It’s not quite as crazy as playing lawn darts with your cousin that just got out of juve, but attempting to cover a Beatles song is certainly on the list of potentially hazardous activities. In the hands of a money grubbing record exec, a Beatles cover can cause devastation (I’m looking at you, Sgt. Pepper’s movie soundtrack). But to really pull off the sacred task of reinterpreting a Beatle’s tune requires a certain level of reverence. Maybe that’s why it’s rare when a cover comes along that has just the right balance of homage, re-imagination and artistic devotion.
Here is my attempt to compile a playlist of ten strange, less-than-obvious moments of oddly beautiful tributes for you music obsessives to enjoy:
Klaus Beyer – Das Gelbe Unterwasserboot
One of the hallmarks of Strange Currencies Music is its affinity for obsession. When Klaus Beyer decided his mother simply must experience The Beatles in her native German tongue, there may never have been a more clear example of strange obsession.
The eccentric candle maker set about in his free time translating the entire Beatles catalog into German using crudely cut clips of the original Beatles tracks in what feels like an authentically quirky labor of love. His passion oozes through the resulting macheteed recordings, many of which are difficult to hear (I’m looking at you, “Hey Jude“). While some call him the German Daniel Johnston, his charming take on “Yellow Submarine” has me calling him the “German Beatle.”
The Langley School’s Music Project – “The Long and Winding Road”
Here’s the elevator pitch: in a late-70s Canadian elementary school gym, a music teacher who didn’t know anything about formal music education took a 2-track recorder and decided to get his 5th and 6th grade students to record an album of pop songs so they could take home a vinyl keepsake of their choir class project.
Strangely, this collection of songs full of earnest passion carries a haunting innocence that just demands repeated listens. This particular solo of The Beatles’ “Long and Winding Road” captures a youthful melancholy full of sincerity. All this on an album long forgotten, only ever intended to be pressed for friends and family. Maybe that’s why this recording is so magical: because it has no pretense and is simply the natural—if slightly out of tune at times— voice of innocence…and despair. If this is “outsider music,” then I want to be outside.
Andre 3000 – “All Together Now”
Recorded for a Nike commercial, and eventually released on a 7-inch as a Record Store Day exclusive, OutKast‘s Andre 3000 knocks this less-obvious Beatle track out of the park. Originally recorded for the Magical Mystery Tour project and later released as a sort of children’s song on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, Andre 3000 updates it with a bit of his own flair that has it sounding like it belongs on the B-side of the “Hey Ya” single.
Bobbie Gentry – “The Fool on the Hill”
What can I say? I’m a sucker for bass harmonica and blue-eyed soul. Gentry delivers on both counts in this 1969 take on the quirky track from Magical Mystery Tour. For more adventurous listeners, Gentry even graces us with a Japanese translation. Sergio Mendes also tackled “The Fool on the Hill” with his 1968 bossa nova spin that garnered more commercial success. While Mendes’ take is an intriguing departure from the original, Gentry’s silky sixties swagger has me coming back to her delightful rendition.
Daniel Johnston – “I Saw Her Standing There”
This list already has several entries from what many would consider “outsider” artists, but no self-proclaimed “strange” playlist for “music obsessives” could take itself seriously without the inclusion of the king of outsiders: Daniel Johnston. Johnson’s home recordings documenting his private yearnings and honest tributes to music he loves brings you into the mind of a man struggling to express himself.
The sparseness of this recording and the echo off the walls of his childhood home basement bring you into that intimate moment of youthful sorrow that adds a beautiful depth to the original tune.
Link Wray -“And I Love Her”
Pete Townsend points to Link Wray‘s 1958 single “Rumble” as the reason he decided to pick up the guitar. He even went as far as calling Wray the “King” of guitar. Many a modern rock guitarist point to the influence of Wray and his fuzzy, country-tinged rockabilly tones. Since everyone else in the 60s seemed to feel the need to try their hand on the mop top catalog, why not let the progenitor of the power chord place his stamp on a Beatle standard?
Wray’s signature brand of garagey rebellious surf rock guitar work douses the Fab Four’s “And I Love Her” in thick reverb and metallic echo.
This is the instrumental surf rock Beatle cover you never knew you needed.
The Breeders – “Happiness is a Warm Gun”
This “White Album” oddity has a strange three-part structure that plays with the contrast of a lighthearted phrase and violent imagery. The composition itself leans into the playfulness of a doo-wop melody in the third part, while Lennon croons the line he pulled from an NRA magazine ad.
