Cover bands

man dressed as John Lennon holding a guitar

John Lennon tribute act © Mark McNulty

By 1964 the Beatles were instantly recognisable everywhere in the world. Through their tours and their records, the Beatles, Searchers and other so-called Merseybeat groups gained millions of fans and directly influenced a generation of young musicians.

At first the influence was extremely direct as numerous foreign musicians simply reproduced ('covered') the songs and sounds of the British groups in cover versions. The Italian music historian Paolo Prato has written:

"For the generation growing up in the 1960s, in virtually every Western country, the cover versions were a ticket to Paradise, if by Paradise is meant that chance of sharing a feeling of modernity not only with schoolmates but also with buddies of other countries, who would speak foreign languages but know exactly the same songs, dance to the same rhythms, cheer the same artists or the same typologies of artists." (Prato, 2007: 445)

Throughout the world the most popular performers are copied and parodied and cover bands and imitations are numerous. For example the prominent north Indian singer Alisha Chinai successfully released a Madonna tape with Hindi language versions of Madonna's songs. But a Hindi version of Michael Jackson's hit entitled 'Mithun: the Indian Jackson', was a commercial failure (Connell and Gibson, 2003: 68, citing Manuel, 1993: 135, 190, 273).

Some have criticised this copying of Western tunes. Others argue that musical borrowings and adaptations are what popular music is all about. They point out that this is little different to how classical music has been recorded and performed by orchestras around the world. Moreover it has often led to the emergence of new and interesting musical fusions (Connell and Gibson, ibid).

Below are several examples of the Beatles and Merseybeat cover bands that performed in different parts of the world during the early 1960s. Together they help to illustrate the global appeal of the Beatles for musicians, although this influence has been wide ranging and has taken many different forms. In interviews, for example, countless well-known musicians have paid tribute to this influence, from Anglo-American rock and pop musicians to contemporary world music stars. Versions of Beatles songs have been performed by Western classical orchestras, Jamaican steel bands and groups involved with many other musical styles.

Not all musicians find the Beatles and their music so appealing however. In Liverpool and other parts of Britain many rock bands have reacted against the Beatles, deliberately trying to create music that sounds quite different.

Northern Europe

The Merseybeat groups and other new British bands made their most immediate impact outside the UK in Ireland and Northern Europe where English was the most widespread second language. This too was the first region to be visited by the Beatles after they topped the British charts. In 1963 the group made a short tour of Sweden and performed in Dublin.

Among the first Irish beat groups were the patriotically-named Green Beats, the Chosen Few, the Semitones and Bluesville. In Sweden there was the Hep Cats, a beat group formed by two young fans, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. A few years later they would become the writing team and half of Abba. In Denmark the local version of beat music was at first called 'barbed wire music' and in Finland 'steel wire music'. Norway had the Cool Cats, Beatnicks, Vanguards and Pussy Cats.

Western Europe

In Western Europe the Beatles played their first concert at the famous Paris Olympia in 1964. The French media named their country's Merseybeat-influenced sound yé yé (an adaptation of the Beatles' chant 'yeah yeah yeah'). In 1964 the Beatles played in the Netherlands and inspired the formation of groups such as the Golden Earrings, the Outsiders and the Motions. Many were from The Hague, which became known as the Dutch equivalent of Liverpool. The leading German beat group was the Rattles, who emerged from Hamburg's Star Club where the Beatles and other British bands had played. In Vienna a group of youths called themselves the Vienna Beatles, and another the Beethovens.

Eastern Europe

Despite official disapproval, Merseybeat and the music of the other British groups reached the youth of communist Eastern Europe through smuggled albums, bootleg tapes and radio broadcasts by stations in Western Europe. As in other parts of Europe, beat groups were formed throughout the Soviet bloc, often at the risk of being banned for spreading 'Western decadence'.

Hungary was probably the least repressive cultural regime in Eastern Europe. There hundreds of amateur beat groups found places to play at universities, high schools and the social clubs of factories and offices. Across the border the Prague group Olympic typified the Czech version of the Mersey Sound. Similar groups were formed by students in Bulgaria in the early 1960s. In the different parts of Yugoslavia, the Croatian groups Zlatni akordi and Dinamiti were formed in 1963 and 1964 respectively. In Slovenia, Kameleoni was a beat group from the industrial town of Koper. In Poland, where the music was called 'big beat', Czerwone Gitary was the most Beatle-influenced group. Their Russian equivalent was Slaviane (the Slavs).

Sometimes, the new beat groups followed their equivalents in Northern Europe and chose English language names. Slovakian groups of the early 1960s included the Players, Beatmen and Soulmen. In Russia there were the Wanderers, in Slovenia the Fellows and the Chorus.

