It took me several listens to decide which Beatles version of this song to bring you. I wasn’t really sure if I could discern the subtle differences, so I kept going back and forth between two of them. Then I decided – what the heck? – I’ll bring you both!
The “original” recording of “Helter Skelter” sounds rough and raw and primitive. Not unprofessional, by any means, but there’s a sense of wildness to it and an improvisational grit that’s common in early recordings without benefit (?) of modern technology. It has texture. There’s a remastered version from 2009 that sounds a shade cleaner. I think I prefer the first one, but just by a hair. I actually think, however, that some of the covers I’ve heard are better to listen to than either of these “originals”.
My first introduction to “Helter Skelter” was through the album Rattle and Hum. I think I knew there was a song named “Helter Skelter”; I knew it was by the Beatles, and I knew that Charles Manson had used it for his own purposes or whatever (resulting in a book by Vincent Bugliosi and a subsequent movie with the same title), but I had never actually heard the song before U2 recorded it.
I took an immediate liking to it. Even now, writing this, I’m rocking out in my chair, furiously bobbing my head and putting it on repeat. It’s done before a live audience so you have the energy and appreciation of the crowd, that big arena sound, and the skill, talent and enthusiasm of a band at the height of their worldwide popularity and acclaim. The U2 version takes a rock classic perverted by a madman and, with jangly, driving guitars, hard drum beats and Bono’s impassioned voice, reclaims it for the people.
I heard bits of the song, again, in the movie, Across the Universe. It’s performed as part of a scene that starts peacefully with the title song and then goes into the more rebellious fury of the cover battle song. It’s a powerful segment exemplifying the spirit of the 60’s: war, social unrest, groundbreaking activism, and a radical rethinking of the established view of government, citizenship, war, peace, death and life.
The figure that you glimpse performing “Helter Skelter” in the movie is actress/singer Dana Fuchs. I have her doing a full version in a live performance. It’s really nice to see this done by a female artist that rocks out just as hard, if not harder, than some of the male artists that usually tackle this. Her voice is strong and raspy ; bluesy and soulful. She has a take-no-prisoners intensity to this and just blows it out of the water.
Another take charge, balls to the wall female rocker that handles this without apology is Pat Benatar. Her commitment level is perfectly matched by her band. This is another great performance from a solid artist.
Motley Crue gives this the heavy metal treatment: big, bold, noisy and head-bangy. It doesn’t bring in anything different or innovative but it’s a fine enough version.
Sir Paul McCartney delivers a truly incredible performance of this during the 12.12.12 Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund concert in NYC. There’re a few instances of vocal strain, but so what? It’s Paul freakin’ McCartney!!! The dude continues to be fantastically awesome. At the age of 72 the man is still creating, still expressing – still kicking major ass onstage, and he never half-steps it. And his band (including Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters) is right there with him.
As for Siouxsie & The Banshees:
‘Nuff said. Moving on.
I happened upon a sample sound clip from Roger Daltrey of The Who. It’s from an all-star tribute album, The Art of McCartney, that’s due out on November 18. Just this tiny little snippet makes me excited to hear a full version. Should be quite wonderful.
The cover version from Oasis really had to grow on me. My first impression was that it was quite unremarkable, and I couldn’t really come up with what, in particular, made me see it that way. But after several replays I’m finding more of an appreciation for it. Paying more attention to the music and the arrangement on the back end of the song, without the vocals, helped me to reevaluate things. Now listening to the whole thing a little deeper I can see that the vocals fit in very well. It sounds like they were using some throwback technology that made the recording, especially the vocals, sound like they were recorded back in the day. There’s an almost tinny echo underneath the whole thing that takes it slightly out of time from modern musical production advances.
With Steven Tyler’s trademark yelps, Aerosmith stays faithful to the song while still maintaining their signature style. The guitar work is strong and on point, if a bit rushed. A really good interpretation.
“Across the Universe“, written by John Lennon, was originally released in 1969. The more I listen to it the more beautiful it becomes to me. It’s very positive and uplifting. It puts me in a peaceful frame of mind, and subtly expresses the idea that our thoughts float out into the universe and we become in tune with each other. It seems like such a simple song, but it’s incredibly profound and enlightening.
The “best version” (as touted by the YouTube poster legendofbirdbridge) begins with what sounds like a nature documentary (or Hitchcock’s The Birds). I believe this was done in connection with a World Wildlife Fund charity album. After the avian influx John’s voice comes in all swirling and psychedelic. It’s almost like you’re falling into a meditative state. And maybe that was the intent.
