OK: The Beatles is turning 50! There’s a box set out! Cop that shit! I mean, if you feel like it. But also: How hard is it, really, to find new things in the Beatles, particularly in one of their most continuously fan-analyzed albums?
Once you get the opinions of the audiophiles (“Hmm, yes, it does seem that the midrange is toastier and has a certain decompressed airiness to the sub-channel noise filtering”) and the rarity-hunters (“No 27-minute ‘Helter Skelter,’ no sale“) and the revisiting-an-old-friend crowd (“Wow, I never realized how amazing ‘Piggies’ sounds”) and the conspiracy theorists (“They deliberately rerecorded all the parts that used to prove without a shadow of a doubt that Paul is dead”), there’s not much left to do but enjoy the Beatles coming to the starkest terms possible with their own Beatleness.
But everyone should at least give that a shot first before dealing with the folks trying to deconstruct the album’s recording process, and which take means what, and what all the assorted knob-twiddling actually did. (That said, I’m pretty geeked about getting to hear the Esher demos, the alternate-universe version of The Beatles that was made by a band that hadn’t started to hate each other yet.)
So how’s about this: If you’re not up for all the how-the-sausage-is-made analysis of the White Album, and you really want to hear some of its key moments through completely new ears, why not recalibrate your expectations by listening to them from completely different artists?
Arif Mardin, “Glass Onion” (1969)
It’s a toss-up as to who had the busier yet more accomplished 1969: Arif Mardin or NASA. I mean, personal bias being what it is, I figure the moon landing was something, but Mardin was in the studio manning the boards on Aretha’s This Girl’s In Love With You and Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night In Georgia” around the same time as records he co-produced — like Eddie Harris’ Echoplex-y weirdo-jazz gem Silver Cycles and Dusty Springfield’s immortal Dusty In Memphis — were flying off the shelves. And I tend to think a lot more about “Don’t Forget About Me”, “1974 Blues,” and that version of “The Weight” with Duane Allman on it than I do about Neil Armstrong, despite Damien Chazelle’s best efforts, so here we are.
What I haven’t thought about until now is the first top-billed album as an artist by the producer/arranger best known for shaping the sound of Atlantic alongside Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler. Glass Onion, recorded in ’69 with a squadron of session players, is Mardin in bandleader mode (he only plays piano on two songs), and the bulk of the album consists of pop hits turned into lavish studio-band instrumentals — pleasant enough when it turns R&B classics like “Ain’t No Way” or “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” into music for Muscle Shoals’ nicest elevator, but more uncannily bewildering when it tries to pull off the same for, say, “Sympathy for the Devil” (though as Booker T. & the M.G.’s dopplegangers go, it’s pretty remarkable).
As the title track and album opener, “Glass Onion” is something of a feint: It’s more of a charge-ahead country-rock stomper, Lennon’s vocals bent through the strings of Eddie Hinton’s guitar, and the famous vertigo-strings bridge is replaced by a sort of odd suspense-theme tension-builder that doesn’t serve to sever the momentum like the original does. (But it’s too good to omit completely, so they shuffle it off to the end.) It’s a bit more b-movie acid trip sequence than the idiosyncratic self-critique Lennon and McCartney concocted, but cut Arif some slack, he had a hectic schedule.
Lena Horne & Gabor Szabo, “Rocky Raccoon” (1970)
That Arif Mardin arrangement is Intermediate Beatles Cover Weirdness at most — welcome to the advanced level course. While it’s not as startling as Ella Fitzgerald’s cover of “Savoy Truffle,” the idea to get a superstar of 1940s jazz and pop to cover the Beatles didn’t leave the legendary Lena Horne untouched, and when she joined up with jazz guitarist and producer Gabor Szabo they came up with a handful of them, including some alluring versions of “Something” and “The Fool on the Hill”.
“Rocky Raccoon” is something else: frivolous on the surface yet oddly affecting when the lyrics and the composition all come together. Yet it’s easy to accidentally make the whole thing sound like dopey twee flapdoodle bullshit if you don’t keep that latter part in mind.
