The Alternative Anthology

If you ever wanted evidence of just how commercially unassailable The Beatles were in the sixties, look no further than the sheer amount of Fab Four covers that were around at the time. Just about everything the Beatles ever wrote and recorded, from With A Little Help From My Friends all the way to Love Of The Loved, was covered by somebody somewhere several times over in the usually vain hope of a little bit of chart magic rubbing off on them. Often they were little more than cheaply done cash-in efforts that were never going to stand the test of time - who could pick Marmalade's version of Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da out of a line-up, for example, and has anyone even ever heard The Overlanders' chart-topping stroll through Michelle? - but the sixties was an exciting time for exotic musical sounds even outside of George Martin's studio trickery, and many of these covers are worth a second listen. Like, for example...

Enoch Light 'Get Back' (Studio2Stereo 1969)

Taken from his legendary (well, with certain genre enthusiasts at least) 'Easy Listening On The Moon' album Spaced Out, this is a rip-roaring loungetastic rampage through one of the band's less exciting (and, it must be said, more ideologically dubious) chart-toppers, with brass and fuzz guitar battling it out at epic length. See, it was useful for something then.

Loose Ends 'Tax Man' (Decca 1966)

Within mere weeks of its release on Revolver, George Harrison's Weller-theft-occasioning moaning about having to cough up Income Tax like any old commoner becomes an organ driven exercise in slow-burning funk, packed with those mental bongo breaks that sample-crazy DJs go mental for nowadays. A big favourite on Pirate Radio, apparently, but seemingly just too wild for mainstream chart success. Wonder if Bradley Wiggins has heard it?

The Gods 'Hey Bulldog' (Columbia 1969)

When Progressive Rock came a-calling (probably over the length of a triple album) at the close of the decade, many early exponents of the genre decided to showcase their instrumental prowess by doing heavied-up takes on Beatles numbers. Most of these were as horrible as you're already imagining, but this hammering cover of an unjustly obscure number (relegated to an album soundtrack, and even then cut out of most of the original release prints because Paul McCartney wanted more 'bloody stupid marching' inserted or something) is pretty good.

The Score 'Please Please Me' (Decca 1966)

Though some would undoubtedly get very angry at the merest suggestion that The Beatles did not invent the wheel, there was a brief period in the mid-sixties when it seemed that many of the bands hanging around London's nascent psychedelic scene had actually leapfrogged ahead of the Fab Four in terms of far-out pop sensibility and general sonic trickery. For a particularly pertinent example, see this delieriously obscure effort drenched in loudspeaker-endangering swathes of feedback and buzzsaw guitars. Bet their light show was a sight worth seeing.

The Young Idea 'With A Little Help From My Friends' (Columbia 1967)

Legend has it that on the evidence of their incredibly rare LP and other singles, this overdressed duo had designs on a more Syd Barrett/Scott Walker kind of territory, but they hit the big time with a fairly respectably done Beatles cover and that was pretty much the end of their career. It's certainly preferable to Joe Cocker's overwrought histrionics, but the laws of irony have seen to it that while his The Wonder Years-introducing tedium is still inescapable to this day, The Young Idea's version probably hasn't been heard anywhere since the 1967 Christmas Top Of The Pops.

The London Jazz Four 'Norwegian Wood' (Polydor 1966)

The hip jazz community were as fond of messing around with sitars and backward tape loops as The Beatles, but the London Jazz Four preferred a more straightforward 'modern jazz' approach, which makes it rather puzzling that they recorded an album's worth of covers of The Beatles at their most intensively experimental. Here, Lennon's tale of being annoyed because a girl wouldn't 'do' him is shorn of all sitar droning and becomes a frug-friendly vibraphone workout of the sort that would sound at home in a 'beat club' scene in a sixties big screen Brit-thriller.

