7 - Cover Songs: The Beatles in Rehearsal

Return to all essays >>

7 - Cover Songs: The Beatles in Rehearsal



While almost nothing exists in the vast canon of literature on The Beatles legacy about their cover songs, in fact, they were the most important factor in mapping out their future musical direction.


In one of the few commentaries about the 25 cover songs that the group recorded in their early years, rock music critic Richard Reigel opines:


“I’ve always suspected that there’s a silent understanding (conspiracy?) among the converted-by-Sgt.-Pepper Beatles partisans that the group’s earlier cover versions of other composers’ songs somehow don’t count in that grandiose history-&-synthesis-of-Western music Beatles canon.”


George Martin recollects:


“Their covers are nothing short of rock mayhem. Instrumentally, The Beatles loved the loudness, the rawness of the guitar work, the heavy back beat, the thumping drums and bass, the fact that you could shout your head off when you were singing. They took this musical style to another more passionate, visceral level.”


Music critic Al Bargar says that the cover songs they performed and recorded were not selected solely on the basis of the music:


“Motown Records was billed as ‘the sound of America.’ Spiritually they stood for post-war working class optimism, for blacks and whites with Chuck Berry serving as the bridge between the two races. Not that it applied to absolutely every song by every artist, but there was a general vision of rising expectations, a belief that basically everybody has a chance to be somebody. The Beatles understood and concurred with this optimistic world view and that it is why they came to learn, perform and record their music.”


The cover songs are The Beatles as a live band


Although not written by Lennon-McCartney, and for the most part largely forgotten as being irrelevant to our understanding of Beatles music, the cover songs are the most revealing part of their musical legacy.


In their very early days they were mostly a cover band, playing (imitating would be a better word) in live performances the greatest rock and soul songs of the day: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Larry Williams, The Isley Brothers, The Coasters,


The Platters, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran. They were also huge fans of Motown and “Girl Groups” like The Shirelles and The Marvelettes.


Yet despite their admiration for him and the influence he had on all of them, The Beatles never recorded an Elvis song. Author Stephen Stark says this may have been because they “found it impossible to do Elvis in a way that would render Elvis inoperative.’


The core reason The Beatles’ versions of these songs sounded so much better is that unlike the original, which was the star and his backup band, The Beatles functioned musically as one unit.


Through the cover songs they learned how to play as a group and produce a unified sound. As they were musically illiterate, it was through these cover songs, imitating the original artists, that they learned how to be better musicians.


These songs were also very important as they gave The Beatles the chance to learn techniques such as how to harmonize like The Everly Brothers, which they perfected on Money (That’s What I Want) and Please Mister Postman. The cover songs taught them not only how a song was played or sung, but also how it was structured.


It wasn’t that the cover songs imitated the original in a better way. But rather, they would internalize the song and then rearrange its parts and nuances. The result was a song that, though inspired by the original, was something completely distinctive.


The Influence of the “Girl Groups”


Australian musician Matthew Bannister writes in his essay Ladies and Gentlemen – The Beatelles! The Influence of Sixties Girl Groups on The Beatles, that the contribution of the “Girl Groups” to Beatles’ music and image has not been acknowledged or studied. He points out how they adopted musical conventions of “Girl Groups” songs, like group vocalizing, Latin rhythms and sophisticated chord progressions. The Beatles even had matching outfits and hairstyles as did the Girl Groups, and choreographed moves, as well.


In her essay You’re Going To Lose That Girl The Beatles and the Girl Groups, Jacqueline Warwick says that the problem with focusing so much on what The Beatles learned from Chuck Berry and Little Richard in terms of songwriting and instrumental techniques, is that we ignore what they learned from Girl Groups in terms of vocal harmonies and subject positions – meaning that we don’t fully understand what The Beatles were all about:


“If we are going to make The Beatles into our Beethoven, we should be careful with the kinds of narratives we build around them. We need to acknowledge the important influence of Girl Groups on The Beatles’ early recordings and on The Beatles’ sound as it developed after the Beatlemania years. Maybe then we can write a history where the girls can come out.”


