Ah, the cover song, that most mixed of bags…
Broadly, cover tunes fall into three categories — 1) re-recordings of influential numbers, sometimes largely unimaginative in their faithfulness to the source material, but as often worthwhile, if only as a toss-off bit of fun and a tip of the proverbial hat; 2) artistically viable re-imaginings of songs, your “All Along The Watchtower”s or “Hurt”s that eclipse the original and become the definitive version; and 3) utter jokes, whether intentional or not. This latter category has seen an unfortunate upswing in this age of (allegedly) ironic (alleged) humor, in everything from the horrible Youtube “Billboard Death Metal” videos to the godawful trend of 80s-rock-redone-as-Ozzfest-metal or in the countless pop-punk “ha ha, we’re so funny, playing shit songs on purpose” versions of Kajagoogoo’s hit or that song from Titanic. But in a few select instances, questionable source material makes for some fun moments, moving a track that should’ve fallen into Category Three at least a few steps closer to Category Two… (Editor’s note: this list is not ranked.)
TYPE O NEGATIVE – “Summer Breeze”
Type O Negative’s deadpan sense of humor was ever evident, but beginning with the blockbuster Bloody Kisses, they made a habit of quality covers. Starting with that record’s take on the hippy-drippy dad-rock of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” a tune so bland and boring in its initial offering that most metalheads or even rock fans couldn’t name the band that first spawned it, Type O dragged a (derp) breezy summer tune down into the depths of melancholy, mall-goth magnificence. Some years later, Pete Steele and friends gave similar treatment to the less-laughable “Cinnamon Girl,” originally recorded by the helium-voiced caveman himself, Mr. Neil Young. Given better source material, which “Cinnamon Girl” undoubtedly was and is, Type O understandably fared better, but “Cinnamon Girl” is good in both versions, whereas “Summer Breeze” is only tolerable in this later-day gothic splendor.
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BOTCH – “Rock Lobster”
Quality metalcore outfit Botch took what is inarguably one of the lamest “classics” in alternative rock history and made it… well… far less lame. Originally recorded by the B-52s in the late 1970s, this quirky tune allegedly inspired John Lennon to record again after a nearly five-year break, but that’s about the best anyone can say for it. Botch’s version is amusing, as well done as possible, and it improves upon the original, which admittedly isn’t hard to do. The mere lack of Fred Schneider gives it a serious head-start…
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HEATHEN – “Set Me Free”
Often-overlooked Bay Area outfit Heathen followed Flotsam’s lead to Glam-pop-thrash-land, and did it with the closest thing they’d have to a hit, too: a remake of a 1974 album cut by Sweet, the same glitter unit that also brought you “Ballroom Blitz,” a track over-covered by everyone from Nuclear Assault to Krokus to the Asian chick from Wayne’s World. By upping the aggression and retaining the slightly sugary hooks, in these two instances, 1970s glitter rock made some surprisingly good 1980s thrash. Before Heathen, “Set Me Free” was covered, to lesser results, by Saxon and then later, it was equally mangled by Motley Crue vocalist Vince Neil.
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DIMENSION ZERO – “Stayin’ Alive”
Arguably the most famous and most mocked song of the disco era, the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” remains iconic, even as it’s utterly and undeniably cheeseball. For whatever reason, Swedish melodic death metal act Dimension Zero decided to take on the Brothers Gibb’s most falsetto-warbled, four-on-the-floor-dance-beat-laden number and left us with this oddly listenable revision that wipes the floor with the unreleased, available-on-bootlegs-or-Youtube version by Ozzy “Prince Of Disco Darkness” Osbourne.
CELTIC FROST – “Mexican Radio”
As Tom G. Warrior and his Celtic Frost-mates moved further from the rudimentary proto-blackness that defined their earliest efforts (as far back as the pre-Frost Hellhammer), they slid more and more into progressive ideals. Which is why opening their most ambitious album (at the time) Into The Pandemonium with a cover of pan-flashing LA alt-pop act Wall Of Voodoo’s sole hit, the vaguely haunting spaghetti-western-tinged “Mexican Radio,” was such a strange move. What’s even stranger is that it worked.
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JUDAS PRIEST – “Diamonds & Rust”
The granddaddy of all oddball metal covers remains this undoubted classic, Judas Priest’s 1977 remake of folk icon Joan Baez’s then-two-year-old tale of lost love and memories, which she later admitted was written about her romance with fellow icon and king prick Bob Dylan. Taking the original’s acoustic base and replacing it with galloping guitars, all the while ratcheting up the dramatics through Rob Halford’s always-dynamic vocals, Priest made this song their own ten times over. A highlight of their early catalog, and a track no metal fan should overlook.
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NEVERMORE – “The Sound Of Silence”
More so than any other song in this list, even Priest’s “Diamonds And Rust,” Nevermore’s take on “The Sound Of Silence” qualifies as an “artistic re-imagining.” Retaining only the opening motif and the lyrics (and sometimes the melody) from the 1965 Simon & Garfunkel original, this version is arguably Nevermore’s most accomplished cover, rife with chunky Loomis riffing and Dane’s melodramatic vocals. Forgotten prog-metal outfit Heir Apparent tried their own version in 1986, but Nevermore’s remake outclasses it, and both destroy Queensrÿche’s moody and boring take on Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair.”
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FAITH NO MORE – “Easy”
Mike Patton’s lounge-singer tendencies were always only half tongue-in-cheek, presented at their best in this goofy but reverential take on the Commodores’ (ahem) easy-listening classic. Faith No More made a habit of schmaltzy covers, preceding this one with Harry Nilsson’s underrated “Everybody’s Talking” (aka “Theme From Midnight Cowboy”) and following it with a superb cover of the Bee Gees’ “I Started A Joke,” but neither was better than this loping piano ballad.
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GAMMA RAY – “It’s A Sin”
Like pop-punk and nu-metal, power metal has embraced the goofy cover tune, to some great results and many lesser. (For the latter, see Hammerfall’s “My Sharona” or Helloween’s take on ABBA’s “Lay All Your Love On Me.”) Defying the odds, Gamma Ray brought forth this amped-up take on synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s A Sin,” which retains all the silliness of the original but also the infectious melody and rebellious lyrics, which were well suited for metal despite largely being about the PSB’s not-so-hidden sexuality.
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CROWBAR – “Dream Weaver”
Former Spooky Tooth-er Gary Wright’s 1976 hit “Dream Weaver” was (unfortunately) given new life in the early 1990s thanks to its inclusion in Wayne’s World, but NOLA stalwarts Crowbar’s sludged-up take on that soft-rock ballad absolutely destroys the source material. While the original’s drifting pace is just boring, that same tempo works better beneath massive distortion and an unexpectedly pained performance. The heaviest tune by the heaviest band on this list, hands down.
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CHILDREN OF BODOM – “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”
Finland’s speed-drenched and eyeliner-sporting symphonic cock-metal outfit Children Of Bodom has made a habit out of generally laughable covers, but sometimes they do it with such glee and shameful exuberance that it’s hard to deny them their due. Between the horrible-but-amusing Britney Spears update, the trashy Poison cover and whatever else they’ve dumped on us, most of their crap covers remain crap, albeit occasionally amusing crap, but this one is so bizarre that it at least deserves mention.
Feel free to add your choices…