Saturday, June 11, 2016

What do All These Beatles Covers Tell Us?


by Christopher Reynolds

Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Digital Id cph.3c11094
Studies of cover songs have deservedly proliferated in the last decade. Singers and groups are understood to shape their musical identities in their treatment of an earlier song, indeed, even in their choices of which songs to cover. For years I have found in my teaching, first in a rock history class, now in one on the music of The Beatles, that the comparison of an original song with a good cover provides a chance to talk about how music, words, and performance work together to create artistic meanings, at times diametrically opposed meanings. Now, thanks to a wonderful database devoted to covers, Secondhandsongs.com, it is possible to use cover songs to measure the artistic impact of a singer, songwriter, or rock group. As of 4 June 2016, Secondhandsongs.com provides information on 372,225 covers of 54,019 original songs.

There is no better demonstration of what this data opens up for study than measuring the legacies of songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney against those of other groups that competed with them week by week through the 1960s. A comparison of how many Beatles’ songs were covered as opposed to those of their most successful contemporaries offers a measure of how artistically significant Beatles’ songs have been in the last half century. While compiling lists of #1 hits and data about recording sales provides a commercial measure of success, comparing the number of times a song has been covered provides an artistic yardstick. It documents the choices other musicians have made about songs they admire and think will advance their own careers.

I’ve chosen to compare the songs of Lennon and McCartney to Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones (Jagger and Richards), Chuck Berry, and four of Motown’s most successful songwriting teams, (1) Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland, Brian Holland; (2) Smokey Robinson, who often worked with someone else; (3) Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield; and (4) Berry Gordy, Jr., who normally worked with others. The total number of songs by each of these songwriters that have been covered ranges widely. I compiled these numbers from Secondhandsongs.com on 4 June 2016.

Bob Dylan: 275 songs covered
Motown songwriters: 217
Beatles: 192
Rolling Stones: 141
Chuck Berry: 59

Because many of these songs were covered by just one or two others, these totals are not as revealing as a comparison of their most widely covered songs. For each of these, then, I have created top ten lists. The numbers for their most covered songs are as follows. Those for The Beatles appear last.

Bob Dylan: Top 10 Covers
“Blowin’ in the Wind” – 189
“All Along the Watchtower” – 98
“Mr. Tambourine Man” – 88
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” – 87
“Like a Rolling Stone” – 82
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” – 81
“The Times They Are A-Changin’” – 81
“I Shall Be Released” – 77
“It Ain’t Me Babe” – 68
“Just Like a Woman” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” – both 67

Motown Top 10 Covers of songs by – (1) Holland, Dozier, Holland; (2) Smokey Robinson; (3) Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield; (4) Berry Gordy, Jr. and Janie Bradford. The names of the first singer(s) to record the songs appear in parentheses.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (3) (The Miracles) – 101
“Money (That’s What I Want)” (4) (Barrett Strong) – 93
“My Girl” (2) (The Temptations) – 90
“Reach Out and I’ll Be There” (1) (The Hollies) – 87
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (1) (The Supremes) – 69
“Ain’t That Peculiar” (2) (Marvin Gaye) – 66
“How Sweet It Is” (1) (Marvin Gaye) – 65
“I Want You Back” (4) (The Jackson Five) – 61
“Tracks of My Tears” (2) (The Miracles) – 51
“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” (2) (The Miracles) – 49

Rolling Stones: Top 10 Covers
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – 189
“Paint It Black” – 138
“Honky Tonk Women” (aka “Country Honk”) – 70
“Jumpin Jack Flash” – 62
“Gimmie Shelter” – 57
“Sympathy for the Devil” – 53
“Ruby Tuesday” – 52
“The Last Time” – 50
“Wild Horses” – 50
“Play With Fire” – 46

Chuck Berry: Top 10 Covers
“Johnny B. Goode” – 130
“Memphis, Tennessee” – 128
“Maybellene” – 71
“Roll Over Beethoven” – 70
“Run Rudolph Run” – 57
“School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell) – 52
“You Can Never Tell” – 50
“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” – 45
“Reelin’ and Rockin’” – 40
“Rock & Roll Music” – 39