Bannister points out that The Beatles often featured strong backing vocals, which often formed a commentary on the lead – a technique they learned and emulated from the “Girl Groups” in the early 60s. For instance, in Help!, the backing vocals anticipate the lead singer. In It Won’t Be Long, the use of other male band members as backing vocalists demonstrates how they integrated the call and response pattern of Black music into the group format:


“The singularity of their approach has given rise to the cliché of ‘Beatle-esque harmonies’. Sometimes also the lead vocal would change in the course of a song where the person singing the verse and middle eight, switch places. The overall effect is one of exuberance as different vocal lines and voices compete for space, an effect chronicled by the Girl Groups.”


The cover songs were a rehearsal for what was to come


One of the world's leading Beatle, Alan Pollack, points out that The Beatles performed cover songs before they became famous. As a result, they are very authentic, and in a sense, much easier to like than any of the other material they would write. He believes they were fresher – less arrogant – than the songs they composed.


Pollack says the cover songs also enabled each of The Beatles to better hone their skills as musicians:


“Look at a fairly simple song like Act Naturally. It both resonates with, and extends, the gesture that the group had already made in the direction of folk rock. By learning how to play music in the style of Larry Williams and Carl Perkins, George was exposed to an entirely new genre of music. This prepared him for the folk sound of Rubber Soul.”


Of the 25 cover songs The Beatles recorded, 14 of them are on the albums Please Please Me and With The Beatles.


Both sets of covers contain examples of songs that the group could not – or at least would not – write for themselves at this stage of their career. The connections can be seen between A Taste of Honey and Till There Was You (soppy love ballads), Boys and Roll Over Beethoven (jumping little records with every section a 12-bar blues frame), Anna and You Really Got A Hold On Me (heavy soulful ballads), and Twist and Shout and Money (raving screamers).


Pollack points out that given the decidedly male image of the group, both sets of covers contain a surprisingly strong showing of material first popularized by so-called “Girl Groups” – three out of six on the first album, and two out of six on the second:


“Although The Beatles would seem in some respects to rather slavishly copy the original versions of the songs in both sets of covers, they almost always, by the same token, appear to include their own subtle stylistic touches. This appears with increasing liberty on their second album, With The Beatles, where, for example, three of the covers whose originals feature a fadeout ending are given a complete one by The Beatles.”


Pollack points out that, stylistically, the cover songs on Beatles for Sale are evenly weighted between straight rock, rockabilly, and pop/ novelty. The folksier stuff resonates with the several original songs on the album that have acoustic arrangements. No Motown or “Girl Groups” were covered.


What is interesting is that five out of the six covers on the album were originally recorded by their composers. Pollack believes this was a conscious part of The Beatles “tribute” element, based on their firmly established preference by this point in time for recording their own original material as much as possible.


After a few years of recording cover songs they had mastered them and decided it was time to move on. This was always their great talent: knowing when to move on to a new musical genre. It was as if they were saying, “Okay, we got it – done it – time for us to become composers ourselves.”


They eventually outgrew covers


Lennon and McCartney were hardly shy about the inter-collaborative nature of their compositional practices. Paul called it “plagiarists extraordinaire”


Rather than simply dismiss such deeds as the work of crass copyright infringers, they can be better understood as textual borrowings of two budding songwriters who had become fully immersed in the larger world of their craft. That larger world was the cover songs they had been performing for years.


Despite the mainstream views that “The Beatles were unique” in fact, most of their original songs were based on or inspired by existing artists, songs, and styles. Their greatness is based on their reinterpretation. As they became better musicians and were a very tight, closely-knit band, their signature “oneness” of sound emerged. It is this unified sound that made their versions of these songs so much better than those of the original artists.


The last cover song appeared on Help! In early 1965 Lennon and McCartney were already famous songwriters and were about to take the publishing company they owned public on the London Stock Exchange. Commercial interests influenced their future artistic direction. There would not be any more cover songs; EMI would not have to pay anyone else royalties for the recordings and Northern Songs and Lennon and McCartney would make more money by only recording their own songs.


Over various times The Beatles played together, all four of them would look back and remark how much better their musicianship was before they created their music in the studio rather than live on stage. What a shame it is that of all the cover songs they learned to play for heir live performances, only 25 of them were to be recorded for posterity.

Return to all essays >>