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In my sixth Quarantine Sessions article for The New Leaf Journal, I discuss the interesting challenge of covering The Beatles – specifically “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The article begins with my thoughts on reinterpreting art generally, and then explores the history of The Beatles’ famous “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” album and Joe Cocker’s legendary cover of one of its best songs, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” In defiance of those who told me that I can’t cover The Beatles, I teamed up with Mark Caserta to perform our own cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which you can listen to on Soundcloud.
You can find my other Quarantine Sessions articles in our series archive.
Reinterpreting Songs and Other Art
I love reinterpreting songs. Most often, I reinterpret my own work, to reconnect with it, keep it fresh, and sometimes discover something new. I enjoy reinterpreting songs by other artists for the same reason. On occasion, fellow musicians give me flack about how far I go in reinterpreting a song and pulling it from its original format. There is something to be said for not reinterpreting a song so much that it becomes unrecognizable to the audience.
Reinterpretation is not restricted to music, but it occurs in other art-forms as well. For example, there were multiple versions of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” painting in existence prior to the iconic version that we have today. Artists copy and adapt the styles and ideas of other artists. This is how art builds upon itself, grows, and snowballs. This is especially true in the case of folk music – where reinterpretation is one of the main modes of the folk tradition. I would argue that reinterpreting, re-imagining, and adapting is one of the fundamental pillars of accessible music and performance.
“You Can’t Cover The Beatles”
Many musicians consider some songs un-coverable – either because of how prominent the songs are in popular culture or how talented the original performers were. One of the best examples are songs created by “the fab four.” In response to my ideas to cover them, I have often been met with: “Victor… you can’t cover The Beatles.” To them, I respond with a quote borrowed from F Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”: “What do you mean you can’t? Of course you can!”
Of course, I am far from the only musician to have been tempted to cover The Beatles. For every few musicians who shy away from covering them, one takes the plunge. For this reason, there are many unique covers of Beatles songs out there. Some of these covers achieved some notoriety in popular culture. It is not at all difficult to find articles with titles such as “Top 100 Beatles Covers!” For purposes of this article, I will mention just one notable song – “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
Covering The Beatles: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
The original “With a Little Help From My Friends” appeared on The Beatles’s 1967 album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” This album broke many norms that had governed albums. Before “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” albums were made to be representative of what you would hear at a live performance – bundled up for home consumption. The Beatles, who had stopped touring in 1966, released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” with no intention of performing it live in the way that it sounded on the record. The atmospheric sounds and tenor of the record redefined what an album could be – not merely a replication of a live show, but a piece of art unto itself. The Beatles paved the way for other artists to create singular pieces of art in recordings that could not be replicated in a live setting.
The history and background of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” makes attempts to cover its songs all the more interesting. The most notable example is Joe Cocker’s iconic cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”
Joe Cocker (May 20, 1944-December 22, 2014) made “With a Little Help From My Friends” his own in a number of ways. He not only changed the instrumentation of the song, he performed it in a 6/8 time signature instead of The Beatles’ 4/4 time signature. Furthermore, Cocker also altered the notes and vocal melody of the song in his arrangement. As a result, his bluesy-rock version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” is all but unidentifiable until he sings the classic lines:
What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Cocker’s cover of the song reached number one on the UK singles chart in 1968, just one year after The Beatles released the song. His live performance of the song at the 1969 Woodstock Festival is nothing short of legendary. Cocker owned his version of the song such that one would never know that he did not write it himself. In my estimation, Cocker’s “energy” set the tone for how Woodstock would be remembered.
Well after Woodstock, Cocker’s version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” was used as the theme song of “The Wonder Years,” which aired from 1988-1993. This only served to further solidify his version of the song in popular culture.
Victor V. Gurbo and Mark Caserta Cover “With a Little Help From My Friends”
Mark Caserta and I decided to cover “With a Little Help From My Friends” as part of our Quarantine Sessions series, which you can find documented in part here at The New Leaf Journal. In addition to an exciting cover, this recording was my first opportunity to test my vintage “Tiger” toy plastic guitar.
You can listen to our recording of “With a Little Help From My Friends” on Soundcloud: “With a Little Help From My Friends” (Victor V. Gurbo & Mark Caserta).