The Beatles: Top 10 Covers
“Yesterday” – 453
“Eleanor Rigby” – 326
“Hey Jude” – 210
“And I Love Her” – 203
“Something” – 202
“Here, There and Everywhere” – 201
“Let It Be” – 194
“Michelle” – 192
“Blackbird” – 190
“Come Together” – 181

In the context of other contemporary acts, the volume of Beatles covers is extraordinary. None of the other songwriting teams – as successful as they were – comes close. The numbers are all the more impressive because all of the other songwriters continued writing songs long after The Beatles disbanded, and I have not included songs that Lennon and McCartney subsequently wrote for themselves. At best, the most covered song of any of these others would rank as the tenth most-covered song of The Beatles:

Beatles    Bob Dylan    Rolling Stones     Berry          Motown
   453               189              189                  130              101
   326                 98              138                  128                93
   210                 88                70                    71                90
   203                 87                62                    70                86
   202                 82                57                    57                69
   201                 81                53                    52                66
   194                 81                52                    50                65
   192                 77                50                    45                61
   190                 68                50                    40                51
   181                 67                46                    39                49

Something else unexpectedly emerges from the top-10 list for The Beatles: the dominance of McCartney’s songs. Only the last on the list, “Come Together”, is solely by Lennon. The fourth, “And I Love Her”, was a joint Lennon-McCartney effort, and “Something” is by George Harrison. All the others are by McCartney. Is this evidence that he has been the more influential composer? Or perhaps only that his songs are more tuneful – an assertion often made – and are therefore more likely to be covered, or, are more likely to be covered by ensembles and singers other than rock musicians?

But there is commercial evidence that McCartney achieved more as a songwriter than Lennon even during the years The Beatles were together. Here is a list of songs by Lennon and McCartney that made it to #1 either in the UK or the US. I group the songs in two-year periods and note whether they were composed singly or jointly.

“Love Me Do” (1962) – JL/PM
“Please Please Me” (1963) – JL
“From Me to You” (1963) – JL/PM
“She Loves You” (1963) – JL/PM
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964) – JL/PM
“Can’t Buy Me Love” (1964) – PM
“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) – JL
“I Feel Fine” (1964) – JL                                            PM = 1, JL = 3, JL/PM = 4

“Eight Days a Week” (1965) – JL/PM
“Ticket to Ride” (1965) – JL
“Help!” (1965) – JL
“Yesterday” (1965) – PM
“Day Tripper” (1965) – JL/PM
“We Can Work It Out” (1965) – JL/PM
“Paperback Writer” (1966) – JL/PM
--------------------------------------------
“Yellow Submarine” (1966) – PM
“Eleanor Rigby” (1966) – PM
“Penny Lane” (1966) – PM                                        PM = 4, JL = 2, JL/PM = 4
“All You Need Is Love” (1967) – JL
“Hello, Goodbye” (1967) – PM
“Lady Madonna” (1968) – PM
“Hey Jude” (1968) – PM                                            PM = 3, JL = 1, JL/PM = 0
“Get Back” (1969) – PM
“The Ballad of John and Yoko” (1969) – JL
“Come Together” (1969) – JL
“Let It Be” (1970) – PM
“The Long and Winding Road” (1970) – PM             PM = 3, JL = 2, JL/PM = 0

“Paperback Writer” was a pivotal song in the Lennon-McCartney collaboration. Of the 27 of their songs that became #1 hits in the US and/or the UK, it falls near the middle at number 15, with 14 #1 songs before and 12 after. As the last of the collaborative Lennon-McCartney songs, it marks a turning point in their best-selling songs. McCartney’s ascent stands out clearly. Through “Paperback Writer” the successes were more evenly shared: eight #1 songs were collaborative, two were by McCartney and five by Lennon. Afterwards, the tide shifts away from Lennon and away from collaboration. None of the remaining twelve were jointly composed, three were by Lennon and nine by McCartney.

