The Beatles are rightly known for the unmatched songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, supplemented by an increasingly high standard of composition from George Harrison. Towards their final years, Ringo Starr also began to pitch in with originals. Together, the group created a body work that raised the bar for everyone – and, in turn, inspired no shortage of covers from those they influenced. Taking in a broad range of styles and artists, the best Beatles covers are a testament to the quality of the group’s songwriting, revealing the sheer breadth and depth of their work. Here’s our selection of the ten most notable Beatles covers, followed by a further ten honourable mentions.
Esther Phillips: ‘And I Love Him’
Where better to start than with one of The Beatles’ own favourite covers? When pushed on the subject, Paul McCartney has consistently praised Esther Phillips’ reading of his 1964 song ‘And I Love Her’ (retitled to reverse the gender). She performed the song on The Music of Lennon & McCartney, a 1965 TV showcase of their work, and he still praises her interpretation today.
Ray Charles: ‘Yesterday’
The Beatles loved American R&B, and much of their pre-fame setlist comprised music by Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Arthur Alexander and countless other black American artists; having their songs covered by such artists was always a thrill back in the 60s. Ray Charles tackled more than Beatles cover in his time, and it was a tough call to pick between his version of ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Eleanor Rigby’. In the end, we plumped for the former, but both are well worthy.
Wilson Pickett: ‘Hey Jude’
Sticking with US R&B acts, Wilson Pickett’s 1969 cover of ‘Hey Jude’ was an exercise in the seemingly impossible – how do you improve on perfection? Pickett enlisted an unknown young gunslinger named Duane Allman to play guitar on the track, which, on top of a brassy arrangement and Pickett’s screaming vocals, was the sweetest icing on a very rich cake. When he heard the record, Eric Clapton was knocked out. He recently recalled, “To this day, I’ve never heard better rock guitar playing on an R&B record. It’s the best.”
Al Green: ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’
On the subject of US R&B covers, next up we salute Al Green’s take on ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. By the time Green came to record the song, The Beatles were wrapping up, and the heady days of Ed Sullivan TV appearances felt like ancient history. And yet the funky soul the Reverend Green infused into the song breathed new life into one of The Beatles’ most seismic moments.
Jimi Hendrix Experience: ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’
There can be few greater compliments for an artist than when respected contemporaries pay homage. Take the moment in June 1967 when The Jimi Hendrix Experience opened their show at London’s Saville Theatre (run by Beatles manager Brian Epstein) with the title track from the brand-new Beatles album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Doing so with members of The Beatles in attendance showed the Seattle guitar player to be as confident as he was timely. As Paul McCartney would later recall: “Jimi opened, the curtains flew back and he came walking forward, playing ‘Sgt Pepper’, and it had only been released on the Thursday so that was like the ultimate compliment. It’s still obviously a shining memory for me, because I admired him so much anyway, he was so accomplished.”
Joe Cocker: ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’
Sheffield singer Joe Cocker’s cover from The Beatles’ 1967 opus took a little longer to emerge, but has remained one of the most iconic Beatles covers ever since. ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ went to No.1 in the UK singles chart in 1968, and Cocker’s performance of the song was one of the highlights of the legendary Woodstock concert the following year. It found a new audience in the late-80s as the theme tune to the hit TV series The Wonder Years. Paul McCartney has described first hearing Cocker’s version as “mind-blowing”.
Booker T & The MGs: ‘Medley: Sun King/Mean Mr Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through The Bathroom Window/I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’
Such was The Beatles’ love of the Memphis Stax label (home to Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Rufus Thomas) that their manager, Brian Epstein, investigated the possibilities of recording what became Revolver there. While that idea never came to fruition, they remained huge fans of the label, whose artists put out many great Beatles covers. But none could quite surpass the ambition of Booker T & The MGs, who were so enamoured by The Beatles’ Abbey Road album that they covered the whole thing in 1970 – including recreating the album cover as they crossed the road in front of the Stax studio on McLemore Avenue, which gave The MGs’ album McLemore Avenue its title.
Stevie Wonder: ‘We Can Work It Out’
When Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney first hung out together in a London nightclub in 1966, neither could have predicted where their burgeoning friendship would lead them. Sixteen years later, they would enjoy a No.1 on both sides of the Atlantic with their ‘Ebony And Ivory’ single, and in 2010, Wonder performed his infectiously funky cover of The Beatles’ ‘We Can Work It Out’ in front of Paul and US President Barack Obama at The White House.
Siouxsie & The Banshees: ‘Dear Prudence’
By the early 80s, The Beatles had begun to attract new audiences – and from some unlikely quarters. Siouxsie & The Banshees were an uncompromising punk outfit who had already covered The Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’ in visceral style (on their 1978 LP, The Scream) before returning once more to the Lennon-McCartney songbook in 1983. Featuring The Cure’s Robert Smith on guitar, their jangly version of ‘Dear Prudence’ gave the band its biggest hit, with the single reaching No.3 on the UK singles chart.
Oasis: ‘I Am The Walrus
Britpop in the mid-90s was arguably the brightest time for UK guitar bands since the glory days of the 60s, and nobody flew the flag higher than Manchester’s Oasis. Their self-confessed obsession with all things Beatles saw them reinvent John Lennon’s psychedelic masterpiece ‘I Am The Walrus’ as a brawling, barre-chord powerhouse, infusing it with the swagger for which they would soon become famous.
If our Top 10 has whet your whistle, here are ten more outstanding reinventions worthy of inclusion among the best Beatles covers.
Nina Simone: ‘Here Comes the Sun’
Taken from her 1971 album of the same name, Nina Simone’s spin on George Harrison’s song is even brighter and more positive than the original.
The Rolling Stones: ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’
Lennon and McCartney gave this 1963 song to their friends Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who used it as The Rolling Stones’ second single, which they took to No.12 on the UK chart.
The Beach Boys: ‘I Should Have Known Better’
Their paths would cross many times over the years, with California’s greatest harmony group covering The Beatles no less than three times on their 1965 Party! album alone.
The Jam: ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’
While not hugely different to the original, Paul Weller and co brought a punk energy to this Revolver track.
Alison Krauss And Tony Furtado: ‘I Will’
This gentle, lilting reading of Paul McCartney’s 1968 love song adds a country tinge to the original.
The Breeders: ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’
The US alt.rock outfit that comprised members of Pixies and Throwing Muses brought a dark edge to John Lennon’s 1968 composition.
Candy Flip: ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’
This 1990 acid house cover came out of the underground rave scene and into the UK singles chart, peaking at No.3.
David Bowie: ‘Across the Universe’
For his 1975 Young Americans album, David Bowie enlisted the help of John Lennon, who co-wrote the hit single ‘Fame’, as well as contributing to the Thin White Duke’s cover of his Beatles song.
U2: ‘Helter Skelter’
Ireland’s biggest band opened their 1988 live album, Rattle And Hum, with a swaggering cover of Paul McCartney’s “White Album” song.
Otis Redding: ‘Day Tripper’
The brilliant Georgian soul singer adds sweet horns and his urgent vocal stylings to the 1965 Beatles hit.