You’re always treading into some dangerous territory when you try to do a cover song. Even though the easiest part of having to write the song is already done for you, doing justice to some of the greatest of all time is something that you need to live up to once you go into that recording studio.
As much as the original versions of these songs might have their place in history, we feel the revamped versions in the list below trump them. Outside of just playing the song correctly though, each of these bands seemed to capture a completely different vibe with their version of the song, taking the raw essentials of what the original artist was looking for in the first place and reinventing it from the ground up, whether that’s with new guitar solos or just fleshing it out a bit more to make it sound worthy of a metal band’s stature.
Some of these might’ve just started as a bunch of friends jamming and having fun, but once you hear these songs in context, some of these bands truly deserve some royalties for how much they transformed these songs into something even more special.
Mercyful Fate -Metallica
From the minute that they got started on the thrash metal scene, Metallica were already great with covers. Before they had written a majority of Kill Em All, the band even tried to pull a fast one on the audience most of the time, introducing songs like Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil?” without even saying that it was a cover and having the crowds go absolutely insane. It was only natural for them to end up at something like Garage Inc. during their career, and “Mercyful Fate” serves as a love letter to one of the bands that shaped them.
While Mercyful Fate might not have gotten their just due in the States in their heyday, this 11 minute journey is a refresher course for every metalhead who wanted to dig deeper into their back catalog, cramming in riffs and sections from their first two records.
While the medley route may have been a little bit strange for a band that no one had heard before, Metallica seemed to sculpt this song like a piece of metal architecture, leaving room for the song to breathe while transitioning between songs like “Evil,” “Curse of the Pharaohs,” and “Satan’s Fall.”
Though the signature scream of King Diamond is definitely missed on a song like this, James’ snarl actually serves this rapid fire version of the track a lot better, sounding a lot more evil than almost anything that he was doing on The Black Album. Metallica may have transcended the heavy metal tag at this point, but songs like this were just what we needed to hear from them, giving back to the heroes that shaped them in the first place.
You Really Got Me – Van Halen
When Van Halen were first getting started on the LA rock scene, they were never intending to make history with their debut record. Half of what ended up on that first Van Halen album was more or less just a rehashing of what they did every single night, taking the basis of hard rock and roll and putting a healthy mix of metal intensity to it, along with Eddie’s trademark tapping licks.
That did mean cribbing from rock’s past a little bit though, and what was argued to be the first metal song was brought to the arena when David Lee Roth took over vocal duties. Even in its time though, “You Really Got Me” was a fairly heavy song for the Kinks, being one of the first distorted sounds in rock and roll and tapping into something a bit more aggressive than what the rest of the British Invasion were doing.
As one of the first introductions to Van Halen though, the harmonies and the amazing sound behind Eddie’s guitar brought in a whole lot more attitude, making the whole thing sound like a big party rather than just this preppy rock song.
Let’s face it though…the real star of this show is Eddie’s guitar solo halfway through the track, giving you some of the fastest tremolo licks that the world had ever heard up until this point. It also showcased things only Eddie was capable of, like the unworldly chaotic tapping licks and putting his guitar to rest by messing with the toggle switch before the last verse comes in. “You Really Got Me” always was a great song, but this introduced a whole new generation to the idea of having a couple of chords and a load of attitude.
The Sound of Silence – Disturbed
There’s a good chance that most metal fans have a sort of love-hate relationship with Disturbed’s cover songs. As much as the band might wear their influences of acts like Metallica on their sleeve on their records, seeing their love of classic rock come out in their takes of “Land of Confusion” by Genesis or “Shout” by Tears For Fears just feels strange coming from the same guys who wrote something as…well, disturbing as “Down with the Sickness.” You’re always going to get better when you do it over time though, and David Draiman gave a show stopping performance when he decided it was time to take on the classic rock playbook.
While the original “Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel is certainly powerful for what it is, the tender harmonies and soft acoustic guitar are far from anything heavy. The beauty of this song comes from how you construct it though, and Disturbed know how to treat a song like this, starting off very slow and subdued before David starts gradually building with anger through the song, building to a full on scream by the time he talks about the words of the prophets being written on the subway walls.