When The Breeders laid into the track for their debut album, they leaned into the darkness. Kim Deal’s take on the already unusual track is itself unusual. It is dark, dissonant, eerily sweet and unsettling all at once. Besides, I always thought George and Paul’s “bang bang shoot shoot” backing vocal echoes were a bit cheesy, so I’m glad Deal and co. did away with them.
Wu-Tang Clan (feat. Erykah Badu, Dhani Harrison & John Frusciante) – “The Heart Gently Weeps”
Is this really a ‘cover’? Maybe technically, but not exactly. But it’s still oddly fantastic AND it’s even got George Harrison’s son, Dhani, playing acoustic guitar on this beautiful and gritty track by the Wu-Tang Clan. It’s completely different, but has all the requisite nods to the beauty and inspiration it draws from.
Wu-Tang’s version inspired by Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was initially rumored to contain the first officially-sanctioned Beatles sample when Dhani agreed to be part of the project. When in reality, it ended up as an ‘interpolation’ (with John Frusciante and Harrison re-recording the guitar parts instead of using the actual Beatles recordings). Still. It’s pretty fantastic hearing RZA overlay Harrison’s melody and transforming it into an intense narrative dialogue voiced by Method Man playing a heroin addict and Ghostface Killah playing the part of a drug dealer. Classic Beatles meets classic Wu-Tang.
In all fairness, Danger Mouse’s mashup of Jay Z’s “Black Album” with The Beatles’ “White Album” to produce the wonderfully captivating “Grey Album“ may have done it first when it comes to Hip-Hop-Beatle Fusion, this Wu-Tang classic, at least, is available on iTunes.
The Silver Thunders – “Fresales Eternos”
The British Invasion‘s ubiquitous influence found its way to Bogota, Columbia in 1968 when a quartet of impressionable garage rockers paid homage to the Brits. This track by The Silver Thunders is more reminiscent of the 1967 cover of “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the surf rock pioneers The Ventures. Still, the Columbian youngsters put their spacey garage rock stamp on the psychedelic masterpiece. “Strawberry Fields Forever” becomes a delightfully precious South American surf anthem, “Fresales Eternos.” Yes, please. May the strawberry trees be eternal.
Shirley Horn – “Yesterday”
If Nina Simone is the High Priestess of Soul, then Shirley Horn is the high priestess of the jazz ballad. Her contralto voice lingers and floats creating a sense of longing in a way that adds depth to a vocal jazz genre that otherwise often feels like a cocktail lounge afterthought. So it seems fitting to place the quintessential pop ballad in the hands of the high priestess.
After all, even Guinness Book of World Records recognized “Yesterday” as the most covered song in the record industry, with over 1,600 artists offering their take on the ballad. Perhaps for that reason it is no surprise so many jazz artists would consider these pop masterpieces as the new “standards” to be explored. The ballads, especially, seem to attract jazz musicians hoping to explore and reinterpret ‘the airy spaces between’ that these melodic pop ballads often provide. That’s where Horn’s mastery of space and breath thrives.
Not really discovered until her 40s, when Miles Davis demanded he would only play the Vanguard if the then largely unknown Shirley Horn would open. Davis recognized Horn’s piano mastery and her gift for delivering sultry bluesy jazz ballads. While often jazz covers of Beatles songs come off feeling like a record label assignment in hopes of grabbing cash, Horn’s feels authentic.
Recorded on her final album before her death in 2005, Horn sings at a stage of her life when it seems as though her troubles are “here to stay.” She has beat breast cancer once and has lost a foot due to complications with diabetes, so the 70-year-old Horn is able to croon almost cheekily, “I’m not half the girl I used to be.”
This 10-song playlist includes some quirky off-the-beaten path renditions of Beatles numbers, but I had to give hat tips to some other of my favorite not-so-off-the-beaten path Beatle covers. You know… to round off the playlist. That, and it’s hard making cuts! So while there are plenty of obnoxious cash-grab travesty covers out there, here are some bonafide honorable mention Beatles covers that don’t suck: Sonic Youth “Within You Without You,” Elliott Smith “Because,” Johnny Cash “In My Life,” Kurt Cobain “And I Love Her,” Electric Wurms “Fixing a Hole,” and Bill Withers “Let it Be.”