Warning: This article is 3100 words long and I freely admit it just barely skims the surface of the subject matter. So don’t @ me about your favorite Beatles cover I may have missed. Enter at your own risk, or just click the Spotify playlist link below to enjoy a very special four-hour, 70-song playlist — with no song or artist repeated!
The Beatles are rightfully known as a powerhouse songwriting group, boasting three legendary pop composers and even a drummer capable of writing the ocassional hit. (“Don’t Pass Me By” went to number one in Denmark, I shit you not.) But in their early days, circa 1960-62, the young rockers from Liverpool paid their dues in rowdy German seaport bars and strip clubs, where they slugged out upward of 280 gigs. To make it through these grinding four-to-five-hour sets, the Beatles leaned on two things: loads of speed and a deep catalog of cover songs. From Motown hits to show tunes, they had something in their bag to please everyone.
Fast forward just one year and we find the Beatles in the remarkable position of having placed five singles in the UK Top 20, three of them number ones. (Not to mention the rockin’ version of “My Bonnie” they had recorded as an anonymous backing band for Tony Sheridan, which went to number 48 when people found out it was the Beatles.) The Lennon-McCartney songwriting axis very quickly became a hot commodity as other artists starting recording their tunes, and they began playing fewer and fewer covers themselves.
The very first Beatle composition to find life outside the group was “Misery,” which John and Paul wrote in early 1963 while traveling in a package tour, billed fifth beneath the headliner, husky-voiced British teen superstar Helen Shapiro. The two composed the song specifically to give to Shapiro but her management didn’t like it. Kenny Lynch, another singer on the tour, had been listening to the boys on the bus composing “From Me to You,” and did not at first think much of their skills — but when he was offered “Misery,” he took it. His rendition was not a hit, but the Beatles thought enough of the tune to record their own version in an effort to include more original material on their debut album, Please Please Me. A decade later, Macca would acknowledge Lynch by including him in the iconic cover photo for Wings’ Band on the Run album.
Beatles manager Brian Epstein started feeding Lennon-McCartney tunes to other artists in his own management stable around this time. Five of the first six singles released by Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas were handouts from the Beatles, and the first three of those made it to the Top Five of various UK charts — two of them number ones. They even managed to place three of these singles in the American Top 40, with their recording of “Bad to Me” going all the way to number nine.
In late 1963 John and Paul were leaving an awards banquet when they ran into teenage Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who talked them into coming to a Stones recording session. When Paul heard the younger band was struggling to record a proper hit single, he mentioned a song he had been working on, and suggested it might be a good fit for them. He and John retreated to a corner of the studio for a few minutes and finished the tune as the members of the Stones watched in awe.
The result was the Stones’ second single, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” which went to number 12 on the UK charts and helped establish the group as hitmakers. More importantly, the experience of witnessing John and Paul in action crafting a hit song deeply inspired Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who shortly thereafter established themselves as a remarkable composing team in their own right.
Meanwhile in the United States, the Beatles were not yet getting any traction with the listening public. Capitol, the American affiliate of their British label, had refused to release their first single, “Please Please Me,” stateside, and so a five-year contract to handle their US releases went instead to the tiny VeeJay Records, a literal mom-and-pop organization founded and operated by an African-American couple in the Midwest. “Please Please Me” died on the vine in America, selling fewer than 7500 copies nationwide, but VeeJay took a chance on the next single, “From Me to You,” anyway — and it tanked even harder, selling only roughly 4000 units.
Somehow or other the second song came to the attention of “Runaway” rocker Del Shannon, who became the first American to record a Beatle composition with his cover of “From Me to You,” released scarcely a month after the Beatles’ version. VeeJay attempted to capitalize on this by sending out more promo copies of the original recording, but the song’s best friend was legendary rock radio DJ Dick Biondi, who championed the Beatles version and created enough buzz around it in the Los Angeles radio market that it managed to make number 116 on the Billboard singles chart, the first time the Beatles made an appearance on any US chart.
And then, in the wake of the Beatles’ debut performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, the floodgates opened. A young Joe Cocker launched his career with his debut single, “I’ll Cry Instead” (featuring Jimmy Page on guitar). British beatsters the Applejacks (who were also first to record “I Go to Sleep” by the Kinks’ Ray Davies) were given “Like Dreamers Do” by John & Paul. French singer Johnny Hallyday brought beat music to his homeland with a Gallic take on “I Saw Her Standing There” (“Quand je l’ai vue devant moi“). Peter and Gordon had a huge hit on both sides of the pond with Paul’s syrupy “A World Without Love.” The Supremes included four Beatles songs on their “A Bit of Liverpool” album, and even the post-Buddy-Holly Crickets, one of the Beatles’ heaviest influences, got on board with Beatlemania, releasing an album containing no fewer than five Lennon-McCartney compositions.