Even though Paul Simon doesn’t come off as the metalhead type, even he gave his seal of approval, listening to the song and commending the band for taking it to a different place. It must be hard seeing your song deconstructed like this, but even Simon knew that Draiman and co. were drawing from the same type of alienation that he was.
Antisocial – Anthrax
One of the best compliments a band can get when they perform a cover song is when fans don’t even realize that it’s a cover. The whole purpose of covering someone’s tune is to bring a unique spin to it that no one’s ever heard before, and the further you get from your original genre, the better. As for Anthrax though, they had to make sure to get a translator before they even touched the original version of “Antisocial.”
Being a mainstay for French hard rock act Trust, Anthrax dusted it off for their follow up to Among the Living, bringing a New York attitude to the original and sounding a lot more aggressive with Scott Ian’s machine gun right hand. This might be one of the more melodic songs to come out of the Belladonna era of the band, but this isn’t like the band were going pop by any stretch of the imagination.
Instead of the usual bright guitar sound of the original, this is almost as if the Trust song was redone by the skater kid crowd, taking the basis of the track and making it sound like it’s coming out of a dirty boombox as you skate behind the mall. If anything, this song says more about what Anthrax stood for even without the lyrics.
Slayer may have been the heaviest, and Metallica may have looked like a metal monster stomping across the land, but Anthrax was always about having fun, and this is practically the sound of being in a young metalhead’s brain.
Helter Skelter – Mötley Crüe
When going over the lineage of all things heavy, you have to pay close attention to the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” While the Fab Four might not have been the heaviest band around back in the ‘60s, Paul McCartney’s innocent song about a children’s slide is miles ahead of its time, going past the Who and Jimi Hendrix to create one of the meanest rock and roll songs of the decade. The whole thing is driving, a little bit evil, and all about attitude…something that would fit perfectly with every member of Motley Crue.
In between the insane songs on Shout at the Devil like “Bastard” and “Too Young to Fall In Love,” Motley’s version of the Beatles’ classic is actually a lot more intense than you’d expect out of the kings of hair metal, taking the original and upending it with Tommy Lee’s crushing drum hits and Mick Mars actually adding a couple of bluesy licks into the song to give it an old time rock and roll flair.
And while Vince Neil might not be the best technical singer next to someone like Paul McCartney, his attitude is miles better than what Sir Paul could have done at the time, sounding like he’s about to crawl through the speakers and scream at you from the minute that first descending riff starts. The Sunset Strip was about to get overrun with hair metal bands in the next few years, but you weren’t going to hear someone like Warrant tap into something this heavy any time soon.
Knockin on Heaven’s Door – Guns N’ Roses
Looking back on the Use Your Illusion experience, it felt like Guns N’ Roses were starting to do a little too much all at once. Since they had just come off their debut record, the thought of going immediately into doing a double album sounded almost too good to be true, with songs that were supposed to balance the street level GN’R sound with piano ballads.
It may have seemed impossible, but things started to make a lot more sense when we heard the covers they had cooking up as well. Although Guns’ back catalog had them covering more down and dirty bands like Rose Tattoo and Aerosmith, hearing them take on Bob Dylan’s “Knockin on Heaven’s Door” completely recontextualizes what the song’s about.
Although the original vision of the song was meant for a movie soundtrack (I mean, you can hear dialogue on the final mix), the scenario of a man putting his gun down for the final time before he meets his maker says a lot more about where Guns were at during the tour for this album as well.
Coming off of the craziness of success the first time around, the Illusions tour cycle turned into one of the most hectic tours in rock history, from canceled shows to Slash almost dying of a drug overdose. In that sense, Guns weren’t singing about a man wanting to finally be at rest. This was a desperate plea for the rest of the band to just stay alive.
Diamonds and Rust – Judas Priest
When looking at the true history of heavy metal, Judas Priest should really be considered ground zero for every great metal act that came afterward. Although Black Sabbath may have been the birth of heavy metal, Priest found their congregation by flying the flag for the genre, as well as presenting the uniform of leather and denim that everyone would adopt later.
