Thursday, June 20, 2013

Covering the Beatles

 Love them or hate them, the influence of The Beatles is hard to question and in my opinion, beneficial for everything that came after, regardless of genre, style, artist, or era. Personally, I have always enjoyed and been a fan of the Beatles, having grown up in a house that loved their music immensely, and always have them somewhere in my top 5 music groups.
I really do think a lot can be said about a person depending on their choice of favorite Beatles song (and if they're enough of a fan, their favorite album).
And I really hope you don't hate them. Even if you're not a huge fan, even if you think they're overrated, give them a listen. I recommend just sitting with Revolver. There's really very little to be disappointed about.

And if you aren't a fan, let me see if I can use this roundabout sort of way to convince you.

A lot of artists have attempted to cover the Beatles music and that can be very difficult with any song or music, much less theirs. Now there are songs undoubtedly powerful on their own, but there is so much more to it than that. Songs need a voice and a musicianship in some capacity behind it. Does a track like Bridge Over Troubled Water carry the same simultaneous bravado and vulnerability as it does if it's not Art Garfunkel singing it? Even the live performance of Simon & Garfunkel where Paul Simon sings a verse is moving, but it doesn't carry the same gravitas as Garfunkel alone, even 30-40 years later. Is there anyone who brings not only power, but also makes it look so effortless, like Whitney Houston does for I Will Always Love You?

Like these iconic songs, much of the Beatles anthology is indelibly linked to their performances: from Harrison and Starr's immensely talented instrumentation, McCartney's sense of pop and whimsy, Lennon's poetry and ambition, the evolution of their sound, the odd cohesion of four divergent personalities, the culmination of their respective influences, their willingness to find something new, and that unknowable x-factor that just endears the music to people. People can become wary of "treading on sacred ground."

That said, once in a while, a cover of a song comes along that is refreshing, interesting, and ballsy enough to stand on that sacred ground and perhaps, once in a great while, transcend the performer, make the song bigger than its creator.
What makes a cover good? What makes it worthwhile? Personally, I look for these qualities:
- I expect a certain amount of reverence for the original song. After all, there is a reason you are drawn to cover the song. You think it's awesome. I expect to hear just what you love about the song.
- I expect you to bring yourself to the performance. A cover is not a straight up reproduction of the song. We have the records to hear that. And no way you're going to surpass the original, so why draw the comparison? This isn't Rock Band. You can't duplicate the original performer. Don't try.
- Along the same line, but kind of different, I also expect the choice of the song to speak to you. Not every Beatles song is the same. There are ballads, up-tempo numbers, story songs, funk rock, folk rock, even some metal, and some Indian-inspired songs, and psychedelic and pure pop thrown in too. Speaking of karaoke, I can't sing every song. I have a wheelhouse of 5 songs I do, and I don't push it. I like these songs, I know I can do these songs justice, and bring something to them. I wouldn't do much with Lose Yourself or It's Tricky, but I know some people who can.
- Finally, I said ballsy earlier. If you're gonna cover a song...You just better fucking rock it. Kill it.

Here are my 11 Favorite Beatles Covers 

Originally on: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Originally sung by: Ringo Starr, as Billy Shears
Cover by: Joe Cocker
From: Woodstock, '69

Maybe Ringo's not too happy...
If you were a fan of The Wonder Years, you're at least somewhat acquainted with this performance. It's probably one of the most drastic remakes on the list, a slower time signature, some different keys, a vastly different arrangement. But it fits with Cocker's bluesy-rock style, and I love the contrast of the quieter verses with the soaring choruses. Cocker performed this at Woodstock, and part of its memorable arrangement is used for the version in the song, combining it with the original arrangement, in the movie Across the Universe. Starr sings solo very rarely in the anthology, so it makes sense that it would take a drastic overhaul to fit the song into a different repertoire.

Originally on: Please, Please Me
Originally sung by: McCartney, backed by Lennon
Cover by: Jerry Lee Lewis, backed by Little Richard
From: The album Last Man Standing

From the early pop days of the band, this song has been covered by everyone from Alvin and the Chipmunks to Led Zeppelin. But what I said earlier about fitting the artist to the song really fits here. The arrangement is brought into the piano roll style of Lewis and Richard, who bring an infectious zest to the track, and their voices complement each other well, in a way that improves on McCartney and Lennon in the original. You can hear some ridiculous piano playing from two of the best, and Richard's iconic falsetto "woo!" throughout. Also, I want you to note their age recording this. You think McCartney can still go after all these years, this album is from 2006.

Originally on: Second A-Side to Day Tripper
Originally sung by: McCartney
Cover by: Stevie Wonder
From: One of my favorite of his albums, Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Ebony and ivory.
What I love about Wonder's version is it's so decidedly his. The funky synthesizer, the harmonica solo, and that amazing voice, it sounds written for him. I'm not even much of a fan of the original, and that's what makes this cover so striking to me. It's okay, the same thing happens to me for a Wonder track: I prefer Red Hot Chili Peppers' version of Higher Ground to his original.

Originally on: Abbey Road
Originally sung by: Written and performed by Harrison.
Cover by: John Williams
From: George Martin's In My Life

No, not that John Williams...Although, you could've had me fooled, with the liberal use of horns and strings in the backing. But John Williams is a classical guitarist, and a damn good one at that. In My Life was created by George Martin, who many feel was the "fifth Beatle," he was producer, arranger, composer, conductor, and audio engineer for every single Beatles album. If anyone knows how to redo their music, it's him. Many of his tracks are pretty good, and there's even a Jeff Beck guitar cover of A Day in the Life, but I think it loses a lot of the nuance of the song without its vocal, and I think the McCartney portion suffers from the delivery. But this track is beautiful. It never becomes quite as upbeat as the original, but Here Comes the Sun is one of my favorites. The original too. I also think Harrison's exceptionally difficult to cover. His tracks are rarer amongst the Lennon-McCartney fare, but they're all amazingly memorable: While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Within You Without You, and Something, chief among them. This track, like I said, is more laid back, there's more of an awakening feeling to it, rather than a celebration, and I think it brings a new meaning to the song.

