It’s fair to say that most musicians get their chops by learning other people’s songs. It makes perfect sense – if something inspires you to pick up a guitar, what better way to learn or hone your craft than by replicating the songs that first influenced you. Thing is, it’s never something you really grow out of, which is why even the biggest bands in the world will add covers to their live sets deep into their career. Indeed, some bands (well, supergroups), like Me First And The Gimme Gimmes, have made entire careers out of covering other people’s songs, while Fearless Records’ Punk Goes Pop (and other genres) series shows how there’s money to be made from fresh takes of well-known songs. Over the course of rock history, some bands have even managed to improve upon the song they’re covering – in some instances actually creating the definitive version of the song in question. Although it’s rare, it actually happens more often than you might think. Here are our picks for the rock cover versions that outshine the original version.
Metallica –Whiskey In The Jar
How Metallica ever envisaged this traditional Irish folk song – popularised by The Dubliners in the 1960s and later recorded by The Pogues and Thin Lizzy, among others – as fitting within their heavy metal mold is anyone’s guess, but they did. And while it probably shouldn’t work, it really does, capturing the reckless hedonism of the traditional Irish version, but adding a lot more muscle and, well, oomph to proceedings.
Marilyn Manson –Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)
With its sinister guitar line and demonic vocals, this cover – taken from Marilyn Manson’s 1995 EP Smells Like Children – gives the new wave classic by Eurythmics a wholly Satanic makeover. With its shimmering, ominous portent the song became Manson’s first big hit and was the first of many incredible covers. And while covers of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put A Spell On You, John Lennon’s Working Class Hero, Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus and Gloria Jones’ Tainted Love (which was later covered and made famous by Soft Cell) all come close, the macabre majesty of this is truly hard to beat.
Nirvana –Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
Recorded less than five months before Kurt Cobain killed himself, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged session was notable not just for the grunge icons showing off their less abrasive side, but because they decided to largely eschew their biggest hits. Instead they filled their set with six covers, including three by the Meat Puppets (whose Chris and Curt Kirkwood played with the band that night), a Vaselines track and a David Bowie tune. But it’s this version of traditional folk song Where Did You Sleep Last Night? – styled on blues legend Lead Belly’s 1944 take on it – that still sends shivers down the spine thanks to Cobain’s final anguished and despair-ridden screams that practically shatter his voice.
Far – Pony
That Jonah Matranga, the man behind Far, Onlinedrawing, Gratitude and New End Original – all of them serious bands with deep, meaningful lyrics – would decide to cover Ginuwine’s salacious, heavy-handed but not-quite-explicit song about, well, fucking, is weird enough. That Far do it so well, is even weirder. But that crunching riff, the weird noises that punctuate it, Jonah’s hyper-emotional vocals and the fact that the songs manages to be both wholly serious and tongue-in-cheek (or somewhere else) at the same time make it as much of an absolute triumph of a cover as it as an unlikely one.
Hole – Credit In The Straight World
Included on Hole’s 1994 second record, Live Through This, their cover of this Young Marble Giants song is a blisteringly breakneck number. The original version by the Scottish post-punks – released on their first and only album, 1980’s Colossal Youth – is an ice-cold, jittery and deliberately emotionless affair. Courtney Love and co. however, amp up just about everything, and turn it into a frenzied, distraught and despondent number full of gloriously ear-shattering guitar feedback and Love’s guttural, desperate vocal delivery. While the bare bones of the original are there, this version surges with anxiety and torment until, just like that, it comes to its abrupt end.
The Ataris –The Boys Of Summer
If we’re honest, there’s really just one good song on Eagles drummer/co-vocalist Don Henley’s second album, 1984’s Building The Perfect Beast, and it’s this one. But emotionally-wrought pop-punks The Ataris made it even better, speeding it up a bit and adding an extra bit of grit and urgency to the tune. In fact, it really works as a souped-up emo-punk anthem. Included on the Indiana band’s fourth full-length, 2003’s So Long, Astoria, it became – and remains to this day – their biggest hit. And while that fact irked them, they should be proud they made a brilliant song even better.