The “rare version” (uploaded by rizlatune) is much simpler, more beautiful and effective. It does have a little bit of a symphonic background to it, but it’s not overwhelming.
When I saw this next version listed in my YouTube search results, I got really interested to hear it. I mean, how could I not? David Bowie and John Lennon doing the song live? Just the idea of it is pretty awesome, right? But, turns out, this is some sort of “fake-out” or really an impersonation of both artists. It’s listed on a YouTube channel under “Mersey Boys“, in association with British comedian Stevie Riks. He does a bunch of other “interesting” musical impersonations/homages, as well.
At first I was like wtf is this? It’s really cheesy and a little trippy (granted the song itself is kind of trippy. Or maybe it’s just the background in the video). But the singer/impressionist is pretty dead on with the sound and persona of both artists. Although his Bowie does remind me a bit of a Tom Baker acid trip version of Doctor Who.
The British group 10cc does a live version that’s pretty faithful to the original, if more stripped down. It’s done simply, with no overblown orchestration and it’s very soothing and quite lovely.
On the album Abbey Road: A Tribute to The Beatles, the song is performed by Jackson Browne and Robbie Krieger. This one’s a little painful to slog through; it just doesn’t work for me. The addition of the choir around the 2:32 is too much. There’s so much going on that it detracts. And distracts. Sometimes in paying tribute you screw up the beauty of the pure song and this kind of does that for me.
The bell/chime/whatever-it-is that opens the Cyndi Lauper cover is jarring to my ears. This is another example of throwing in too much stuff. As I noted above the song is a bit trippy on its own but adding in a bunch of airy, new age, hippy dippy, crunchy granola, ethereal-sounding elements devalues it, taking the focus away from the simple, profound beauty of song. It’s interesting, though, that the closing section (around the 4:06 mark) is reminiscent of the out of this world ending music on The Beatles’ A Day in the Life.
Now, having said what I did about a lot of stuff being thrown into a cover, the fact that there’s a lot going on in David Bowie’s rendition does not make me hate it. In fact I think this is fantastically executed. Even though it’s much less meditative, what he’s done in no way overshadows the song; it only enhances it.
Fiona Apple is a very intense, thoughtful, passionate artist. I think she’s a really good fit for this song. Her voice is sweet and airy, very light, yet strongly focused and effortlessly serene in her interpretation. As in the video, her voice is an island of calm response to the chaos that can sometimes surround us all.
Another beautiful interpretation is brought to us by Rufus Wainwright. Again, not sparse, but nothing overly produced. What he does comes in service of the song, not a drive to be clever or a showy sense of ego.
The German rock band Scorpions bring us a guitar-laden cover that’s very earnest and sincere. Their version feels almost like a lullaby. It’s nice.
In the Julie Taymor-directed musical Across the Universe, the main character, played by actor Jim Sturgess, begins “Across the Universe” and gradually ends up in the middle of piece that focuses on the riotous song “Helter Skelter“. The visuals in this section (in the whole film, really) are just stunning.
See what I do for you guys? What I’m willing to subject my ears to?
Dylan – Bob Dylan!!
I’ve never really been able to get past the vocals to actually listen intently to a Bob Dylan song, but I have to say I surprised myself by really getting into his song “Positively 4th Street“. The song’s about being betrayed and, as one commenter put it on YouTube, it’s ‘a classy and poetic Fuck You’ song. And they’re right – the lyrics are just perfect and biting, yet the melody of the song easily grabs you, and belies the harshness of the song’s true intent.
Now here’s the kicker – the version I really got into wasn’t actually Dylan! In searching YouTube people can title the vids however they want. I found one, clicked on it and listened. It sounded like Dylan to me, only slightly more understandable. It was only after playing it that I read the description. It was actually a version from a Post Productions tribute album that I got into. Apparently it’s really hard to track down a (good?) Dylan version. I found the one above and I was like “Yeah, okay, there’s the voice; that’s why I don’t listen to Dylan”
The first time I heard any of the song was a bit of it done by Katey Sagal on “Mary“. Those lyrics always stayed with me. Periodically I would think about but never look for it. Finally I googled that little snippet and found out what the song was. I really wish I could find a video or even just an audio clip of her doing the entire song. But, for now, this will have to do. She sounds beautiful.
The cover that Dylan, himself, touts as his favorite was done by Johnny Rivers. I’m a fan of Rivers’ work. It has that Johnny Rivers sound yet it also sounds very folky, and even more melodic and matter of fact than my favorite version from Post Production. Not sure if I’m totally on board for this one, sad to say.
