To cover a Beatles song and make it worse is deceptively easy. Bad Beatles cover songs are everywhere, from William Shatner’s unhinged assault on “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” to Peter Seller’s arch and theatrical rendering of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” to Jim Carrey’s even-more-unhinged decapitation of “I Am The Walrus.”
It takes an artist of some genius to approach one of the most immediately familiar songbooks in music history with an eye to making improvements. And here, we humbly suggest, are five examples that come close:
“Dear Prudence” – Siouxsie and the Banshees
John Lennon wrote this song while learning the secrets of transcendental meditation at the feet of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India. It was an ode of concern to Prudence Farrow, who had become so enamoured of meditation she would spend whole days in her room, but also an unlikely expression of spiritual peace, from a man who often felt at odds with the world. Siouxsie’s version—her second Beatles cover in an era when they were considered a musical embarrassment by the punks—adds muscle tone and a firm backbone, and changes it from a song of gentle encouragement to one of firm empowerment. It’s not unlike being drilled in the dizzying wonders of the universe by a sergeant major in eyeliner.
“Within You, Without You” – Sonic Youth
George Harrison’s contribution to “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is his most fully realised excursion into Indian classical music, in form, melody, lyric and execution. It’s not an easy song to cover, unless you’re particularly good at drones, overtones, rhythms that are not your standard 4/4, and making an unholy racket sound holy.
“Sexy Sadie” – The Unthanks
As a rule, mournful acoustic covers of pop songs are an abomination. It’s easy to make happy things sound sad, and tempting to act as if sadness is the same as emotional depth, whereas true happiness is rare and does not need spoiling. But this is different; “Sexy Sadie,” Lennon’s languid, bitter swipe at the Maharishi, was already fairly maudlin, for starters. What Rachel Unthank, and her sister Becky have done is turn all of the bitterness inward, so the whole song appears to curdle at around the four-minute mark. The woozy self-righteousness evaporates and you’re left with ghostly, mocking voices that rather suggest they’ve spent six minutes howling their pain into a mocking void.
“Happiness Is A Warm Gun” – The Breeders
In which John Lennon’s collage of unsettling musical images is given a Led Zeppelin backbeat and garnished with feedback, whispers and a croaked atmosphere of creeping menace. And you don’t really miss those parodic doo wop backing vocals towards the end either.
“Norwegian Wood” – Cornershop
This really shouldn’t work. To translate a song credited with bringing the (then) exotic sounds of the sitar to western pop music into Punjabi smacks of gesture politics, and some kind of point-scoring about how rude it is to appropriate other cultures and just shoehorn them into your creative endeavors. Despite this, and the fact that the words no longer scan, there’s boundless charm in this version, and if it feels like a balance has been righted, so much the better.
Of course, if you want something truly disturbing, this is hard to beat: