From Bob Dylan to David Bowie: The 20 best covers of The Beatles ever
“The children of the 21st century will be listening to The Beatles.” – Brian Epstein
When John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr first took to the stage together and began performing as The Beatles, we’d imagine they weren’t banking on their music being routinely played, covered and widely adored some six decades after they had recorded them. However, as we know now, The Beatles are as vital to music in 2020 as they were in the 1960s. The band have become synonymous with not only rock ‘n’ roll or pop music but the entire concept of music as we know it today. With that in mind, performing a cover of The Beatles is now more akin to picking up a book of folk standards. Their songs are ingrained on every fabric of our listening lives and it has meant that their tunes are as natural to us as nursery rhymes and folkloric ditties that have permeated every moment of our existence. The band have rightly become the watermark of what can be achieved by a singular pop group.
There aren’t many artists that have emerged since the Fab Four first took to our airwaves that have not rightly doffed their collective caps to Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr. The band’s influence can be heard right the way through the decades and even now, in 2020, their inspiration can be heard — just ask pop darling Billie Eilish. It’s meant that they have been routinely covered by the great and the good of the music industry ever since their first release. Below, we’ve got 20 of our favourites.
The sheer volume of huge names on this list makes it one of the best we’ve ever seen. Not only are there huge stars from modern-day like Billie Eilish but also a whole host of contemporary performers of The Beatles, which suggests their influence isn’t reliant on the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia for their power.
There is only one rule to our list: no repeating songs. It means that, in our minds, there is no better cover of The Beatles song mentioned than the artists taking them on. It provides a comprehensive list which not only showcases the band’s songwriting talent but the huge sway they have had over the artists who followed them into the spotlight.
20 best covers of The Beatles ever:
‘Let It Be’ – Bill Withers
Take a classic song like the imperious ‘Let It Be’ and give it to a vocalist like Bill Withers and you’re guaranteed something beautiful. The song, which Paul McCartney has often claimed came to him in a dream as a vision of his deceased mother, has become one of the most routinely covered songs of all time but nobody does it justice like Withers’ smooth vocal.
One of the final tracks The Beatles ever recorded and taken from the titular record, Withers amps up the ethereal sounds and turns this ballad into a gospel hymn. With tambourines, handclaps and the pep of a genuine church organ, the song feels authentic in Withers’ hands.
For our money, we would say that’s when a cover truly reaches its potential — when it can be seen as an original.
‘Hello, Goodbye’ – The Cure
Robert Smith and the band joined a project entitled The Art of McCartney, a full record of tribute covers in appreciation of the work Paul McCartney’s solo, Beatles and Wings material.
Released back in November of 2014, was an idea dreamt up by producer Ralph Sall who had been working on the project for 11 long years. Not only did Sall manage to recruit The Cure for the tribute album of all tribute albums, but the producer also managed to convince the likes of Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Brian Wilson, Alice Cooper, Kiss and plenty more.
About 15 years ago Cure frontman Robert Smith was asked by Rolling Stone what type of music influenced him as a child and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he references the Fab Four: “When punk came along, I found my generation’s music,” he began. “I grew up listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, ’cause that was what got played in the house. But when I first saw the Stranglers, I thought, ‘This is it.’ And I saw the Buzzcocks the following week, and I thought, ‘This is definitely it’.”
‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ – Earth, Wind and Fire
The Beatles had been semi-openly experimenting with drugs as they approached their new album Revolver. Naturally, it popped up in their songs and ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ acts as an ode to marijuana, despite sounding like a love song. “I’d been a rather straight working-class lad,” reflected McCartney during an interview in 1994. “But when we started to get into pot it seemed to me to be quite uplifting. It didn’t seem to have too many side effects like alcohol or some of the other stuff, like pills, which I pretty much kept off. I kind of liked marijuana and to me, it seemed it was mind-expanding, literally mind-expanding.”
