The Ultimate Beatles Cover Song: Harry Nilsson’s You Can’t Do That
A pretty good book could probably be written about Beatles cover songs—if one hasn’t already been done—and VCH is your first customer if you write one. So get cracking.
Alas, most “covers” or re-recordings of pop songs by other artists are pale imitations of the tunes they seek to cash in on. At least that’s been our experience, even when the source material springs from the fertile minds of the Fab Four.
"Yesterday" has been recorded something like two, three hundred thousand times* by other artists, and we all know Otis Redding’s versions of "Day Tripper" and "A Hard Day’s Night" kicked ass like nobody’s business. So, given what Otis could do with a Beatles song, is there really any room for improvement? Who could top Otis?
Notwithstanding his incomparably funky and soulful covers from over forty years ago, we’d offer that yes, there is one Beatles cover that trumps even Otis. (And yeah, we think it even beats out Siouxsie and The Banshees’ version of "Dear Prudence," which we dearly love.)
And with all due respect to some of the excellent Beatle re-treads of recent years, we’ll have to return to the sixties to find the ultimate Beatles cover.
First, we’d offer this exchange from a 1968 press conference where John Lennon and Paul McCartney announced the formation of their new company, Apple Corps.
Reporter (to John and Paul): “Who’s your favorite American group?”
Then there’s the song itself. The original Beatles track was a fairly typical early John Lennon essay on jealousy and anger; kind of a prequel to "Run for Your Life" and his solo work, "Jealous Guy." Add to this usual John smorgasbord of angst a new and distinctive 12-string guitar played by George Harrison, an edgy and raw lead guitar played (unusually) by John himself, and you have the makings of a pretty decent pop song.
Tom Petty once asked George Harrison how he came up with his hypnotic, cool rhythm guitar part for the song. Harrison replied—the lead guitar work he did for the group was more in his comfort zone—“I was just standing there and thought, 'I've got to do something!”
And he did.
The song was interesting enough to be the favorite for the A-side for the next single until Paul McCartney wrote the more commercial "Can’t Buy Me Love." The song next surfaced as the B-side to the Paul tune, and there it rested, a cool but fairly forgettable B-side, until it was resurrected by an obscure American singer.
That was three years later when Nilsson released his breakthrough album Pandemonium Shadow Show.
The Beatles press guy, Derek Taylor, heard it and was impressed. He bought a case of the albums and passed along copies to friends, including the Beatles themselves. They were especially impressed (many industry insiders were—both by Nilsson’s multi-octave, pure toned voice and his impressive song writing chops) with the autobiographical "1941." John Lennon listened to the hip newcomers’s album for a marathon 36 hours straight.
The Beatles wouldn’t have been human if they hadn’t also been very flattered by Nilsson’s stunningly original cover of "You Can’t Do That." What’s so special about it? Well, he didn't just phone in a performance of the bluesy Lennon rocker. He slowed it way down and completely re-made it his own—and created the ultimate Beatles tribute song in the process.
He references over 20 different Beatles songs either directly or obliquely and concludes the mesmerizing performance (doing all his own backing vocals, no less) with his last added reference, “Strawberry Beatles for—ever…”
The epic cover and the Pandemonium album were the beginning of a close personal relationship between Nilsson and the Beatles, especially with John and Ringo. He remained a devoted friend of theirs for many years until death sadly did them part.
You can learn more about the uber-talented, uber-troubled Harry Nilsson in this excellent 2010 documentary.
*Actually, Yesterday has “only” been covered somewhere north of 2,200 times.