There’s little doubt surrounding John Lennon’s contribution to music. Being the founding member of The Beatles is one thing, but the way Lennon brought his personality to pop music should never be understated—the change was seismic and wide-ranging. For many people, Lennon was the very beginning of top-selling hits being about more than simply sex, drugs and rock & roll and he did it with his three mates Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr by his side, supporting him along the way. That said, he could still do it without them.
The band originally formed around the mercurial mind of Lennon as he continued to prove himself an intellectual wizard in music and a charismatic character capable of leading a group to the end of the world. All of which drew in fans, of all kinds, to adore The Beatles and Lennon himself. Soon enough, he and Paul McCartney formed a formidable songwriting partnership which would churn out hit after record-selling hit. It was a potent combination that quickly made them the biggest band in the world. After they split, Lennon was always going to push ahead with his own work and he produced some songs which more than equal the Fab Four contribution.
The combination of searing influence and a collection of songs that could rival literally any artist over the last hundred years means that John Lennon has always been rich pickings for any cover artist. So much so that many of Lennon’s contemporaries have covered his songs in homage to the great songwriter. It speaks to the relentless influence The Beatles had when they landed on the airwaves of the world in the early sixties.
It’s hard to imagine a life without the Fab Four these days but, for many rock stars, the moment they were first introduced to The Beatles remains a pivotal moment in their lives. It means that The Beatles have a habit of not only finding their way into many established acts’ setlists. After all, with quality as impressive as what Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr returned, why wouldn’t you?
However, here we’re focusing solely on the work of John Lennon. We’ve also been sure to only pick one cover per song, otherwise we may have a top 10 compiled entirely of ‘Imagine’ covers and nobody needs that. Instead, we’ve got 10 of the best John Lennon covers of all time via everyone from David Bowie to Elton John.
The best John Lennon covers:
‘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.
‘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.
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.’
‘Jealous Guy’ – Roxy Music
There are few people who can come within a mile radius of John Lennon when one thinks of musical icons. But while Lennon’s real talent lay in songwriting, for Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music it was all about the performance. Here we see the combination of the two as Ferry and the band perform Lennon’s song ‘Jealous Guy’ just two years after his death.
Following Lennon’s death in 1980, Roxy Music began adding a version of the track to their live set during a tour of Germany. It was such a welcomed moment of mutual appreciation that they soon released the song on Polydor. With its B-side ‘To Turn You On’ the song became the band’s only UK number one. It has since featured in most of Ferry and Roxy Music’s compilation albums and is a key moment in the live set too.
When Ferry takes the track on he provides a moment of rock and roll bliss and the clip below is the perfect example. Shot during their performance Frejus, France on the 27th August 1982 Ferry is the embodiment of suave as he delivers an impassioned performance of the iconic Lennon number.
‘Instant Karma!’ – Paul Weller
One man who has never been afraid to show his admiration for the past is The Jam frontman and all-round cool cat, Paul Weller. As Weller told NME: ”Lennon’s a singer I admire not so much for the technical side but for the honesty and power. I was listening to ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and he was just letting go on that track. I love it. And songs like ‘Twist And Shout’, and ‘Bad Boy’ really put him up there as one of the great rock’n’roll bawlers. He’s been a massive influence on me right across the board, as a writer, lyricist and singer.”
Written and recorded in one day, ‘Instant Karma’ has become one of Lennon’s post-Beatles classics and Weller pays accurate tribute to the song with this rendition for Uncut Magazine in 2002. It is as punchy as you might expect but clearly lavished with the grace and poise that only a true fan would attribute.
It’s one of the best post-Beatles covers you’ll hear.
‘Gimme Some Truth’ – Pearl Jam
Another moment of Lennon letting his politics run wild as the protest song sits pretty within Imagine. One of the leftover songs from The Beatles’ Get Back sessions, Lennon turns his caustic wit and razor-sharp tongue at lying politicians “short-haired yellow-bellied sons of Tricky Dicky”, hypocrisy and chauvinism, “tight-lipped condescending mommy’s little chauvinists”.
It sees Lennon reflecting the world around him and trying to gather up further ground support for a change in the political system. Who better than to take on the song than the grunge giants Pearl Jam.
While there have been plenty of rock acts to jump on this cover, including Primal Scream and Generation X, it is this Eddie Vedder-led live gem that stands out as by far the best of the bunch.
‘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’.”
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, the singer’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.
‘Imagine’ – Elton John
Of course, no John Lennon covers list would be worthwhile if it didn’t feature a cover of ‘Imagine’, perhaps Lennon’s most famous song of all time. The best version comes from Lennon’s friend and collaborator, Elton John. In 1980, Elton John took to the gaping stage of a huge outdoor show in Central Park, New York. There he would perform a rousing set and an extra special cover of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ just weeks before his death.
The size of the crowd at the show on September 13th is one that has been hotly contested but judging from the video below, it’s fair to say whether it’s the reported 300,000 to 400,000 or not, it’s a huge crowd and an even bigger atmosphere. It would be the stage for one of Elton John’s greatest performances.
Elton John told the crowd, “We’re going to do a song written by a friend of mine who I haven’t seen for a long time.” He continued: “It’s a very beautiful song. You all know it. He only lives just over the road. He hasn’t done a record in ages, but he’s doing one at the moment.” The album was Double Fantasy and it would be the last Lennon record the world would ever get.
With exemplary style and authenticity, John performs the track with an added gravitas that one only gets with the benefit of hindsight.
‘Mind Games’ – Arcade Fire
For this track, Arcade Fire got together with the Spotify Singles project to record a cover of one of the last century’s most influential figures: John Lennon. The results are something heart-warming and as genteel and guided as the original.
Originally shared by the late great Beatle in 1973, ‘Mind Games’ was a part of the album released in the same year of the same name. The track is an affected plea to humanity, as often Lennon’s later work was, and in this rendition is purposefully punctuated by expert strings and Butler’s charmingly strained vocal.
The song was recorded as part of the Spotify Single project whereby artists are invited into the studio to cover one of their favourite songs and perform a single of their own live. Ever since they laid that one down, the song has been a key part of their live show, as you can tell from the below performance.