When the funktastic Earth, Wind and Fire jumped on the track they kicked it up a notch with some high-grade glitz. The blues and jazz that permeates the track give it some standing as one of the best but otherwise, it’s hard to ignore this cover’s ability to get you up on your feet. A glittering tribute to The Beatles and their penchant for pot, it’s one of the few times the Fab Four could have the club dancing.
‘Blackbird’ – Elliott Smith
One of The Beatles most politically advantageous songs, ‘Blackbird’, has become a classic over the years. The song was inspired by the ongoing civil rights movement in America at the time with the term ‘blackbird’ said to have referenced Black women who were facing oppression. “I had in mind a black woman, rather than a bird,” recalled McCartney. “Those were the days of the civil rights movement, which all of us cared passionately about, so this was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: ‘Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.’”
For the late, great Elliot Smith, any song from the Fab Four was worthy of his time and effort. He’s covered them on various occasions and always delivers a poignant piece of music. On ‘Blackbird’ he is more vulnerable and voracious than is to be expected and leaves his cover in contention with the original for the title of ‘definitive version’, a la Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’.
You can tell that this isn’t only a cover of an artist’s song by another artist, this was a fan paying tribute to a hero.
‘Yesterday’ – Marvin Gaye
One of the most covered songs of all time sure did have some competition as to who would take this spot. There’s certainly room on another list for the covers of ‘Yesterday’ from Sinatra, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to name a few. But for this list, there is only Marvin Gaye’s classic.
That’s the Way Love Is, the tenth studio album by iconic soul musician Gaye, it included his now famed cover of The Beatles when it was released in 1970. Cited as McCartney’s favourite rendition of the song among the 3000 other versions, Gaye’s cover remains the benchmark of ‘Yesterday’ fandom.
Gaye once said of his music-making: “I hope to refine music, study it, try to find some area that I can unlock. I don’t quite know how to explain it but it’s there. These can’t be the only notes in the world, there’s got to be other notes some place, in some dimension, between the cracks on the piano keys.” It’s fair to say that he took The Beatles’ and McCartney’s song to a brand new space.
‘In My Life’ – Johnny Cash
One of The Beatles most cherished songs ever, ‘In My Life’ featured on the band’s album Rubber Soul and saw John Lennon and Paul McCartney work together to create a song as a pair. It was a song in which the Fab Four reflect on their career and what they had already achieved. It’s one of the band’s first truly reflective moments.
Cash takes the song for a slower walk around the houses. Cash sings from a different perspective, recorded just a year before his death it sees the country legend taking stock of his life and career. His vocal is changed by the disease and his performance is tinted with the impending moment of death.
It sees the singer deliver one of his most impressive performances and leave us with the shaking moment of clarity that Cash invariably delivers.
‘Helter Skelter’ – Siouxsie & The Banshees
One of the band’s most infamous songs thanks in no small part to the deranged mind of Charles Manson, the song was also notable for being regarded as the first ‘heavy metal’ song. The track was born from jealousy, “The Who had made some track that was the loudest, the most raucous rock ‘n roll, the dirtiest thing they’d ever done,” remembered McCartney. “It made me think, ‘Right. Got to do it.’ I like that kind of geeking up. And we decided to do the loudest, nastiest, sweatiest rock number we could.”
The song is then kicked up to eleven by Siouxsie Sioux and her band of Banshees as they turn the number into a proto-punk dream. Taken from 1978 effort The Scream, the band turn this already heavy song into something as weighty as an industrial hammer. And we think that’s probably what they were aiming for.
‘Hey Jude’ – Wilson Pickett
“To this day, I’ve never heard better rock guitar playing on an R&B record. It’s the best,” said Eric Clapton of Duane Allman’s playing on this enigmatic cover. Certainly the best cover of this endlessly covered song’s life, Pickett’s vision of ‘Hey Jude’ is sublime and serene. It was, however, a controversial one — to try and cover such a well-loved song so early after it was released, seemed like a death sentence.
