For 50 years, popular culture has been paying tribute to The Beatles. Innumerable covers of all qualities litter YouTube. Entire television specials are dreamt up, even now, to honor their contributions to music history. Every album anniversary is an opportunity for nostalgia of some sort, be it a tribute record, a Cirque du Soleil production, a video game, or a big-budget movie musical. And that’s not even counting the cover bands, with their cheap Liverpudlian accents and their even cheaper suits.
Last week, The Flaming Lips “reimagined” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in full with some famous “fwends” including Miley Cyrus, Moby, and Tegan and Sara. On November 18, a mega-star-studded tribute album celebrating Paul McCartney, entitled The Art of McCartney, will be released. Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Billy Joel, The Cure’s Robert Smith, The Who’s Roger Daltrey, and many more are featured on it.
Frankly, it’s kind of nuts how much time and energy has been devoted to saluting The Beatles, but the results sure are fun to pilfer through if you’re a big Beatles fan. Some homages, like Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album and Eric Idle’s Rutles characters, are inventive and bring something new to the iconic band. Other tributes, like those from Glee and Big Time Rush… well, not so much. Here are 19 of the biggest tributes to The Beatles ever, ranked from best to worst.
1. The Rutles
Leave it to Monty Python’s Eric Idle to create the only Beatles spoof whose humor really holds up. That’s because The Rutles’ backstory was so comically elaborate and referential to The Beatles’ history, you couldn’t help but be impressed at the meticulousness of something so goofy. Like many other Monty Python creations, The Rutles are based on pure nonsense — songs about lunch and rumors about why there pants were so tight— but the production value of their skits was on point for the era. Though The Rutles were a creation of Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television, the act would go on to appear several times on Saturday Night Live in its early years. All You Need Is Cash, the Rutles’ 1978 NBC and BBC mockumentary co-produced by Lorne Michaels, referenced specific shots and scenes from The Beatles’ filmography and photo archive. Based on the American ratings for All You Need Is Cash, Americans didn’t totally grasp Idle’s characteristically British satirical humor, but it doesn’t diminish the clever frivolity of the whole thing.
2. Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album The mashup format was less played-out when Danger Mouse released his combination of Jay Z’s Black Album and The Beatles’ White Album in 2004. The result not only changed the modern mashup game, it was an album that’s actually enjoyable to listen to, and won the approval of both Jay and the surviving Beatles (though the Fab Four’s label, EMI, was less amused). The cultural exchange that transpired as a result of The Grey Album — i.e. Beatles fans seeing the merits of hip-hop, Jay fans embracing classic rock — is what makes this album one of the best Beatles tributes ever created.
3. Beatles LOVE Cirque du Soleil show
I know what you’re thinking: c’mon, Cirque du Soleil? To which I say, shut the hell up, Cirque du Soleil is fucking awesome. This particular production is essentially family-friendly tripping without the drugs, with lots of weird tangents that relate to Beatles lyrics. The real reason this gets placed so high on the list is because of the LOVE soundtrack from 2006. They did it right, getting Beatles production god George Martin and his son Giles Martin to mash up and remix all eras of Beatles songs with an eye towards rebirth and instrumental experimentation. (“Something” with a “Blue Jay Way”/”Nowhere Man” transition is a particular favorite of mine.)
4. George Martin’s instrumental Beatles cover albums
Throughout the first few years’ of The Beatles’ career, “fifth Beatle” George Martin created a series of instrumental cover albums of their songs with his group, the George Martin Orchestra. The producer’s deft arrangement skills would later alter the Fab Four’s sound forever, but how wild is it to imagine that during the first few years of working with The Beatles, Martin was just like, “Oh yeah, I’m just covering your songs on the side for fun… no, that’s not weird or anything.” But the string-heavy arrangements are gorgeous, and that’s not something I ever thought I’d say about the song “Help!”. Martin’s titles include: Off the Beatle Track, A Hard Day’s Night: Instrumental Versions of the Motion Picture Score, Help! and George Martin Instrumentally Salutes The Beatle Girls.
5. That Beatles cover band that plays in the fake England part of Epcot
They’re called the British Invasion, and they’re delightful, particularly after you’ve just overpaid for Twinings tea you could buy at your local Target.
6. Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father
If you grew up listening to The Beatles so much it bordered on brainwashing, this 1988 compilation curated by NME may feel like breaking the rules. Sonic Youth turns hippy-dippy George song “Within You Without You” into a throbbing, percussion-driven punk thrasher, while The Fall highlight the utter strangeness of “A Day in the Life.” Besides that, there are a bunch of British bands that seem particularly dated now, so this may not be your thing.
7. RAIN, the most famous Beatles tribute band in the world
I’ve seen a lot of Beatles cover bands, and it’s not so much that RAIN bring new depth to the songs or anything, but they’ve got a lot of flashy tricks (sets, multimedia, etc). I mean, it’s still some cheesy dudes in fruity military garb, pretending to be other cheesy dudes in fruity military garb, but if you insist on seeing a Beatles cover band (outside of Epcot), see RAIN.
