Covers #1: a Fab Four

What do you think about cover versions? A few years ago, when I first started really being able to develop dedicated music modules for the degree I teach on I took an idea that had occurred to me on a course I’d taught at a university in Hungary. The module’s topic was recording technologies, and I’d sort of stumbled across the realisation (obvious once you think about it) that the idea of a ‘cover version’ is related to technology and there being what is accepted as a ‘definitive’ or ‘original’ recorded version of a song, one which is circulated so widely that the song becomes very strongly associated with one voice, or one artist. This notion of primary originality might be attributed to songs sung by their composers, or songs closely connected with a single performer, even if they didn’t write them: think  ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ or ‘Marquee Moon’ for the first category, ‘’Heartbreak Hotel’ or ‘My Way’ for the second.

Authorship, ownership: original sheet music editions for ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘My Way’

But this doesn’t mean the cover is always a secondary or even a redundant exercise. The oft-repeated platitude of the Saturday evening talent shows is ‘You made that your own’ after some future cruise ship singer has merely duplicated Stevie Wonder’s ad libs, but sometimes a cover can change or at least temporarily destabilise the certainties of a familiar original. After all songs have been shared and sung by people long before recording technologies emerged that could catch or even create  a ‘definitive’ version. So, I like a cover. I even like a karaoke cover sometimes: see the famous scene in Lost In Translation. Just brilliant.

So I thought it was time to do something here on cover versions. Now I’m not saying The Beatles are where you MUST start when discussing covers but it was hearing George Benson’s ‘full album’ cover of Abbey Road recently that put this idea into my head as a topic for Pete Sounds and, now we are housebound, I thought I’d pick a few favourite Beatle covers and see what we find. I meant to do all four in one post but, as anyone who knows me will find easy to believe, I found so much to say about each I’ll drag it out/give due attention to each…

Now generally speaking I’m hard to amuse. I mean, I’m happy and laugh a great deal of the time and in one unsolicited endorsement online a former student very sweetly recalled that I was ‘always in a really good mood’ in classes and that made learning much more fun. But when  it comes to ‘comedy’ my problem is that often it just ain’t funny, old son.

However, THIS is funny.

In the first rush of Beatlemania with ‘serious’ cultural critics falling over themselves to lavish praise on Lennon and McCartney’s compositions, Peter Sellers – a cultural catalyst from the previous decade – had the idea of matching the Fabs with another Great Briton, William Shakespeare, via another very well known public figure, Laurence Olivier. His portrayal of Richard III in the 1955 film of Shakespeare’s part History play/ part Tragedy of (approximately) 1593 would still have been very fresh in the audience’s mind – in fact it was so successful a performance that it still has a firm grip on the public imagining of the King and dominates any effort to represent him, a totemic reference point to be negotiated one way or another by any actor taking on the role. Today it’s a curious watch: Oliver’s hyperreal performance is both ridiculous and endlessly brilliant, often in exactly the same moment. The combination of look and sound was so distinctive as to have characterised a whole style of delivery in itself and it is this that Sellers borrows so successfully.

To demonstrate, here is Olivier’s legendary performance of Richard III‘s opening scene aka ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’ : you’ll have to keep reading to get to Mr. Sellers!

Both portrayals are of course based on the only evidence of what Richard looked like; the portraits painted in his lifetime. The one below is purportedly the last painted from life. Doesn’t look too strong and stable does he. Note the hat which Olivier spruced up with a logo (!) and Sellers picks up on too.

Laurence Olivier as Richard III in the 1955 film of Shakespeare’s play
Peter Sellers recites ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ 1965
Last known portrait of Richard III, unknown artist, late 15th century

Sellers’ cover of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was originally a sketch on a Granada TV programme called The Music of Lennon and McCartney recorded in Manchester and broadcast on ITV on Thursday 16 December 1965. Taped in early November, the show featured the band themselves and had an impressive line up with Henry Mancini and Esther Phillips alongside Cavern veterans Cilla Black and Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas, with French and Spanish stars being testament to the Fabs’ international appeal.  

