Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Collective Responsibility Pt. 1

After I'd finished my post on songs about The Ramones the knowledge that there were more covers out there of songs by The Beatles than any other band wouldn't stop niggling away at the back of my mind. I've never been a big Fab Four fan and, while I recognize their immense cutural significance to the twentieth century, the knowledge that their influence might still percolate through popular music fifty years after they split up feels oddly unsettling.

If that's how it's going to be, though, may as well get another blog post out of it. But what kind of post, exactly?

My first thought was something based around the weirdest Beatles covers I could find but when I began to do some digging I discovered someone had beaten me to it. The BBC, no less. Naturally, loads of people had also tallied the "best" covers, not that I was likely to share their taste.

Not wanting to serve up sloppy seconds I had another think and came up with the idea of doing a Beatles album in covers, track by track. But which one?

I own four Beatles albums, all on vinyl, all acquired when I was very young: Revolver, Let It Be, Sgt. Pepper's and Abbey Road, the very first album I ever bought. I was around twelve years old, I had a little money, we had a record player. It seemed like the thing to do.

I bought it from my mother's Freeman's mail-order catalogue. I chose Abbey Road and Motown Chartbusters Vol. 6 because they were by people I'd heard on the radio. The Motown album, somewhat surreally, features a cover by prog god Roger Dean. Maybe that contributed to my infatuation with Yes a year or two later. It does seem like an odd co-incidence.

I liked Abbey Road well enough. I'm quite fond of it even now. If someone asked me what my favorite Beatles album was, though, I'd have probably said The White Album.

Well, I would have until this week, although it would have been a pretentious selection, even by my hipsterish standards. I've never owned a copy. I haven't listened to it for almost forty years. Indeed, until I compiled this post, I'd have been hard put to come up with titles for more than a handful of the tracks.

The reason I'd have picked it is because the White Album featured in a seminal incident during my first year at University. My friend Keith, "singer" in the original line-up of The Romantic Novels, the band I was in at college, introduced me to it. We spent a lot of late nights in the set of rooms he shared with a long-suffering architecture student by the name of Eammon, listening to music in what I might, euphemistically, describe as an elevated state of consciousness. Okay, we were stoned.

One week, through some arcane process I wisely never dug into too deeply, Keith managed to score free copies of the entire Beatles back catalog on vinyl from someone he'd met who worked for their record company. We'd been working our way through the pile for a few days and I wasn't paying a lot of attention until, late one night, the needle moved on to the beginning of Helter Skelter.

I'd never heard it before  but somehow, as if by some dark magic, I instantly knew what it was. It felt like someone had unscrewed the top of my head and poured in ice water. I remember, vividly, being unable to speak or move until it ended. It was a psychic assault the like of which I've only ever experienced from music a handful of times. Weirdest of all, Keith had passed into an almost identical fugue state. When the music stopped we looked at each other and asked "What the hell just happened?". Since then I've always thought of The White Album as something special.

Until now. Going through the thirty tracks this week has been a highly instructive experience. I've learned a lot, including:
  • Helter Skelter is still an astonishing piece of work that's lost none of its demonic power.
  • The White Album as a whole has to be a front-runner for the patchiest rag-bag of leftovers ever cobbled together by a major recording act.
  • Even so, they almost get away with it. Love them or loathe them, The Beatles do have a supernatural talent for turning grit into pearls. 
  • The luster very much does not rub off on all who touch the hem of their garment.
  • Anyone who believes Beatles songs are bomb-proof is likely to get blown to smithereens.
  • The White Album is not my favorite Beatles Album. Not any more. Not ever again. 
I also learned that, while there may indeed be more covers of Beatles songs than those of any other band (Wikipedia tends to point that way), quantity does not indicate quality. I listened to (snatches) of far too many covers of all the songs on The White Album this week, by everyone from would-be troubadours to hair metal horrors. Nearly all of them were terrible.

Not weird, not funny, not even bland. Just bad. The explanation became clear to me quite quickly: many of the songs on The White Album aren't so much songs as notes to self about ideas that might one day become songs. The Beatles and George Martin then, somehow, possibly by dint of a collective visit to a crossroad at midnight, manage to make you not notice, at least as long as they're playing. When someone else tries to repeat the trick, everything falls apart.

Some of what follows is the best of what I heard. Some is the most interesting or amusing. There are some very good versions in there and some true curiosities. A few are just the best of a bad bunch because for some tracks there were no good covers at all.

I've linked the original Beatles version in the main song title, all from the 2009 remix, mainly because it was easy to find. The names of the cover artists link to their performances. Where there's an embedded video it will be the same as the linked one.

I can also see as I type this that it's going to run long so I think we're going to have to split the project in two: one post for the first two sides, another for sides three and four. And may god have mercy on us all.

Side One 

 Back In The USSR - Orquesta Mondragon - One of the more resilient songs on The White Album, a straight-up rocker with a standard verse/chorus structure that seems to be able to survive most attempts to destroy it. The fact that it's already a pastiche of another band's style doesn't hurt when it comes to covers. Here's a hearty Basque showband interpretation. It outstays its welcome a little but it gets us off to a cheery start. Let's not get overconfident, though. There's a long way to go.

Dear Prudence - Siouxsie and the Banshees - This is a great cover. A top ten hit for Siouxsie in the mid-80s and a lot more radio-friendly than her disturbing version of Helter Skelter.

Glass Onion - FABRICK - And the fun comes to a crashing halt. The first time you'll find yourself thinking "This is a song?" but sadly, not the last. A surprising number of bands seem to think it's a cool idea to cover The White Album in its entirety (Hey, pot! Have you met kettle?). I've tried to avoid including any of them but there are blessedly few covers of Glass Onion so I made an exception for this lot.