Recorded shortly after she appeared in 1969’s Alan Smithee directorial debut Death Of A Gunfighter, her first film role since the blacklist ostracized her from the motion picture industry in the mid ’50s, Lena Horne seems like she’s still got one foot in the Old West with this choice of cover. But the other foot is in someplace even better, some smoky nightclub like the kind she reigned over during her post-Hollywood years, where she gets to turn the opening lines into a short, bemused monologue that anticipates the whole tragicomic soul-jazz mood to come.
Terry Manning, “Savoy Truffle” (1970)
Back to the side topic of startling “Savoy Truffle” covers, though — who would’ve called that song as the top candidate from The Beatles to get an extended psychedelic makeover? Terry Manning is one of those tech/production guys whose studio work is more well-known than his musicianship — he produced albums by Molly Hatchet, George Thorogood And The Destroyers, and Fastway, though his engineering gigs on Led Zeppelin III and every ZZ Top album from Tres Hombres through Eliminator are probably more historically significant.
How much of a loss it might’ve been to see all those recording sessions keeping him busy is probably best examined through his only real solo album, 1970’s Home Sweet Home, which is probably most famous for featuring some early session guitar from future Big Star great Chris Bell. (He’s not on this song, but he does play on a dance-craze soul farce called “Trashy Dog,” so.) This clip’s YouTube uploader claims that this cover uses the same Moog that George Harrison played on Abbey Road, so this version’s got some “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” somewhere in its DNA, but Manning takes it to far more noodly and preposterous lengths on the intro; it sounds like it’s going nowhere but somehow DJ Shadow managed to give it a bit more purpose sampling it for “Six Days”.
The rest of the version’s Moog-less, but the novelty of Manning handling every instrument except the drums (played by Richard Rosebrough here; he’d sit in for Jody Stephens on a handful of Big Star classics like “Mod Lang” and “What’s Going Ahn”) doesn’t last all 10 minutes of its length, especially with a singing voice best described as “grunty.” Not like I can be too mad at Terry, though — the guy did help Degüello happen, after all.
Billy Preston, “Blackbird” (1972)
Paul McCartney’s interpretation of “Blackbird” has never been entirely clear, which is weird considering he wrote it, but understandable given who memorably misconstrued it. McCartney has alternately said that it’s a song connecting a literal blackbird’s call to his experiences with Transcendental Meditation in India, and a song inspired by the struggle of black Americans during the late ’60s. Charles Manson picked up on a warped notion of that latter interpretation as part of his whole “believe the Beatles are sending you coded messages directly” delusion, claiming that “Blackbird” was actually the catalyst for a race war.
Those revelations from the Manson trial were still fresh in the memory when Billy Preston, one of a few artists who could legitimately lay claim to “Fifth Beatle” status thanks to his work with them during their final years together, recorded his own version of “Blackbird.” Preston was never reluctant to riff off his own history with the Beatles, from his close work with George Harrison on his own solo records to recording one of the few listenable songs from the ’78 Sgt. Pepper’s movie soundtrack, so his covering them wasn’t such a weird occasion in itself — it’s just that taking this song in particular, and turning it from a tender acoustic ballad to an upbeat gospel-tinged soul number, is a spectacular reclamation. And just as a song, get a load of that nuanced but deeper-than-deep bassline — courtesy of Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson back when the Brothers Johnson were session players. They all did a better job of taking a Beatles song back from Charlie than U2 sure did, I’ll say that much.
Siouxsie & The Banshees, “Helter Skelter” (1978)
And U2 were beaten to the punch anyways. It’s roughly two years or so before this cover where UK punk drags us across the rubicon from “Beatles as recent phenomenon” to “Beatles as old guard”: the Clash notoriously proclaimed “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977,” and they were right, on account of one dying, one remaining broken up in defiance of Lorne Michaels, and one waiting until ’78 to start tearing it up again. At the very end of the following year, The Clash did their best to declare that “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust” — referring to the massively popular tribute band and the nostalgia machine that had sprung up to capitalize on it — but it was still an ongoing concern leading up to and in the years after John Lennon’s death, a sort of collective fandom that traded on the idea that there was still something new to be found in the margins of a band that could no longer truly exist as they were.
