“It was 40 years ago today/That Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play…” That’s what some of today’s most popular rock ‘n’ rollers might be singing this June as part of a BBC Radio 2 celebration of the 40th birthday of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Bands including Oasis, the Killers, the Fratellis, Travis, and the Kaiser Chiefs have been invited to cover songs from the hallowed LP, using the same 4-track technology that the Fab Four used to record the album back in ’67; legendary original engineer Geoff Emerick will oversee the new recordings. The Snark Police have wasted no time in reaching for their rhetorical billy-clubs: Pitchfork called it a “bizarre, ill-advised… experiment in screwing up an otherwise perfect thing,” and bloggers galore have joined in the chorus of “SACRILEGE!”
Everybody chill out! It’s just a bunch of Beatles covers. Lesser bands cover the Beatles all the time. That’s what happens when you create universally beloved, spectacularly brilliant art. Okay, so some of these new versions will probably be sort of lame, but some of them could be great. For instance,few Lennon-McCartney disciples are more devoted than Oasis and Travis. Half of their big singles might as well have been Beatles covers — in fact, I’m pretty sure several of their albums would have been significantly more fun if they were straight-up playing Sgt. Pepper from start to finish.
I’m not saying I don’t understand the trepidation that some Beatles fans have. Sgt. Pepper is a nearly flawless album, and the last time someone tried covering the full album, it turned out badly — reallybadly. (I rented that movie at the height of my pre-teen Beatlesobsession, and lemme tell you, even then I couldn’t make it all the waythrough.) But so what? Music fans get awfully uptight when artists dareto put their own spin on canonical records, but there’s really nodanger involved. Brandon Flowers’ bellowed take on “She’s Leaving Home”isn’t going to eclipse the original any time soon, and if any or all ofthese covers are awful, we can all feel free to forget they everhappened and cue up the White Album again. And when Beatles covers goright — like Richie Havens’ “Here Comes the Sun” or Rufus Wainwright’s “Across the Universe” — they can breathe new life into tunes whose very last grace note is burned deep into your cerebral cortex.
What are your favorite Beatles covers, PopWatchers? Or do you think aclause should be added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rightsprohibiting any artist from playing a single note of Sgt. Pepper?