In my very first article in this series (in which I talked about a Bob Dylan cover) Josh Hathaway commented "It kind of had to be Dylan or The Beatles to start this, didn't it?" and he was absolutely right. I don't have the stats or anything but I'd be willing to say that the two pop artists that have been covered the most in the universe are Bob Dylan and the Beatles. This makes perfect sense to me since who wouldn't want to model the poetry of Dylan or the genius song craft of the Beatles?
I love that the Beatles created all these perfect little songs that are easily covered but also made a bunch of dense, psychedelic, amazingly creative songs in their later years that allow other artists to dig deep in trying to make their covers a bit different. So here we have a handful of beautiful and interesting covers of the world's greatest pop band.
"With a Little Help From My Friends" - Macy Gray
I have no idea what this is from, nor where I got it. I now have it on a comp I made entitled Covering the Beatles where a whole bunch of artists (guess what?) cover the Beatles. Most of the tracks come from proper albums that I own and I simply wanted a cool Beatles cover compilation so I made one. But this track, man, I haven't the slightest idea where it began.
It is sacrilege to say so but I'm not really a fan of the original nor the album it came from. There are a few of good tracks on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band ("Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," "When I'm Sixty-Four," and "A Day in the Life") but mostly it just feels like a cheap gimmick. Obviously a lot of people disagree with me on that, and I'm really not here to debate the album's worth, but the original "With a Little Help From My Friends" falls flat for me. I am bigger fan of Joe Cocker's big. bluesy version (which I probably heard first come to think of it and that was probably as the theme song to The Wonder Years- and as a sidenote to this sidenote: anybody notice that in the Netflix streaming version of that show it is definitely not Cocker singing it?).
Macy Gray turns it into a wild, orgiastic blast-out with big horns and enough soul to make Aretha Franklin turn her head. Its a live cut and you can periodically here the crowd go nuts, as they should as she's turned this song into something wholly her own, completely original, and indeed, better than the original. Its probably not for everyone and I can certainly hear purists shaking their heads with disgust, but it hits me in all the right ways. Gray injects the song with huge energy and the horns knock it out of the park, at least for these ears.
"Blackbird" - Crosby, Stills and Nash
From the album Allies
From the wild to the sublime. Where I'm not a huge fan of "With a Little Help From My Friends," "Blackbird" always makes my list of favorite Beatles tunes. It's such a simple, sweet tune, but it never fails to make me smile whimsically. Crosby, Stills and Nash don't do anything revolutionary to it - its still the same basic song - but they make it majestic. Most of this is due to their famous harmonies. Where the original is just McCartney singing with his acoustic guitar, the layering here of three voices raises the song to new heights.
It is quite simply the sound of heaven. If I die, and they tell me I will, this is the song I want to hear when the time comes.
"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" - Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, Dhani Harrison And Prince
From the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2004 Ceremony
I've never been big on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It just seems like a pointless excuse for rich and famous people to pat themselves on the back - to say "look at me world, we're awesome." The only reason to pay attention to thing at all is to watch the musical performances which admittedly often brings some crazy cool people together to jam. When they inducted George Harrison he had already died so they invited his son, a couple of his Traveling Willbury pals, and fellow inductees Steve Winwood and Prince to play "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
I've always liked Prince well enough, but he had never elevated himself to someone I was really interested in more than his big singles. Until I heard this. Holy crap, that boy can play. Its a great jamming song anyways with this nice great tide-coming-in rhythm that just begs for a guitar solo and Prince frackin' plays the holy heck out of it. Forget all the other guys playing on it, this song now belong to Prince.
"I Will" - Alison Krauss and Tony Furtado
From the album Within Reach
About the only thing I need to say about this version is that I had it in my wedding - the bridesmaids walked down to it. The lyrics find McCartney at his sweetest sentimental mood, and Allison's angelic voice makes it gold. Tony Furtado starts it with a long, folksy intro full of soft banjo plucks and this stretches a short song out a bit, but I don't hear anyone complaining.
"Because" - Elliot Smith
From the album American Beauty Original Soundtrack
If I was pressed for an answer I'd have to say Abbey Road is my favorite Beatles album even though it also contains one of my least favorite Beatles songs ever (sorry, I've never liked "Come Together.") The rest of the album, however, is brilliant. I especially love the second side of the album with its half-songs and snippets brilliantly sewn together for a cohesive quilt. "Because" starts that quilt with a gorgeous layering of Paul, George, and John's vocals creating a nine part harmony that's really something to hear.
Elliott Smith likewise layers his voice creating something similar to the original and yet different and equally as beautiful.
Worry not friends, this is only the begining of my Beatles covers. There will surely be many more installment of Between the Covers to feature the Fab Four.