David Bowie 'Penny Lane' (Music For Pleasure 1967)

While The Beatles were living the high life and snorting LSD off Mia Farrow's arse or something, young David Jones, latterly of failed beat combos The Lower Third and The Buzz, was so poor and starving that he had to resort to making ends meet by singing on one of those 'not the original artists' LPs that were common currency at the time. Thus it was that he added voice to undernourished strolls through various Monkees and Beatles numbers, though the story has a happy ending, as by the end of the year he had turned his dire financial straits into a spectacular cautionary tale called The London Boys (and, erm, one about a gnome), secured himself a new deal, and ever so slowly started to evolve into the world's favourite distant and androgynous chameleon of rock who fell to Earth. Except it turns out it wasn't actually Bowie after all. Or it was, depending on who you listen to. He definitely played the sax on Baker Street, though.

Killer Watts 'We Can Work It Out/Hey Jude' (Pye 1972)

Time was when the dreaded synthesiser was considered not just an Exciting Musical Instrument Of The Future but also a selling point in its own right, and record shops were awash with synth-demonstrating LPs back in the early seventies. You will not be surprised to learn that it seems to have been a legal requirement for such albums to include at least one Beatles cover, and some of them even featured nothing but. Mr. Watts' effort is not one of the more inspired ones, it must be said, composed largely of undistinguished trots through Shadows numbers and movie themes, but the better tracks include this lengthy Beatles medley, which binds two unlikely medley-mates together with the aid of a funky rhythm and zapping electronic tones.

Bobby Lamb & The Keymen 'Fool On The Hill' (BBC Records 1971)

Top trombonist Bobby Lamb, along with Tony King, Dave Snell, Norrie Paramor and many other names that will be familiar to anyone who's ever scanned the the list of 'also available' titles on the back of Doctor Who Sound Effects or Sing A Song Of Play School, was one of those characters that used to plug the gaps on Radio 2 caused by the Musicians Union's stringent rules on how many commercially available records could be played per hour. Backed by a crack team of session musicians, there's some deliciously strange covers of recent chart hits on offer here, not least this rendition of the superb song from The Magical Mystery Tour, which starts off all pastoral and wistful before being invaded by what can only be described as a pitched battle between Hammond Organ and flute.

Tomorrow 'Strawberry Fields Forever' (EMI 1967)

Tomorrow - a band made up of no less than future Yes guitarist Steve Howe, Teenage Opera-excerpting solo superstar Keith West, and all-round Festival-hogging anarcho-hippie and general punk before punk existed John 'Twink' Adler - were one of the first proper psychedelic bands on the UK scene and made some fantastic records, not least the Lennon-endorsed My White Bicycle. Unfortunately, when it came to recording the album, they were apparently one song short and resorted to filling up space with this heavied-up Fabs cover with guitars replacing all of the orchestration and sound effects. It probably sounded fantastic through a haze of dry ice at the UFO club, but on record it just sounds a bit tedious. However, the joke was on them, as an angry tour promoter later forced them to do the same with Excerpt From A Teenage Opera on threat of not being paid, of which West later recalled “we did it like Strawberry Fields Forever, and they threw coins at us”.

The Eyes 'Good Day Sunshine' (Mercury 1966)

And the cautionary tales continue. One of a handful of psychedelic acts who were doing the live rounds before The Beatles had even finished recording Revolver, The Eyes caused an immediate splash with their flourescent rugby shirt stage outfits and bonkers single When The Night Falls, based around a heavily distorted gong. Unfortunately this didn't translate into chart success, and after a couple more tries, their record company forced them to record a cover of a Beatles song that wasn't even that good to begin with. The band weren't happy and split soon afterwards. If only they'd been pushed towards She Said She Said...

Lord Sitar 'I Am The Walrus' (Columbia 1968)

Nobody seems sure who Lord Sitar was - though accusatory fingers can surely be pointed at top sixties session sitarist Big Jim Sullivan - but it's a fair bet he wasn't a real nobleman. He did, however, get to record an album of covers of recent chart hits, keenly sought after by people who've heard the demented snarl through I Can See For Miles, and then equally keenly discarded when they discover that much of the rest of it is tepid reditions of the likes of Daydream Believer. However, it's well worth sticking around for this out-psyching the original Beatles cover, liberally doused in fuzz guitar and shrill flutes, and as it doesn't say 'knickers' it's perfectly safe for The Light Programme to play too.

If you've enjoyed this, you can find more articles about psychedelia and pop music in my book The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, available in paperback here, from the Kindle Store here, and as a full-colour eBook here.