It might be hard to believe, but in the late ’90s metal and ska were pals. The Warped Tour ska-punk crowd had an appreciation for the cheese of ’80s metal, partly out of an ironic love of killer retro riffs and partly as a way to separate themselves from the angsty tough-guy bullshit of the then-booming nu-metal scene. Metalheads, meanwhile, could get down with the beer-swilling skate antics of ska-punk kids, and dug their music’s dedication to entertainment at all cost, which had sadly fallen out of favor in metal. The result was an uneasy alliance between two subcultures who could bond over drinking everything in the house and blasting the Misfits from atop a half-pipe.
The main result of this union was a lot of ska-punk covers of metal tracks. Not only did ska bands enjoy mutating aggressive hard rock songs with horns and upstroke riffs, they also dug the reaction fans would have at hearing some ripping track about Satan during a ska show. This tradition continues today, with contemporary ska bands covering the nu-metal bands their genre was pitted against. So to remind the world of how often spiked leather guantlets and fuzzy armbands brush up against each other, here are 12 ska covers of metal tracks that defend the faith, trombone and all…
Less Than Jake, “The Antichrist” (Slayer)
In 1996, ska-punk titans Less Than Jake were still a bunch of kids loving on old-school metal, and decided to record a 7” featuring two covers from Slayer’s ripping debut album Show No Mercy. Though the tracks are pretty straightforward in many places, the horn breakdown in the middle of “The Antichrist” still makes it hilariously unique. Now a legendary part of both ska-punk and metal history in the ‘90s, this EP can be dificult to track down, but those who do will find it’s worth your money for the front-cover logo alone.
Ruder Than You, “Paranoid” (Black Sabbath)
That someone hasn’t started a cover band named Black Skabbath is a little disappointing, but for now we’ll happily settle for Ruder Than You’s cover of “Paranoid.” Many got to know the Pennsylvania ska crew’s unique take on this Sabbath classic from the 1996 SKAndalous: I’ve Gotcha Covered compilation. Though punkish and speedy at times, it’s that chorus that makes this one a must-heard rendition. Now do “Skabra Cadabra!”
The Independents, “Mother” (Danzig)
Loved by Joey Ramone in the ‘90s, South Carolina’s The Independents went full niche — not only did they play ska-punk, they played horror ska-punk. That said, it’s hard to imagine any other band nailing a ska cover of Danzig’s “Mother” quite as well as these dudes did. With the original’s morose intro giving way to an ultra-bouncy skank-along free-for-all, this version does a solid job of both honoring the song’s creator and giving it the total dub-on-speed makeover. Pretty impossible not to like.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “Detroit Rock City” (KISS)
The Bosstones will always be remembered for their gigantic radio hit “The Impression That I Get,” but that song sometimes downplays the fact that their lead singer has a voice like compressed gravel. That’s why their cover of KISS’s “Detroit Rock City” is so awesome — Dicky Barrett’s patented snarl adds a meanness to the track which one feels like it always deserved. Though the horns are ever-present (it’s the Bosstones, how couldn’t they be), this track feels as much like an honest metal tribute as it does a fun ska cover. Hey, is that actually Gene Simmons in the video?
King Punch, “Chop Suey!” (System of a Down)
Off of their 2019 EP Divide and Conga, King Punch’s SOAD cover earns a hallowed place among the many covers that exist of “Chop Suey!” The original’s frantic bounce seems perfectly suited for a translation into ska, and the UK band do a great job of utilizing its rhythms for their own dance-hall-oriented plans. While the breakdown at the end might not possess System’s sweeping weight, it’s still satisfying in its own weird right. As much a novelty as it is a great song — but hey, this is ska we’re talking about.
Mephiskapheles, “Necromantical Screams” (Celtic Frost)
Given that they’re the kings of ‘satanic ska,’ Mephiskapheles couldn’t just cover another hair metal band for their inclusion on 1999’s I <3 Metal compilation. Instead, the New York band performed a track by Swiss black metal forefathers Celtic Frost. Though not quite as grim as the original, Mephiskapheles’ version of “Necromantical Screams” uses their horn section to provide ample majesty to the track. We can’t find the song online anywhere, but if you can pick up the album, we swear it exists (and it looks like it’s available on eBay!).
Reel Big Fish, “Kiss Me Deadly” (Lita Ford)
To be fair, “Kiss Me Deadly” is a very safe ska-coverable track — it’s got some cheesy ‘80s vibes, it’s super melodic and catchy, and it benefits from a gang vocal. That said, beer-drinking ska heavyweights Reel Big Fish do an admirable job of injecting some suburban ludicrousness to the track; little lyrical changes like, “Had to borrow ten bucks from Travis’ dad” are just a buttload of fun. More than anything, though, it’s the pre-chorus and chorus that make you realize that some songs are just made to be performed with a big, ridiculous horn section behind them. Lita Ford, eat your heart out.
Link 80, “Harvester of Sorrow” (Metallica)
Huh…a ska track with lyrics about infanticide! Bay Area ska-punks Link 80 do right by their neighbors Metallica with this cover of “Harvester of Sorrow” from 1988’s …And Justice for All. The rendition’s horns somehow add more menace to the track than take any away, and the punk side of things shove a powerful speediness into the verses that maybe the Four Horsemen could’ve used in the first place. Overall, the song illustrates something necessary for any great cover: an audible love of the original track.
Thumper, “The Trooper” (Iron Maiden)
Boston’s Thumper were always a bit more metal than your average ska band, as their choice to cover Maiden’s “The Trooper” certainly shows. Even cooler is that the band decided switch out some of the lyrics to comment on their incongruous musical sides, trading own pork pie hats for leather chaps. It may not give metal fans that pure joy of hearing Iron Maiden lyrics to bouncing upstrokes, but let’s be honest, with “The Trooper” you’re really just here for that main riff.
The Holophonics, “Dragula” (Rob Zombie)
This cover is hilarious in part because it’s exactly the kind of ska cover that pisses metalheads off. In an instant, the Holophonics strip “Dragula” of all its punchy menace and muscular horror. Instead, it becomes the soundtrack for watching boats from a folding chair as you buy a new pair of creepers on your phone. We feel like Rob Zombie would get the silliness of this.
Skameleon, “Highway to Hell” (AC/DC)
Much like AC/DC themselves, Skameleon’s cover of “Highway to Hell” is straightforward and all the more satisfying for it. If you need an trombone-packed dance cover of a classic satanic metal anthem, this’ll do it; even the horn accents sound like the band sat down and said, ‘Could we make this feel any more like an utterly entrenched ska song?’ Satan has broken out his tiny fedora.
Boppin’ B, “Wind of Change” (Scorpions)
To be fair, this song is more honorable mention than true ska cover — Deutschland’s Boppin’ B are considerably more rockabilly than pure ska, and this is arguably the Scorpions’ least-metal track. All that said, if there’s one type of song ska bands love covering more than metal tracks, it’s big hits of the ‘80s, and “Wind of Change” is as big as it got by the end of that spangled decade. Besides, there’s something beautiful about a bop-along tribute from one German rock act to another. Ich bin ein Rude Boy.
Words by Chris Krovatin