I watched Sir Paul McCartney (or the person who replaced the original Paul) get his Gershwin Prize on PBS a week or so ago, and while I thought some of the performances of his songs (luckily nobody played a John song from the Beatles catalog) were done quite well, it did get me thinking, what are the great Beatles cover songs?
Actually, contrary to popular belief, the most covered song to date of a Beatles song isn't Yesterday, but rather Eleanor Rigby. I'm not sure if that's because it's counting all the classical tribute albums, but that's what I read. To give you an idea of how covered the Beatles were during there own time especially, here's a great youtube channel devoted solely to Beatles covers.
Now, to put this into perspective, covers were far more plentiful, contemporaneous, and held in different esteem than they are today. In fact, it wasn't uncommon to have two versions of the same song on that charts at the same time. Artists didn't really seem to mind too much, and in fact the Beatles themselves covered a great number of songs themselves. The problem was that the majority of these songs really didn't venture too far away from the original, either a sound alike to fill out an album and get someone to pick up that album (in fact you'd be surprised by the number of "greatest hits" albums of Beatles songs were released by bands who weren't the Beatles (and more recently The Smithereens covered With the Beatles sound for sound just to show they could do it I guess) , a song made "safer" usually in delivery or presentation, or a "crooner-ization" of the Beatles love songs. Paul's songs (Michelle, Let it Be, Yesterday) were staples of these albums, where singers approached them as if they were Broadway show stoppers and throwing in an excessive amount of strings, reverb, and bravado.
20 Yesterday, Carla Thomas
From a Live Stax Revue performance, Thomas, the Queen of Memphis soul, does some nice understated vocals on this song that is too often over sung, but the real star is the backing by the Mar-Keys, and in particular the piano by James Johnson
19 Hello, Goodbye, Bud Shank with Chet Baker
Shank had already done an album of Beatles covers before this song, but it's Baker who steals the show.
18 The Long and Winding Road, Ray Charles with the Count Basie Orchestra
This was always one of the most overdone Beatles songs when covered (Air Supply's version being perhaps the best worst example of it). This is a toned down and soulful version, and does something most versions can't do and even the original had trouble with, and that's how to transition to and from the chorus.
17 Hey Jude, The Bar Kays
From the first album after nearly the entire band was killed in the same plane crash that killed Otis Redding, this is a tremendously funky, soulful neat instrumental. It gets a little bogged down toward the end, but its opening is terrific.
16 I Saw Her Standing There, The Tubes
as a punk song this works quite well. If you don't know The Tubes, they're one of the many seminal punk bands that were unknown in the USA but had big influence on the UK bands that would later get the credit for inventing the genre. In fact, a line from the Tubes first album would later give The Clash the title for their album Give em enough Rope.
15 Let it Be, The Persuasions
Let it Be as an outright gospel song in gorgeous acapella.
14 A Hard Day's Night, Billy Preston
This may be cheating since Billy's essentially a Beatle. From an esoteric album (thrown together by an unknown budget record company sometime in the 70's) with one of the best cover's in history, this is a Sly Stone arranged, barely recognizable version of the song that really sounds like it's being played by someone who's had a hard day's night.
13 I Want to Hold Your Hand, Al Green
It's quick, it's loose, it's terrific.
12 Everybody's got Something to Hide Except for me and my monkey, The Feelies
From the legendary American Underground band's debut record this song isn't high on people's list of Beatles standards, but it works great as a post-punk expression of anxiety.
11And I Love Her, The Holmes Brothers
A smokey, blues cover from the venerable Virginia band.
10 Tell me Why, April Wine
Somehow this songs works just as good as a 1970's power ballad.
9 She's a Woman, Jeff Beck
Possibly the best song by Beck, one of the great guitarists of all time, and shows his ability to interpret and paint a picture using his axe (and whatever that tube straw thing that Frampton popularized).
