The Beatles, among their other numerous qualities, often managed the rare accomplishment of surpassing the original artist(s) when they did a cover version of someone else’s songs. The most obvious example is their version of Twist and Shout. They literally created a new song out of the Isley Brothers’ goof-off rendition. The Isleys did a thin, tinny, high pitched, almost a novelty take on the song. The Beatles instrumental line-up and John Lennon’s vocal transformed the song into one of the all time great rock numbers, a surging instrumental and vocal performance…rock & roll with no holds barred and the floodgates open.
Other bands and singers may have made more noise or screeched higher but I’m still incredulous when I listen to the Please Please Me album version of the song and still more taken with the rendition performed at the 1963 Royal Variety Show after John’s “… the rest of you just rattle your jewelry…” quip. It’s a stunning performance before probably the worst possible rock and roll audience. These weren’t screaming teenagers and shrieking girls out front. These were the Royals and their ilk if you can imagine it.
My fictional rock and roll group The Sparrows in Sidereal Days, The History of Rock & Roll, A Romance, are enthralled by both the song and the performance when they see The Beatles perform it live on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1963. The Sparrows are conditioned to the frantic, gimmicky antics of the stars of the day, the Jerry Lee Lewis’s and the Little Richards, who kicked and screamed and careened around the stage during their wild numbers. The Beatles and John Lennon stood literally stock-still and let loose the massive barrage of controlled shock waves that was Twist and Shout. It was the sedate stage presence of The Beatles while launching into this staggering song that leaves the fictional Sparrows limp with admiration.
(In a hundred years, if it becomes necessary to explain rock and roll to generations as yet unborn and unknowing, I would suggest that the last living fan dust off Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue and The Beatles’ Twist and Shout and stand back to see what happens.)
Less successful – in fact I would have to say, unsuccessful compared to the original – was The Beatles’ take on the American girl group The Cookies’ song Chains. The original is a perfect acoustic rhythm guitar arrangement with classic hand claps (credited in Sidereal Days to the fictional Sparrows grateful for any excuse to be in a recording studio) and the great vocals by the Cookies. It’s a nice easy swaying song with its spare instrumentation accompanied by the innocent but helplessly sensuous vocals of the Cookies.
The Beatles offer up the weakest track in what I still consider just about my favorite of all their albums, Please Please Me. They forgo the steady strum that paces the Cookie’s version and they replace the Cookies’ sultry voices with their bright British vocals. On this cover, Chains, The Beatles prove once again the old adage that nobody but nobody is perfect. Even The Beatles.