood Hills, and fighting off sleep while waiting on a friend. (It was Derek Taylor, lost in the fog.) People assume the lyrics refer to metaphysical fog, metaphorical sleep, and allegorical friends. But this was just Harrison being as literal and plainspoken as can be. (It’s a Lennon-like move, to sing about being tired and sleeping, though Lennon would have written better lyrics.)

Given the song’s lack of popularity, there’s not the abundance of cover versions that you find with The Beatles’ better work. But there are enough to make it hard to pick just three. It would have been nice to include the 1968 version by jazz great and kindred spirit Bud Shank (he worked with Ravi Shankar a few years before Harrison). A ukulele-driven “Blue Jay Way” would have hit the spot too, given Harrison’s well-known love of the instrument.

The three covers on our short list all earn high marks for sheer originality. As a bonus, all three are well-filmed live performances. For that matter, The Beatles’ filmed performance of “Blue Jay Way” is also worth watching. As to the three covers…

Siouxsie and the Banshees are good.

Michel Benita is better.

And Dosh is best.

Siouxie and the Banshees – Blue Jay Way (The Beatles cover)

Dissonant post-punk feels like an odd first stop on this tour. Except Siouxsie and the Banshees have a history with Beatle covers. Their 1978 debut album included “Helter Skelter” (dissonant pre-punk from the White Album). A few years later, just as the Banshees were settling into their reputations as experimentalists and subversives, the band released a pumped-up but safe-sounding version of “Dear Prudence.” It was an unexpected selection, but the single was a success (it’s still one of their best sellers).

And here they are decades later, drawing from the Beatles 1967-68 well once again. On their 2002 tour they unveiled “Blue Jay Way” on encores (sometimes saving it for the night’s third encore); they never recorded it for commercial release. The band pretty much pulverizes the gentle and introverted “Blue Jay Way” into a sort of menacing dirge. (The video has a nice crowd shot showing an unfazed fan singing right along.) With Siouxsie singing it, the song gets sexualized. Despite its inward lyrics, the vibe is way more Reeperbahn in Hamburg, Germany, than California in the summer of love.

No one is in a fog for this 2002 performance. It’s their encore, so all the juices are flowing. Siouxsie’s electric, and the London audience is eating it up (when not shouting things at the stage—evidently that’s what people did at concerts before smartphones). The band end the song by stirring it up into a sweaty sludge of sound. Great show, good cover!

Michel Benita – “Blue Jay Way” (The Beatles cover)

By picking up a sitar all those years ago, Harrison may have moved the “world music” needle more than any individual musician ever has. And so, for our Better selection, we have a world music ensemble led by bassist Michel Benita.

Benita is often associated with Fourth World music, “a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques.” Who knows if Benita buys into all that, but the description applies pretty well to his version of “Blue Jay Way.” The Beatles original is fitting material for the Fourth World aesthetic, since it was all about advanced tech (some of it invented specifically for The Beatles), and its melodic scale is drawn from Indian ragas.

This band’s take on “Blue Jay Way” is unhurried, dreamy, and somewhat spooky. It’s a sonic journey that ebbs and flows, and it’s soaked in atmosphere, the soundtrack to a film you’d like to star in. When they invoke the L.A. fog in the free-form section, you hope it lingers for a while, even if it makes you lose your way. The band mixes musical dialects and cultures old and new, from the muted trumpet (channeling Miles Davis even as it states Harrison’s melody), to the chittering drum machine, to the traditional Japanese koto, to the electric guitar played with an E-Bow. It’s tempting is to list the diverse nationalities of the band members, but the whole point is that these are musicians without borders.

Listen closely to the final iterations of the refrain—they introduce a subtle chord change or two. That nuance somehow resolves all the tension and warms up the piece, like sunlight burning through the fog.

Dosh – “Blue Jay Way” (The Beatles cover)

Here’s our pick for the Best “Blue Jay Way” cover. And no, we didn’t embed the wrong YouTube clip. That really is “Blue Jay Way,” it’s just that it starts out as “Flying,” yet another disfavored Beatles track from the same side of the Magical Mystery Tour.

Multi-instrumentalist Dosh is simultaneously the frontman and sideman here. He’s several sidemen. It’s all down to his mastery of live looping, and to being ambidextrous enough to play his multi-instruments as he sees fit.

Moving quickly around within his fortress of acoustic and digital keyboards, drums and cymbals, mic stands and mixing consoles, Dosh builds up the instrumental and vocal layers into a lush soundscape. His left hand plays keyboard as he taps the snare with his right, while his feet work the kick drum and looper pedals. Somehow he creates and modulates all these loops without losing the shape of the song, and never knocking over that coffee cup. He leaves space for spontaneity—when Dosh activates a wind-up kid’s toy for percussive texture, it’s like a chef adding in spice to taste. The beauty of the music that emerges speaks for itself. And it lands gracefully, with lovely repetition of the refrain that recalls the original song.

This piece is Dosh’s contribution to Volume Five of the non-profit Minnesota Beatle Project. Members of the Minnesota music industry cover Beatles songs for a great cause—to provide funding and instruments for public school music programs. Beatle fans take note: the five-volume Minnesota Beatle Project makes for truly excellent listening. You just have to be at ease with eclecticism. You might hear Soul Asylum or the Meat Puppets followed by bluesman Charlie Parr, followed by a middle school marching band. Five volumes: It’s all too much, yet you can’t get enough. All ages, all styles—the only commonality is that the artists are Minnesotans, and they are giving generously of their time and talents. Respect!

Roll up, roll up, step right this way to find many more Beatle covers.

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