My favourite band of all time – not a controversial opinion I’m aware, but an honest one – had such an outstanding trio of songwriters at their core that any list of their ‘standards’ must extend way past the obvious hits and into the deep album cuts that are the pitfall of so many lesser groups. Therefore Beatles covers, inevitably, are greater in quantity than those of any other band, and also greater in quality, because the couple of hundred modern folk songs they penned were so universal and hence difficult to ruin through misinterpretation.
That said, The Beatles were also some of the greatest performers of the century as well. If their vitality was remotely easy to reproduce then our music scene would be a lot richer than it is (our most popular songwriter of the moment, Ed Sheeran, makes me want to weep with boredom). So in this list of my favourite Beatles covers, only no. 1 and, at a push, no. 2 manage to convince me that they’re better than the original. I long for the harmonies and tight economy of playing that the Fab Four bring, even when the artists covering them are major.
Every single one of these is still worth listening to. And together they form a moving tribute to the endless, endless joy to be derived from the sunny songwriting of these boys.
1) ‘She Came in Through the Bathroom Window’ – Joe Cocker
Most prefer the slow-burn soul of Cocker’s ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, but I’ve always found this jaunty little number far more impressive: whereas in Abbey Road it got somewhat lost in the second side’s suite, here it stands boldly and plainly on its own, and Cocker’s throaty vocals bounce off the country-twanging guitar and piano to create real rock n’ roll excitement. The only Beatles cover I play with any kind of regularity.
2) ‘I’m Looking Through You’ – Steve Earle
The reason I’m writing this piece is because I’ve recently discovered this gem of a cover, stumbling across it whilst exploring the work of Steve Earle, an artist I formerly knew only from a small part in The Wire. It appears on his gorgeous acoustic roots-rock album Train a Comin’, which also includes an unmissable duet of ‘Rivers of Babylon’ with Emmylou Harris. I so fell in love with its deepening of the country rock logic that forms Rubber Soul’s primary appeal, that I had to write this list just to let y’all know about its existence. Check it.
3) ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ – Prince, Tom Petty, Steve Winwood & Jeff Lynne (2004 Hall of Fame Inductions)
I only love one of these musicians, and my God does he steal the show here: skip to 3:27 for one of the finest live guitar solos of all time, a moment so indelible it went viral shortly after his death. The great man demonstrates a playful virtuosity worthy of making his own guitar weep, for sure, and it probably makes the chumps on stage with him weep a little inside too.
4) ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ – Miley Cyrus & The Flaming Lips
Miley Cyrus gets a lot of stick from far too many rockist dinosaurs, who love the commercial pop music of The Beatles and really should know better. But her brand of eccentricity eases the sometimes pompous prog-psychedelic noise of The Flaming Lips, whose Sgt. Pepper covers album With a Little Help From My Fwends was wackily uneven. Cyrus gets the ethereality of this song pretty much spot-on.
5) ‘Hey Jude’ – Wilson Pickett & Duane Allman
It interests me how many of these are billed as collaborations, the spirit of collaborative fun being one of the key reasons for The Beatles’ enduring popularity, I believe. The Beatles were famous for many things, but never for bringing da funk – but then again neither was Duane Allman, and Wilson Pickett manages to bring it forth from both of them. Scream for scream he matches Paul on the fadeout, and the horns should remind us all of the Motown and R&B hits that were formative influences on these northern England white boys.
6) ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ – The Breeders
This White Album highlight was always on the brink of chaos, structurally quite absurd, so it fits well with The Breeders’, and grunge’s, aesthetic of sloppy just-about-holding-togetherness. It’s from one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite albums, incidentally, which should help sell it to you.
7) ‘Dear Prudence’ – Siouxsie & the Banshees
Another Lennon highlight from the unwieldy White Album – the chord progression and lyrics are, surprisingly, no less sweet in this gothic interpretation. I don’t believe Siouxsie was ever a great singer, or her backup a great band, yet a feeling of kinship with The Beatles’ darkest and most fascinating member shines through here, brighter than anything she wrote herself.
8) ‘We Can Work it Out’ – Stevie Wonder
Joint first as the most tonally audacious work in The Beatles’ canon (along with ‘A Day in the Life’), a perennial battle between Paul’s jaunty optimism and John’s pitch-black interjections of death. Dark and light, it’s made to bounce all the same by Stevie Wonder, who doesn’t approach the original’s complexity, but damn sure doesn’t seem to care as he sings his big heart out.
9) ‘In My Life’ – Johnny Cash
The Man in Black really does sound like he’s at the end of his life here, which is what makes it so moving. The Beatles’ version was the sound of a maturity beyond their years. Cash’s version is the sound of those years having been stripped away, leaving nothing behind but a profound simplicity, of voice and expression. That’s maturity.
10) ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ – Jake Shimabukuro
Repeating myself, I know. But I make no apologies. This guy kills it.