Whether you like the Beatles or not, their music can certainly take you to some interesting places — as reflected in our latest edition of Desert Island Discs.
From Earth Wind and Fire to Marc Ribot, from the Jazz Crusaders to Adrian Belew, from Brad Mehldau to Joe Cocker, each of us has selected the must-have covers of Fab Four tracks to take on our doomed passage.
Though no consensus was reached by our intrepid ship-going music lovers, Aerosmith’s take on “Come Together” and Stevie Wonder’s reimaging of “We Can Work It Out” both received three mentions. The Georgia Satellites and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons were also mentioned twice in our lists, while elsewhere we praise versions from the Mamas and Papas, Stanley Jordan, U2, Emmylou Harris, the Score and Rickie Lee Jones.
Buckle up, then, as we explore our Beatles cover tune edition of the Desert Island Discs series. It’s going to be a bumpy ride! …
1. “WE CAN WORK IT OUT,” STEVIE WONDER (1970): Wonder gives the track a funky makeover, with that patented deep Motown beat underscoring its R&B influences.
2. “WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS,” KENNY RANKIN (1976): Beatles songs have long attracted jazz artists, but only a select number of jazzy remakes have worked. But Rankin’s truly beautiful voice, along with Don Costa’s strings, transforms this rocker into a melancholy ballad.
3. “AND I LOVE HIM,” DIANA KRALL (1995): Krall’s sultry voice and minimalist piano intensify the sensuality of the Beatles’ love song.
4. “ELEANOR RIGBY,” STANLEY JORDAN (1985): Yes, that’s one person playing guitar on this jazz reinvention of the classical-tinged original. This instrumental interpretation brings out McCartney’s lilting melody.
5. “ACROSS THE UNIVERSE,” RUFUS WAINWRIGHT (2002): Few covers actually make listeners reconsider the original version, but this one manages to do just that. This track was never one of my favorites, but Wainright’s meditative take inspired me to reconsider my initial opinion.
1. “WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS,” MARC RIBOT (1990): Ribot takes a classic and makes it sound like he’s playing one of those jack-in-a-box guitars — the ones that pop open after turning the crank crank a few times? And yet…it works.
2. “MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR,” CHEAP TRICK (1991): You know that supposed Oasis/Beatles connection? Screw that! Cheap Trick!!
3. “I SAW HER STANDING THERE,” THE TUBES (1978): I just love how The Tubes lean into it on this barely controlled version.
4. “COME TOGETHER,” AEROSMITH (1978): Yeah, yeah. The movie was a disaster. True, but Aerosmith was just plain nasty.
5. “AND I LOVE HER,” PAT METHENY (2011):If you read interviews with Metheny, he makes it pretty clear that he wouldn’t even be here without the Beatles. And then he plays this …
1. “I CALL YOUR NAME,” THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS (1966): The greatest cover of a Beatles song, ever! Cass Elliott turned it into a love letter to her favorite Beatle by whispering John Lennon’s name. Better than the Fab Four’s original.
2. “BLACKBIRD,” CROSBY STILLS AND NASH (1983): The first song the trio ever sang together. You can hear it on their 1983 live album, Allies. It’s a perfect vehicle for these hall-of-famers.
3. “HELTER SKELTER,” U2 (1988): A much more conventional live version from Rattle and Hum than The Beatles original that rocks nonetheless. Bono introduced it by saying, “Charlie Manson stole this song from The Beatles. We’re here to steal it back.”
4. “DON’T PASS ME BY,” THE GEORGIA SATELLITES (1988): Ringo’s version is good but a bit too campy. Another cover better than the original because The Satellites rock this song to death. Suitable for any party, bar, or garage.
4. “I’ll CRY INSTEAD,” BILLY JOEL (1983): Released only as the “B”side to The Innocent man single BJ proves that he really loves his Beatles.
1. “PLEASE PLEASE ME,” THE SCORE (1966): Performed at a slower tempo than the initial recording and sprinkled with moody psychedelic fairy dust, snippets of “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” by the Rolling Stones and “Shapes Of Things” by the Yardbirds are slipped into the vortex for even stranger effects.
