Read An Excerpt From ‘Dreaming the Beatles,’ by Rob Sheffield

Read An Excerpt From ‘Dreaming the Beatles,’ by Rob Sheffield

Journalist Rob Sheffield is out with his new book, Dreaming The Beatles, and he was kind enough to share an excerpt with TIDAL. In it, he breaks down some tracks inspired by and covers of the Fab Four.

As a bonus, Sheffield wrote about four more songs exclusively for TIDAL. Check out the chapter excerpt and accompanying playlist below.

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1. Lil Wayne, “Help!” (2006)

Lil Wayne’s mixtape version of “Help!” never got officially released — there’s no legal way that could have happened. But John would have loved it. The New Orleans MC was ruling hip-hop, dropping street bootlegs like The Drought Is Over 2 faster than fans could keep track. Weezy raps over a loop of John screaming, “You know I need someone!” Down in New Orleans, he’s hearing his own soul in John’s voice, making the connection between Liverpool and the Dirty South: “I’m from the dirt where the Beatles and John Lennon be at.”

He claims “Help” for Lil-Weezy-Ana with the same irreverent spirit of the Beatles in their early Hamburg days, where John Lennon used to change “Shimmy Shimmy” to “Shitty Shitty.” “We were hicksville . . . like the American Midwest,” John said in 1970, remembering Liverpool. “Even London was something we used to dream of, and London’s nothing. I came out of the fuckin’ sticks to take over the world.” You can hear that same attitude in Weezy’s voice.

2. The Replacements, “Mr. Whirly” (1983)

The Minneapolis punk heroes (still unknowns when they recorded this in 1983) desecrate a few different songs in “Mr. Whirly” — writing credit on the label: “mostly stolen” — but they’re mostly manhandling “Oh! Darling” from Abbey Road. Down in the basement, Bob Stinson plays the “Strawberry Fields” intro on guitar, then the extremely drunk hardcore boys rip into “The Twist” before Paul Westerberg starts to wail “Oh! Darling.” But he changes the words so he’s singing his love ballad to the darling he’ll end up with tonight — the toilet he’ll be facedown in, although it’ll be spinning too fast for him to hurl into it. “Missss-tah Whirly, please don’t call me. I been drinking alone.”

Westerberg sounds ravaged and scared, with so much Lennon in his voice. Maybe tonight won’t go down the drain the way last night did. Maybe he’ll stop at three beers. Maybe he’ll meet a girl. But he can already see where tonight is turning and he’s pleading for it not to happen. “Whirly — pleeease don’t follow me home!” Then the band kicks in, playing “The Twist” again. Too late now to beg Mr. Whirly for mercy. The whole room is spinning so hard it’s doing the twist.

The Replacements’ next album was the creative breakthrough that made them notorious around the world. They called it Let It Be. On the cover, Tommy Stinson is picking his nose.

 3. Aretha Franklin, “The Long and Winding Road” (1970)

I’d nominate this as the most a Beatles cover has ever improved on the original. Until I heard Aretha sing it, I thought this song was sniveling slush, even without the gooey strings and choirs Phil Spector imposed upon it. But while Paul puts a brave face on a song of trial and tribulation, Aretha sings it as a song about loss and defeat. It’s not a matter of her vocal chops alone — she didn’t sing “Eleanor Rigby” as well as he did — but she feels the song deeper and brings more emotional courage to it. For Paul, it’s a sad song with a happy ending. For Aretha, it’s a sad song.

Paul doesn’t want to talk much about the road, because it brought him to your door. Why grumble — he got here, didn’t he? Aren’t you pleased to see him? Glad that’s behind us now. Aretha, however, is not so relieved to be here. She does not look on the bright side. She spent too long on that road; it took a lot out of her. As she sang a few years earlier in a song her sister wrote, “Ain’t No Way,” she paid too much for what she got. Aretha ends the song still out on the stoop — “don’t leave me standing here” — and you wonder, as you never do in Paul’s version, if she’s ever getting through the door.

4. Beastie Boys, “I’m Down” (1986)

The Beasties intended this for Licensed to Ill, except it got censored, because copyright owner Michael Jackson didn’t approve of lines like “I keep a loaded pistol inside my pants/Find a def girl and do the new dance.” It made the rounds as a bootleg — Rick Rubin samples the original track, with each Beastie taking a verse and all three singing spectacularly badly: I’m down! Oh yeah I’m down! Because I’m fully D! I’m Brooklyn down! I’m Gucci down!

