Top 10 Beatles Cover Songs
Like many artists who got their start in the first part of the ’60s, the Beatles relied on other people’s songs to fill their live sets and early albums. Until John Lennon and Paul McCartney began writing the majority of the band’s songs (and the group found their identity) sometime around the ‘Help!’ album, their records were a mix of originals and rock ‘n’ roll favorites by some of their idols, including Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Carl Perkins. But the tracks on our list of the Top 10 Beatles Cover Songs aren’t mere copies. In many cases, the Beatles’ versions rival and often top the originals.
Carl Perkins’ songs were common in the Beatles’ live sets during their early years. Their fourth album includes two of his songs — ‘Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby,’ which George Harrison sings, and this one, sung by Ringo Starr. After a whirlwind year and a half, the Beatles were starting to feel the pressures of Beatlemania. Barely given time to pen their own songs, which made up all of the previous LP, ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ the group relied on covers for almost half of ‘Beatles for Sale’ (see Nos.8 and 2 on our list of the Top 10 Beatles Cover Songs).
‘Slow Down,’ a song by ’50s rock ‘n’ roll wild man Larry Williams, originally appeared on a British EP. It turned up on the Beatles’ third U.S. album, ‘Something New,’ later in the year. Now it can be found on the ‘Past Masters’ collection of the singles and B-sides that were never released on the British LPs. No matter how you hear it, ‘Slow Down’ reflects the band’s flawless ability to tear through familiar and not-so-familiar oldies like they owned them.
Unlike most of the other tracks on our list of the Top 10 Beatles Cover Songs, ‘Mr. Moonlight’ isn’t well known. It was written by Roy Lee Johnson and was often played live by British bands hoping to up their cred in the first part of the ’60s. Lennon’s searing opening vocal turn, the Latin rhythm and McCartney’s super-cheesy organ solo give the not-so-great song more attention than it deserves. Their dedication is admirable.
‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’
The Beatles covered three Motown hits on their second album, all sung by Lennon (see Nos. 5 and 4 on our list of the Top 10 Beatles Cover Songs). ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me,’ written by Smokey Robinson and a No. 1 R&B song for his group the Miracles the same year, is the most restrained. The Beatles weren’t the most supple soul group, but for a bunch of white British guys, not bad.
Aside from the tossed-off skiffle cut ‘Maggie Mae’ on ‘Let It Be,’ ‘Help!’ featured the last two cover songs on a Beatles album: Larry Williams’ ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’ and ‘Act Naturally,’ a country hit for Buck Owens in 1963. Starr sings it with goofy affability, even if it does stick out among the more mature, developing songwriting showcased on the rest of ‘Help!’
‘Money (That’s What I Want)’
Another Motown cover from ‘With the Beatles,’ and another excellent vocal performance by Lennon. He can’t replicate the primal desire that drives Barrett Strong’s original version, so he doesn’t even bother. ‘Money’ was Motown’s breakthrough hit in 1959; the Beatles roll through it like they’ve lived the song for four long years.
‘Please Mr. Postman’
The Beatles’ version of the Marvelettes’ No. 1 song (Motown’s first No. 1, by the way) is almost as good as the original, thanks to Lennon’s great vocal. Like ‘Beatles for Sale,’ the band’s second album is nearly half-filled with cover songs. But the performances are, for the most part, better here, because the group was still performing many of these songs nightly at their concerts. Their commitment shows.
‘Roll Over Beethoven’
Chuck Berry was a giant influence on many British bands of the early ’60s. Keith Richards even claimed to have borrowed every riff he knew from the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer. The Fab Four covered only two of his tunes on record (see No. 2 on our list of the Top 10 Beatles Cover Songs for the other one), but their early live shows — as well as their BBC radio gigs — were packed with Berry tracks. The Beatles apply themselves well to one of Berry’s signature songs.
‘Rock and Roll Music’
Like many of the Beatles’ best cover songs, Chuck Berry’s ‘Rock and Roll Music’ is sung by Lennon as a throat-shredding tribute to his formative years. But the entire band steps up here, turning up both the volume and intensity of Berry’s 1957 classic. We wish the Beatles’ fourth album contained more originals, but we totally support their hauling out this stomping staple from their road-warrior days.
‘Twist and Shout’
Like the Beatles’ second and fourth albums, their first includes six cover songs: two by the Shirelles, one by forgotten girl group the Cookies, one by obscure R&B great Arthur Alexander, a showtune and this great room-shaker by the Isley Brothers. There’s a great moment in the original 1962 song where Ronald Isley’s voice cracks under the strain of his frantic performance. Lennon doesn’t get to that point, but he comes so, so close. ‘Please Please Me’ is mostly known as the album that plants the first integral seeds of Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting. ‘Twist and Shout’ shows off their other brilliant side.