Jazz and easy listening artists were right there, too. There was Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass with their south-of-the-border romp through “All My Loving,” Ella Fitzgerald’s swinging “Can’t Buy Me Love,” Ramsey Lewis’ swaggering “A Hard Day’s Night,” and whole albums of Beatles covers from the Hollyridge Strings (their first of six(!)) and the Johnny Mann Singers, the latter of whom actually placed one tune in the Hot 100 for one week.
Oh, and of course Alvin and the Chipmunks, spiritual ancestors of Kidz Bop, could not resist a youth culture cash-in as juicy as Beatlemania. The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits was a 12-track album of Beatles tunes, 11 of which were Lennon-McCartney compositions (the other being “Twist and Shout”). Chipmunks creator Ross Bagdasarian got the blessing for the project in person when he met the band in London, and the resulting album won a Grammy for Best Engineered Recording.
By 1965 the British Invasion was in full swing and everyone and their dog was covering the Beatles. There were up-and-comers like the Beach Boys, who included three Lennon-McCartney numbers on their proto-unplugged Beach Boys Party! LP; Jamaica’s Wailers — featuring fresh-faced youngsters Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer — who released an island-inflected “And I Love Her” as a non-abum single; and another Epstein act, the Silkie — Britain’s nearest facsimile of Peter Paul & Mary — who charted with their campfire singalong rendition of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” George Harrison started getting some love, too, with the Hollies’ recording of “If I Needed Someone” giving him his first Top 20 chart showing — despite George publicly drubbing it as “rubbish.”
And then there were the old guard artists whose hegemony as entertainers had been put on the endangered list by the overnight popularity of the Beatles. Peggy Lee recorded “A Hard Day’s Night.” Bill Haley, the godfather of rock & roll who was already a nostalgia act in middle age, took to playing “I Saw Her Standing There” in his live sets. American singer “Little” Esther Phillips, enjoying a comeback after her 1950s career had stalled, took her gender-swapped “And I Love Him” to the edge of the Top 20 on the US R&B chart, and the Beatles in return had her flown to England for her first performances ever outside the United States. Sammy Davis Jr. started inserting Beatles tunes into his set, eventually developing a whole seven-minute Beatles medley.
By this time Beatlemania was a regular target for caricature and satire. The brilliant Peter Sellers — who had in the past made comedy records with Beatles producer George Martin — released a single comprised of spoken renditions of two Beatles tunes. The a-side, “A Hard Day’s Night,” parodies Sir Laurence Olivier’s performance as King Richard III in the film of the same name; the b-side, “Help!,” is performed as a sermon in a voice aping that of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The single reached the UK Top 20, and was a favorite among the members of the Beatles.
Going forward from 1966, whole albums of Beatles covers were released by artists from all over the popular music spectrum: jazz legend Count Basie, anodyne folkies the Brothers Four, operatic mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, country guitar icon Chet Atkins, the aformentioned Ramsey Lewis (whose 1968 LP Mother Nature’s Son is made up entirely of songs from The White Album, and was recorded only a few weeks after that Beatles LP had been released), and jazz guitar legend George Benson (whose 1969 LP The Other Side of Abbey Road is made up entirely of songs from Abbey Road, and was recorded only a few weeks after that Beatles LP had been released).
Then there are the wacky one-offs like septugenarian Mae West’s “Day Tripper;” Tiny Tim’s ukulele-driven “Nowhere Man;” Bill Cosby’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (yes, this really happened); Mrs. Miller’s quavering, off-key “A Hard Day’s Night;” William Shatner’s iconic spoken-word “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds;” and George Burns’ novel arrangement of “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Not to mention radical reimaginings, like Yes’ proto-prog rampage through “Every Little Thing” from their debut album, or the trippy, sitar-fueled, instrumental chamber jazz adaptation of “Norwegian Wood” turned in by LA psychedelic group Hour Glass, featuring a very young pair of Allman Brothers.