Titles for the show The Music of Lennon and McCartney

Scouse humourist Fritz Spiegl conducted an orchestral version of ‘She Loves You’ a la Mozart (I knew a girl who lived in a house owned by Spiegl in Liverpool in the 80’s – but that’s another story) but by far the biggest hit of the show was Sellers’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. The song was nearly 18 months old by this point (an aeon in 60’s pop in general and Beatletime in particular) and the band had come so far so fast that it was already ripe for a nostalgic rip. They loved it. Sellers’ backed up his Olivier style hamming with garb unmistakably spoofing dear, dear Larry’s Richard. George Martin’s music and arrangement also artfully skitted conventions of Shakespearean/Elizabethan musical encodings and representations; florid and theatrical but not obstructive or in the way of the comedy.

It wouldn’t be the only time Sellers and the Beatles worked together: in some ways the Fabs were Children of the Goons (Lennon’s poetry owed much to Spike Milligan, Michael Bentine’s harmonica instrumentals added an easily accessible musical dimension to the show’s surrealist mix and there’s harmonica all over early Beatlemusic) and Sellers acted with Ringo in the oft derided but not-bad-really-for-a-period-piece film of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian in 1969. Not forgetting they had a producer in common: the one and only Sir George Martin.

George Martin and Peter Sellers in 1959; note copy of the GM-produced Songs For Swingin’ Sellers, which they were promoting

Here is George Harrison really insightfully recalling just how and why Sellers and The Beatles got on so well: the video is marked as ‘Bloopers’ but there is a great section preceding that stuff…

Sellers’ contribution was the show’s breakout success, something which had clearly been anticipated: it had already been released as a single on Parlophone, produced and arranged by George Martin, and thanks to the TV exposure was an instant Hit, reaching number 14 in the UK pop charts in early 1966. It was backed with a C of E Vicar version of ‘Help!’ which was just …. okay.

It wasn’t Sellers’ first hit record – his album which bore the Sinatra-spoofing title Songs For Swingin’ Sellers, complete with very dubious cover as can be seen above, was such a smash that even my Grandma had a copy, and in the world of the single his Goon-era had yielded a mildly droll Skiffle skit of ‘Any Old Iron’ and his duets with Sophia Loren (sighs…sits back…contemplates the Mystery of Life…) were Top 20 hits in the pre- Beatle early 60’s when Parlophone was still EMI’s outlier for comedy songs and had red labels.

He even made an album with Sophia Loren in 1960 which used a sleeve image from that year’s film in which they starred together, The Millionairess, an adaptation of Bernard Shaw’s play of that title. It’s a loose adaptation, we should say, and in a bit of early-doors synergy spawned an ‘in character’ hit single, ‘Goodness Gracious Me’, although it didn’t appear in the film. George Martin scored the film and produced both single and the album which followed in the wake of the single’s Top 20 success. Peter and Sophia. Now I LIKE that title…

Sophia Loren with George Martin and Peter Sellers, recording the Peter and Sophia album (1960). Note Sophia’s ciggie!
Cover of 1960 Peter and Sophia LP, using a still from The Millionairess
Original poster for The Millionairess (1960)

Comedy and pop are uneasy bedfellows; skits can be funny – I’ll fight anyone who disses Philip Pope’s work for The HeeBeeGeeBees and Spitting Image – but often tire quickly, while British comedians’ records tended to fall into the ‘And this is me’ category where the song is sung straight with competent dullness (Ken Dodd, Mike Yarwood), or discs recorded ‘in character’ (Arthur Lowe, Harry Enfield, even John Inman )  which were often lightly amusing once or twice and then forgotten. Then you’d get novelties like Rory Bremner’s slew of ‘impressions’ records – his cricket commentator skit on Paul Hardcastle’s ‘Nineteen’ is still funny for those of a certain age. In the US too: ‘Weird’ Al Jankovic was hard-working but only intermittently successful with his skits while Steve Martin made comedy records at first, now he makes very splendid ‘real’ bluegrass stuff; banjo playing featuring centrally in both.  The rise of the Spoken Word market has put paid to singing comedians really; why bother when you can just record your act or yourself reading your memoirs?

Anyway I suspect this is another topic for another time. Cue Mr. Sellers!

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