Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
After watching all eight hours of Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary, and another three hours of interviews with Jackson about the making of Get Back I had to put on A Hard Day’s Night to restore balance. I had to get back to a time when John Lennon was firing on all creative cylinders and Paul McCartney was slacking.
In early-to-mid 1964, Lennon was engaged, prolific, and self-confident enough that the Beatles finally released a full album with all original material: AHDN. No covers! All 13 tracks are Lennon–McCartney compositions, officially, but 10 of them are really Lennon’s. And they are all good to really good Lennon songs, too, except for the ones that are great, like “If I Fell” and the title track.
If McCartney’s contributions were few in number, two of them loom large in the catalog: “Can’t Buy Me Love” became the album’s first #1 single, while his ballad “And I Love Her” stands with McCartney’s best songs of any period. Mostly, though, Paul was not quite finding his stride in ‘64, much like John in the Get Back period.
As for George Harrison, he sang lead on John’s “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You,” but if he offered up any songs of his own they didn’t make the cut. He made his presence felt in other ways, like coming up with the four-note motif that opens and closes “And I Love Her” (an element that even Paul admits makes the song). And the jangly sound of George’s new 12-string Rickenbacker guitar gave AHDN its unique sonic sheen; the Byrds and other bands quickly made that jangle central to their sound, and decades later R.E.M. and the Smiths prompted a revival of it.
Before we explore the covers, let’s consider just how busy the Beatles were in 1964–and how lucky we are to have anything like this level of quality considering their schedules.
- They were performing concerts on a near-constant basis, 131 of them that year, including 26 shows in 32 days touring North America.
- They played live on the Ed Sullivan show twice in 8 days, which intensified the media frenzy surrounding them.
- They filmed their first film, and composed all the music for it.
- They wrote and recorded material not just for AHDN but for later albums and non-album singles.
- They re-recorded two of their previous album’s hits in German.
- Both Lennon and McCartney continued to write hits for other artists (Peter and Gordon, Cilla Black, Billy J. Kramer).
As for their personal lives, George Harrison courted Patti Boyd, whom he met on the AHDN film set and later married, and Paul was shacking up with the prominent British actor Jane Asher. John was the busiest of them all–his first book of poems, stories, and drawings hit the stores right in the middle of the AHDN recording period. All this he accomplished while having an infant son to raise (not that he did much of the raising, but still).
Sounds exhausting, and it was. The band’s follow-up album Beatles for Sale definitely shows traces of burn-out: half of its songs were covers, and not all of those were inspired choices (looking at you, “Mr Moonlight”). No wonder the Beatles called their next album Help!.
Ramsey Lewis–A Hard Day’s Night (The Beatles cover)
If you liked Billy Preston’s contributions to the Get Back sessions, you’ll appreciate this instrumental take by the late great Ramsey Lewis and his trio. It’s from a live date in 1965 at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, one of the premiere West Coast jazz clubs at the time. The audience seems excited to hear a recent pop hit at a jazz gig. They belatedly sing the first verse while the band is cruising into the second one. The crowd later begins clapping in (approximate) time to the groove, until the band starts breaking up the time and the form so that things get chaotic and spontaneous. Lewis, who passed away this summer at the age of 87, scored a top ten pop hit himself later that year, with his instrumental version of “The In Crowd.” In subsequent years he covered songs from all periods of the Beatles catalog.
She and Him–I Should Have Known Better (The Beatles cover)
Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward are reliably unpredictable song interpreters. Here they loosely channel the sound of the early ’60s, but not the archetypal Beatles or British Invasion style: instead they mix a bit of the Bakersfield country sound with a pinch or “Exotica.” Exotica was that vaguely Polynesian music that the US music industry foisted off as the sound of the South Pacific beginning in the ’50s. (Think tiki bars.) In both modes of music, the pedal steel has an important role to play. They take the instrument a bit over the top. The duo also indulges in corniness as they trade vocal turns (you can hear Deschanel laughing off mic just after Ward comes in). It’s one of those covers from left field that could leave you laughing and have you crying for its moments of beauty.
Nellie McKay–If I Fell (The Beatles cover)
The super-talented Nellie McKay is so eclectic and offbeat that she may never get the wider acclaim she deserves. McKay was 19 when she titled her 2004 debut Get Away From Me, a defiant poke at Come Away with Me, the blockbuster Norah Jones album. Like her idol Doris Day, McKay can easily personify wholesome and bubbly, but like John Lennon, who died two years before she was born, McKay can be acerbic, outspoken, and uncompromising.
Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick produced Get Away From Me. In 2015 McKay tapped Emerick again for her 1960s tribute, My Weekly Reader, where you can find her take on “If I Fell.” Here she sets irony aside and is fully faithful to Lennon and McCartney’s two-part harmonies–”If I Fell” is probably their most potent vocal duet. She sings at the upper-end of her range, and I thought she might re-create Paul’s infamous failure to hit the highest note of the bridge. But no, McKay is not kidding around. (Well, her use of the Betty Boop cartoon for the visualization video is a little perverse, in a way the Beatles would have liked.)
The Hot Club of San Francisco–I’m Happy Just to Dance with You (The Beatles cover)
If the Hot Club of San Francisco plays a sophisticated form of music, they go at it with casual joy. You might call their style “hardly strictly gypsy swing.” Their approach can do wonders for a simple bit of pop like “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You.” The song itself is one that Lennon later seemed embarrassed, but, really, what’s not to like about it? The way the Beatles bash right in with those bright chords is killer; that section (played as intro and later as refrain) reminds me of Nirvana’s “Lounge Act.” (We know Cobain was a student of the early Beatles–he even recorded a cover of “And I Love Her.”)
