Rarely Covered looks at who’s mining the darkest, dustiest corners of iconic catalogs.
So it’s early 1963 and you’re a British pop act in need of a new hit record. Maybe you’ve recorded a Goffin and King number already, and you’ve noted that the Shadows and their guitar instrumentals are on the wane. Maybe you want to tap into the new craze for beat music sweeping the ballrooms, clubs, and town halls of the nation, that melodic hybrid of rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and skiffle. Or maybe you’re established in a beat group and just want to keep serving up those driving rhythms the best way you can.
So what do you do? Well, you might cover a song by a besuited Liverpool fourpiece enjoying huge chart success and popularity off the back of a distinctive self-penned number called “Please Please Me.” Especially if the guy who manages them, Brian Epstein, also manages you, and/or you’re traveling up and down the country with them on a tour bus. You can keep your hands off “I Saw Her Standing There,” though. That’s promised to someone.
Jump to early 2023, and, assuming you did make a deal with the Liverpool group, you’ve made history as one of the first artists ever to have covered the Beatles. Before “I Want To Hold Your Hand” happened, and before the big guns like Joe Cocker got involved, along with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and, of course, Alvin and the Chipmunks. The fact is you’ve covered a song that only about 23 other artists have ever covered, as opposed to, say, 573. Plus you did it in the historic initial year of Beatlemania!
So that’s what we’re all about here: a Rarely Covered post to mark the 60th anniversary of the momentous Beatles year of 1963, looking at the artists who got in early on the Fab Four magic. Sure, none of them exactly mined “the darkest, dustiest corners of an iconic catalog,” but they sure put their mark on what are now viewed as the less celebrated corners of an iconic catalog (close enough). They courted a band unusually concerned with writing, who had already penned something like 156 originals by February of that year, if John Lennon’s boasts to the Daily Mail were anything to go by.
These artists further had the foresight to recognize Lennon and McCartney as a whole new breed of songwriting partnership for a new era (the Sixties), whose sound with the Beatles was hugely and incontrovertibly different. That beat. That black R&B sound. Those harmonies. They contributed, in other words, to the revolution in British pop music in the early ’60s, which helped pave the way for the British Invasion.
I know what you’re going to say, though: What constitutes a Beatles cover in 1963? Wasn’t it at this point that Lennon and McCartney began their “sideline” of writing for other artists, like Cilla Black? Didn’t they sometimes record self-written songs themselves before giving them away? Or perform them live or in session…before giving them away…and then self-releasing them? It’s a bit of a minefield, to be honest.
Let’s just stick with one qualifying rule: The Beatles need only have recorded or performed a version of the song (not just as a demo) before anyone else released it, and have officially put it out as a Beatles song at some point (on Anthology in the ’90s, perhaps, or Live at the BBC). That just might work.
The Typhoons — Please Please Me
The Typhoons were quick off the mark to release the first Beatles cover of 1963, if not ever. They don’t get a lot of credit, though, because they were basically a bunch of session musicians assembled by budget label Embassy Records to cash in on the beat boom. They released their version of “Please Please Me” on February 7, just as the Beatles were at #3 in the UK singles chart with the original. They released it as a B-side, in fact, to a song made famous by Joe Brown and the Bruvvers (“That’s What Love Will Do”). It went nowhere, but it’s notable for some exuberant bass playing and a distorted organ sound that takes the place of John’s harmonica, giving it a slightly different bluesy vibe.
Kenny Lynch — Misery
Kenny Lynch took on “Misery” in a bid to follow through on his top ten success with Goffin and King’s “Up On The Roof,” which began to slide down the chart as “Please Please Me” headed up. The East Londoner knew all too well the buzz around the Beatles, because he toured with them in support of teen sensation Helen Shapiro in February ’63, along with the Kestrels. It was then that he adopted the rejection-themed track that Lennon and McCartney had actually intended for Shapiro, and which the Beatles subsequently recorded on February 11 towards their debut album. More inclined to introspection than Shapiro, he did a fine job on it, laying down his silky-smooth vocal over a poppy arrangement, orchestral flourishes, and the Shadowsy guitar licks of Bert Weedon. He didn’t get a hit out of it, but he sure gave his more accusatory version (“You’ve been treating me bad”) a lot of soul.
Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas — I’ll Be On My Way
Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas were also up for a downbeat Lennon/McCartney composition about lost love, following the March 22 release of the Please Please Me LP with its incredible (for the time) eight self-written originals. The Beatles’ Epstein-signed labelmates famously covered “Do You Want to Know a Secret” from that record and scored a #2 hit single with it in May, ahead of the track getting reinterpreted some 94 times over the years. By different artists, obvs! But for its B side, they recorded John and Paul’s “I’ll Be On My Way,” which the Beatles didn’t put on their LP but did perform live many times, notably for the April 4 edition of BBC radio show “Side By Side.” This was a track that only a handful of folks went on to cover, like UB40 in 2005, who turned it all reggae!
Billy and his Dakotas, though, gave the melancholy song a rock ‘n’ roll kick that the Beatles version lacked, with the inestimable aid of producer George Martin. It’s still very Buddy Holly and still very corny in the lyrics department, but with a striking Bo Diddley intro and some gorgeous Everly Brothers-style harmonies.
The Kestrels — There’s a Place
The Kestrels had a huge live following, if not chart success, in the early ’60s, down to their vocal harmonising skills. The Bristol (UK) fourpiece had also hooked up with the Beatles on the Helen Shapiro package tour, prior to taking a shine in May ’63 to Lennon/McCartney’s energized Please Please Me deep cut “There’s a Place.” They took the Motown-flavored song and turned it into a big Four Seasons kind of affair, unusual for a song—like “Up On The Roof”—about the need for psychological escape from the harsh realities of life. It’s a truly life-affirming record for all that. And it’s surprising that it wasn’t a hit the size of “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” quite frankly.
The Fourmost — Hello Little Girl
The Fourmost were another band to sign up with Epstein, get George Martin on board, and grab a slice of Lennon/McCartney action. A Merseybeat group who’d previously played the Cavern as the Four Jays, they took on one of the first songs Lennon ever composed (in 1957) and which the Beatles recorded for their unsuccessful Decca audition on January 1, 1962. It’s not a hugely interesting number by any means, and it features an awful lot of “Hello Little Girl”s, but the Fourmost elevated it to great heights with their raw energy, harmonies, and vocal gymnastics. It’s pure beat music, and they reached #9 with it in the UK in October ’63. Just as the screaming and the “Yeah Yeah Yeahs” were sending everyone doolally.