Every time a rocker covers a song by another artist, the (mostly) sarcastic question must arise: “What are we going to do—improve on the original?”
Overwhelmingly, the answer is no. The mission then is to pay tribute to the source material while infusing it with new personality. This holds especially true for hard rock, heavy metal, and punk groups, where the challenge is not just to play somebody else’s tune faster and louder, but to genuinely “remake” it as a listening experience.
Occasionally, though, a hard-and-heavy cover actually does one-up the song in question. It’s especially amazing when the originals are great in and of themselves. That’s the case with most of the following improvements listed here (we’ll let you decide which ones were goofy or insubstantial in the first place).
Here now are 10 hard rock and heavy metal cover versions that actually can answer in the affirmative to the question: “What are we going to do—improve on the original?”
“Kissin’ Time” – Kiss (1974)
Original Artist: Bobby Rydell (1959)
Teenybopper heartthrob Bobby Rydell charted in 1959 with “Kissin’ Time,” a likable toe-tapper that got all the young ladies’ poodle skirts flying up in a tizzy. The lyrics came ready-made for nationwide radio play, designating that “Summertime is kissin’ time in the USA!” in between shouting out to specific cities (i.e.—media markets).
Fifteen years later, as the self-titled debut of Kiss languished in obscurity, Casablanca Records honcho Neil Bogart thought a gimmicky cover of “Kissin’ Time” might inject some desperately needed life into the album’s sales. Certainly it might garner more radio play.
The band and producer Kenny Kerner reworked the original cornball lyrics until they were properly Kiss-ified. All four members sing on the single, which was rushed out to radio and added as soon as possible to future prints of the LP.
Kiss’s campy gambit sort of worked. The single stiffed, but the album rose to #87. In 2006, Kiss amused fans by busting out “Kissin’ Time” in concert. It didn’t last long, but it was awesome.
“Ain’t That a Shame” – Cheap Trick (1978)
Original Artist: Fats Domino (1955)
The might and influence of Fats Domino as a pioneer of rock-and-roll cannot be understated. In addition, “Ain’t That a Shame” is one of his most towering tracks. Racial politics being what they were in 1955, the song only gained national recognition by way of a blander-than-milk cover by Pat Boone that same year. However, Boone’s take alerted kids of every color to Fats, prompting them to seek out Domino’s records and make him a star.
Midway through Cheap Trick’s breakthrough block buster Live at Budokan, suit-and-tie-clad, chain-smoking drummer Bun E. Carlos erupts into a pounding drum lead. It’s followed by Tom Petersson laying in backing thunder on the bass, over which Rick Nielsen flashes multi-necked guitar pyrotechnics. After building to a fever pitch for 90 volcanic seconds, the band hits the brakes, and Robin Zander wails in, “You mad… me cry! When you said… goodbye! Ain’t that a shame!”
Once the song gets identified, the surging impact only snowballs more overwhelming and ass-beatingly fantastic from there.
“Just Like Heaven” – Dinosaur Jr. (1989)
Original Artist: The Cure (1987)
Dinosaur Jr. leader J Mascis may be sludge metal’s mope king, but his incendiary, fuzzed-drenched, shrieking guitar fire brilliantly counterbalances his nasally, mumble-mouth vocals.
That perfect formula gets applied super-perfectly to Dino Jr.’s furious upending of “Just Like Heaven” by foofy Goth-pop frown clowns, the Cure.
“We recorded it for a compilation album,” Mascis said, “but when we finished it, we liked it so much that we didn’t give it to them.”
Among the new song’s most passionate fans is Cure front-fop Robert Smith. “J Mascis sent me a cassette,” Smith said, “and it was so passionate. It was fantastic. I’ve never had such a visceral reaction to a cover version before or since.”
“Hurdy Gurdy Man” – Butthole Surfers (1991)
Original Artist: Donovan (1968)
Scotland’s psychedelic freak-folk poet laureate Donovan penned his #5 smash “Hurdy Gurdy Man” while visiting India and expanding his mind via mysticism and other, more sugar-cube-adaptable means.
Texas psych-punk freak metal terrors the Butthole Surfers dose Donovan’s lysergic acid classic their signature sulfuric variation on their 1991 “Hurdy Gurdy Man” adaptation.
If the Butthole’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” revamp is not as brain-splattering as what they did to Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” in the form of 1987’s “Sweat Loaf,” it’s arguably even more haunting and bewitching as it taps freak-out gold up from the darkest depth’s of Donovan’s flower-power occult trip.
Once you hear the Buttholes go “Hurdy Gurdy,” you’ll understand why Donovan originally wrote it for Jimi Hendrix.
“New York Groove” – Ace Frehley (1978)
Original Artist: Hello (1975)
Ace Frehley’s self-titled 1978 solo album—one of four released by each Kiss member simultaneously—stands as one of the greatest hard rock albums of the 1970s. It’s a monumental amalgamation of everything great Kiss had accomplished up to that point, as filtered through the untethered vigor and vision of the Space Man at full throttle.
Ace’s “New York Groove” remains the only Kiss solo song to become a hit and how could it not? The boot-bopping beat alone makes it dance-floor friendly, while Ace’s vocal performance and guitar mastery infuse it with fun pomp and post-glitter majesty.
Few Americans realized at the time (and, really, since then) that “New York Groove” had been a 1975 UK hit for British glamsters called Hello.