2. “I WANT TO HOLD YOU HAND,” THE MOVING SIDEWALKS (1968): Buried under a mountain of acid-fried blues, the Moving Sidewalks turn the chirpy pop prize into a heavyweight hunk of horror. Fun fact: future ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons played in this band.
3. “SYMPHONY FOR ELEANOR (ELEANOR RIGBY),” THE IDES OF MARCH (1970): Included on the Ides of March’s “Vehicle” album, which contained the band’s hit single of the same name, “Symphony For Eleanor (Eleanor Rigby)” serves as a textbook example of progressive rock. Bleached with jazz rhythms, classical movements, a touch of blues and too many complex arrangements to keep track of, the Ides of March created the ultimate musical masturbation masterstroke.
4. “HEY JUDE,” ELVIS PRESLEY (1972): Some of the words to the song may be wrong, but Elvis really pours his heart and soul into the epic number, which has been trimmed down to just a little over four minutes in length, and appeared on the King’s “Now” album. Equal parts dumbfounding and brilliant…
5. “AND YOUR BIRD CAN SING,” BLUE EYED MARY (1999): A spirited garage rock approach drives Blue Eyed Mary’s take on one of my all-time favorite Beatles songs. Bursting with natural energy, rife with jangling guitars and excitable harmonies, the tune is featured on the band’s excellent self-titled album that carries a strong pre-psychedelic Beatles influence through and through.
1. “WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS,” JOE COCKER (1968): Thinking back, I may have watched the show “The Wonder Years,” just so I could hear this song play at every opening.
2. “MOTHER NATURE’S SON,” JOEL FRAHM AND BRAD MEHLDAU (2004): This is one of the many highlights from their duo album, Don’t Explain. Joel’s tone on soprano is so soft and sweet, it rips right to the heart.
3. “COME TOGETHER,” AEROSMITH (1979): Arguably amongst the top covers of all time, of any artist, played so perfectly and naturally, for me, it is sometimes hard to believe it is a cover. They really play it as if it was written for them.
4. “BLACKBIRD,” BRAD MEHLDAU (1997): From Art of the Trio, Vol. 1, Brad and his trio embody the essence of “Blackbird,” something which Brad is known to do so well with many of the covers that he plays. He stays true to the original structure but through the vessel of his musical and conceptual genius.
5. “FROM ME TO YOU,” BOBBY FERRIN (1984): The things that Bobby McFerrin can do with his voice are magical, mystical, and often beyond my comprehension. His cover of “Blackbird” is fantastic as well!
1. “I’M DOWN,” ADRIAN BELEW (1983): The opening track from Belew’s second solo album, the howling, angular, sometimes almost out-of-control “I’m Down” confirmed his life-long passion for the Beatles — something that continues to work as a counterweighing pop influence against the King Crimson guitarist’s more experimental leanings.
2. “WE CAN WORK IT OUT,” STEVIE WONDER (1970): Only Stevie Wonder could make the smart-assy trivialization of someone else’s feelings sound like such a wonder of ecstatic joy – and, indeed, a call for peace everywhere.
3. “GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE,” EARTH WIND AND FIRE (1978): Every once in a while, a band takes complete ownership of a song somebody else wrote. This remake, which along with Aerosmith’s “Come Together” are the only surviving curios from the wreckage of the Bee Gee’s awful late 1970s Beatles movie, is one of those times.
4. “FOR NO ONE,” EMMYLOU HARRIS (1975): Harris, with the sparest of instrumentation and a voice that sounds like a heart shattering into pieces, finds the harrowing center of this tune.
5. “I WANT TO HOLD YOU HAND,” AL GREEN (1970): I never knew, before hearing Green’s take, just how sexy this song was.
1. “FOR NO ONE,” RICKIE LEE JONES (2000): If it ain’t broke … Jones’ version makes for a great example of the masterful command that can come from the simplicity of a stripped-down performance of a no-muss no-fuss song with affecting lyrics, stark piano accompaniment, and a single voice expressing complex emotions. If you’re not touched in any way, you have ice water in your veins.
