Better than the Beatles


It is with not a little relief that I have set aside a half-written, half-baked philosophical post on who can say what and decided to write some lists instead. It’s summertime, and the brain needs a holiday. Arbitrary listings of the purely inconsequential are the answer.

I’m going to start with the Beatles. I like producing lists of songs with Spotify links, with some attempts to sum up the significance of each. I don’t much like The Beatles though. Well, obviously everyone has to like the Beatles, and the songs are tremendous and iconic and will outlive us all and so on. Yet I’ve never felt strongly about them, certainly never bought a Beatles record. Maybe it’s because they are placed on such a high pedestal and I get this metaphorical crick in the neck from having to look up to them. Maybe they are just too familiar.

But I can listen to them any time, and I have my favourites. Then, last year, I read an intriguing post from pop music chronicler David Hepworth with the challenging headline, ‘Why Fiona Apple’s version of “Across The Universe” is the only Beatles cover that’s better than the original‘. Hepworth, an avowed (and highly qualified) Beatles fan, believes that there is only the one Beatles cover version that is better than the original, than being Fiona Apple’s version which features on the soundtrack of the film Pleasantville.

Well, it’s a charming version certainly (particularly when seen in its pop video form), but to me it doesn’t offer much more than the Beatles’ original does, accentuating its particular qualities to a degree maybe, but not offering anything truly different. As I wrote earlier (about Bob Dylan covers):

The successful cover version must be an arresting interpretation of an established original … The musician attempting a cover of course needs to invest it with their own personality, to do something different with it, but it will always be with the listener’s knowledge of the established idea of the song – the Platonic ideal, if you will. We hear both songs, original and its complement, playing off each other, creating a deeper listening experience. We also sense the other version that may yet be to come, as each new imaginative interpretation sparks off the possibility of another that will take a great song in yet another direction.

Most cover versions merely imitate, being an expression of wish fulfilment i.e. the singer wishes that it had been them singing the song in the first place, a mindset which seems also to lead to the lazy re-use of the orchestration and tempo of the original. Nothing is added, or challenged. The successful cover version must surprise us, must make things apparent in the song that we had not sensed before.

There are many Beatles covers that do this – consider such bold experiments as jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery’s heroic re-imagining of ‘A Day in the Life’, Tori Amos’s peculiar, elongated take on ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun‘, or Sonic Youth bringing out the grunge in ‘Within You, Without You’. But I have set the bar a little higher. The covers need to be better than the Beatles. What does that mean? To some it will be an absurdity, even an affront. I choose simply to say that each of the following twenty are examples of where I prefer the cover to the original. Of course, they are only excellent because of the (usual) excellence of the original, so that being ‘better’ cannot have any sensible meaning. But that’s the peculiar thing about the successful cover version – because it is successful it is better in some way, simply through the process of re-imagination. It has taken things further.

Anyway, here are twenty covers to intrigue, delight, or annoy according to taste, in some sort of reverse order of personal preference. And yes I know I’ve left out Joe Cocker, and Stevie Wonder, and Earth Wind & Fire, while I’ve previously mentioned jazzers the Neil Cowley Trio’s fearless take on ‘Revolution No. 9‘.

20. The Feelies, ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except for Me and My Monkey)’

The Beatles’ original is typical of the muddled, uneven material that characterises The White Album. Oddly mixed, a backbeat that doesn’t quite work: it feels insufficiently thought through. The Feelies’ effervescent rendition is tighter and fresher in every way, turning what should probably have been discarded first time around into the gem they hadn’t realised was actually there.

19. Swan Arcade, ‘Paperback Writer’

British acapella folkies Swan Arcade were known for their rumbustious style, political urgency and a wide-ranging repertoire that threw in pop hits among traditional songs. It’s maybe stretching things a bit to think of ‘Paperback Writer’ as a protest song, but they certainly bring out all of its musical richness, and in doing so giving it much of the quality of the timeless ballads that are the backbone of the folk tradition.

18. Buddy Rich, ‘Norwegian Wood’

You’ve probably seen this on TV – certainly BBC Four has repeated the clip often enough. Drummer Buddy Rich and his big band playing the lyrical, oblique ‘Norwegian Wood’ sounds like an exercise in embarrassment. Quite the opposite – Rich’s band lays into the tune with upbeat relish. And it really swings.

17. Scritti Politti, ‘She’s A Woman’

Scritti Politti’s clever cleverness is an acquired taste, one that I’ve never tried too hard to acquire. This version of McCartney’s rocker has its annoying side, but the semi-reggae beat, poppy electronica and Shabba Rank’s smartly applied rapping create something much more fully realised than the Beatles’ original, which would have had much more of kick to it had they only thought of it a couple of years later.

16. Marc Ribot, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’

The portentous ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, with its po-faced Eric Clapton solo, just cries out for someone not to treat it with reverence. Enter Marc Ribot, best-known for his flinty guitar breaks on Tom Waits songs, who gives us this ironic instrumental version which both mocks yet somehow respects George Harrison’s intentions.

15. Marvin Gaye, ‘Yesterday’

One of those most covered of all songs, yet who could hope to do any better than Paul McCartney with string quartet in that moment of inspired genius? Marvin Gaye is the answer. He adds such vocal richness and variety, adding depth and colour to the stark original. It would probably be better without the slushy strings, but it owns the song when all the rest merely borrow it.

14. Tom Newman, ‘She Said She Said’

Tom Newman is best-known as the producer of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, but he has made music himself of quirky charm, particularly in his 1975 album Fine Old Tom (not available on Spotify), from which this haunting multi-tracked voice cover version of ‘She Said She Said’ comes. I heard it before I ever heard the Beatles’ version, so for me Newman’s is the definitive one. He would have loved to have had the chance to produce them.