Kiss performed “New York Groove” on tour in 1979-80, and again during their reunion shows in the ’90s. Hello enjoyed a decent run of success in their homeland for a while, then broke up in 1979.
“Dazed and Confused” – Led Zeppelin (1969)
Original Artist: Jake Holmes (1967)
Yes, “Dazed and Confused” by Led Zeppelin is a cover song. No, despite original pressings crediting the song to Robert Planet and Jimmy Page, they didn’t write it. Yes, indeed, “Dazed and Confused” creator Jake Holmes was correct to be royally pissed about that slight—and lack of royalties—for decades after Zep claimed it for their own.
The age of the Internet has largely exposed Zeppelin as having been, let’s say, “free and easy” when it comes to, uh, perhaps “borrowing” the work of other artists. Jake Holmes pinpoints it happening to him in 1967 when he in New York was opening for the Yardbirds. “The was the infamous moment of my life,” he said, “when ‘Dazed and Confused’ fell into the loving arms and hands of Jimmy Page.”
After years of frustration, Holmes reportedly accepted an out-of-court settlement from Page.
In the meantime, the world has been enriched by what Jimmy did with Holmes’ acoustic, drum-free original. Zeppelin whipped “Dazed” up into one of the most hallucinatory and transformative sonic journeys in rock history, replete with a wizard in the middle madly fiddling on his guitar with a violin bow.
Still, give credit (and money) where it’s due, everybody.
“Summertime Blues” – Blue Cheer (1968)
Original Artist: Eddie Cochran (1958)
With “Summertime Blues,” rockabilly superstar Eddie Cochran unleashed one of music’s brashest, most defiant and electrically invigorating screeds against authority.
The seeds tossed by Cochran’s anthem (and those of other rock pioneers) took quick root and bloomed huge in youth culture. Cochran alchemized burning resentment into flaming creativity by means of the a-hole Congressman in “Summertime Blues” patronizingly dismissing the song’s protagonist with the line, “I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote.”
San Francisco proto-metal monsters Blur Cheer channeled rock’s original rebel yells into stacks of amps, phantasmagorically fuzzed-out guitars, and a mammoth, louder-than-life sound that simply crushed all comers—including, it must be said, the song’s originator, Eddie Cochran.
Blue Cheer’s version of “Summertime Blues” is a highlight of their 1968 acid rock masterwork Vincebus Eruptum. Not only can punk and metal largely be traced back to this particular beast of a song, Blue Cheer’s take even bests the one by the Who on Live at Leeds. And that is saying something.
“All Along the Watchtower” – Jimi Hendrix (1967)
Original Artist: Bob Dylan
“All Along the Watchtower” first appeared on Bob Dylan’s country-tinged 1967 LP John Wesley Harding, and immediately garnered attention as one of Dylan’s most astonishing compositions to date. Six months later, Jimi Hendrix released his version of the song and forever after made it his own.
The cryptic, time-manipulating words of “Watchtower” are mythic in scope and ring with Biblical underpinnings. Its rhythm and structure tinker with the notion of a medieval ballad while conveying a sense of looming doom.
Given those tools to work with in “All Along the Watchtower,” Hendrix plugged in his guitar, fired up his wall of amps, and (acid) rained down nothing short of a full-on rock apocalypse.
“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” – Joan Jett (1982)
Original Artist: Arrows (1975)
“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” is one of rock’s absolute most top-tier anthems and is so strongly connected to Joan Jett that it’s impossible to imagine one without the other. It often comes as a shock, then, when the song is revealed to be a cover.
On a trip to London with her first group, the Runaways, Joan caught the London-based glam-tilted, teen-dream pin-up rockers Arrows on their self-titled musical variety TV show.
Upon hearing “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” in 1979, Joan quickly recorded a version with Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols as the B-side of a one-off single. She later famously rerecorded it with the Blackhearts and rewrote rock history. The song stayed at #1 on the Billboard pop charts for seven weeks in 1982, and we’ve all been worshipping Joan Jett ever since.
“Diamonds and Rust” – Judas Priest (1977)
Original Artist: Joan Baez (1975)
“Diamonds and Rust” first broke Judas Priest on the radio in America and it’s been an audience-igniting concert staple since 1977. On top of that, “Diamonds and Rust” sounds so metal and feels so specifically “Judas Priest” that even fans who know it’s a cover still have to force themselves to believe it. More confounding still is that it’s a cover of a spooky, acoustic folk-pop hit by gentle balladeer Joan Baez.
Baez hit the Top 40 with the song, an emotional, even painful recounting of how her 1960s romance with Bob Dylan has never full released its grasp on her, even if, as symbolized by a pair of old cuff links she once gave him, their young love is now just “diamonds and rust.”
Metal god of metal gods that he is, Priest front-beast Rob Halford is also up front about being a sensitive soul. He says he originally thought the record company had gone mad when they suggested Priest cover “Diamonds and Rust,” but the more he listened to the original, the more beauty he heard in its construction, and the more deeply he felt its words. “Hey,” Halford has said of the Baez track, “that’s a damn good song!”
Baez, by definition not a metalhead, has only ever gushed over the Judas Priest cover. “I love that!,” she said. “I was so stunned when I first heard it. I thought it was wonderful. It’s very rare for people to cover my songs. I think there are a couple of reasons. One is they’re personal — they don’t have a universal quality to them. And I think maybe it’s because I’ve already sung them, and who wants to compete with that? But it’s always flattering when somebody does.”