So with all that in mind, how the hell did they end up covering a folk song? While Priest were never known for their prolific covers game or anything, their stab at a song by folk icon Joan Baez actually paid off well on “Diamonds and Rust,” taking the dramatic foundation that they already had and putting it into a folk rock context. Listening back to the original, you can hear Joan tapping into something a little darker than songs about peace and love, watching the world erode before her eyes.
It might have been a departure for her, but it’s a subject that the boys in Priest knew all too well, with Rob Halford actually dialing things back a little bit and trading in his screams for a vocal performance that almost sounds like he’s mourning the loss of a friend. That wasn’t even the end of Priest’s weird cover choices either, eventually turning the bluesy Fleetwood Mac song “The Green Manalishi” into a heavy stomper track a few years later. Priest definitely have more than one genre to choose from, but there’s a good chance that anything they touch has the potential to turn into something magically heavy.
When the Levee Breaks – A Perfect Circle
There’s always been the joke around rock circles that Led Zeppelin took almost everything they know second hand from the blues. For all of the great songs like “Whole Lotta Love” that they had their hands on, they were having to pay just as much back in royalties to the people who actually wrote those songs back in the day.
While “When the Levee Breaks” was always attributed to blues icon Memphis Minnie, A Perfect Circle created the dark blues of the future when they arrived at Red Rocks. Taking the basis of their version from the covers album emotion, what Billy Howerdel did here practically feels like he reconstructed the entire track, putting it in a completely different key and toying with the way the song flows, adding in different production tricks from James Iha and letting Maynard James Keenan’s smooth voice float above everything.
While Zeppelin may have done a great job capturing the feeling of this flood overtaking an entire town full of people, APC’s version feels like the aftermath of all of that, where you’re just left underwater with no real hope for survival, only using the sounds of distorted guitars to comfort you now. The blues may have always been about the darker side of life, but A Perfect Circle sounds like they’re praying and playing for relief that’s never going to come.
Planet Caravan – Pantera
Of all the adjectives used to describe Pantera, soft and sensitive is not one of them. Excusing their glam rock roots, the Pantera that we all know today is responsible for some of the most unapologetic heavy metal known to man, with Vulgar Display of Power still not being matched in terms of raw heaviness. You can only play that heavy for so long though, and we got a much more calm version of the band on the back end of Far Beyond Driven.
Chilling out with a cover of one of their favorite Black Sabbath’s songs, “Planet Caravan” may be one of the more inventive choices that Pantera ever made, with Phil Anselmo putting down his growling voice and getting to croon much like Ozzy did on the original version of the song, as he sings about surfing through the cosmos.
While this song is more about capturing a vibe in the studio than anything else, Dime still doesn’t hold back in the guitar riffs either, sticking to an acoustic guitar and pulling out licks that have much more in common with genres like jazz than anything even close to heavy metal. The mood might still be on the spooky side to close out the record, but “Planet Caravan” showed that we were working with a much more versatile band than most of us could have imagined.
Cum on Feel the Noize – Quiet Riot
Having your first hit be a cover song can sometimes be the kiss of death for any up and coming band. Just ask someone like Alien Ant Farm and they can probably tell you what it’s like trying to outrun the shadow of “Smooth Criminal” for the rest of their lives. Quiet Riot knew what they had on their hands here with “Cum on Feel the Noize” though, and it would become the future of what the LA rock scene would sound like.
Although the original version by glam rockers Slade had been a hit on the other side of the Atlantic a few years before, Quiet Riot were originally hesitant to even release their version, thinking it would have been more of a gimmicky thing in between the band trying their hand at their own songs like “Bang Your Head.” Once the rest of the guys kicked into the song though, they gave it a much harsher attitude, from Kevin DuBrow’s metal snarl behind the microphone to the solos that have much more in common with someone like Eddie Van Halen than Marc Bolan of T Rex.
The band didn’t have to wait long to realize the power behind the song either, opening up for Black Sabbath and seeing the crowd lose their minds whenever they kicked into the song. The face of metal was a lot different now, and the new age of metal had all eyes on Sunset Boulevard.