In a whimsical experimental project in 2004, the producer and musician Danger Mouse (birth name: Brian Joseph Burton) took the Beatles’ White Album and an a capella version of rapper Jay-Z’s Black Album and fused them together, laying down tracks that sampled the Beatles’ songs over Jay-Z’s rap. It became what is known as the Grey Album. The reception to that mash-up was mixed. Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, the two surviving members of The Beatles, as well as Jay-Z, gave their nod of approval; listeners who heard it as it spread across the internet loved it; but EMI, the music company that published The Beatles’ record, was so enraged that it opposed the distribution of the album.

‘The Grey Album’ by Danger Mouse.
‘The Grey Album’ by Danger Mouse.

Danger Mouse’s project was probably the most innovative tribute to The Beatles whose songs, produced during a 10-year period (1960-1970), have inspired and been covered by other musicians more than any other band’s in popular music. Beatles’ songs have been adopted, adapted, and recreated by bands and artists across every genre you can think of—folk, blues, rock, bluegrass, reggae, jazz, punk, heavy metal, and even classical music. Many of those versions became hugely popular and some musicians attained fame on the backs of their covers of The Beatles’ songs, becoming known more for those than their own repertoire such as the English singer, Joe Cocker, whose version of With A Little Help From My Friends, especially the brilliant live version at Woodstock in 1969, has become immortal.

Joe Cocker has performed some of the best Beatles covers.Photo: Getty Images
Joe Cocker has performed some of the best Beatles covers.Photo: Getty Images

Covers by other musicians of Beatles songs run into hundreds, if not thousands but here’s First Beat’s list of covers—some popular; others not so well-known; but all of them a way of re-visiting a band with whose repertoire every fan of popular music is most familiar with. So, here goes, in no particular order, a list of Beatles covers you ought not to miss (disclaimer: it absolutely is not comprehensive!).

The Rolling Stones: The Stones were the arch rivals of The Beatles. But in 1963, they released the John Lennon-McCartney song, I Wanna Be Your Man, three weeks before it would feature on a Beatles album. The Stones borrowed the song from The Beatles for their second 45 rpm in the UK and their version is deliciously raw and much, much grittier (don’t miss the late Brian Jones’ striking slide lead guitar riff) than The Beatles’ own version.

Jaco Pastorius: Jazz bassist Pastorius was a mad genius and troubled soul who died tragically at 35. His 1981 album, Word Of Mouth, features Blackbird from the Beatles’ White Album. It’s an instrumental jazz version of the song on which Pastorius’ fretless bass and Belgian-American musician Toots Thielemans’ harmonica conjure up pure magic.

Elliott Smith: A singer-songwriter who was gifted with exquisite whispery vocals, Smith, like Pastorius, died young when he was stabbed in his chest in 2003. He covered many Beatles’ songs but his version of Because from their album, Abbey Road, is something else. Because was recorded by The Beatles with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison singing in harmony in three versions that were mixed to get nine voices but Smith, singing solo, accompanied by not much more than an acoustic guitar, makes that delicate song impossibly tender.

Nina Simone: With just her piano, and some percussion, the feisty Simone sings George Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun on her 1971 album of the same name. That album had eight songs, all covers, including Bob Dylan’s Just Like A Woman, but Here Comes The Sun is the one that truly stands out. It’s essential for everybody’s playlist.

David Bowie: It may have been credited to Lennon-McCartney, but Across The Universe was actually written by Lennon. Bowie recorded his cover in 1975 at New York’s Electric Ladyland Studio, shockingly (at least to some) infusing into that LSD-inspired, self-absorbed dreamy song, slashes of anger. Did Lennon mind? We don’t know but what we do know is that he (Lennon) played acoustic guitar on the Bowie track!

Vic Juris: Jazz enthusiasts may be familiar with the virtuosity of guitarist Juris. He has an expansive discography, both solo and as a sideman. His instrumental version of Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps with delightful improvisation is a rare cover of a much-covered song that Juris remarkably transforms into a jazz masterpiece.

Sonic Youth: Sitars, tabla and Harrison’s fondness for Indian music abound on the psychedelic Within You Without You from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but Sonic Youth’s version (to be found on the 1988 multi-artist compilation, Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father), infuses post-punk grit into the song. Raspy guitar and bass lines replace the Indian instruments and when the drums kick in, you’re hooked.

Patti Smith: Strawberry Fields Forever, first released in 1967, has been covered by hundreds of musicians but Smith’s punk version of it, bereft of frills, is outstanding though underrated. Watch her singing it live at New York’s Bowery Ballroom in December 2010 on a video that is readily available on YouTube.

Jerry Garcia Band: Inspired by Prudence Farrow (Mia’s sister), Dear Prudence, which was written while The Beatles were at an ashram in India, has been a favourite for many bands to cover. But clocking in at 12 minutes and 36 seconds, JGB’s live version from 26 July 1980, with Garcia in fabulous form—both on the guitar and vocals—truly rocks. Grab your libation (or not); sit back; and embark on the trip.

Bob Dylan: (Now) Nobel laureate Dylan, the lore goes, turned The Beatles on to marijuana in 1964. But he himself was turned on by many of their songs. His long version of Come Together from 1985 is stellar. It’s from a rehearsal session but easily accessible on the internet. Totally worth checking out.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

Close