When The Beatles exploded onto the music scene in the early 1960s they were so full of new songs and fresh ideas they could feed their own recording career and still have plenty left over for other people.
That’s not to say they recorded exclusively their own songs at first. Although there were precedents – Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly were largely self-sufficient – there was still a feeling that it was best left to the specialists, so the four who were to become fab borrowed Roll Over Beethoven, Money, Please Mr Postman, Twist and Shout and Long Tall Sally, to name but a few.
Whether that was because John Lennon and Paul McCartney found it hard to believe how good they were, or because their management and record company didn’t believe it, they continued to use existing material even while farmingout their own to their peers.
While George Harrison would come into his own later on, the early Beatles composers were Lennon/McCartney, and they generated songs like hens laying eggs.
Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, fellow Liverpudlians and not a bad band and singer, earned a hit with Do You Want To Know A Secret, David and Jonathan (future writing kings Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway) did Michelle, as did The Overlanders, and Peter and Gordon gave A World Without Love a nicely-spoken clean-cut treatment (The Supremes and Del Shannon covered it too).
The female Merseybeater, Cilla Black, was given It’s For You and later asked Paul McCartney for a theme song for her new TV show and was rewarded with Step Inside Love.
Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers produced a thoroughly convincing take on Got To Get You Into My Life without straying from the path of the original.
So far, so reverent, with singers and producers doffing their cap to the masters, but as the compositions became more adventurous, so did the covers. Joe Cocker took the singalong With A Little Help From My Friends and set fire to it to the extent that it became his nightly showstopper. Raucous and uplifting, the song took on a life of its own and, with Cocker always prepared to give his all, triumphed at Woodstock in 1969 and more than 30 years later in 2002’s Party at the Palace, both performances being available on YouTube. I’m putting the studio version here because, as incendiary as the live onesare, this ship was launched fully laden.
Less well known but even heavier is Spooky Tooth’s treatment of I Am The Walrus, which takes an already slightly unsettling song and drapes it in the colours of doom, with thunderous guitar chords, swirling Hammond organ and Mike Harrison’s croaky, wailing vocals. Just the sort of thing for 1970s neo-hippies like me to listen to lying on the floor, one speaker either side of their head.
Once the psychedelia had passed, we were back to short, singable songs, and one that has attracted an inordinate number of suitors is Come Together, Lennon’s Lewis Carroll-like self examination.
For the benefit of the less obsessive I should point out that although the pair’s Beatles songs were always credited to both of them, generally speaking whoever did the bulk of the singing is presumed to be the originator, and the way McCartney tells it, they used to “fix” each other’s half-formed efforts if one got stuck or felt the need for some help. So Come Together was Lennon while Yesterday, one of the most-covered songs ever, was McCartney. You can hear that form of collaboration very clearly on A Day In The Life, where Lennon’s addictively downbeat song gets a McCartney lift in the middle – woke up, got out of bed etc.
The psychedelic stuff proved surprisingly tempting (who would dare have a go at Strawberry Fields Forever? But people have.) Even Elton John must have had his doubts about tackling the global treasure that is Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds, although his effort was not just commercially successful but acceptable to many purists.
In the same way, punk rock prefects Siouxsie and the Banshees did a creditable job on Dear Prudence.
The list goes on forever. If you consider that Count Basie, James Galway and Shirley Bassey have all recorded Lennon/McCartney songs, and Sammy Davis Jr even did a bit of A Day In The Life as part of an excruciating Beatles medley, we can certainly claim that, “everybody’s done one”.
Oddly, though, that doesn’t apply to their solo output after the band broke up and the 70s saw them going their separate ways. Although the great songs continued to appear, they did not attract cover versions to anything like the same extent.