“Pickett came into the studio, and I said, ‘We don’t have anything to cut,’” recalled Rick Hall, the owner of famed Muscle Shoals studio, “We didn’t have a song. Duane was there, and he came up with an idea. By this time he’d kind of broken the ice and become my guy. So Duane said, ‘Why don’t we cut ‘Hey Jude’?’ I said, ‘That’s the most preposterous thing I ever heard. It’s insanity. We’re gonna cover the Beatles? That’s crazy!’ And Pickett said, ‘No, we’re not gonna do it.’ I said, ‘Their single’s gonna be Number 1. I mean, this is the biggest group in the world!’”
Adding: “And Duane said, ‘That’s exactly why we should do it — because [the Beatles single] will be Number 1 and they’re so big. The fact that we would cut the song with a black artist will get so much attention, it’ll be an automatic smash.’ That made all the sense in the world to me. So I said, ‘Well, okay. Let’s do it.’”
‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ – Jimi Hendrix
When Hendrix covered ‘Sgt. Pepper’ the guitarist had spent the better part of a week working on his opening number for a special show in London and his extra special audience members. With both Paul McCartney and George Harrison in the audience, Hendrix decided to open the show with his rendition of Sgt. Pepper‘s title song.
Opening your own show with a cover of someone else’s song is a really ballsy move. But it was the sheer fact that The Beatles had only released the song three days and, as you might imagine, it put the biggest smile on Macca’s face. “Jimi was a sweetie, a very nice guy. I remember him opening at the Saville on a Sunday night, 4th June 1967,” McCartney once recalled in compelling detail. “Brian Epstein used to rent it when it was usually dark on the Sunday. 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.”
Macca added: “It’s still obviously a shining memory for me, because I admired him so much anyway, he was so accomplished. To think that that album had meant so much to him as to actually do it by the Sunday night, three days after the release. He must have been so into it, because normally it might take a day for rehearsal and then you might wonder whether you’d put it in, but he just opened with it.” It was a sing of the artist Hendrix was; completely obsessed with his craft and his instrument.
“It’s a pretty major compliment in anyone’s book. I put that down as one of the great honours of my career. I mean, I’m sure he wouldn’t have thought of it as an honour, I’m sure he thought it was the other way round, but to me, that was like a great boost.” It must’ve acted as the confirmation that McCartney needed that his original conceptual album had met its audience appropriately and it’s certainly the finest cover of the song we’ve ever heard.
‘Across the Universe’ – David Bowie
David Bowie and John Lennon shared a lot of love and laughter together. The dynamic duo were two of Britain’s most cherished artists for a time and it seems only fitting that they would collaborate. While many will point to their co-writing of Bowie’s hit ‘Fame’ as the pinnacle of that working relationship, nothing quite matches this cover of The Beatles track ‘Across the Universe.’
Not only did Bowie get permission to record the song for his Young Americans album, but he even enlisted Lennon to help on the backing vocals and guitar parts too. Having once described Lennon as his “favourite Beatle”, we’d imagine the chance to work alongside Lennon was too big an opportunity to turn down.
It marks this cover as one of the finest Beatles cover songs we’ve ever heard and with Bowie on vocal, you kow it will never be truly matched.
‘Come Together’ – Arctic Monkeys
When you think of ‘the grandest stage’ they don’t get much bigger than this as Arctic Monkeys were drafted in to represent Britain at the 2012 Olympics. It was a moment that the world was watching and provided the Sheffield boys a global audience.
When the 2012 Olympics landed in London the call was put out to show off the best of British and numerous acts and characters were pulled out of the bag for the huge opening ceremony which was curated by British film director Danny Boyle. The perfect opportunity was afforded to Arctic Monkeys to cover The Beatles once more as Turner and the band power through a rollicking cover of John Lennon’s classic ‘Come Together.’
