Throughout his career, right up until the day he died – the most enigmatic Beatle of them all — John Lennon subsisted on a diet of rock ‘n’ roll. Even after the Beatles, he never forgot his roots.
Most artists may eventually move on to different genres or styles of playing. Lennon never stopped listening to the greats: Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, and The Ronettes; Lennon never truly abandoned the genre.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, when speaking to Jann Wenner, Lennon had said, “that’s the music that inspired me to play music. There’s nothing conceptually better than rock ‘n’ roll. No group, be it the Beatles, Bob Dylan, or the Rolling Stones, has ever improved on ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ for my money.” He was referring to the Jerry Lee Lewis track. He also added, “maybe I’m like our parents, that’s my period. That’s my period, and I’ll never leave it,” he barely paid attention to the current music at the time. This interview happened in 1970, right before Lennon released his solo debut.
Several years later, in 1975, Lennon released his aptly named album, Rock ‘N’ Roll, a collection of covers of songs from the late ’50s and into the early ’60s. With a tracklisting that included songs from Buddy Holly, Ben E. King, Fats Domino, and Gene Vincent, Lennon’s humility always brought him back to his foundation.
Though the Beatles had proven themselves to be the natural continuation of this kind of music, as Lennon’s comments revealed, there was nothing that could compare to the original in his mind.
In the early days of the Beatles, as they cut their teeth in the music scene in Hamburg, Germany, most of their set were covers of ‘50’s rock ‘n’ roll songs. As the formidable Lennon-McCartney partnership began to churn out one hit after another, Lennon would later say that despite their continued success based on these standards, “you can give me a guitar, stand me up in front of a few people. Even in the studio, if I’m getting into it, I’m just doing my old bit… not quite doing Elvis Legs but doing my equivalent. It’s just natural.”
Lennon’s comments revealed, in his mind, there was nothing that could compare to the original take on rock ‘n’ roll.
In honour of John Lennon’s unfaltering dedication to the genre, we decided to take a look at the six best songs that Lennon covered in his lifetime.
John Lennon’s best covers:
‘Peggy Sue’ – Buddy Holly
Lennon’s cover of Buddy Holly’s 1957 hit, ‘Peggy Sue’, was recorded in 1974 and released on his ’75 record, Rock ‘N’ Roll. The song was written by Buddy Holly, with the added help of Jerry Allison and Norman Petty. Initially titled ‘Cindy Lou’ for Holly’s niece, co-writer Jerry Allison suggested he change it to ‘Peggy Sue’ for Holly’s then-girlfriend and future wife.
This was an ode to one of Lennon’s favourites, and also a nod to his past with The Beatles. The Liverpool fab four had covered a bunch of Holly’s songs throughout the earlier part of their career. This trend even went as far back as 1958, when pre-Beatles The Quarrymen did ‘That’ll Be The Day’.
‘Stand By Me’ – Ben E. King
Another track off Lennon’s ’75 Rock ‘N’ Roll record, ‘Stand By Me’ was the only single for the album. Prior to Lennon doing his iconic version of the 1961 classic, the Beatle had recorded three other versions of the track during the infamous A Toot and A Snore recording sessions, which included Paul McCartney (the only time Lennon and McCartney would jam again post-Beatles), Harry Nielson, Stevie Wonder, Jesse Ed Davis, and Bobby Keys.
However, these earlier versions were fuelled by misanthropy, chaos, and distraction; the sounds of the musicians using cocaine are very audible on the tape. This single would prove to be of Lennon’s most memorable moments, making it his best cover he ever did.
‘Rock and Roll Music’ – Chuck Berry
This list wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t include a Chuck Berry song. One of the forefathers of rock ‘n’ roll, Berry’s anthem, ‘Rock and Roll Music’, was done by The Beatles a number of times from 1959 to 1964. The Fab Four eventually recorded it on their ’64 record, Beatles For Sale.
As it was an early period for The Beatles, Beatles For Sale, included several rock ‘n’ roll standards as they ran short of original material. The song showed Lennon at his absolute finest and provided some insight into the singer’s roots.
‘Bring It On Home To me’/’Send Me Some Lovin” – Sam Cooke/Little Richard
Lennon’s take on Sam Cooke is another from his ’75 album, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and is a part of a medley that includes Little Richard’s number, ‘Send Me Some Lovin’, is truly wonderful.
Sam Cooke, a famous American Motown and soul singer, released the song in 1962, and it quickly became a huge hit in the States, climbing to number two on the charts. It became bigger in England when The Animals covered it in 1965.
Little Richard, as is the case with Chuck Berry, was a ’50s rocker that Lennon idolised and covered frequently. Lennon said about the Little Richard tune: “‘Bring It On Home To Me’ is one of my all-time favourite songs and, in fact, I have been quoted as saying I wish I had written it. I love it that much, and I was glad to be able to do it. ‘Send Me Some Lovin’’ is a similar kind of song and it was done originally by Little Richard – again, one of my favourites – and also by Buddy Holly.”
‘Be My Baby’ – The Ronettes
Written by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich, and Jeff Barry, the song was originally released by the early ’60s pop group, The Ronettes; Phil Spector produced both versions of the song: the original and then the one we’re looking at here. Lennon and Spector had originally recorded it in 1973 and was intended to be released on his Rock ‘N’ Roll album but was held onto and subsequently became a rarity edition.
It was later released in 1998 via John Lennon’s Anthology Box Set. At the time of recording, Lennon was separated from Yoko Ono. This knowledge gives the Beatle’s impassioned vocal take an added depth, akin to very few performers, once again proving that Lennon was not just a good songwriter but also an incredible performer.
‘Like a Rolling Stone’ – Bob Dylan
While John Lennon never recorded a cover version of Dylan’s classic ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, he once played a live version of it in Syracuse, New York, in 1971. The song originally appeared on Dylan’s 1965 iconic Highway 61 Revisited.
Despite the track’s unconventional length (over six minutes), the song was initially leaked against the wishes of Dylan and Colombia records. Despite mainstream radio’s preferred format of three-minute pop songs, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ broke ground by reaching number two on the Billboard Charts.
While this is not the official take on the song that Lennon did in Syracuse, it gives you an idea of what Lennon was like at times behind the scenes.