Meanwhile, here’s Siouxsie & the Banshees: While they weren’t the first band to try and reclaim the most infamously Manson-tainted Beatles song — a guy named Don Harrison, who briefly fronted a band featuring the rhythm section from Creedence Clearwater Revival, cut a swaggery hard-rawkin’ version the year before — they were the first to play it as though the Beatles were not only gone, but replaced by something more sinister and unnerving. It’s a highlight of their debut Scream, a slow boil that eventually spills over the top with jagged noise that leaves burns on contact. Whether or not it was reverence or blasphemy seems beside the point — it feels like the reality of things as they stood once you scraped away all the baggage of nostalgia’s received enthusiasm. Then again, Siouxsie & the Banshees kept it in their setlist long enough that it could get caught up in nostalgia for them, though at least there’s not a cottage industry around it. Yet.
The Feelies, “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey” (1980)
And there’s more than one way to punk a Beatle. If you don’t feel like lurking in the shadows before jumping out at the listener, you can always just rush right in and flail away until the buzz dies down, and if that means you wind up going twice as long as the original, so what? Momentum’s momentum. Not that the Feelies were content to do faster-and-louder business as usual; Crazy Rhythms came out of an urge to rewire what punk even meant at the same time hardcore was making it more simplified and ferocious. Still, holy shit listen to Anton Fier. It’s like he’s playing Philthy Animal’s part on “Ace Of Spades” as jangle-pop backbone. He needs to, though, as Bill Million and Glenn Mercer play their guitars like they’re some kind of industrial lathing equipment — they’re less riffing than carving.
The Breeders, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” (1990)
Kim Deal kept the loud-quiet-loud structure of her songwriting going strong even when she wasn’t personifying it as a member of the Pixies, but few things said it clearer than the decision to cover one of the Beatles’ most notable entries into that particular dynamic for the Breeders’ first album. The kicker here is that there are so many different levels of quiet and loud to work with, with Deal and Tanya Donelly letting the guitars wax and wane along unpredictable routes that the original planned out: the transition from that unaccompanied “she’s not a girl who misses much” opening line (along with what sounds like a lighter being flicked, like they’re about to set it all on fire) to the wide-open spaces of what Lennon called the “dirty old man” section, the (almost) guitars-only chiming of the “junkie” passage crisp and clear, crashing flat-out into the dense pounding mother superior jump the gun passage that somehow starts oppressively heavy and then gets heavier, after which point there’s practically no energy left to deliver those final, titular lines and it all just evaporates like so much smoke from a barrel, feedback as the smell of powder.
Vashti Bunyan Feat. Max Richter, “Martha My Dear” (2008)
Vashti Bunyan has been a figure of cultish fascination since her first (and, for a long time, only) album, 1970’s British folk classic Just Another Diamond Day, fell out of print. Part of that could hinge on what felt like the great loss of an underappreciated but compelling talent: Even with assists and co-signs from peers and members of UK folk icons Fairport Convention and Incredible String Band, Bunyan was so let down by how little attention her album got promotionally (and so occupied with raising her first child in the meantime) that she retired from the music business.
The rest of her story is well-known in indie circles by now — the album got reissued, every freak-folkie on Earth evangelized for its greatness, and she returned to music more than a generation after her debut with two more albums and collaborations with the likes of Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective. That whole narrative still feels less compelling than hearing her actual voice, though — even as far back as her “next Marianne Faithfull” hype years in the mid ’60s, recording Jagger-Richards songs that sound like they should’ve charted leagues higher than they actually did, there’s this quality to her voice that seems delicate but has this intricately composed resilience to it, kind of like a spiderweb. So if there’s a better voice than hers to turn McCartney’s jaunty music hall homage into the modern-classical space-pagan lullaby she makes it sound destined to be, let me know — or don’t; I’m fine with assuming this version’s the new definitive take.