‘Nowhere Man’ – Bob Dylan
Some believe the first meeting between The Beatles and Bob Dylan impacted the way Lennon and McCartney went about their songwriting; others believe this conversation played a massive role in Dylan’s decision to ditch the acoustic guitar and somewhat controversially move to electric. The reality is, likely, that both were correct. Dylan showed the songwriters the new way of personal pop while The Beatles proved what plugging in could do.
While Dylan has always spoken of his admiration for the songwriting ability of Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison, he rarely put his own spin on The Beatles tracks. That is until one night in 1990 at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton, Canada, when Dylan decided to perform 1965 Rubber Soul track ‘Nowhere Man’ live.
The track, written by Lennon, was birthed out of frustration while trying to complete the band’s sixth studio album: “I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down,” Lennon once said in an interview with Playboy. Adding: “Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down.”
‘I Am The Walrus’ – Frank Zappa
By 1988, with one of Zappa’s final tours, the singer decided to pay homage to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr when he performed a medley of the band’s songs. One such track that was covered was the brilliant, beautiful and a little bit strange song ‘I Am The Walrus’. It has been a song that Zappa has always loved and below performs with the skill and dexterity of the well-cultured fan he was.
Not only did the singer cover their songs but he also played ‘I Am The Walrus’ as one of his favourite tracks as part of a radio show, after playing the song he said: “Now wasn’t that wonderful? Just sitting here today, so sophisticated as we all are, in this modern age that we call The Eighties, and to be able to hear something like that with thousands of people in the background on that record saying ‘everybody smoke pot’.”
Forget the bastardised Oasis version of the song form the nineties, enjoy the real thing and take a trip back to the sixties with Zappa, below
‘Day Tripper’ – Jose Feliciano
One thing about John Lennon that simply cannot be denied is that he had a vicious tongue. Though he may have sung about peace for a fair chunk of his career, John Lennon’s words often meant war, scything down anyone who was in front of him, should he need to. It meant that Beatles covers, in general, were shunned by the singer.
There were however a few covers of the Fab Four which he felt were up to scratch. As well as Fats Domino and Ray Charles’ attempts at The Beatles there was one performed who Lennon had a particular fondness for, Jose Feliciano, in particular, his cover of ‘Day Tripper’ which entirely changes the track.
It is quite stupendous to watch Feliciano in the clip deliver one of the band’s more famous songs and completely make it his own. He does so with the effortless cool that he possessed throughout his life and delivered when he saw fit.
‘Within You Without You’ – Patti Smith
When George Harrison returned from India, he brought with him a fascination for Indian music and the instruments that created them. It meant, almost instantly, The Beatles had become infused with the sitar as well as other traditional Indian instruments. On ‘Within You Without You’, Harrison employs both the physical instruments he picked up on his travels and the spiritual teachings.
Patti Smith is the consummate artist when it comes to covering other people’s songs. One of our favourites to ever do it, Smith adds a touch of measured fandom on this cover taken from her album Twelve. Passionate as always, Smith takes the track out of its original space and gives it new life.
‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ – Tom Petty, Dhani Harrison, Prince and more
Arguably one of the finest songs in The Beatles rich back catalogue, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is one of the best songs Harrison ever wrote. But given the fact we were never afforded a Beatles performance of the song (they had given up the live circuit long before it came out), this has to be the best performance of the track we’ve ever seen, despite not including him.
The 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony was posthumously inducting Harrison to the esteemed club of double-entries when the performance took place. Not only did it feature his friend Tom Petty and his son Dhani but also perhaps the finest solo performance of all time from Prince.
It’s quite literally one of the best things we’ve ever seen.
‘Something’ – Billie Eilish
It’s easy to relegate new artists to the doldrums of ‘pop’ before they’ve had a chance to prove themselves and we’d bet many tarnished Billie Eilish with a similar brush when she arrived with her landmark debut ‘bad guy’. However, over recent years, the singer has proved time and again that her musical chops can match up to anyone.
