260. ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, by Joe Cocker

I recently did a series of posts on cover versions of #1 songs – previous chart-toppers that had been reimagined in different ways by different artists. ‘Different’ being the important word – a good cover version should bring something new to the table. What’s the point in releasing a karaoke version of the original? And while we have had plenty of cover versions hit number one already, this one takes the concept to another level.

Joe Cocker

With a Little Help From My Friends, by Joe Cocker (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 6th – 13th November 1968

The Beatles’ version of ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ had been released the year before, on the ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club’ LP. Joe Cocker, a British blues-rocker who had been around for a few years without enjoying much chart success, took it and made it his own. It’s slower, heavier, longer, downer and dirtier… Re-acquaint yourself with the original here, then settle in for the Cocker treatment.

It begins with a distant organ, as if you were standing outside a church before evensong. It’s an ominous build-up… You’re ready for something to happen. Then wham. Guitar! Proper hard-rock guitar. Hendrix and Clapton kind of guitar. The type of guitar that’s been nowhere near the top of the charts before. It’s bombastic, and outrageous. It makes you want to make devil-horns and punch the air.

The lyrics are the ones you know. What would you do, If I sang out of tune, Would you stand up and walk out on me…? But it sure isn’t Ringo singing it. Cocker’s voice is husky, and soulful. He delivers the lines late, squeezes the words in before the next one comes along. The backing singers, so important in any version of this song, sound like a gospel choir: How do I feel at the end of the day…? Are you sad because you’re on your own?

The best bit is the bridge – the Do you need anybody… bit. The guitars go super heavy and crunchy, like a motorbike revving up. The second time around, especially, when Cocker howls and the backing singers soar and we launch into the final minute of a mini rock-opera. I know we’ve had a lot of soul number ones in recent years – The Small Faces, Chris Farlowe, Long John Baldry and more – but this takes it to the next level.

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It kind of sounds a bit like a jamming session, or at least a live version, and that really adds something to the song. They captured lightning here. They would never have been able to re-record this exactly the same – it’s too raw, too intense. It lacks the polish of a regular #1 single, but you’re oh so glad that it somehow managed to have its week in the top spot

As I mentioned, it’s another long number one. You wait years for a #1 single that lasts longer than five minutes, then three come along at once. And that’s not all that links this to the previous two #1s. We’ve now had a number one recorded by The Beatles (‘Hey Jude’) replaced by one that was produced by a Beatle (‘Those Were the Days’) replaced in turn by a number one written by The Beatles. In case you’ve lost count, this is the fourth Beatles cover to reach the top in the past five years. They may have been reaching the end of their career as a band, but their grip on the charts wasn’t weakening.

We end in a frenzy of organs and guitars, as Cocker ad-libs over the fade-out. Phew. It’s not a subtle re-interpretation, I will admit, but for me it works. I knew this record by reputation, but it’s been great to give it an in-depth listen. ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ is a song that will pop up another two times in this countdown, and I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that neither of the upcoming covers are fit to lick this one’s boots…

Joe Cocker will only have one more Top 10 hit, until the early-eighties when he will record ‘Up Where We Belong’ with Jennifer Warnes for the soundtrack to ‘An Officer and a Gentleman.’ From Sheffield, but sadly no relation to Jarvis Cocker, he was still scoring Top 20 albums in the ‘00s and the 2010s. He died in 2014.

7 thoughts on “260. ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, by Joe Cocker

  1. Pingback: 263. ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’, by The Marmalade – The UK Number Ones Blog

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  3. I will never forget hearing this for the first time, with diabolical reception on Radio 1 (which was quite often the case for those of us who live in Devon), at school. After a couple of listens, even with bad sound quality, I thought it sounded amazing, as if it had been beamed in from a different planet. Not your usual run-of-the-mill cheesy singalong pop, was it? Nearly all my schoolmates thought it was dreadful – “you can’t like that, SURELY?” To me, this and ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by the Stones, which was still only an album track, were two of the most groundbreaking numbers of their time. They really took things to a new level. And to this date, I still think this really is the best, most inventive Beatles cover version of all time.

    1. I like it, but I do get why it attracts so much hate… Taking a simple, Ringo Starr ditty and turning it into something outrageously overwrought. Somehow, though, Cocker sounds both completely sincere and yet in on the joke at the same time… But, as with ‘Baby Jump’, I do love it when heavy slabs of rock n roll gatecrash the #1 spot

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