Monday, October 26, 2009

American Music in British Voices: Rethinking the Beatles as the World's First International Cover Band

Paul McCartney often tells this great story about the first time that he and John Lennon met. Apparently, Paul had gone to see John’s band play and afterward they met up and Paul impressed John not only by his ability to play Eddie Cochran’s "Twenty Flight Rock" left-handed on a right-handed guitar, but also because he knew every word. Here it is in his own words from the recent PBS special "Great Performances: Chaos and Creation at Abbey Road" (which you should take some time and watch--it's phenomenal):

I love thinking about this historical moment. Paul sees the leader of the band he wants to be a part of and takes a chance. John's a little drunk, but is floored by Paul's natural talent. Bang: the genesis of a friendship that would change the world. Then there's also the fact that the moment centers around a great song—a song written in the newly christened, genre-melding style called rock & roll.

I’ve always been a late-period Beatles fan. When I was 14 my friends and I would listen to the White Album and bask in its multi-genre genius. We learned White Album and Sgt. Pepper tunes on the guitar and would play them at parties to audiences who’d have rather heard Depeche Mode or The Cure (so we'd play those too). It was the late albums (really, everything Rubber Soul and onward) that I have gone back to again and again over the years. I don't think I'm alone.

So despite my near, life-long fandom, it wasn’t until I got the remastered CDs last month that I had even heard some of songs off the early records. What I found, of course, were the hits that launched The Bealtes into fame, but also--rather unexpectedly--I found covers versions of now-classic, then relatively contemporary American rock songs. In fact, on the first three Beatles records there are a total of 18 songs (out of 42) by other artists.

It occurred to me that it might be fun to look into those first few records and look up the songs the Beatles covered and compare versions to get a feeling for the kind of stuff they were listening in those early Beatles and pre-Bealtes days. It shouldn't be surprising to hear that the original versions* are, dare I say, far more rich than the Beatles appropriations. I imagine that to Paul & John those songs sounded like the Beatles would eventually sound to us.

Here are a few of my (more well-known) favorites:

Roll Over Beethoven

The Beatles (go George!):

Chuck Berry:

Money (That's What I Want)

The Beatles:

(I love the Paul/John behavioral dichotomy going on in this live
clip--so classic.)

Barrett Strong:

Please Mr. Postman

The Beatles

The Marvelettes

Long Tall Sally

The Beatles

Little Richard

The elephant in the room here is that all of the appropriated songs I have chosen to present are by African American artists. I love that the Beatles covered these tunes, but it seem strange to me--tragic even--that it took the distinctly foreign (and distinctly white) voices of the Beatles before the American public at-large could begin to appreciate these songs. There is a whole other essay/post here, but this topic might make for a nice jumping-off point should you care to comment.

*Figuring out what the "original version" of any of these songs can be daunting as they were often written by professional song writers and then recorded by a variety of artists.

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