The best Beatles cover songs you need to hear

By John Borack

By now, most fans are familiar with The Beatles’ covers back story: The Fab Four honed their onstage chops in the dank, dark clubs of Germany and the U.K. in the early ’60s, playing a variety of American rock and roll, soul, country and pop numbers. Many of the tunes the boys perfected during these frenetic live performances would eventually be recorded on their early LPs and/or performed live in the studio on BBC Radio. (1994’s “Live at the BBC” CD is a veritable treasure trove of these covers, with high energy, previously unreleased takes of tunes such as “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Lucille” sharing space with some Beatles originals.)

The Beatles

After the Beatles became huge, hundreds of other artists returned the favor by covering the group’s original tunes. These homages ranged from the sublime (Wilson Pickett’s dynamic reading of “Hey Jude”) to the ridiculous (Mrs. Miller’s horrific deconstruction of “A Hard Day’s Night” must be heard to be disbelieved).

Since everyone loves a good list — and since they’re also excellent for provoking thoughtful discussions (and causing arguments) among music aficionados — here are 10 cool songs The Beatles made their own, as well as 10 artists who covered Beatles tunes to great effect.

Who The Beatles Covered

Isley Brothers Twist and ShoutSong: “Twist and Shout”
Composition Credit: Bert Russell and Phil Medley
Where You Can Hear It: “Introducing … The Beatles” (Vee Jay, 1964)
The Beatles are so closely identified with this one that many casual fans are probably unaware that it’s even a cover – and even those who are familiar with the Isley Brothers’ pre-Beatle version probably don’t realize that it’s not the original, either. That distinction belongs to The Top Notes, a Philadelphia-based R&B combo that released a Phil Spector-produced version in 1961. It only took one take for The Fab Four to knock this song out of the park and make it their own, thanks in large part to an incredible, throat-shredding lead vocal from John Lennon.

Song: “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” Larry Williams Dizzy Miss Lizzy
Composition Credit: Larry Williams
Where You Can Hear It: “Beatles VI” (Capitol, 1965)
Another powerful, Lennon-sung rocker, this 1965 track features a double-tracked lead vocal (punctuated with screams), pounding, four-on-the-floor drums and an insistent, repetitive lead guitar riff. Originally written and performed by Larry Williams and released on Specialty Records, the song bears more than a passing resemblance to Little Richard’s soulful, rocking sound. This is a relatively underrated Beatles track (if there is such an animal).

Little Richard Kansas CitySong: “Kansas City”/“Hey Hey Hey Hey”
Composition Credit: Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (“Kansas City”); Richard Penniman (“Hey Hey Hey Hey”)
Where You Can Hear It: “Beatles VI” (Capitol, 1965)
By melding a finger-poppin’ Leiber and Stoller ditty (popularized by Wilbert Harrison in 1959) with a Little Richard B-side, this propulsive slice of beat music gave Paul McCartney the opportunity to once again pay tribute to Mr. Penniman, as he had done with “Long Tall Sally.” The Beatles had seen Little Richard perform this medley a few years before they recorded it in 1964, and they performed it live (on and off) for the next few years. The version released on “Beatles For Sale” was a first take; the second and final take was released as part of The Beatles’ “Anthology” in 1995.

Song: “Words of Love”Buddy Holly Words of Love
Composition Credit: Buddy Holly
Where You Can Hear It: “Beatles For Sale” (Capitol, 1964)
As they obviously were Buddy Holly buffs — the story about the evolution of The Beatles’ name and its association with Holly’s Crickets has been well documented — it made sense that John, Paul, George and Ringo eventually would get around to recording a Holly tune. The Fab Four stayed true to the original arrangement and vocal stylings of this gentle 1957 effort when the group released its version in 1964. The Beatles’ take is highlighted by George Harrison’s chiming guitar and close vocal harmonies by Lennon and McCartney throughout.

Song: “’Till There Was You”
Composition Credit: Meredith Wilson
Where You Can Hear It: “With The Beatles” (Capitol, 1963)
This sweet ballad from the Broadway musical “The Music Man” became a Paul McCartney showcase beginning in 1962, when the band first started featuring it at shows.  While it definitely plays up McCartney’s sentimental — some might say schmaltzy — side, it nevertheless features a charming lead vocal and some wonderful acoustic lead guitar courtesy of Harrison.

