While cover versions of their favourite songs were a staple of most early Beatles albums, by late 1965 the Fabs were focusing solely on their own material. This would continue for the remainder of their recording career, though the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in early 1969 showed they never needed any prompting to run through beloved tunes from their youth whenever there was a lull in making a new album. This was an itch which needed to be scratched after they went their separate ways, too. The first fully-fledged solo album of “real” songs was Ringo’s Sentimental Journey, a collection of pre-rock standards in 1970, and more often than not he would include an oldie or two on the albums which followed. Most of George’s solo outings also featured a cover of some sort, while John went the whole hog in 1975 with his Rock ‘n’ Roll album. Paul followed suit – twice – in 1988 and 1999, before taking a leaf out of Ringo’s book with 2012’s Kisses On The Bottom, mostly made up of jazz-flavoured ‘Great American Songbook’ numbers.
I don’t begrudge them revisiting the music which inspired them in the first place. The problem is, their own material (particularly in the case of John, Paul and George) usually has more depth, sophistication and invention than the tunes of yesteryear; one of the main reasons for their impact (and perhaps why they have endured) is that they tore up the Tin Pan Alley rulebook, wrote songs with emotional reality which articulated feelings way beyond Moon/June romantic clichés, and expanded the horizons of pop music far beyond what was conceivable even just a few years before. For that reason, hugely enjoyable though they are, none of their ‘covers’ albums would feature high up in my rankings of their strongest solo work. Nonetheless, their best interpretations of other people’s material inject palpable energy, wit and passion, elevating them to the same level as some of their own compositions. The following list showcases my favourites.
For the sake of this run-down, I am arbitrarily limiting it to stuff before 1970, ie. songs they grew up with. I should also give honourable mentions to some great tracks which haven’t made the list but are still well worth a listen: John’s take on ‘To Know Her is to Love Her’, recorded with Phil Spector in 1973; Ringo’s ‘I Keep Forgettin’ from Old Wave (1982), and George’s 1987 mega-hit ‘Got My Mind Set On You’ (from Cloud Nine). There many other decent ones, but here are what I consider to be the toppermost of the poppermost.
10. ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’’ – John Lennon
Paul bagged almost all the Little Richard songs The Beatles performed in their early days, so John must’ve relished the chance to get stuck into this one when he recorded 1975’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album. It certainly sounds like it – the pounding piano and wailing saxophones capture the ‘50s vibe perfectly, and buoy up his exuberant vocal. After his draining battle with the US immigration authorities for the previous few years (and which was still going on when he taped this), I wonder whether he injected a little extra venom into the line “you know you better surrender” in the third verse. Either way, it’s a cracking track.
9. ‘More I Cannot Wish You’ – Paul McCartney
This beautifully tender reading of an obscure song from the original Guys and Dolls stage musical was – apart from the McCartney-penned ‘My Valentine’ – the best track 2012’s Kisses On The Bottom. Paul’s ageing voice is perfectly suited to the lyric of a parent ruminating on the future of his child (he admitted he was thinking of his daughter Beatrice, then eight, when he sang it). The low-key arrangement, including some subtle strings in the second half, and languid pace also combine to help make a very elegant, moving confection.
8. ‘Baltimore Oriole’ – George Harrison
George was a big fan of old school tunesmiths like Hoagy Carmichael, and recorded two of his numbers for 1981’s Somewhere in England. But while ‘Hong Kong Blues’ was a rather awkward mix of synth-driven early-80s pop and 1930s songwriting sensibilities, ‘Baltimore Oriole’ was a masterful update of the genre. The stylish, smoky arrangement, with piano and saxophone to the fore, provide the perfect backdrop for George’s understated guitar and vocal, as he croons the tale of a lovelorn man missing his songbird partner who’s left him for adventure and warmer climes. His dreamy backing vocals are also excellent.
7. ‘I Got Stung’ – Paul McCartney
1999’s Run Devil Run, recorded with a band of seasoned pros (including Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour), was Paul’s first release since Linda’s death the previous year. It’s easy to read too much into that, but there is something genuinely life-affirming and restorative about the way he attacks the rock ‘n’ roll songs of his 1950s youth which make up most of the album. And never more so than on this Elvis number, which he tears into right from the opening lyric. It’s a breathless performance – you feel like you’re clinging onto a runaway train for dear life – which climaxes with a frenzied vocal wig-out in classic Macca fashion.