Lennon’s decline may be the result of his much greater drug use during these years, both LSD and heroin, and his 1968 divorce. McCartney’s success writing the Beatles’ biggest hits after “Paperback Writer” was surely not lost on Lennon. Perhaps it stoked his unhappiness about working collaboratively with McCartney. Once he was free of The Beatles, Lennon composed “Imagine,” a song that currently has 213 covers, by far more than any of McCartney’s post-Beatle efforts.

Because their later songs seem to be those more often covered, there may be a link between McCartney’s dominance in the top-10 list of songs covered and his rise as a writer of #1 hits. A closer mapping of the data now available in Secondhandsongs.com will help affirm or dismiss this possibility.




Christopher Reynoldsimmediate past president of the American Musicological Society, is Professor of Music at the University of California, Davis. His most recent posting to Musicology Now dealt with his database of songs by women, “Growing the Database of Women Songwriters, 1890-1930.

8 comments:

  1. Privately I received a comment from one of the curators of Secondhandsongs.com, with this unexpected information:

    "the only non-Beatles pop song from their era with 200+ versions is 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' (248) and the only later one coming close Depeche Mode's 'Enjoy the Silence'."

    Later the same editor wrote me about a feature of the website I had not yet discovered:

    https://secondhandsongs.com/statistics/stat-most-covered-performer

    According to information posted there, The Beatles are far and away the most covered group:

    Beatles - 8133 covers
    Duke Ellington - 4153
    Elvis - 3340
    Bob Dylan - 3337
    Bing Crosby - 2956

    Strange bedfellows.

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  2. I share your interest in cover songs and what they can illuminate about about "how music, words, and performance work together to create artistic meanings, at times diametrically opposed meanings." Covers that cross boundaries of genre, gender and race are particularly interesting! Aretha Franklin is one of many female artists to cover Beatles' songs ("Eleanor Rigby"), and of course the Beatles' first two albums included five cover versions of songs originally recorded by African American girl groups.

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  3. One of my favorites, one that crosses both race and gender, is Sly & The Family Stone's recording of "Que sera sera", so so different from Doris Day's. I know you've worked on this question a lot. Another is "Respect", and the way in which Aretha's interpretation completely overpowered Redding's original, so that he performed it in her version, at least in that recording made the day before he died. The same thing happened to Trent Reznor after Johnny Cash recorded "Hurt". Endlessly fascinating.

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  4. Yes! Aretha Franklin's version of "Respect" completely transforms the meaning of the song. It is almost an answer to Otis Redding, and I think she does the same thing with her "Eleanor Rigby," refuting the idea that a life dedicated to the church is empty and meaningless.

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  5. In this age of ours that is "global," there should be an inclusion of foreign language "covers." Although the translations are quite often different than the original Eng language, it still merits a place in this count. I have long long (play)lists of Spanish language "covers/ versions (adaptations as secondhandsongs calls them)and have just started a similar list (play) list of original Eng songs in French (since I am studying fr language and culture).
    One problem with secondhadsongs, they refuse to post any covers/adaptations, (Sp language mostly) if the writer of the Sp lang lyrics in not know (no reason, very unprofessional, unknowing of the history of music in that respect) (I could be the translator of early rocnrol!)
    Last, it is extremely unfair, to say the least, to speak and make comparisons with someone who is dead-- simple logic. Be that as it may, I repeat here what I am always saying to all to those in my close and not so close circles. It's not just the drugs and the divorce (that is all you/we know about) PM was holding JL back-- once he was on his own, he could do much more of what he was capable of doing without the more dominant partner at his side-- PM. The very brief evidence by the writer himself is there, "...Imagine,” a song that currently has 213 covers, by far more than any of McCartney’s post-Beatle efforts."(key her is post-Beatle)
    Last, there are so may "covers" that are only performances, i.e. not recordings, thus not on record, not only by professional artists, but by many who are legitimate performers on their own 'local" circit, who never managed to get a recording contract, who are quite good.
    In short, the "measurement"/method used leaves much to question about the "results."

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  6. Yeah Paperback Writer is truly a pivotal song. Probly the last song where Paul wanted to be John and did a better job than he could!

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