Sunday, February 27, 2011

Deconstructing the Beatles: Part I, The Covers

During February baby boomers like to hark back to the three Sunday nights that month in 1964 that we first saw the Beatles live on American television, on the Ed Sullivan show. This often leads to further woolgathering on the span of their remarkable career. Perusing Rolling Stone's list of the top 100 Beatles songs recently I was reminded that my taste in their songs never quite matches up with these lists, which often include songs I found to be the dreariest and overlook scores of other delights. Furthermore, when I sat down and put together my top 100, I could only come up with 71.

I started thinking about the Beatles canon and into how many different categories their prodigious output could be divided. I decided to come up with my own breakdowns with representative examples. Note that any one song could potentially go into other categories; they will be listed purely for illustrative purposes. At the end of the series I will attempt to select my top 10 most beloved Beatles songs. I reserve the right to make that the top 25.  Let the fur flying begin.

Category I - The Covers 

Growing up as they did in post-war England, the Beatles lacked for a lot, including anything that passed for indigenous music. As with all of the British Invasion groups, John, Paul, George and Ringo devoured what they could hear on the radio, which consisted almost entirely of the music of American rock and roll, rockabilly and rhythm and blues artists. The first song they ever recorded (as the Quarrymen, minus Ringo) was Buddy Holly's That'll Be the Day. They copied the music they heard, and further evolved it into a new form that changed the world forever.
Although Lennon and McCartney had written their own material as far back as when they were in school, they didn't show the signs of their genius right off the bat. Their producer George Martin has said he outright doubted their songwriting ability at first, but they were fortunate in their early days to be on the bill with people like Roy Orbison, whom McCartney names as an inspiration to them to become better writers.

In any case, Martin's policy of not putting the released singles on the LPs that meant the first three albums included a good half dozen covers by artists and composers who were their most seminal influences. As I was first hearing these, at the tender age of 11 and 12, I certainly had not been exposed to the original versions that they were interpreting. I just knew how infectious and life-affirming the rhythms and beats of these songs were and the exuberance with which the Lads presented them. Later comparing these to the originals, I concluded that the Beatles made these songs more accessible and appealing, introducing Americans to their own artists in many instances. To this day I remain fascinated by the process musicians go through to make someone else's song their own.  

Estivator's Picks for Best Covers:

Honey Don't (Carl Perkins)
Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey (Little Richard)
Roll Over Beethoven (Chuck Berry)
You Really Got A Hold On Me (Miracles)

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