6. ‘Stand By Me’ – John Lennon.
I have to be honest, I’ve never been a fan of the Ben E. King original. But John Lennon’s voice can work wonders with just about anything, and so it is here on this stand-out from the Rock ‘n’ Roll album. The way he lets rip when he gets to the first chorus is phenomenal, transforming the song into a gut-wrenching plea in the face of an apocalypse, bearing his soul, as ever. I also love the swampy backing and draggy beat, a sort of ‘Wall of Sound’ in miniature, and the twin guitar solos are just great.
5. ‘Matchbox’ – Paul McCartney
I can count on one hand the number of Beatles songs I don’t like, and their 1964 version of Carl Perkins’ ‘Matchbox’ is one of them. It’s so lacklustre and half-hearted, on the part of both the band and George Martin, it has a feeling of “we need one more track for this EP – let’s knock this one off quickly so we can get to the pub”. Their 1962 version from Live at the Star Club, with John on lead vocal instead of Ringo, has more fire in the belly but is still not much more than ‘okay’. But this Macca rendition, recorded during a soundcheck during his 1989/90 world tour and included on Tripping the Live Fantastic, is a different beast altogether. Right from the snarling opening guitar chord, Paul and his band rock the life out of it, throwing in two scorching guitar solos (from Macca and Robbie McIntosh), synth horns and a piano break from keyboardist Wix, and a raw, throaty lead vocal. It’s still not much of a song, but the groove is irresistible.
4. ‘Bring It On Home To Me/Send Me Some Lovin’’ – John Lennon
John cleverly melded Sam Cooke’s 1962 hit with a Little Richard b-side for what is probably the best number on Rock ‘n’ Roll. The opening part of the medley, with its taut, chugging piano-led rhythm, is good, but it goes up a couple of notches in the second half, with some meaty horns and more peerless Lennon vocals, full of yearning. Listen to the way he effortlessly apes Buddy Holly and Little Richard at various points. Incidentally, Paul also recorded ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ (for 1988’s Choba B CCCP) and there is a cleverly blended edit of their versions on YouTube. They sound great together, as always.
3. ‘She Said Yeah’ – Paul McCartney
Another high-speed adrenalin rush from Run Devil Run, Paul is in his element on this Larry Williams number. Aided by crunchy, visceral production, the band performance bristles with energy (including a glorious piano solo) and Paul sings it with a real lusty swagger. The combined effect is like going 12 rounds with a heavyweight boxer in just two magical, punch-drunk minutes. And as one reviewer wrote at the time, no one sings the word “yeah” quite like Paul McCartney.
2. ‘Aint That A Shame’ – Paul McCartney
John also recorded a fine version of this Fats Domino classic for Rock ‘n’ Roll, but Paul’s more muscular rendition just edges it. The best track on 1988’s Choba B CCCP, a collection of covers cut live in the studio the previous year and originally released only in the Soviet Union, it’s a pounding, powerhouse performance which builds in excitement as it goes along. There’s some fine lead guitar from Macca and his voice is thing of wonder, squeezing every last drop of pathos from the uncomplicated lyric. I got to see him perform this live a few times in 1990, and it was a thumping joy.
1. ‘Angel Baby’ – John Lennon
Inexplicably omitted when John compiled the final track listing for Rock ‘n’ Roll, this didn’t see the light of day until the 1986 posthumous release Menlove Avenue. Recorded in 1973 with Phil Spector, this take on the 1960 hit by Rosie and the Originals (one of Lennon’s “all-time favourite songs”, as he says on the intro) is just spellbinding. The sparse doo-wop style of the original is replaced with the full Spector Wall of Sound treatment, and John delivers towering, achingly fragile vocals to match. Like many of the tracks on this list, it’s a very simple song – the kind of number he or the other Beatles would have heard booming out of fairground speakers when they held hands or nervously fumbled for a first kiss with the girl of their teenage dreams – but he finds the inherent emotion in it to produce a swooning romantic epic for the ages. It stands comparison with some of his greatest solo work, and it’s good to see it finally getting some recognition by being included on the new Gimme Some Truth Lennon ‘best of’ compilation album. It’s more than worthy.