Asia Pacific

The impact of the Beatles and Merseybeat was almost as strong in Asia as it was in Europe. In Singapore English was the only common language of all ethnic groups and the authorities encouraged its use in the new pop music of such groups as the Cyclones, the country's best Beatles cover band. In Malaysia beat music was known as 'pop yeh yeh' and beat groups had exotic-sounding English-language names like the Jay Hawkers, Ahmad Daud and the Swallows, Les Flingers and the Riots, the Tilt Down Men, and the Bad Habits. Even in Japan many of the hundreds of long-haired guitar bands imitating the Mersey sound had English-language names. Some of the best-known were the Spiders, Blue Comets and Tigers.

The so-called 'British invasion' had least effect in the Indian sub-continent and in communist China, and the greatest influence in the English-speaking countries of Australia and New Zealand. Dig Richards and the R'Jays, a rock 'n' roll group, became the Rajahs in 1963 in order to cover Beatles songs. They even released their own tribute album to the Fab Four in 1964 when the tabloid press nicknamed them the 'Aussie Beatles'. In the same year the real Beatles toured Australia and 300,000 people stood on the streets to see the group travel into Adelaide city centre from the airport. Other new Australian beat groups were Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Ray Brown and the Whispers and the Easybeats. New Zealand, too, had its Beatles disciples in the La De Das, Larry's Rebels and The Pleasers

Latin America

In the 1950s rock 'n' roll songs from the United States had been translated into Spanish before being performed by local bands - and known as refritos ('refried') music. But the Mexico City youth elite demanded to hear Beatles songs in their original form. Bands specialising in English language covers came from the north of Mexico near the US border, where they had learned to sing in English for the tourist market. They included Los Dug Dugs based in Tijuana. The band's lead singer learned Beatles songs word for word even though he didn't understand English. Other Mexican copy bands included Los Yaki, Los Belmonts, Los Apson and, with an anglicised name, Javier Batiz and his Famous Finks.

Elsewhere in Latin America there was a similar split between those who chose Anglo names and those who kept to Spanish or Portuguese. Among the Anglicised bands were the Wild Cats from Argentina, Uruguay's The Knacks and a host of Paraguayan guitar groups - the Blue Caps, Aftermads, Hobbies and Tommy's Superstars. The locally named bands included Los Gatos (Argentina) and Brazil's most renowned rock band Os Mutantes. The name of Los Macs from Chile combined English and Spanish connotations.

Africa

The Beatles found an echo even in Africa with its deep-rooted local music cultures. There were white bands like the Drifters who formed in 1963 in Salisbury, now Harare, and soon had their own television show. There were also many young black bands inspired by the Beatles or Stones in the early 1960s.

In Ghana the Midnight Movers, led by future local music star Eric Agyeman, included Beatles songs in their repertoire alongside Ghanaian highlife tunes. In Nigeria Sonny Okusuns played in the Postmen, whose cover versions of Merseybeat records earned them the nickname of the Local Beatles. "Our clothes and our hair were like the Beatles - we were just singing Beatles songs then", he said in a 1989 interview (Stewart, 1992: 124).

Another black Nigerian musician, Joni Haastrup, said that at high school, "we all started doing the Beatles hair, somehow making it cover our face like theirs" (Stewart, 1992, 4). At one point Sonny Okusuns even tried to write new words and melodies to the titles of Beatle songs, but he later turned to calypso and reggae, touring Britain and North America in the 1980s.

Elsewhere Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, was full of beat groups doing cover versions. In South Africa one of the later leaders of the township pop movement, Sipho Mabuse, began as the drummer of the Beaters. He recalled that the group's main influences were the Beatles and Rolling Stones and that as "members of the so-called elite, we listened mostly to foreign pop" (Stapleton, 2005: 203).

The Middle East

In the Middle East, Iranian musicians adopted Mersey beat into a style confusingly known as 'jazz'. In Algeria the beat groups had Anglophone names such as the Students, Vultures and New Clarks. Meanwhile in Israel the leading exponents of beat music had the most British of names, the Churchills, while the new music had a Hebrew title, lehakot ha-ket sev.

North America

While musicians in other parts of the world embraced the Beatles and Merseybeat wholeheartedly, the reaction in the US was more complicated. Millions of fans bought the records and concert tickets but some musicians and fans of non-mainstream music were resistant.

As a solo guitarist and singer in the Greenwich Village folk clubs of New York, Roger McGuinn was booed off stage when he sang Lennon and McCartney songs. The next year in the more pop oriented atmosphere of Los Angeles he and David Crosby formed the Beatles inspired groups the Jet Set and the Beefeaters. The Beefeaters soon turned into the Byrds whose mixture of English guitar group and Bob Dylan-inspired lyrics did much to shape the folk-rock trend.

Beefeaters was clearly a name chosen for its British connotations and other groups chose equally British names like the Sir Douglas Quintet and the Knickerbockers. Sir Douglas was marketed as a British group although they actually came from Texas. The Knickerbockers were part of a new musical style that was partly influenced by British Beat and partly a reaction against it. It is known variously as garage band or punk music. With one or two guitars, a Farfisa organ and a vocalist modelled on John Lennon or Mick Jagger, groups such as the Seeds, the Standells and the Remains wrote, performed and recorded two-minute anthems of the teen spirit.