Recently, we published a roundup of metal, punk, and hard rock cover tunes that surpassed their source songs, and realized that such a list truly could go on and on. That leads us, naturally, to this follow-up.
Cover songs go back to the very beginnings of hard rock and heavy metal. The Rolling Stones’ first album, for example, doesn’t feature a single original song; Black Sabbath’s 1970 debut contains “Evil Woman,” a remake via U.S.-based blues-rockers Crow; and the Ramones’ maiden LP punks up the 1964 Chris Montez nugget “Let’s Dance.”
The tradition continues on with virtually every band both in concert and on record, from up-and-comers to established mega-stars. Here now are ten more hard, fast classic upgrades.
“Train Kept A-Rollin’” – Aerosmith (1974)
Original: Tiny Bradshaw (1951)
“Train Kept A-Rollin’” first hit vinyl in 1951 as a jump-blues booty by Ohio jazzman Myron Carlton “Tiny” Bradshaw. The song’s energy made it naturally adaptable to another developing form of music at the time, as evidenced by the muscular hit 1956 version from Johnny Burnette and the Rock-and-Roll Trio—one of the earliest rock records to utilize intentionally distorted guitar sounds.
Come 1965, the Yardbirds infused “Train” with heavy blues, chugging rhythms, and soaring psychedelia, creating a proto-metal milestone so potent that Led Zeppelin (featuring ex-Yardbird Jimmy Page) regularly tore into it in concert.
Aerosmith finally nailed the definitive take of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” in 1974, arising from a passion that pre-dated the band. “[Train] was the only song we had in common when we first got together,” Joe Perry said. “Steven [Tyler]'s band had played 'Train' and Tom [Hamilton] and I played it in our band. I always thought if I could just play one song, it would be that one because of what it does to me.”
“Black Magic Woman” – Santana (1970)
Original: Fleetwood Mac (1968)
Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green wrote “Black Magic Woman,” and the band, originally a heavy-blues ensemble, released it in 1968 as one of their first singles. Mac’s version of the song is terrific and caught on among the UK’s thriving electric R&B scene.
Two years later, guitar wizard Carlos Santana worked some remarkable sonic sorcery by fusing the first “Black Magic Woman” with “Gypsy Queen,” a jazzy, smoldering instrumental by Gabor Szabo from 1966. Santana also upped the song’s spell-casting power by adding polyrhythmic percussion and distinctly Latin and Afro-Cuban dynamics. To hear it is to be entranced. Forever.
“Eight Miles High” – Hüsker Dü (1984)
Original: The Byrds (1967)
The Byrds’ psychedelic Summer of Love masterwork “Eight Miles High” is a heady blast-off to previously unexplored musical spheres. It combines soaring heaviosity with feather-soft vocals, free-form jazz flashes, and Indian instrumentation, brilliantly crystalizing its cultural moment and blowing rock’s collective mind.
All that makes it more astonishing then, that the 1984 “Eight Miles High” update by artful hardcore trio Hüsker Dü pushes the song even further into intense experiential overwhelm.
The Hüskers announce not a rejection of the hippie era but an absorption of it, like a fortified sugar cube that’s been tossed down the gullet of furious-paced, nakedly emotional, triple-barreled punk rage that then explodes with limitless possibilities as underground rock’s consciousness expands ever onward.
“Hello Hooray” – Alice Cooper (1973)
Original: Judy Collins (1969)
Folk-pop songbird Judy Collins recorded “Hello Hooray” for her 1968 album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes.
Somehow, Alice Cooper picked up on the underlying theatricality and sweeping scope of “Hello Hooray” that, frankly, a pair of normal ears is just not likely to detect when listening to Judy’s lovely, polite version of the song.
Fortunately, Alice alchemized it into shock rock gold, kicking off his 1973 smash Billion Dollar Babies with the track, and regularly performing it as his opening number in concert.
“God Gave Rock and Roll to You” – Kiss (1991)
Original: Argent (1973)
Rod Argent first achieved rock stardom as the founding keyboard player of the 1960s’ British psychedelic greats, the Zombies. By the end of the decade, Rod went out on his own, creating a heavy, jam-inclined ensemble called, simply, Argent.
Argent scored their signature in 1972 with the charging, organ-driven “Hold Your Head Up.” The following year, the group issued the even more ambitious in scope “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.”
Kiss reworked “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” for the 1991 Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey soundtrack, changing some of Argent’s sarcastic lyrics (particularly a reference to UK pop star Cliff Richard) into an loudly lofty, irresistibly effective straight-up anthem of power ballad inspiration.
