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Five for Friday: Exceptional Beatles Cover Songs

Capitol Records and the Beatles celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band this week with several mouth-watering reissues of the album – all highlighting a new stereo mix from Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer/collaborator George Martin. Purists, no doubt, will want the Super Deluxe edition that contains multiple takes from the Sgt. Pepper sessions and a bevy of attractive extras. The project is a testament to the fact that the Beatles continue to fascinate us. To further honor the band's everlasting influence, we look at five of our favorite renditions of Beatles songs by other artists.

Stevie Wonder, "We Can Work It Out"
When the Beatles released "We Can Work It Out" in 1965, the cut presaged their experimental work yet to come by mixing exuberant verses with downbeat bridges. Positivity is immediately doused with realism, and the song shows off the contrasting lyrical and musical approaches of Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Soul legend Stevie Wonder gave the tune a funky makeover in 1970. Come for the grooves, and stay for the harmonica solo. While Wonder smooths out some of the Beatles' clashing transitions, he adds a gospel-leaning backing choir and turns in an impassioned vocal performance. While upbeat, the urgency calls out life's fragilities.

Cornershop, "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)"
The Beatles' ever-evolving Indian influences take center stage on this contemplative Revolver cut, one on which George Harrison prominently showcases the sitar's mysticism and melodicism. The male-female dynamics explored in the Lennon-driven lyrics take on a more dream-like quality amid the framework. The approach gives the song a spiritual core, which at the time was relatively rare in Western pop. Because of the Beatles, the sitar soon became one of the go-to instruments for bringing an Eastern flair to a song. Cornershop largely plays it straight on its cover – with the exception of singing the lyrics in the Punjabi language. In a sense, the genre- and culture-hopping British group reclaims the song to further heighten the Indian influences. Cornershop's graceful, loving strategy also feels like a nod to the Beatles' border-skipping ways.

Al Green, "Get Back"
American rhythms and blues form the foundation of many Beatles tunes, so it's no surprise they translate so well to soul and R&B. This late-period Beatles rocker, graced with a fiery electric piano performance from Billy Preston, showed the Beatles – for all of the group's experiments and disagreements – could still lock in and have a blast. Green keeps the attitude but injects some spirited horns, turning a studio-perfect rocker into a vivaciously soulful cut. And the keyboard! If the Beatles' played it sleek, Green's band lays it on thick. And that says nothing of Green's rambunctious singing, which lends an improvisational quality.

Junior Parker, "Tomorrow Never Knows"
"Turn off your mind," Lennon sings at the start of "Tomorrow Never Knows," the most out-there song in the Beatles' catalog. An entire college thesis could be written about the deconstruction happening in the track, which possesses an otherworldly weirdness due to presence of backwards tape loops and hovering rhythms. Blues and R&B staple Junior Parker does away with all of the Beatles' trappings on his rendition, yet the song retains its oddness. Parker's version may even be more haunting. He emphasizes open space and an eerily plucked reverberating guitar while his vocals tackle the song like a funeral dirge.

Ike and Tina Turner, "Come Together"
A little dark and more than a bit eerie, this Lennon-driven cut possesses a venomous nature – see the dangerously sharp guitar and heavy bass – that makes it come off as something of an order: "Come together right now." Tina Turner certainly picked up on that aspect. She digs in to lace the track with vocal grit aimed squarely at the listener. If Lennon and the Beatles heighten the tension by taking it slow, Turner doesn't have any patience and gets right to the point. Alarming horns and a backing choir help convey the message, and between verses, Turner gives us a moment to soak it all in as she delivers her interpretation of Lennon's "shoot me" line as a hush-it-all whisper.

May 26, 2017

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