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts –I Love Rock'N'Roll
Remember when Britney Spears covered this song in 2002, everyone thought it was a Joan Jett cover? Well, it actually wasn’t – while made this song famous with their 1982 version, it was actually written and recorded by The Arrows in 1975. To be fair, there’s not much difference between the original and the Joan Jett version, but her take on it makes it an important anthem of unabashed female badassery.
The Xcerts –Drinking In LA
With 2018’s phenomenal fourth album, The Xcerts rolled up their sleeves to their shoulders to fully reveal their Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty influences and it was a truly magical, beautiful thing. Who knew, though, that the trio were fans of oddball Canadian hip-hop/alternative rock/trip-hop/dance collective Bran Van 3000? Well, if you downloaded their free cover of it in 2011, you would have done – and you’d know it’s absolutely brilliant to boot. Mainly because the band somehow manager to inject it with even more layers of existential angst and abject melancholy, as the trio are wont to do. Sadly there is no video available, because they didn’t actually make one so you’ll have to make do with the original on this one. Just imagine it being similar with extra Scottishness.
The Clash – I Fought The Law
It might be one of The Clash’s most recognisable songs, but although it was recorded in 1979 Joe Strummer’s London punks, it wasn’t actually written by them. That honour goes to Sonny Curtis, who penned it in 1958 and recorded it the following year with The Crickets, after he replaced the late Buddy Holly in that band. The song was later re-recorded (and popularized) by the Bobby Fuller Four in 1965, but it’s this rollicking, rambunctious take that remains the definite version – after all, no-one sings it quite like Joe Strummer.
Guns N' Roses –Knocking On Heaven's Door
There’s no denying that Bob Dylan is one of the greatest and most important songwriters of all time. And while the original version of this song, from 1973, is a classic in its own right, the way that Guns N’ Roses injected it with all the OTT excess of hard rock, not least Axl Rose’s histrionic singing and Slash’s soul-searching guitar lines, warrant its inclusion here, as does the fact it just pips Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower. While it was actually recorded in 1990 for the Days Of Thunder soundtrack, they’d been playing it live for a few years before.
Reel Big Fish – Take On Me
Who doesn’t love a good horn section? And who doesn’t think a good horn section can improve pretty much any song ever – even a stone cold ’80s classic like this. Replacing the song’s iconic synth-led melody with a trumpet and trombone, Reel Big Fish successfully transformed the Norwegian pop band’s hit into a ska-punk classic. Yes, it’s raw and wobbly as hell and it sounds like the band don’t really know their way around the tune all that well, but that’s also what makes it so great and so fun. Plus there are horns – and doesn’t love a good horn section?
Limp Bizkit –Faith
Are we saying that Limp Bizkit are better than George Michael? Certainly not. Are we saying that the nu-metal titans’ cover of this gloriously feel-good 1987 tune by the former Wham! man tops the original? Well, it’s very close. Fred Durst’s sounds like he’s in emotional agony when he first starts singing, before unleashing a series of deafening screams. Combined with Wes Borland’s aggressive guitars and some heavy-handed scratching, the song – which was included on the band’s 1997 debut, Three Dollar Bill, Y’all$ – becomes a beast all of its own.
Deftones –No Ordinary Love
The title track of Sade’s fourth album, 1992’s Love Deluxe, is a smooth, soulful, sensuous and slow R&B song. Deftones vocalist Chino Moreno has talked about Sade being one of his biggest influences and you can actually hear how it could easily be Deftones-ified when you listen to the original version. And that’s exactly what they did, adding layers of sumptuous instrumentation, while Chino, with a little help from Far’s Jonah Matranga, summoned fallen angels for his vocal performance. There are other covers on the collection, including songs by The Smiths, Jawbox, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Duran Duran, but this is by far the standout.