Song: “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”
Composition Credit: William “Smokey” Robinson
Where You Can Hear It: “With The Beatles” (Capitol, 1963)
Another relatively underappreciated early Beatles cover, the Fabs’ reading of Smokey Robinson’s soul classic is absolutely killer. A pleading lead vocal from John Lennon, a few left-field drum fills from Ringo Starr and more typically pristine vocal harmonies are just some of the treasures to be found here. Producer George Martin plays the prominent piano part.

Marvelettes Please Mr. PostmanSong: “Please Mr. Postman”
Composition Credit: Georgia Dobbins, William Garrett and Brianbert (songwriting team of Brian Holland and Robert Bateman)
Where You Can Hear It: “With The Beatles” (Capitol, 1963)
Like “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Please Mr. Postman” finds the boys from Liverpool trying the Tamla/Motown sound on for size and giving it a big beat twist, replete with guitars and energy to spare. Another top-notch Lennon lead vocal here (double tracked) with a bit of wackiness happening as the song fades out — listen for it.

Song: “Money (That’s What I Want)” Barrett Strong Money
Composition Credit: Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy Jr.
Where You Can Hear It: “With The Beatles” (Capitol, 1963)
More Motown goodness on this piano-driven stomper, which was a live staple for the band for quite some time.
Lennon again drives it home with a passionate vocal performance, and Starr pounds the tom-toms like mad.  Interesting note: The Beatles recorded a much speedier version of “Money” at the band’s failed Decca Records audition in 1962, with the guitars sounding very Dick Dale-like, giving the tune a rather odd, surf music vibe.

Song: “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”
Composition Credit: Carl Perkins
Where You Can Hear It: “Beatles For Sale” (Capitol, 1964)
Harrison takes a lead vocal turn (bathed in echo) and turns in a solid performance on this Carl Perkins-penned country rocker.
The starts and stops add a bit of tension, while Harrison’s twangy lead guitar is appropriately swingin’. Harrison offered up a spirited take of this tune when he played it alongside with his longtime hero Perkins on a cable TV special in 1985.

Song: “Soldier of Love” Arthur Alexander Soldier of Love
Composition Credit: Buzz Cason/Tony Moon. Original title was “Soldiers of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)”
Where You Can Hear It: “Live At The BBC” (Apple, 1994)
Officially released only on the “Live at the BBC” disc, The Beatles’ reading of this 1962 Arthur Alexander song is a real treat. The foursome once again deftly usher an R&B song into the realm of Merseybeat with such positive results that one wonders why they never officially recorded it during the ’60s.
Power pop icon Marshall Crenshaw obviously was hipped to the BBC version via underground recordings during the ’70s and ’80s, as his version of “Soldier of Love” from his 1982 debut album features a virtual carbon copy of The Beatles’ arrangement.

Who Covered The Beatles

Artist: Cheap Trick
Song: “Day Tripper”
Where You Can Hear It: “Found All the Parts” EP (Epic Records, 1980)
The live version of The Beatles’ classic by the favorite sons of Rockford, Ill., is a supercharged powerhouse, led by Robin Zander’s emotive vocals and Rick Nielsen’s guitar showmanship.
It manages the neat trick of remaining true to the original without coming off as an exact replica. Cheap Trick’s longtime Beatles fans Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos went on to record with John Lennon during the “Double Fantasy” sessions, but their contributions remained unreleased until 1998.

Walter Clevenger and The Dairy Kings

Artist: Walter Clevenger and the Dairy Kings
Song: “I Will”
Where You Can Hear It: “It Was 40 Years Ago Today: A Tribute to the Beatles” (Bullseye Records Canada, 2004)
Southern California-based Clevenger and his band of country-popsters transform Paul McCartney’s acoustic “White Album” ballad into something resembling a 1965-vintage Beatles cut by virtue of upping the tempo a touch and adding some cheery, “Every Little Thing”-influenced guitar runs. Very nice.