At the time, “I’m Down” was a fairly obscure B-side — Aerosmith were on the verge of using it as a cred move on their 1987 comeback Permanent Vacation, giving it a professional polish that makes it meaningless. (Aerosmith, like the Beasties, owed their commercial stature to the sponsorship of Run D.M.C., who famously rapped “There’s three of us but we’re not the Beatles” because they counted wrong, which was badass in itself.) But the Beasties live up to the garage-band vandalism of the original, replacing John’s inept organ solo with an even more inept guitar solo, ripping up the Beatles the way Paul ripped up Little Richard. This was hardly the first time hip-hop made a claim on the Beatles — but it was the first time anyone claimed the Beatles were secretly hip-hop all along.

5. David Bowie, “Young Americans” (1974)

A lament for the Seventies kids the Beatles left behind — they don’t have the band to unite them anymore, just one another. When Bowie has the backup girls coo, “I heard the news today, oh boy,” it’s already yesterday’s papers. These kids need their own teenage news, and they need Bowie to carry it to them. All the Beatles had a Bowie fixation in the Seventies; even Paul went through a period of wearing platform boots and spangled jumpsuits, not to mention writing one of the glammiest Bowie rips ever, “Jet.” “Young Americans” comes from the year Bowie was obsessively courting Lennon — they wrote “Fame” together, and John played guitar on Bowie’s “Across the Universe.” In John’s presence, not even Bowie could play cool.

 6. Ella Fitzgerald, “Ringo Beat” (1964)

A tribute from the elder generation — a jazz grande dame trying to get with the times. Ella raves about that cool cat named Ringo, singing “yeah yeah yeah,” and offering a bluffer’s guide to rock and roll (“It started back with Elvis with his hips and guitar/Chubby Checker got to twistin’ and became a star”) and warning her peers, “Don’t knock the rhythm of the kids today/Remember they’re playing the Ringo Way.” (The Billboard review said, “Swingin’ Fitzgerald takes off on that all too famous beat.”) This isn’t a case of a jazz artist pressured into a pop novelty, either — she wrote “Ringo Beat” and had to talk her label Verve into releasing it.

Six months before “Ringo Beat,” Ella grazed the U.K. charts with a stiff version of “Can’t Buy Me Love” — you can hear she’s not comfortable. The melody isn’t Ella-worthy, to say the least, and while she’s too much of a hipster to not be curious about the song, she’s wondering what’s so special about it. She latches on to the blasé “my friend” as the only hip detail. “Can’t Buy Me Love” hardly reflects the Beatles’ attitudes about money or love, both of which they were rolling in, considering they wrote it after a nine-day binge with Miami Beach’s finest groupies. As Paul said, “It should have been ‘Can Buy Me Love,’ actually.” But for Ella, it’s about being cool enough to breeze your way out of a morning-after scene with an air-kiss and a “my friend.” It’s the only sentiment in the song she can relate to. She’s glad “my friend” is there — in a way, she’s why Paul put it there. But when she sings “Ringo Beat,” she gives the drummer some.

 7. Fiona Apple, “Paper Bag” (1999)

Fiona’s finest moment, and though it’s all her, it’s also the sound of a great Nineties songwriter getting inspired by the Beatles in wildly different ways from how they inspired songwriters in the Eighties. “Paper Bag” isn’t a pastiche or an allusion — she plays with those White Album piano chords to tell a new story. She builds on the Beatles the way songwriters couldn’t in the Eighties — well, “couldn’t” is a strong word, so let’s just say “didn’t” — because the Beatles were so dangerously overwhelming an influence. “Paper Bag” is the perfect summary of the Beatles’ Nineties ascendance — really, the triumph of their music over nostalgia. Also, for me this song sounds like the “Norwegian Wood” fling, except from her perspective. She thought he was a man, but he was just a little boy.

8. Kendrick Lamar, “Control” (2013)

His instant-classic battle with Big Sean and Jay Electronica, though there’s no doubt Kendrick owns it, rapping about how he’s determined to be the best MC ever, wiping all others off the map. When he slips in the line “Blessings to Paul McCartney,” it’s a startling moment, but he means it. “You called me a black Beatle, I’m either that or Marley.” (Rapper Danny Brown claimed that if Kendrick is McCartney, he’s Harry Nilsson, which is truly next-school.) Many artists have aspired to be the Black Beatles, from Rae Sremmurd to Lionel Richie, who described the Commodores this way a couple of years ago on The Voice. But Kendrick is the first rapper who compares himself to Paul McCartney in order to scare you.

 9. The Muppets “Exit” (1974)

Sesame Street did lots of Beatle tributes — “Letter B,” “Hey Food” — but this one is truly disturbing. A long-haired Muppet rock star named Little Chrissy sits at the piano, doing a Lennon-style ballad that teaches you how to read an exit sign. There’s a Plastic Ono Band feel to the piano and the morose vocals. He sings, “You don’t have to stay there, you know you can split/Just get up and walk right out that good old exit.” The Muppets in the audience take his advice; one by one they get up to leave. Cookie Monster walks out. Grover walks out. Bert and Guy Smiley leave together. (Condolences, Ernie.) The whole band exits. By the final verse, everybody’s walked out on Little Chrissy. He wails, “Exit is the way out, way way out,” until he looks up and realizes he’s the only one left. But he can’t find the exit.