Let’s not forget, too, that Beatlemania was a global phenomenon, with artists from all over the world getting in on the act. Romanian rockers Phoenix (aka Transsylvania Phoenix, to avoid confusion with the French indie band) included a rousing and clearly phonetic recording of “Lady Madonna” on their debut EP Vremuri. Welsh septet Amen Corner did a funky, piano-pounding take on “Get Back.” French belter Eddy Mitchell’s grunt-laden “Fool on the Hill” (“Le fou sur la colline“) veers straight into Tom Jones territory. And the godfather of ska, Prince Buster, recorded a lovely rocksteady version of “All My Loving” that perfectly demonstrates how a well-written pop tune can be adapted to any style of arrangement.
The Beatles’ 1970 breakup did little to stanch the flow of Beatles covers, and perhaps even intensified it. The list of artists who recorded or performed Beatles songs in their live acts between 1970 and 1980 alone would fill a Cheesecake Factory menu, but here is a tiny sampling: Tony Bennett, Isaac Hayes, Ike & Tina Turner, Elvis Presley, Anne Murray, Earth Wind & Fire, the Residents, Ray Charles, Todd Rundgren, the Damned, Emmylou Harris, David Bowie, Black Oak Arkansas, Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, Frank Sinatra, Bill Withers, Telly Savalas, John Denver, Stevie Wonder, Xaveria “the Happy Hooker” Hollander — it goes on and on.
There was a surfeit of starpower just in the ill-conceived, ill-received Beatles-scored feature films of the 1970s alone. (Yes, films, plural.)
Long before Across the Universe there was the “musical documentary” All This and World War II, which featured actual newsreel footage from WWII, paired with Beatles songs performed by contemporary acts including Leo Sayer (“I Am the Walrus“), Peter Gabriel (“Strawberry Fields Forever“), Ambrosia (“Magical Mystery Tour“) and Elton John (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” a number one hit in the US). The film was so universally maligned that the studio pulled it after only two weeks, but the soundtrack album was something of a hit.
Apparently the Bee Gees didn’t learn anything from the failure of All This and World War II, as they jumped headfirst into what one critic called the “overbearingly whimsical” 1978 musical disaster Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Maybe it was the cocaine, but execs at Universal actually said out loud that they thought this movie might be “this generation’s Gone With the Wind.” Instead its place in history is marked today with a 12% score on Rotten Tomatoes — and that’s after it has gained some modicum of cult appreciation with the passing of time. The soundtrack, with performances by Steve Martin, Aerosmith and the Bee Gees with Peter Frampton, earned a D+ rating from the Dean of Rock Critics, Robert Christgau, who added a “Must to Avoid” warning.
In the wake of John Lennon’s 1980 murder, perhaps predictably, a spate of tribute songs and covers appeared. Pat Benatar, Phil Collins, Chaka Khan, Nils Lofgren and others all released Beatles tunes in 1981, the same year Stars on 45 released its album-side-long Beatles medley and jazz legend Sarah Vaughan dropped her Songs of the Beatles LP.
The Beatles’ legacy lived on at the 1985 Live Aid concerts, where in addition to Paul McCartney’s performance at the London event, two other acts performed Beatles songs on the world stage. Elvis Costello came out at Wembley Arena armed with only a Stratocaster and Ringo’s 1961-era chin beard and led the crowd through a singalong rendition of “All You Need Is Love.” Meanwhile in America the Thompson Twins and Madonna teamed up with other guest stars in Philadelphia for a heavy New Wave romp through “Revolution.” [See our Live Aid article for more on the subject.]
At this point, a musical generation had passed and the urgency of the Beatles’ music had long since faded into the rosy mists of nostalgia. Many of the acts who covered the Beatles starting in the mid-’80s were too young to have been exposed to the band in its heyday; they grew up soaking in the afterglow of the Fabs’ incalculable influence on popular music, and so their relationship to the source material differs by nature. As the post-ironic age sets in, it sometimes becomes more difficult to discern whether an artist’s intentions are sincere or sarcastic, and there are endless Beatles covers out there representing every point on that curve.
Teen mall sensation Tiffany, born the year after the Beatles broke up, delivered a straightforward cover of “I Saw Him Standing There” and placed it at number seven on the Hot 100. The Beastie Boys, on the other hand, recorded a piss-take of “I’m Down” and couldn’t get clearance to include it on Licensed to Ill. The various artists who contributed to NME’s 20th anniversary tribute album Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father came at the material from all over the map, from Sonic Youth’s electro-raga freakout on “Within You Without You” to the Fall’s Mark E. Smith singing — not well, of course, but actually singing — on a surprisingly straight reading of “A Day in the Life.” And then there’s Laibach, the cryptic Slovenian avant-gardists who covered the Let It Be album (almost) in its entirety.