The Byrds do it slightly more up-tempo, yet they sound very Dylanesque. But not so Dylanesque that it makes my ears bleed. This also seems to be the shortest version of the song that I’ve found. They do it live and although not done angrily, somehow, I can hear the bitterness more clearly in this than in any other one that I’ve found. Or maybe that’s just a product of listening to so many versions in a short span of time.
You can hear The Beatles doing some of the song during a video of their “Let It Be” Sessions (at the 0:50 mark). An official version was never released though. This is another one I would have loved to hear a full recording of.
Jerry Garcia, lead singer of The Grateful Dead, and creator of The Jerry Garcia Band, is another example of a musical legend that I’m just not into. His rendition with Merl Saunders grabs me from the first note. It sounds bluesy and the guitar is so masterful. Jerry’s vocal is a bit wistful and just slightly sad. I really enjoyed this one a lot.
Lucinda Williams opens this with more of a country-sounding vibe. It’s not twangy, thank goodness. Though I’m not a fan of her voice, I do like the way it serves to bring out and illustrate the hurt feelings behind the song.
The punk group X sounds a bit taunting in their performance of the tune and they take it back to that “Fuck You” place with their hard guitars and shouty … not so melodic vocals. They don’t seem to have any regard for a harmonious, engaging way, and they succeed on that point. But you still want to listen.
Bryan Ferry keeps it very straightforward and heartfelt. The piano is a nice departure from the omnipresent guitar-focused versions out there. It gives it more of a simple, plainspoken honesty.
Unfortunately, for this next cover, I was only able to find a Grooveshark audio clip. But it’s really good. Violent Femmes brings the rock and the punk and the rockabilly excitement to this song and turn it into, as they say, “a catchy little ditty”. It’s a bit raucous but fun and cool. It’s also so danceable that you might not even pay attention to the lyrics on the first few listens. I do like it very much, though.
Welcome to Part 2 of the “In My Life” Cover Battle.
I always enjoy listening to Tuck and Patti. What strikes me most about this video, is the adoring way that Tuck looks at his wife during this. Why can’t I find a guy like this? Oh, and their performance is deeply emotional too. 😉
Johnny Cash brings tons of hard-won life experience – happiness, mistakes, regrets, hard-living and redemption – and a complete openness and honesty to this. He has an everyman kind of voice, but you can hear the poetry of his soul through and his truth coming out in it.
The poignant version done by the late Keith Moon, drummer for The Who, seems very somber and almost eerily prophetic, in a way. Known as being a bit of a wild man and a clown Keith does a very serious, respectful take on this.
Crosby, Stills & Nash attempted the song as well. It was less than successful. A lot less than successful.
Surprisingly, legendary model and fashion icon Twiggy covered the song very, very well. Who knew she had such a wonderful voice?
I found a bunch of covers for this song, so I’m breaking this into two separate posts. Feel free to peruse them at your leisure.
The song “In My Life“, mostly written by John Lennon (but attributed to Lennon-McCartney) and originally performed by The Beatles is one of their classic, well-loved songs. It’s a simple song with so much feeling to it, that really showcases the wonderful craftsmanship and talent of the writer(s) and performers. It’s wistful, nostalgic, a little peppy, and infinitely singable all at the same time. It’s also been covered by quite a few artists.
In a live concert Dave Matthews does the song as a beautiful, heartfelt and loving, reverential tribute to John Lennon. He really connects with the audience and the spirit of the song. His performance may be one of the best covers out there.
Bette Midler did the song on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Towards the end you can see her so overcome with emotion that her voice breaks. I had originally thought this was from Carson’s last show as host in May of 1992, but if was actually from her November 1991 appearance. Six months later, she, along with comedian Robin Williams, would be one of the last guests on Johnny’s show.
As befitting the self-described Prince of Darkness, the cover by Ozzy Osbourne is appropriately creepy sounding. Yet it’s not so creepy that it’s off-putting. It just sounds a bit metal; like Ozzy.
The 60’s group The Seekers give us their take. It’s okay; not something I’d “seek out” again. (Ha-ha – see what I did there?). It just makes the song sound really generic and forgettable, like something placid you’d hear at the dentist’s office to keep you calm while the Novocain takes its hold. Very blah.
I just found out that George took the first line from James Taylor’s song “Something in The Way She Moves”
I am such a dumbass.
How the hell did I not pick up on that?!!
I don’t know – maybe ‘cuz they sound nothing alike, but wow!!
Mind kind of blown
I can’t unknow this. And, for once, that’s a wonderful thing