When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Soundgarden takes on The Beatles’ “Come Together.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
At 28, I’m the same age that John Lennon was in September 1969, the month that saw the initial release of Abbey Road, which featured the final material the Beatles would ever pen together. To suggest that this is humbling would be irresponsible and foolish, of course: Sure, I play music, but like most of you, I don’t inhabit so much as the same stratosphere as Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison or Ringo Starr with regards to songwriting. (OK, maybe a few of you can touch Starr’s capabilities.) No, I make the point to give this little blurb some context, some window into the remarkable amount of work the infamous quartet had accomplished by the time they hovered around what I would consider my still young age.
It was only six years and a few months earlier that they’d unleashed Beatlemania on an unsuspecting public with the release of Please Please Me, initiating a run of 12 LPs that evolved the band’s sound dramatically in just more than half a decade. (In that context, the stylistic “leaps” that bands like Radiohead have taken seem less severe, no?) For the Beatles, progress circumvented artless appeals to the public every year, though it’s a testament to the quartet’s instincts that its fans followed the band’s every whim; Abbey Road, for all of its experimentation, spent 17 weeks atop the U.K. charts and has been certified platinum 12 times, marking one of those rare moments in rock history where the phrase “critically acclaimed” is a mere afterthought in light of the simple genius of the buying public. Though I’m no purist, suffice it to say that those days are long gone.
“Come Together,” a blues-y dirge that employed Lennon’s then-prominent method of “writing” lyrics as collages in lieu of simple rhymes, is proof of exactly that. (Quotations are used because Lennon was successfully sued for lifting portions of Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” by his publisher in 1973.) Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine listeners gravitating en masse to this sort of subdued work now, given how dependent we’ve become on snappy, blown-out choruses in the age of redundant, emotionless electro-pop. Moreover, if the song were to be released today, it probably wouldn’t make it past college radio, achieving modest success among critics and bloggers, but coming nowhere near the attention paid to the “Bad Romance”s and “Teenage Dream”s that dominate corporate-run radio today. But reign it did in 1969, sitting atop the U.S. charts by October in yet another British coup of American culture at the time.
Like many songs by the Beatles, “Come Together” has been covered by a seemingly endless litany of artists. And if we were to choose the most well-known renditions, we would’ve probably focused on Aerosmith’s or Michael Jackson’s. But our search ended this time in the arms of ’90s rock legends Soundgarden, which had the gall to convert McCartney’s iconic bass line into a towering guitar motif, the results of which are captivating, if slightly unnerving. No matter your preference, the Seattle rockers indisputably made the song their own, which, in our homogenized mainstream climate, is all Lennon could’ve asked for.
Portions of this article were lifted (and amended) from a previous piece on Abbey Road by Ryan Burleson, which can be read here.