2. “AND YOUR BIRD SING,” MATTHEW SWEET AND SUSANNA HOFFS (2006): “Sid N Susie” have recorded two delectable Under the Covers albums, the first volume of which includes their trademark harmony-brimmed version of this Revolver track first issued in the U.S. in Yesterday… and Today. I also considered the merits of the Jam’s version, but Sweet’s sinuous but stinging guitar work put this cover over the top.
3. “SHE SAID SHE SAID,” THE BLACK KEYS (2002): Earthy and bluesy version has more raw immediacy than the acid-tinged original, but then I don’t know how down to earth Peter Fonda is when he broaches the subject of knowing what it’s like to be dead. In the meantime, this gritty cover helps keep me alive and trippin’.
4. “ACROSS THE UNIVERSE,” LAIBACH (1988): It may be bad timing to observe that Apple’s version is somewhat druggy, but I still like it, as well as Rufus Wainwright’s, whose acquiescent nonchalance has its own charms, though it evokes the resignation of someone who needs a new drug. Laibach is the drug, speaking here of the Slovenian industrial group, who eases off enough on the beer-hall-putsch remake of Let it Be to offer up a lush and ethereal version of “Across the Universe” that — with just a female choir, harpsichord, and organ — reaches the most euphoric potential of the song.
5. “I’M LOOKING THROUGH YOU,” TED LEO (2005): “You’re not the same …” Squirrelly and every which way but lucid version of the song qualifies as a musical fun ride straight into the hall of mirrors. You can’t tell the book by this cover.
1. “COME TOGETHER,” AEROSMITH (1978): Probably the best Beatles cover out there, as far as I’m concerned. True to the original, with just a little more attitude. Their cover of “I’m Down” is also one of the highlights of their 1987 record Permanent Vacation, but I opted to not include two covers from the same artist.
2. “REVOLUTION,” BILLY GIBBONS (2006): The ZZ Top frontman’s version of this song was far and away the best inclusion on the hard rock/metal tribute album Butchering the Beatles. Gibbons brings a serious, laid-back cool factor to the song.
3. “BAD BOY,” HEADCAT (2011): OK, so it’s a cover of a song the Beatles covered, but it’s still a great, ugly rock ‘n’ roller in the hands of Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister and the Stray Cats’ Slim Jim Phantom. If that doesn’t work for you, try Lemmy’s cover of “Back in the USSR,” also from that Butchering the Beatles comp.
4. “ELEANOR RIGBY,” EDDIE OJEDA AND DEE SNIDER (2005): On former Twisted Sister guitarist Eddie Ojeda’s solo album Axes 2 Axes, he invited his old buddy Dee Snider to sing this Beatles classic, and they deliver a solid, hard-rocking version of the tune. I also like Godhead’s industrial take on the song.
5. “HELTER SKELTER,” MOTLEY CRUE (1983): Beatles fans will probably want to scream at me about this one, but it was my introduction to the song and did lead me to seek out the original. And yeah, I still listen to this version more than the original.
1. “ELEANOR RIGBY (LIVE),” THE JAZZ CRUSADERS (1968): A rendition heavy on feel (the band partially rehearsed it once before the concert), the rhythm section finds a perfect mid-tempo groove and Joe Sample’s show stopping piano solo is among the best of his career.
2. “WE CAN WORK IT OUT,” STEVIE WONDER (1970): Beginning with the nasty, distortion-riddled electric piano riff, Stevie took ownership of this song and never relinquished it.
3. “DON’T PASS ME BY,” THE GEORGIA SATELLITES (1988): The Satellites took Ringo Starr’s hokey, moldy “Don’t Pass Me By” and gave it a swift, hard kick in the ass.
4. “ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE,” STEVEN BERNSTEIN’S MILLENNIAL TERRITORY ORCHESTRA (2008): If the only original could have had the daring, flair and grandeur of MTO’s version, it would have easily avoided a dreaded spot on our Bad Beatles’ list.
5. “A DAY IN THE LIFE (LIVE),” JEFF BECK (2008): Beck wrings every emotion, every twist and every tortured turn out of this multifaceted masterpiece using not a studio but merely a Telecaster and an amp.