13. Judy Collins, ‘In My Life’

‘In My Life’ is possibly the finest song the Beatles ever wrote. John Lennon’s lyric has the quality of a Shakespearean sonnet. How could you better it? Well, you could remove the faux-harpsichord solo for a start. Then you might bring in the faultless vocals of Judy Collins, with immaculately judged guitar accompaniment. Could the song been presented any better than it is here?

12. k.d. lang, ‘Golden Slumbers / The End’

Purely romantic.

11. Siouxsie and the Banshees, ‘Helter Skelter’

I think Paul McCartney has said somewhere that Siouxsie and the Banshees’ version of ‘Helter Skelter’ betters that of the Beatles, or at least gets to the heart of the matter. It has the necessary and theatrical sense, but in some odd way it has the right amount of restraint as well. It doesn’t just rage (as other cover versions do); it knows too much what it is about. And the ending is perfect.

10. Shockabilly, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

Eugene Chadbourne is a man with twenty fingers who is bent on playing his guitar with all of them. Usually to be found playing solo electric guitar on the outer fringes of the avant garde, early on in his career his band Shockabilly took on revered pop classics and completely mangled them. Their mocking version of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ is likely to annoy most, but it is tremendously inventive, let down only by ending too soon when it seems to have run out of ideas.

9. Bob Dylan, ‘Things We Said Today’

Bob Dylan has occasionally sung Beatles’ songs in his live sets, just to keep the audience on their toes: ‘Something’, ‘Here Comes the Sun’, ‘Yesterday’. Back in 1978, at Blackbushe aerodrome, he sang just about the most unlikely song for him ever to have considered, ‘The Long and Winding Road’. I was there – and I have absolutely no memory of it. Curses (Update: a quick check online shows that it was sung by one of Dylan’s backing singers, Jo Ann Harris). From more recent times, this contribution to a Paul McCartney tribute album turns ‘Things We Said Today’ into something not unlike Dylan’s world-weary but hypnotic Oscar-winging song ‘Things Have Changed’. Doubtless the first word of McCartney’s original encouraged Dylan to produce this sly homage, which enriches the song through the voice of hard-won experience.

8. Lowell Fulson, ‘Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?’

Another example of a half-realised idea of a song from The White Album, turned by Lowell Fulson into a first-rate raunchy rhythm’n’blues number. It’s twice as long as the original, adds in some of Fulson’s own words, and all in all turns it into the song that the Beatles meant rather than the one that they produced.

7. The Skatalites, ‘Independent Anniversary Ska (I Should Have Known Better)’

There will be two parties out there – the one that has not yet heard the Skatalites’s ska instrumental version of ‘I Should Have Known Better’ and has no idea what a delight is about to hit their ears, and those who know and will stop everything for the chance to hear it again. It is such a joy, the most perfect re-imagining of a Beatles original that you could hope for.

6. The Supremes, ‘You Can’t Do That’

Early on in their career The Supremes were made to produce an entire album cashing in on the Liverpool music bandwagon. Most of A Bit of Liverpool is slight stuff, but with ‘You Can’t Do That’, song and artists come together perfectly. Just listen to Diana Ross’s ‘owww’ just before the guitar break – they’re loving what they have been given to sing. The Beatles learned so much from America’s girl groups; here the debt is repaid, most handsomely.

5. Peter Tosh, ‘Here Comes the Sun’

There are so many great reggae versions of Beatles’ songs – you could produce a healthy top twenty from reggae covers alone. This Peter Tosh rendition of ‘Here Comes the Sun’ stands out in particular for the pleasure one gets from the rich vocal and the sense that the song has found its ideal home in this musical form.

4. Marcia Griffiths, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’

More reggae, and as fine an example as you could hope to find of someone making a Beatles song entirely their own, and the better for it. It is free from any of the constraints of respect, while making the most of the composition’s distinctive plaintive quality. Some Jamaican graces to the lyrics make it all the more fun.

3. Bill Withers, ‘Let It Be’

Praise be. A gospel-flavoured version with none of the sanctimony of the original. The real thing, in other words.

2. The Better Beatles, ‘Penny Lane’

Not to be found on Spotify, but thankfully preserved on YouTube, the Better Beatles were a Nebraskan post-punk band dedicated to deconstructing the Beatles. They never had much of chance to do so, since they broke up after the release of their one magnificent single in 1981, ‘Penny Lane’ backed with ‘I’m Down’ (an album of recordings eventually appeared in 2007). The deadpan, minimalist rendition takes the Beatles’ baroque masterpiece and hammers it out of all recognition. It’s the sound of a statue having been pulled down.

1. Junior Parker, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’

American blues and soul singer Junior Parker, famed for his rich-toned vocals, towards the end of his life (he died in 1971) made some remarkable recordings of Beatles songs, showing a taste for taking on some of the more challenging songs in the repertoire. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, in its original incarnation, is probably the most radical and mind-expanding recording in the history of popular music. How could you better it? Like this. With musical backing stripped back to the barest essentials, a voice that digs deep through softness, and an air of mystery that makes it quite unlike any other song you may have heard. The Beatles’ original leads you to a door through which you had never passed before. Parker tells you what is to be found on the other side.

For anyone interested to listen to all (bar two) of the above, plus other songs that take on the Beatles with imagination and confidence, here’s a Spotify list (to which I’ll keep adding extra songs as I find them).


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2 thoughts on “Better than the Beatles

  1. How could I have forgotten De Dannan’s version of Hey Jude as an Irish reel? Maybe it’s not really better than the Beatles, just a superlative tribute and such a delightful feat of the imagination. Anyway, it’s a joy:

  2. Tom Newman’s ‘Sad Sing’ is now available on Spotify, as well as YouTube, as part of his 1975 album Fine Old Tom.

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