Originally on: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band / A Hard Day's Night
Originally sung by: Lennon, on both.
Cover by: Elton John / Billy Joel
From: I only know it as a single. / I know it as a live recording.

Three musicians walk into a bar...
First of all, I need you to take note of the fact that Lennon sings both of these. Even though he's more known for writing and performing the more abstract and poetic numbers (Strawberry Fields Forever, Across the Universe), he also had that rock edge and gravel in his voice, evident in A Hard Day's Night, but even moreso on Revolution, or Come Together. The contrast of the style is amazing to me, and how it takes two completely different artists to cover both these songs. Joel couldn't pull off the surrealism of Lucy like Elton can, and likewise, I think Joel has the working class sensibility and the much grittier piano rock to take Day's Night to a new level. They also each perfectly embody my first idea of reverence to the source. Elton's arrangement of Lucy is pretty straightforward, a lot of the instrumentation is cleaner in fact, and really the only added touch is the signature Elton reprisal coda (similar to Tiny Dancer, where he repeats one of the first verses, but slightly varied). Joel's version of Day's Night is fantastic. That opening chord is iconic, making it one of the most recognizable songs ever. Joel keeps it pretty faithful too, but like I said it's his vocal that makes it awesome. You can hear the angst of Allentown and My Life in it.

Originally on: Revolver (Seriously, listen to it).
Originally sung by: McCartney
Cover by: Aretha Franklin
From: Again, I only know it as a single.

"Let it be!" "I don't think so."
Eleanor Rigby might be one of the definitive Beatles tracks, and a lot of covers I've heard fall far short of its subtle sadness and haunt. So, what does Aretha do? Well, what she does best. Aretha, queen of soul, takes it in an entirely different direction, but, like only she could make it happen, it works. I'd like to imagine someone of importance told Aretha she couldn't change the lyrics to make it a first-person song, and Aretha pitch-slapped that guy. Pitch-slapped. Like getting bitch-slapped with that powerhouse voice. Aretha's version is full of sass and soul, and suddenly Eleanor Rigby is a no-nonsense broad who ain't got time for that.

Originally on: Opens up Abbey Road
Originally sung by: Lennon
Cover by: Michael Jackson
From: The film, Moonwalker and the album HIStory.

Give peace a dance.
I have an undying loyalty to the King of Pop. Considering he owned the catalog, I'm a little saddened that he didn't attempt more Beatles covers. But for his only effort, this one is a damn good one. It's so amazingly MJ. The arrangement's basically the same, but he makes that bass riff into a decidedly MJ dance bass, and that ridiculous vocal is to die for. People forget the harmony on "over me" isn't in the original. For me, there's enough of the original, and more than enough of the cover artist to stand as the definitive example of a cover, the gold standard to aspire to.

Originally on: Magical Mystery Tour
Originally sung by: Lennon
Cover by: Jim Carrey
From: George Martin's In My Life

They are the eggmen.
The celebrity tracks are hit and miss on Martin's album (I don't like Goldie Hawn's Hard Day's Night, Robin Williams' Come Together is serviceable) but Carrey is the one who unquestionably knocks it out of the park. I didn't think he could sing as well as he does, and he also brings some humor and character to the song which is quirky to begin with. Just for some of the vocal acrobatics alone that Carrey performs, this song is worth a listen.

Originally on: I had to look this one up, because I honestly didn't know... Never realized it wasn't on an album. It's a single. It was paired with Revolution.
Originally sung by: McCartney
Cover by: Wilson Pickett
From: Some sort of single

I know Pickett's voice from In the Midnight Hour, and a few other covers like You Keep Me Hangin' On. Pickett is an amazing, soulful voice. He turns up the notch on Jude, and it's like a church-going gospel experience. It's the male answer to Aretha's Rigby, is Pickett's Jude. The riffs are so natural, the soul is just there. And what else can I say?

Originally on: Help!
Originally sung by: McCartney
Cover by: Marvin Gaye
From: No idea!

Speaking of a ridiculously good male vocal...What happens when you take one of Lennon-McCartney's most covered songs about living in the past and regret, and then give it to probably the greatest male vocalist of all time, responsible for giving us I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Ain't No Mountain High Enough, Let's Get It On, Mercy, Mercy Me, How Sweet It Is, It Takes Two, to sing? You get this amazing cover. It's a singing clinic. Gaye has never sounded better, weaving in and out of a beautiful arrangement giving even more weight to the song than it had sung by a much younger Beatle.

Originally on: Rubber Soul
Originally sung by: Written and performed by Lennon
Cover by: Johnny Cash
From: The Man Comes Around, which features several covers, including the great cover of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails.

Finally, speaking of songs beyond the maturity of The Beatles when they penned them, this song stands at the peak of that. It is a popular song to use, with its poetic lyric of nostalgia, reminiscence, regret, and contentment. It's a song written by a young man, lifetimes away from knowing the full burden of these experiences and the very experience of recalling it all, but was mean to be performed by a guy like Johnny: broken, beaten down, hurt, exposed, and someone who understands the harsh realities of the world around him. Like Hurt, there is an amazing maturity that Cash brings to this cover. It makes the song so much clearer, and so much more tragic.
"Some forever."