“Whiskey in the Jar” – Thin Lizzy (1972)
Original: The Dubliners (1967)
“Whiskey in the Jar” is a traditional Irish folk song dating back as far as the 17th century. It tells the story of a highwayman who sticks up wealthy government official named Captain Farrell, in hope of sharing it with his true love, Molly. Alas, she squeals, Captain Farrell gets blasted, and our hero gets busted. Free-and-clear Molly ends up with the loot.
Folk group the Dubliners first broke “Whiskey” internationally with several hit acoustic versions throughout the late 1960s. The song’s inherently Irish origins and barbed take on outlaw life made it a perfect match for the single greatest rock-and-roll band to ever emerge from the Emerald Isle, Thin Lizzy.
Lizzy singer Phil Lynott imbues the words with immediacy, excitement, and, by the end, bittersweet acceptance. Eric Bell on guitar and Brian Downey electrify the ballad, transforming it into a sprawling metal saga and a cautionary tale that rocks like no other.
Yes, Metallica’s specific redo of the Thin Lizzy version kicks ass, too.
“Hey Joe” – Jimi Hendrix (1966)
Original: Tim Rose (1966)
Like “Louie Louie,” the song “Hey Joe” proved almost a requirement for garage bands to learn how to play in the 1960s. Dispute has long existed as to who exactly wrote “Hey Joe,” although folk musician Billy Roberts had it copyrighted in 1962. Smart move.
Among the best known recordings of this sordid tale of jilted Joe who aims to severely fix his cheating woman and her lover before escaping into oblivion are those by the Leaves, the Byrds, the Standells, the Surfaris, and Love. What those versions share in common, aside from all being released around 1965, are quick tempos and almost proto-punk intensity.
In 1966, folk balladeer Tim Rose slowed down “Hey Joe,” converting it from a jolt of anger into a slow burn of determined destruction. Rose’s version hit aspiring guitarist Jimi Hendrix in all the right places. As a result, an unhurried, electric meltdown variation of “Hey Joe” became the first single released by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, as well as an instant radio staple and a monumental moment in the history of rock.
“Breadfan” – Metallica (1988)
Original: Budgie (1973)
Metallica has recorded two songs by UK metal pioneers Budgie. “Crash Course in Brain Surgery” came first, appearing on 1987’s game changing Garage Days Re-Revisited EP. As blistering as Metallica’s take is, Budgie’s 1974 sludge-bath original is just to off-the-wall and over-the-top to be beat.
The Bay Area thrash brigade does best Budgie on “Breadfan,” however. Metallica released their superhumanly visceral version of Budgie’s declaration of how muck affection they feel for money in 1988 as the B-side of their “Harvester of Sorrow” single from the LP, …And Justice for All. Fans discovered it and it’s been a beloved Metallica live blowout ever since.
“Hush” – Deep Purple (1968)
Original: Billy Joe Royal
High-pitched country-rock crooner Billy Joe Royal is best known to oldies fans for his 1965 chestnut, “Down in the Boondocks.” His 1967 recording of a Joe South composition, “Hush,” was a near-hit, but it clearly appealed to a rising British hard rock that would also, in short order, cover Neil Diamond’s “Kentucky Woman.” That would be, of course, Deep Purple.
In fact, Deep Purple released their scorching, prog-pumped revamps of both “Kentucky Woman” and “Hush” in 1968. While Purple’s version of the former remains a barnstorming oddity, the latter—an explosive revelation that continues on in constant rock radio rotation—launched the group globally and established that heavy metal was well on the way.
“When the Levee Breaks” – Led Zeppelin (1971)
Original: Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie (1929)
Husband-and-wife blues duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie composed the guitar number “When the Levee Breaks” in the aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The lyrics cite the mortal dread of refugees fleeing from the disaster as they stand under a levee while rain pours down from above.
For their monumental fourth album (yes, the one with “Stairway to Heaven”), Led Zeppelin tinkered a bit with the song’s initial lyrics and amplified the apocalyptic factor by way of drummer John Bonham’s universe-rattling percussion, the rest of the band on full fire, and a treasure trove of studio effects.
“On ‘Levee Breaks,’” Jimmy Page said, “you've got backwards harmonica, backwards echo, phasing, and there's also flanging; and at the end, you get this super-dense sound, in layers, that's all built around the drum track. And you've got Robert [Plant], constant in the middle, and everything starts to spiral around him.”
The end result is that “When the Levee Breaks” packs a wallop with nothing short of hurricane force. The moment those beats start, everything breaks.