8 Help, Deep Purple
If you read the lyrics of a good number of songs John's wrote you can tell he's writing about his battles with depression...only those songs were all too fast paced for you to notice, see: "I don't want to spoil the party," or "I'll Cry Instead." Help! is almost literal as he got (Yer Blues being the most literal) and of those songs perhaps the most upbeat sounding, even though written during one of his serious bouts of the illness. From Deep Purple's first proper album, this cover gives the song a slower, darker, more plaintive feel that seems to better facilitate the lyrics. Deep Purple's first incarnation, the pre-Smoke on the Water band, is really one of the most underrated bands of all-time.
7 Yesterday, Marvin Gaye
There are so many featured vocalist-type covers of this song it's sickening, but they all follow the same pattern of Bacarach inspired strings and gilded delivery (not that the string part here is anything to sneeze at). Gaye treats this less like Bach and more like a soul confessional, taking liberties with the lyrics and delivering an absolutely stunning vocal performance. With Paul's Yesterday you feel the melancholy, with Marvin's you feel the vital necessity.
6 Revolution #9, Kurt Hoffman's Band of Weeds
It's sort of a joke when someone requests this song, since it's a non-song, it's a musique concrete piece, or an early glitch record. Yet, this is a faithful, though shorter instrumental version of the song. Not only does this get points for a high degree of difficulty, but it's a pretty great cut too.
5 With a Little Help from my Friends, Joe Cocker
Aka the Wonder Years theme song (sorry Life Goes on, you missed the list here). The most obvious song on this list. There's something to be said for Ringo's version of this song; it's tighter, probably his best vocal delivery. But Cocker knocks this out of the park, and when he says he gets high, you know he meant it. Plus there's no silly Billy Shears introduction (yes, I said silly). Watch out for a tremendous bass part. Then again one could say that Cocker may take this a bit too seriously.
4. Hey Jude, Wilson Pickett
Most versions of this song get caught in the trap of too much repetition of the chorus, or breaking down into a nah-nah-nah mess; this song avoids that through the clever use of a horn section (that drops in like a linebacker). While Pickett's vocals are expected to be great an extraordinary extended guitar solo by Duane Allman (!) is just icing on the cake. In fact, this solo was so good that somebody named Clapton called to give the session musician his break.
Some strange trivia (ie. famous people playing other people's famous guitar solos): Duane would play the solo on Layla, one of the greatest solos of all time. Eric played the solo for George Harrison on While my Guitar Gently Weeps, and an uncredited George played guitar on Cream's Badge.
3 We Can Work it Out, Stevie Wonder
Where do I start? The gnarling keyboard part? The self-harmonizing which may be Stevie's best vocal performance? A song that's bursting past the seems with life? It's like All Along the Watchtower; Dylan's is good, but Hendrix's is jaw dropping. Same thing here, where an artist like Wonder totally amplifies a work through their artistic vision.
2 Across the Universe, Liabach
When Slovenian art/industrial/metal band Laibach covered Let it Be in its entirety you expected some strange things. But how about a tearjerkingly gorgeous, heavenly version of Across the Universe? This song got destroyed by Phil Specter's over indulgent production on Let it Be, yet here, the production is elegant, childlike, and simplistic in it's beauty a four part harmony (exploiting the echoes of the voices) set to a music box like harpsichord and minimalist organ part. Listen to this before seeing the video for best effect (seriously it's a terrible music video unless they're aiming for a send-up on wanna be art videos). As a whole their album may be better (technically it's more rich) than the Beatles version in its original state; see also their version of I me Mine, which is probably more accurate as far as what George was probably feeling at the time.
1 Here, There, and Everywhere, Emmylou Harris
The Beatles ran through this song far too quickly. However, this was song was one of the most covered songs that was taken to the other extreme; slowed down and turned into a bombastic vocal set piece. Here, Harris makes a subtle gender shift to the narration and turns this into a song of yearning, adding a level of vulnerability, pensiveness, and desire to the song, which is highlighted by an extremely moody guitar part, strategically deployed strings, and Harris' amazing vocals. But what makes this song an all-time classic is what may be the saddest and greatest harmonica solo in rock music history. A great cover is when an artists makes a song their own; this cover makes it sound feel like something so personal you almost feel like you're intruding by listening to it.