Artist: Paul McCartney
Song: “For You Blue”
Where You Can Hear It: “The Concert for George” (Rhino Records, 2003)
Some might deem this cheating, but look at it this way: Paul didn’t write this one, and he is technically covering a Beatles tune, hence its inclusion.
A fitting tribute to his “brother,” Paul’s relaxed vocal fits the song like a glove and it sounds like he’s having a ball, to boot. Sweet, sentimental and just perfect.

Elvis Costello publicity imageArtist: Elvis Costello
Song: “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”
Where You Can Hear It: “Kojak Variety” reissue bonus disc (Rhino Records, 2004)
Costello did serve as something of a John Lennon-type influence during his all-too-brief songwriting partnership with Paul McCartney during the late ’80s, so covering one of Lennon’s confessional, Dylan-esque ballads makes perfect sense, both musically and historically. It’s a straightforward reading, with Costello’s passionate vocals out front.

Artist: Flamin’ Groovies
Song: “Misery”
Where You Can Hear It: “Shake Some Action” (Sire Records, 1976)
This is a very brief (1:39) run-through of this early Beatles classic by a venerable combo that had transformed from a bluesy-rock outfit to dyed-in-the-wool power poppers by the time this was released in ’76. It’s basically a traditional, Merseybeat-styled version infused with a smidgen of punk energy to help spice it up. Produced by Dave Edmunds.

Harry Nilsson You Can't Do ThatArtist: Harry Nilsson
Song: “You Can’t Do That”
Where You Can Hear It: “Pandemonium Shadow Show” (RCA Victor, 1967)
Harry Nilsson was able to parlay this cover into a longtime friendship with John Lennon, who was smitten with the “Pandemonium Shadow Show” record, and this cover in particular. It’s a creatively arranged, impeccably sung, slowed-down version of the “Hard Day’s Night”-era tune, and it incorporates nearly two dozen mentions of other Fab Four song titles and lyrics in the course of the song. Unique and quite charming.

Artist: Georgia Satellites
Song: “Don’t Pass Me By”
Where You Can Hear It: “Open All Night” (Elektra Records, 1988)
These Stonesy Southern rockers take Ringo Starr’s cute-yet-clumsy “White Album” country pastiche and turn it into a storming honky-tonk number that absolutely rocks like hell. It received plenty of radio airplay back in the day, reaching No. 33 on the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.

Artist: Mega City Four
Song: “A Hard Day’s Night”
Where You Can Hear It: “Revolution No. 9: A Tribute to the Beatles” (Creative Man Records, 1991)
Spiky, punk-tinged guitar infuses this U.K. indie pop band’s loud take of “A Hard Day’s Night,” but since the band never loses sight of the melody, it works well. Think Oasis, but with a less mannered, more upbeat vocalist and heaps of added energy, and you’re in the ballpark.

Artist: Roseanne Cash
Song: “I’m Only Sleeping”
Where You Can Hear It: “Retrospective” (Columbia Records, 1995)
Country chanteuse Roseanne (daughter of Johnny) Cash surprises with this faithful (she kept the backward guitars!), energetic cover of John Lennon’s 1966 ode to slumberland. The song also makes an appearance on 2005’s “Yesterday: A Country Music Tribute to The Beatles.”

Artist: Paul Westerberg
Song: “Nowhere Man”
Where You Can Hear It: “I Am Sam” Original Soundtrack (V2 Records, 2002)
Stripped of its signature harmonies and jangling guitars, this sparse, acoustic reading by former Replacements leader and alt-rock kingpin Paul Westerberg comes off as a mournful, sad-eyed lullaby. It’s part of the “I Am Sam” original soundtrack, which is filled with alternative artists including Ben Harper, Rufus Wainwright and Nick Cave offering up renditions of Beatles tunes with varying degrees of success. To his credit, Westerberg allows the beautiful melody to remain at the forefront and reels in his voice a bit on “Nowhere Man.” Unfortunately, some other contributors to the album, such as Pearl Jam lead vocalist Eddie Vedder, see fit to bludgeon the listener with vocal histrionics.

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