8. The Beatles: Rock Band video game
Beatles Rock Band was the first artist-centric installation in this popular ’00s video game series, and people lost their shit over it upon its 2009 release. The game’s mere existence was a major deal within the music industry, due to the licensing of 45 original Beatles songs (with more to follow in expansion downloads), not to mention the Fab Four’s likeness within the game’s characters. Rock Band and Guitar Hero may seem like relics of the past now, but The Beatles’ immortalization within the game — particularly in such a legitimate way, supported by the band’s surviving members — felt like a millennial embrace of The Beatles. (Plus it was just fun, honestly.)
9. The Beatles cartoon series
The Beatles cartoon series ran during ABC’s Saturday morning cartoons from 1965 to 1969, with 39 episodes produced in all. Baby Boomers who grew up with The Beatles seem to possess nostalgia for the series, as it includes original Beatles songs and is just generally kind of wacky. The voices sound nothing like The Beatles’ actual voices, plus I find their personalities kind of off. But I recognize the historical significance of the series: it’s the first series to feature animated versions of real, living people.
10. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band rock opera movie
A lot of Beatles fans and even more critics hate this movie, which was masterminded by Saturday Night Fever director Robert Stigwood and starred his disco muses, the Bee Gees. The 15% Rotten Tomatoes score is largely due to the film’s scattered, nonsensical plot and poor acting from musicians (including the the brothers Gibb, Peter Frampton, Alice Cooper, and Beatles associate Billy Preston.) I don’t disagree that this movie makes zero sense and seems more like a flashy project on Stigwood’s part, but in its defense, there are some classic performances that came out of this jukebox musical: a young Aerosmith demolishing “Come Together” (one of the best Beatles covers ever), and Steve Martin foreshadowing his brilliantly villainous Little Shop of Horrors role (as Audrey’s dentist boyfriend) with a wild riff on Dr. Maxwell Edison (of Abbey Road track “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”).
11. The Flaming Lips’ A Little Help From My Fwends
The musical equivalent of six garish doilies piled atop a perfectly fine old table. Sometimes you want a little reinvention in your covers, but some songs on Fwends sound like the musicians never liked (or at least never respected) the source material (see: Black Pus and Autumn Defense’s noise jumble of “A Little Help From My Friends”). “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is a grating, childish song to begin with, but what Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, Puscifer, and Sunbears! do to it could be used as military torture. There are a handful of positives, however: Miley Cyrus and Moby tastefully covering “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and Tegan & Sara and Phatogram with Juliana Barwick reinventing their respective tracks (“Lovely Rita” and “She’s Leaving Home”) into spacey synth jams.
12. This Bird Has Flown – A 40th Anniversary Tribute to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul
Sufjan Stevens, Low, and a bunch of indie rockers who were more relevant in 2005 covered one of The Beatles’ best albums. It’s standard fare — no wild pranks like the Lips — but mostly forgettable.
13. Across the Universe
This was a romantic musical for people who weren’t already Beatles fans, starring a guy who kinda looks like Paul McCartney (Jim Sturgess) acting out plotlines that Lennon and McCartney had intended for three-minute pop songs. The 2007 Julie Taymor film tries too hard to connect “Hey Jude,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and others, especially when many of these songs have well-known origin stories. It’s overly precious and a little self-serious, but I did cry twice and Eddie Izzard’s in it, so I guess this goes somewhere in the middle of the pack.
14. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road off-Broadway musical
This was a production that ran for two months in 1974 at the Beacon Theatre in New York, so I’m not going to even pretend I saw it. The plot sounds kind of familiar if you’ve seen subsequent Beatles-inspired works of fiction — as in, what happens if characters from Beatles songs interacted with each other? (Kudos on being the first of its kind, I guess?) Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road inspired Robert Stigwood and the Bee Gees’ jukebox movie musical, which means you may despise this production by default.
15. Cheap Trick’s Sgt. Pepper Live album
A perfunctory live cover album from 2009. Beatles novices may not even notice this isn’t a Beatles live album if it was playing in a crowded restaurant, though Robin Zander’s voice may give it away even then.
16. The Beatles: The Night That Changed America
This was a special CBS filmed the day after the Grammys earlier this year, then aired later to coincide with the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ Ed Sullivan debut. The guest list reflects the show’s “Grammy leftover” status: Ed Sheeran, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Keith Urban, Maroon 5, Imagine Dragons. Katy Perry covering “Yesterday” is not something I care to relive, nor do we need another Dave Grohl salute to Macca. But the Eurythmics reuniting for this gig was impressive, and some guys named Paul and Ringo were OK.
17. Glee Sings the Beatles The men of Glee singing “Something” atop what sounds to be the original instrumental tracks is just something I don’t need to get into my life. Their more transformative covers aren’t much better: “Sgt. Pepper’s” sounds like a hard-rockin’ bar cover, only completely sanitized.
18. Big Time Rush’s Big Time Movie Soundtrack
A boy band from a Nickelodeon show made a TV movie and its soundtrack consists of six obvious Beatles hits. You’ve probably never thought about this album, and you probably never need to again.
19. Every other Beatles cover band besides the two mentioned above
Seriously, burn your mop-top wigs.