All of this took place more than 30 years ago, and in the time since, the Beatles catalog has only continued to take on new life in one project after another. With the 1995 release of the Anthology book and television event, yet another new generation of Beatles fans was born. Jam band fans went ape over Phish’s all-White Album Halloween performance, enshrined in the recording Live Phish Volume 13. Country fans sent the all-star Come Together: America Salutes the Beatles to number 13 on the album chart. Jazzbos gravitated toward I Got No Kick Against Modern Jazz, a similarly star-studded compilation featuring artists such as McCoy Tyner, Lee Ritenour and Chick Corea.
There was the awkwardly-titled Come Together: A Night for John Lennon’s Words and Music, a nationally-televised concert event that took place at Radio City Music Hall only three weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Hosted by Kevin Spacey (who himself sang the Lennon solo hit “Mind Games“), the show included performances by, among others, Lou Reed, Alanis Morissette, Cyndi Lauper, Natalie Merchant and the unlikely trio of Moby, Sean Lennon and Rufus Wainwright.
A couple years later came the Concert for George, memorializing the 2002 passing of George Harrison and featuring performances by the two surviving Beatles as well as Eric Clapton, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. And who could forget the star-spangled 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” presented in honor of George’s induction into that institution, made infamous by Prince’s jaw-dropping extended guitar solo meltdown?
The Beatles’ music took on new life yet again in 2006 with Love, an album of remixes and mashups custom-created from the original source tapes by George Martin and his son Giles. The project was put together as soundtrack for Cirque du Soleil’s widely adored LOVE show, which still plays on an ongoing basis in a purpose-built theater-in-the-round inside Las Vegas’ Mirage hotel. There is no cover material involved, but these fresh reimaginings of old favorites turned a whole new generation on to the Beatles catalog.
The 2000s movies I Am Sam and Across the Universe both dared to ignore the curse of Beatles-scored movies and neither escaped it.
The former film was conceived with the intention of using original Beatles recordings on the soundtrack, but the folks at Apple Corps would not release the rights, so the producers instead commissioned an army of hipster artists of the day, from Eddie Vedder to Sheryl Crow, to record cover versions. The movie earned director/star Sean Penn an Oscar nomination for a performance that was savaged by critics, one of whom called the film “offensive beyond belief” and a “cloying, phony and manipulative … desperate piece of Oscar-bait.”
The latter film is a fantastical and romantic “jukebox musical” built around nearly three dozen Beatles songs, with the cast singing all or bits of various tunes in character as part of the storyline. Though it has gained a cult following in the years since its release, the film had a very disappointing theatrical run, losing the studio more than $40 million.
The 2000s also found long-in-the-tooth artists including Judy Collins, Cheap Trick, Tom Jones, the Smithereens and Greg Hawkes from the Cars all releasing Beatles tribute albums — as did a wide variety of younger acts such as German acoustic soul group Tok Tok Tok, reggae collective Easy Star All-Stars, Brazilian guitar wiz Emmerson Noguiera and shred-rock supergroup Yellow Matter Custard.
And now maybe, just maybe, the Beatles movie soundtrack curse has finally been broken. Danny Boyle’s 2019 film Yesterday garnered generally positive reviews and made a tidy profit at the box office. The Beatles-themed musical fantasy’s premise centers on a young singer-songwriter who discovers one day that he is the only person who remembers the songs of the Beatles, allowing him to potentially pass them off as his own compositions. The soundtrack’s songs are mostly sung by Himesh Patel, the lead actor, who also plays guitar.
So now Ringo’s an octogenarian and Paul’s not far behind, and both are still out there leading hot-shit bands through long road tours, or at least they were up until the COVID19 biz sidelined everything. “Yesterday” has long been one of the most-recorded songs in history, with more than 2200 versions and counting, and interest in the Beatles’ music remains just as strong as ever, as evidenced by the robust discussion over the recent series of remastered Beatles album releases. Some day these guys are going to be like Mozart and Beethoven are to us now — classical music. Will it be hip 200 years from now to be into the Beatles? Only time will tell. But the smart money says people will still be recording their music.