“Exit,” written by longtime Sesame Street songwriter Christopher Cerf, resembles his John Lennon parody for National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner album, Magical Misery Tour. But it’s even darker. In all the years between my childhood and the invention of YouTube, I never got over it. We know John spent the Seventies watching Sesame Street — he quotes Cookie Monster on Plastic Ono Band, in the song “Hold On,” and sings about watching it with Sean in “I’m Steppin’ Out.” But did he ever hear “Exit”? And did it remind him of anyone? It’s uncannily like the story John told in May 1970, right after Paul quit. “The cartoon is this: four guys on a stage with a spotlight on them; second picture, three guys on stage breezing out of the spotlight; third picture, one guy standing there, shouting, ‘I’m leaving.’” But it’s hard to leave when you can’t find the door.

 10. Sylvester, “Blackbird” (1979)

One of the great Seventies disco queens (the first gay black pop star who was out of the closet, as far as the rest of the music world knew) does a virtually unrecognizable “Blackbird” on Living Proof, one of my favorite live albums ever. I first heard it in 1988, when I was trading tapes with my discoscholar co-worker Peter, just a few months before Sylvester died of AIDS. In the album, Sylvester’s back on his home turf, San Francisco, to celebrate after breaking big nationwide. He dedicates Billie Holiday’s “Lover Man, Where Can You Be” to “my lover, who’s here tonight.” It’s a warm and benevolent performance — he tells the roadies, “Shine the light on the folks, honey, I wanna see them” — and sings “You Are My Friend” to his backup singers Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, the Two Tons of Fun (later the Weather Girls). Sylvester sings “Blackbird” as a falsetto-disco anthem for himself and his gay audience and San Francisco in 1979 — this is their moment, they’re not hiding anymore, they’re taking flight. This song was always meant for them to take it over and make it theirs. “You were only waiting for this moment to arise,” he tells the crowd. The moment was too good to last.

11. Prince, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (2004)

Prince played this the night he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as part of an all-star tribute to George Harrison. For the first few minutes, it’s just a well-intentioned snooze: Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne sing, Dhani Harrison plays acoustic guitar, everyone reverently imitates the original. Then Prince jumps in and takes over: for the next three minutes, he makes his guitar shed tears of purple rain. He tumbles into the audience; a bodyguard lifts him back up; he doesn’t stop playing. You can hear echoes of all the bands who turned this riff into hard rock (Led Zeppelin with “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” Chicago with “25 or 6 to 4,” David Bowie with “Moonage Daydream,” etc.) but none of them got this heavy. Then he stops playing, tosses his guitar in the air (did it come back down? no sign of it), and does the world’s coolest pimp strut off the stage, as the other musicians stand there looking stunned. What just happened? Prince just happened. This is what it sounds like when guitars weep. George got his due that night.

[BONUS: Sheffield adds four more tracks for TIDAL readers.]

Beyonce & Jay-Z, “Crazy In Love” (2003)

The hit that crowned them as music’s royal couple — Jigga proclaims himself “a star like Ringo.” (It rhymes with “I do not sing though,” “I sling though” and “I bling though.”) That might seem like a weirdly modest boast from Hov — but maybe all he means is that Bey is John, Paul and George in one.

Wu-Tang Clan, “The Heart Gently Weeps” (2007)

Who else but the RZA would have the audacity for this — a mystic hip-hop George tribute with Erykah Badu on vocals, Dhani Harrison on acoustic guitar and the Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante on lead guitar, claiming Liverpool and Rishikesh in the name of Shaolin. George would have loved it. “The Beatles are timeless dudes doing timeless things,” the Wu’s Raekwon the Chef once said. “We’re the black Beatles. You can call me Chef McCartney ‘cause I’m the same way — I’m just like Paul.”

Ike and Tina Turner, “Come Together” (1970)

As John himself would have been the first to say, Tina Turner wails this song like he never could —especially the way she sells the line, “One thing I can tell you is you got to be free.” She knew what she was talking about. “Come Together” is a song that dances on the border between orgasm and revolution—but Tina powers through the groove like the border isn’t even there.

Joe Diffie, “Bigger than the Beatles” (1996)

A country smash from the spring of 1996 — a time when country was booming on the airwaves like never before, and Nashville stars finally felt free to embrace the Beatles as part of their heritage, stealing back some of the twang the Fabs took from country. Joe Diffie sings about a down-home couple who share a love that’s bigger than the Beatles—and drives it home with a chorus that goes, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

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