Anyway, if you like this cover, grab the HCoSF album John, Paul, George, and Django, if only for the clever title.
Pat Metheny–And I Love Her (The Beatles cover)
Guitarist Pat Metheny can play as searingly and go off as stratospherically as any musician alive, but on this gentle love song he is grounded and restrained. He plays his nylon-string guitar with a lover’s tender touch, and honors the intimate spell of the song from start to finish. The light Flamenco feel to Pat’s rhythm creates a fresh element, and his more exotic chord extensions bring out complex flavors only hinted at in the original. Just a gem.
The Bats (Jon Brion)–Tell Me Why (The Beatles cover)
There’s a decent chance you have heard of Jon Brion, but most likely you haven’t heard of Brion’s short-lived band The Bats. If you don’t know Brion by name, you’ve heard his work, either via his film scores or through the works of major artists that Brion has produced, from Fiona Apple to Kanye West. There’s nothing especially impressive about “Tell Me Why” or The Bats’ speedily little cover of it; no hint that Brion was bound for much bigger and better things beyond The Bats. But here’s a fun fact: One of the artists Brion went on to produce was Sean Lennon, who called Brion “a weird alien prodigy.” (He meant that in a nice way, I’m pretty sure.)
George Martin–Can’t Buy Me Love (The Beatles cover)
Beatles fans need no introduction to the producer George Martin, who is something like the Gandalf character in the Beatles story, but they have little interest in George Martin the composer and arranger. His orchestral arrangements of Beatles music go uncelebrated. But Martin’s imaginative reworkings are definitely worth a listen, if not a celebration.
Martin had a lot to do with “Can’t Buy Me Love” in particular: he had the idea to begin it with a segment from the chorus rather than launch into the verse or create a unique intro. In his own rearrangement for orchestra, he begins with modern jazz horns and piano–very Brubeck. He then veers from Brubreck into Bond (James Bond) in the style of film composer John Barry. It’s all bit dizzying. A decade or so later McCartney and Martin teamed up for “Live and Let Die,” contributing to the Bond film franchise for real. And it all started here.
Caspar Babypants–Any Time at All (The Beatles cover)
When your band becomes as massive as The Presidents of the United States of America became in the 1990s, you can do what you please with your fame and fortune. The Presidents’ lead singer and main songwriter, Chris Ballew, incarnated as Caspar Babypants, children’s musician. No, it’s not your usual rock star flex, but he was serious about it, and seriously good at it. Ballew released 19 albums worth of kids music in 10 years. Two of those albums are devoted to the music of the Beatles. He played a ton of kids parties and concerts too, and testifies that the behavior of the toddler crowd embodies the true spirit of reckless punk. Ballew has sidelined the kids stuff in recent years, and now makes ambient music.
Rhett Miller–I’ll Cry Instead (The Beatles cover)
With his muscular voice and charismatic presence, Rhett Miller (of Old 97’s fame) has a Lennonesque quality. Here at an all-star Lennon tribute concert he knocks out a rockabilly-lite version of “I’ll Cry Instead.” I don’t think there’s a cover of this song that isn’t rockabilly-flavored. Maybe I’m too easily amused, but I do appreciate a guitar solo that quotes the riff to a different song by the same songwriter. Especially if the riff is as iconic as “I Feel Fine,” from later on in the miracle year of 1964.
Dwight Yoakam–Things We Said Today (The Beatles cover)
The song meant to blend a haunted minor key sequence with something painfully sweet in a major key (the “someday when we’re dreaming…” part), but I’ve always thought the two parts mostly just canceled each other out. But I like how Yoakam reroutes the song into his tripped-out hillbilly zone. His guitarist’s in-your-face whammy bar attack provides the dark atmosphere, his drummer is loud and driving. It’s one of the rare Beatles covers that seems preferable to the original.
The Brotherhood–When I Get Home (The Beatles cover)
Today I learned about The Brotherhood, and I feel like I’ve found ancient life preserved in a bit of amber. These guys quit the successful Paul Revere and the Raiders band, with the aim to experiment wildly and succeed commercially. Didn’t work. Based on this cover you’d guess they were early fans of Syd Barrett, or, no, Big Brother and the Holding Company, no, wait, early Black Sabbath. And this is all in one cover of an early Beatles song! No wonder The Brotherhood fell into obscurity–they couldn’t commit to a direction for even two minutes. And yet I’m probably going to play this nugget of weirdness again, when I get home.
MonaLisa Twins–You Can’t Do That (The Beatles cover)
Here are the MonaLisa Twins playing in the Cavern Club, where the teenaged and Ringo-less Beatles first took off. To rent the Cavern and play like the Beatles is a clever little stunt, I guess, if you like stunts and can get past the preciousness of it. The Twins are more imitative than creative-–they mimic Lennon’s ad-lib shout that begins the solo–-and yet their appeal is undeniable. A million copycat bands have the musical skills to play like this, but few achieve the Twins’ level of chemistry, commitment, and charisma. I hoped they passed the audition. Now I’m going to explore their covers of the Beach Boys and the Kinks.
Rosanne Cash–I’ll Be Back (The Beatles cover)
I can’t decide if the Rosanne Cash version of this song holds a candle to Shawn Colvin’s. But we’ve covered Colvin’s take before, so Cash gets the nod. I wonder if Cash heard Colvin’s version and wanted in on the action-–the two artists are good friends, after all. “I’ll Be Back” is a more sizable production in Cash’s hands–it’s performed at a Lennon tribute concert, so a bunch of players on stage is to be expected. They play the song with a strong feel. It would be a travesty not to; it’s a passionate song that is one of Lennon’s best from this period. (I’m no fan of singers who get the lyrics from a teleprompter rather than from memory, but objection is overruled in this case. I’m sorry I even mentioned it.)