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da - Gabriela Bee -  This abomination gets my vote for the worst song The Beatles ever recorded. Marmalade's execrable version, a number one hit in the UK in 1968, is marginally less unbearable but it's a close-run thing. All other covers I subjected my poor ears to were even worse except for this one by Gabriela Bee. It's awful too but the way she says "braaah" as if she's chiding a guildmate for body-pulling a raid boss amuses me.

Wild Honey Pie - The Pixies - FFS! What even is this? It's like something you put on your contractual obligation album to piss the record company off. The Pixies version is gloriously unhinged but even then you wouldn't want to listen to it more than once. Or once.

The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill - Dawn Kinnard with Ron Sexsmith and the Suppliers -
Finally! Some relief! I always quite liked this slice of prime Lennon snark and this is a deliciously fractured deconstruction. I was already vaguely familiar with Ron Sexsmith but Dawn Kinnard came as a new name to me. I'll be following her with interest from now on so at least I'll get something out of all this.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps - Puddles Pity Party - Even the great clown can't do much with George's party piece but every other version I listened to was a lot worse. And it is funny to have a song about guitar virtuosity performed by someone who can barely strum.

Happiness Is A Warm Gun - Tori Amos  "They said it was about shooting up drugs. But they were advertising guns and I thought it was so crazy that I made a song out of it. It wasn’t about ‘H’ at all", complained Lennon. Tori drives home the irony with merciless focus. It's a truly great cover although I'm not absolutely convinced it needs to be ten minutes long.

Side Two

Martha My Dear - Slade - The last one wasn't about drugs and this one isn't about Paul McCartney's sheepdog. The video really has to be seen to be believed. Slade, dressed as the skinheads they never were, playing a baroque version of a Beatles love song ina style that more than hints at prog. It's quite exquisite in its way but entirely unfathomable.

I'm So Tired - Daniel Johnson - And speaking of unfathomable we come to the cult of Daniel Johnson. By all acounts a very lovely man and the epitome of outsider art. This is haunting, inspiring and beautiful whereas the Lennon original mostly sounds angry. As usual.

Blackbird - Covered With Kittens (Sarah Donner) - Over the years I've come to appreciate McCartney as a songwriter to the point where I may prefer him to Lennon. He certainly has a gift for melody, something that does him no favors at all when it comes to cover versions. There are some truly horrible covers of Blackbird out there. This one's good, though. And it has kittens.

Piggies - Jan Dark - Another "song" no-one can do much with. Doesn't stop too many people trying, unfortunately. If I was listening to the album (something I now fervently hope I will never have to do again) I'd skip this track altogether. I prefer Jan Dark's version but that's really not saying much.

Rocky Racoon - Raquel Welch and Bob Hope - I did watch this from beginning to end, though. I was too stunned to switch it off. Did the sixties really happen or did The Onion make them up? Was everyone on drugs? You'd have to be, wouldn't you, to find this funny.

Don't Pass Me By - The Georgia Satellites - We really need a palate cleanser after that. How about some good ol' down home rock 'n' roll? I never really thought of The Georgia Satellites as the American Status Quo but the evidence here is damning.

Why Don't We Do It In The Road? - Lloyd Cole - These days, Lloyd likes to style himself a folk singer but there was a time when he harbored ambitions to pass for a rock star. He kind of looks the part here and it's as close to animated as I've ever seen him on stage. Maybe he should have stuck at it.

I Will - Billie Eilish - Lennon was two decades dead when Billie was born. This was the first song she ever learned. I'm sure that says something about culture and time but don't ask me what it is.

Julia - Priscilla Ahn - Let's finish with something soothing. God knows we need it. Set to a collage of shaky home video shot through the windows of tour buses. Stonehenge is in there somewhere, too.

Next time, sides three and four. Longer songs, fewer tracks. Thankfully.


  1. Bob Hope with a cover? That's scary.

    I personally prefer Sarah McLachlan's version of Blackbird to the Beatles' version, even though they're very similar.

    There's the version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2004 that Prince famously shredded in, but aside from, but aside from that the rest are kind of meh.

    Hmmm... Would you count The Offspring's appropriation of Ob-la-di Ob-la-da into Why Don't You Get a Job as a cover? The band supposedly was making fun of Oasis, but it sure sounds like they nailed the Beatles' sound pretty well.

    And finally I'll admit I'm biased. I'd never heard the original Helter Skelter until after I heard the Motley Crue version. Crue Fever swept my high school when they released Shout at the Devil back in 1983, and you couldn't go anywhere without someone playing that album on their boomboxes. It was big enough that despite little airplay on our local rock stations it knocked Ozzy and Iron Maiden off of their perch as metalheads' go to album for that year. While I now prefer the Beatles' version, I still think that they played it a bit too slow, and the song has a better flow when played faster.

    1. The strangest thing about The Beatles and the 1960s is the way that *everyone* seemingly felt obligated to acknowledge and even incorporate the band in their act, no matter how bad the fit. Huge numbers of the cover versions came out while the Beatles were still recording, often in the same year they were released. Soul, funk, jazz, folk - it made no difference - everyone did Beatles covers. Bob Hope was famously an establishment figure and the Beatles were the polar opposite yet here he is, hitching his wagon to their star. Even Frank Sinatra, who loathed rock music and most pop too, covered "Something ".

      It's impossible to imagine it happening with any modern band or performer. I'm not sure it ever really did happen with anyone else.

    2. You're absolutely right about that. My parents had Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66' Fool on the Hill album --aka the naked woman album-- and that version was the first one I'd heard of Fool on the Hill.

    3. Oh, and I'd like to give a thumbs up to Roger Dean. I have plenty of Asia and Yes albums (including Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe) with his artwork on the cover.


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