There’s no better proof of this than on her recent cover of the Abbey Road classic ‘Something’ which sees Eilish not only deliver a beautifully poetic vocal performance but approach the song with undoubted authenticity and guile.
‘Here Comes The Sun’ – Nina Simone
The track was written by Harrison during a break from a tough session with The Beatles, as he once explained: “‘Here Comes the Sun’ was written at the time when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: ‘Sign this’ and ‘sign that.’ Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it.”
Adding: “So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote ‘Here Comes the Sun.’”
It is this sentiment that has always confirmed the song as one of Harrison’s finest, as able to capture the golden-hued sounds of a perfect sunset as any song. Simone does her best to channel the moment into her performance. But, like with everything Nina Simone does, she can’t help but put her spin on it.
‘If I Needed Someone’ – The Hollies
There are many esteemed names on this list but we’d bet that George Harrison was most thrilled about The Hollies covering his song. The Salford band were one of the big pop groups of the day and one which Harrison mentioned frequently throughout his early career. They clearly saw the talent in him too as they picked up the Rubber Soul track ‘If I Needed Someone’.
A classic Merseybeat production of the track takes nothing away from the refined sound they produce. Harrison, however, has been dismissive about the record on many occasions, “‘If I Needed Someone’ is like a million other songs written around a D chord. If you move your finger about you get various little melodies. That guitar line, or variations on it, is found in many a song, and it amazes me that people still find new permutations of the same notes.”
‘Dear Prudence’ – Siouxsie Sioux & The Banshees
Siouxsie and The Banshees featuring Robert Smith dared the British establishment and decided to record their very own rendition of The Beatles hit ‘Dear Prudence’. “It was a surprise, but it didn’t really sink in until we’d finished the touring and we were back home for the winter,” Siouxsie remembered. “Then we thought, ‘Blimey! We got to number three!’ ‘Dear Prudence’ got played a lot on the radio, and of course, we did the Christmas/New Year Top Of The Pops. I don’t remember much about doing it except for I was wearing a new leather dress that a friend had made for me, and stripy tights.”
Recalling how she and the band came to the final conclusion that the next step needed to be a Beatles cover, Siouxsie Sioux said: “When we did the 100 Club Punk Festival , we were wondering: ‘What shall we do?’ And we ended up doing the thing based around the Lord’s Prayer. And Sid and I were laughing, ‘Oh, we should really mess up a Beatles song!’ And that attitude was still there. I remember growing up with the White Album. I loved it for their experimenting. And then it gets fucked up? Much better!”
‘Help!’ – The Damned
When The Damned burst on to the scene in a flurry of three-chord riffs and jet-propelled rhythm they did so with a backing of London’s cultural elite. They were another punk band chomping at the bit to reach a national audience. They finally reached a national, and quite possibly global, audience with the release of their single ‘New Rose’—a track that would influence thousands of musicians after it’s release in 1976. But perhaps equally as important was the band’s cover of The Beatles’ classic ‘Help!’.
It may well be considered a classic, it’s even one of John Lennon’s favourite songs the band ever did, but that didn’t stop it, or The Beatles, from being caught in the burning lasers vision of punk’s newest monsters. The track would go on to be eviscerated by the new intensity of bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned were getting out of the reduction of music as an expert craft.
Rather than pay tribute to The Beatles’ 1965 song that adorned the B-side, The Damned totally torched it.
‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ – Joe Cocker
The Fab Four’s song ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ was begging for Joe Cocker. The Beatles may well have provided Joe Cocker with the ammunition, but that still left the incredible vocalist to provide the arsenal with which to deliver the earth-shattering and definitive performance of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’.
The song started out life being composed by John Lennon as a song for Ringo Starr but would go on to be a defining anthem of the counterculture movement as it looked to rid the world of aggressive capitalism and fascism. A movement The Beatles weren’t ever really a part of.
Instead, it would be the Sheffield born legend, Joe Cocker, that would take the stage at Woodstock and belt out the festival’s untold anthem. It’s simply magic.