Joe Cocker’s death just before Christmas gave a new lease of life to his indefatigable cover of With a Little Help From My Friends. This set me thinking about cover versions especially those which, as with Joe Cocker’s, are light years away from the original.
Joe’s blistering ‘soul-anthem’ (Paul McCartney’s moniker) stretches ‘With a Little Help…’ to its outer limits and beyond. Dispensing with The Beatles’ boppy neatness, he refashions the song into a full blooded, rasping assault on the listener’s ears, nerves and heart (though not necessarily in that order).
When you read that song title, is it the Joe Cocker version that you hear in your head? Does Joe’s Sheffield steel eclipse The Beatles’ charming original – or at least dent it a little? The Fab Four’s take seems really rather polite, almost effete in comparison to Cocker’s manly barn-stormer. But does sheer force of impact necessarily make for a better version?
Let’s look at this a little differently… If With a Little Help From My Friends never made it onto Sergeant Pepper, in fact if it had never been recorded by The Beatles but had been given away by them from the start, how would we feel about the song now with Joe Cocker’s becoming the definitive version? Or do we need the blueprint of a straight and narrow melodic original to fully appreciate the extended radical re-take?
It helps to know what is being subverted. The Sex Pistols’ My Way is a far more amusing experience having heard the Sinatra original. Similarly, an early encounter with The Beatles’ ‘With a Little Help…’ makes Joe’s all the more impressive, that anyone could extract so much intensity from ‘a work song for Ringo’ (McCartney again). But when you listen closer to The Beatles’ version, there is just as much feeling in Ringo’s dry, stoical vocal as there is in Joe Cocker’s rip-roaring one.
Perhaps a song has no definitive blueprint. It’s often down to which version you hear first and for many that will have been Joe Cocker’s 1968 Number One. But I wouldn’t want anyone to launch straight into Vanilla Fudge’s eight minute Eleanor Rigby without having at least considered George Martin’s elegant string quartet.
All sides covered
It’s harder to imagine the cover process in reverse, how a rip-it-to-shreds hair raiser might be backwardly distilled into a three minute perfect pop song. Does it ever happen that way round? It would be like putting the genie back into the bottle, surely. Or trying to make a silk purse….
So if pristine pop turning into free radical tour de force is the natural order of things, the renegades and the rebels rely more on the tunesmiths to come up with the goods than the other way round. Interpreters take the raw material, beat it up and put it back together into something looser, freer, elongated, barely recognisable even but it all comes out of that essential germ of an original.
Boasting a title like that, With a Little Help From My Friends was always crying out to be covered. Actually I always preferred Joe’s Delta Lady.
Joe Cocker – 20th May 1944 – 22nd December 2014