In the pantheon of rock bands, few of them are considered seminal.
The Beatles, however, are among those few. The Fab Four, from the time they got together around 1957 to when they split in 1970 broke new ground on just about every album.
The wildly successful first album, Please Please Me, in 1963 paved the way for Beatlemania and the British Invasion. ‘Love Me Do’ had girls worldwide crying and screaming in their seats as the Beatles toured on the strength of that LP. After that, the Beatles incorporated more musical styles, giving each new album a fresh take on rock and roll. They used folk, psychedelia, strings, Indian, and even country, to name a few genres.
With that, they would soon be imitated and in a large number of cases covered, from legends to little-knowns all wanting to put an even fresher spin on music considered to be iconic.
Here are 10 covers we believe were as good as the original.
10. The Unthanks – Sexy Sadie
The Unthanks are sisters Rachel and Becky, and fittingly they are from the UK. They are a critically acclaimed folk group who specializes in traditional Northumbrian music, among other genres. So, it seemed natural that they cover a Beatles’ B-side, Sexy Sadie. The song itself was borne of the Beatles trip to India in 1968 to enlighten themselves, where they attended an ashram run by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. John Lennon wrote it and titled it “Maharishi” but it was changed at the behest of George Harrison, who was ticked off at the Maharishi. The Unthanks version is a stripped down affair, sung beautifully by the Unthanks sisters, with minimal accompaniment.
9. Ben Harper – Strawberry Fields Forever
Like the Beatles, Harper is a multiple (3-time) Grammy award winner and a multi-genre legend in his own right. In 2001, Harper lent his considerable vocal range to a cover of Strawberry Fields Forever for the Sean Penn film, I am Sam. He stays close to the trip-hoppy feel of the original, which was written by Lennon and McCartney. It chronicles Lennon’s childhood days spent in Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army children’s home near his own home in Liverpool. The recording of this Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album standard was groundbreaking, in that it used tape loops and a mash-up of two entirely different versions. Harper, for his part, didn’t stray from the material and his work is extremely laudable.
8. Al Green – Get Back
Who better to cover one of the Beatles funkier songs than The Reverend himself. The Hall of Fame soul legend put out his rendition of Get Back on his album, Green vs. Blues, not long after the Fab Four had released it in early 1969. The genus of the song is a subject of much controversy, in that almost every moment of its evolution was exhaustively documented and therefore subject to later bootlegging. Get Back was also the only Beatles’ single credited to another artist, he being Billy Preston. Green took Get Back and put some soul and even a little bit more funk into it, a la James Brown. Groovy, baby.
7. U2 – Helter Skelter
Given that Helter Skelter is often credited as being an early version of heavy metal, a good cover should have come from the likes of Judas Priest or Metallica. Yet, Irish rock legends U2 gave it a blistering go, when they recorded it live at McNichols Arena in Denver during the Joshua Tree tour in 1987. It is said all the raw power put into the recording stemmed from the band’s fatigue from the tour and from being filmed for the rock doc, Rattle and Hum. Bono’s soaring vocal and The Edge’s unparalleled guitar play on the signature riff are remarkable. McCartney penned the track to be a loud and raucous affair and a true departure from all the ballad writing he was accused of.
6. Aerosmith – Come Together
Not many could capture Lennon’s growly vocals on Come Together, as Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler did when rock super group Aerosmith recorded it for the 1978 filming of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band. In a totally crappy movie, the song was a highlight, with the cover reaching #23 on the Billboard charts that year. Lennon wrote the song for California gubernatorial candidate Timothy Leary, a counter-culture psychologist famous for advocating the use of LSD. In ’69 he decided to run against Ronald Reagan and his campaign slogan was “Come Together, Join the Party.” John, a fan of mind-altering substances himself, wrote it but it was never used. Instead, he is said to have added gibberish lyrics to it before laying it down for the album, Abbey Road.
5. Jimi Hendrix – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club
The title track to the 1967 album was so fresh the notes still lingered in the air, when the left-handed guitar virtuoso performed it live. And he did it, in front of McCartney and Harrison, no less, at the Saville Theatre in London on June 4, 1967. Jimi’s deft string picking and accompaniment from his band made the live gig a true “Expeience”, pardon the pun. McCartney wrote the song, as a tribute to an Edwardian-era military band that tour manager Mal Evans gave a name to. McCartney expounded on the song, saying the whole album should be done as if the fictional band were real. Cue the movie.
4. Eddie Vedder – You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away
Like Ben Harper in the 9-spot here, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder tackled Lennon’s Bob Dylan-esque ode for the 2001 movie I am Sam. The song, written and sung by Lennon, was included on the Help! album in 1965. When it was written, it was as McCartney described, “basically John doing Dylan.” For that reason, there could be no better person to duplicate the vocal stylings of first Dylan and then Lennon than Vedder. The mellow acoustic song is punctuated by a crescendo about 40 seconds in, where both Vedder and Lennon kick the song into a rocking high gear. Awesome.
3. Earth, Wind and Fire – Got To Get You Into My Life
Got To Get You Into My Life is a Motown track, plain and simple. The Beatles were never afraid to sample anything and in the ’60s Motown reigned on U.S. radio. McCartney’s lyrics were said to have been culled from a psychedelic experience, with McCartney later saying, “It’s actually an ode to pot.” Lyrics aside, the song incorporates soul-style horns and brass instrumentation, with a guitar riff reminiscent of a prominent one on Paperback Writer. Earth, Wind and Fire, easily one of the most recognizable R&B and funk bands on the planet, lent a mellower, groovier version to the much maligned Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie. EWF’s version topped the pop charts that year.
2. Joe Cocker – With A Little Help From My Friends
If not for the musical genius of a certain blind Motown legend, the ‘Sheffield Soul Shouter’ would be number one with his 1968 cover of With A Little Help From My Friends. Cocker loved to cover Beatles’ standards, and it showed. If truth be told, we think his version is better than the original. Why, you ask? Because there is no way Ringo Starr could ever out-sing Cocker. In fact, Lennon and McCartney deliberately gave the song limited range, knowing Starr wasn’t a gifted vocalist. Cocker, though, absolutely nailed it at Woodstock in 1969 and again at the Queen’s Jubilee as an old man in 2002. The pipes of a God.
1. Stevie Wonder – We Can Work It Out
What better audience for what we think is the best Beatles cover of all time, than Sir Paul McCartney himself and POTUS Barack Obama and family at a 2010 White House function. During Wonder’s funk-ified version, McCartney and Obama are both filmed nodding their heads and bopping as Wonder fills the air with his rangy voice. Of course, McCartney wrote the song for a double A-side record along with Day Tripper (both were recorded during the Rubber Soul sessions). McCartney’s lyrics were said to be personal and about his relationship with then girlfriend Jane Asher. Wonder certainly “works it out” during the Capital soiree, even incorporating his mastery of the harmonica. Best ever, hands down.