And since rock is far-reaching stylistically, quite a lot of musical ground is covered within: classic rock, metal, punk, funk, alternative, thrash, grunge, guitar shredders, new wave, soul, glam, prog, hip-hop, and experimental. Undoubtedly, a little something for the entire family to enjoy!
In this exclusive excerpt, the focus is rock cover tunes that somehow improved (or at least met the high standard of) the original version. [Note: A few tunes have been bypassed since they were included in an earlier list in the book, such as Talking Heads’ “Take to the River” and CCR’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine”]
15. Primus: “Making Plans for Nigel”
Primus’ cover doesn’t necessarily prove superior to XTC’s quick-pop original, but the addition of Les Claypool’s fretless bass adds an intriguing sonic element on the trio’s 1992 rendition – which surprisingly, has rarely been performed live.
14. Queens of the Stone Age: “Precious and Grace”
This early ZZ Top classic was one of their heaviest tunes (off 1973’s Tres Hombres). But it became even heavier, leaner, and meaner when QOTSA teamed up with ZZ’s Billy Gibbons (who trades off vocal lines with the late/great Mark Lanegan) for this obscure 2005 “bonus track” on the UK and Japanese versions of Lullabies to Paralyze.
13. Living Colour: “Memories Can’t Wait”
There was nothing wrong with the Talking Heads’ original rendition of this tune (penned by David Byrne and Jerry Harrison, and included on their 1979 LP, Fear of Music). But when Living Colour took it on for their 1988 debut, Vivid, it became more funky, soulful, and rocking – even adding a part towards the end where the bottom drops out of the song from apparently nowhere (to great effect).
12. Nirvana: “Lake of Fire”
Perhaps best known by its opening line/question, “Where do bad folks go when they die?”, Nirvana offered up a stark acoustic take of this punk classic by the Meat Puppets on their MTV Unplugged appearance in 1993 (released a year later on MTV Unplugged in New York) – with a pair of Puppets guesting.
11. Metallica: “Am I Evil?”
Although Iron Maiden and Def Leppard were the only New Wave of British Heavy Metal acts to truly break through on a massive scale globally, there were a few that came close and/or were embraced by the UK press – such as Diamond Head. But DH finally received some proper recognition when Metallica began covering their tunes – including offering up a killer cover of their epic, “Am I Evil?” (as a b-side for their 1984 “Creeping Death” EP).
10. Jethro Tull: “Bourée”
[Johann Sebastian Bach]
A tune that features a flute playing the first eight bars of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Bourrée in E minor” did not sound like the recipe for success within the realm of rock music circa 1969. But it somehow all adds up on this early Tull tune off Stand Up (which in addition to spotlighting Ian Anderson’s fancy flute, also highlights Glen Cornick’s bouncy bass).
9. Soundgarden: “Girl U Want”
Judging from Soundgarden’s fondness for heaviness, you wouldn’t necessarily assume they were admirers of new wave greats Devo. But indeed they were – paying tribute with a reading of this standout track from Devo’s 1980 LP, Freedom of Choice. First released as a b-side (but eventually reappearing on the Echo of Miles comp), the ‘gardens slow down the pace and loosen the herky jerky feel of the original – resulting in a great outcome.
8. Ace Frehley: “New York Groove”
The selection that would make Russ Ballard one of the leading go-to “songwriters for hire” for radio-friendly rock was a tune he composed but was first covered by the obscure UK glam band Hello (who scored a top-10 hit in their homeland with the tune in 1975). But the version that is best known – and played at seemingly every NY-area sporting event – was the version that original Kiss lead guitarist Ace Frehley cooked up on his classic self-titled solo effort, from ’78.
7. Aerosmith: “Train Kept A-Rollin'”
Originally recorded as a jump-blues number by bandleader/singer/multi-instrumentalist Tiny Bradshaw, “Train Kept A-Rollin'” would go on to be recorded by Johnny Burnette and the Yardbirds, and performed live by Led Zeppelin (early in their career and on their last-ever tour). But it wasn’t until Aerosmith made it their own in 1974 that we were granted the definitive “guitar jam” version. Bonus factoid: When I interviewed the late Dick Wagner in 2013 for Songfacts, he declared that neither Joe Perry nor Brad Whitford supplied guitar solos on the tune – that’s Steve Hunter soloing at the beginning and Wagner soloing at the end!
6. Cream: “Crossroads”
Similar to Zeppelin’s take on “When the Levee Breaks” (more on that tune in a bit), one of rock’s all-time great trios, Cream, took an acoustic blues classic, Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” amplified it and rocked out live (taped on March 10, 1968 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco). The result? One of the great guitar jam tunes of all-time – thanks to Eric Patrick Clapton.
5. Jeff Buckley: “Hallelujah”
By the time of this book’s release, there’s no escaping “Hallelujah” – as evidenced by its constant placement in movies, commercials, and seemingly sung by every bloody singing hopeful on a TV talent show. Although penned by Leonard Cohen, it was Jeff Buckley’s extraordinary version (whose structure was modeled after an obscure John Cale cover of the tune) that proves to be the goosebump-inducing/definitive one.
4. Joan Jett And The Blackhearts: “I Love Rock n’ Roll”
An argument can be made that Joan Jett relied a bit too much on cover songs during her career (which is a bit befuddling, as she had no trouble co-penning such classics as “Cherry Bomb,” “Bad Reputation,” and “I Hate Myself for Loving You”). But there’s no question that her rendition of this tune (penned by Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker, and first recorded by UK rockers the Arrows) was the right move.
3. Led Zeppelin: “When the Levee Breaks”
[Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy]
Early in their career, Led Zeppelin seemed to make a bad habit of “borrowing” songs from other artists, and initially, not awarding proper writing credit to the original authors (case in point, “Dazed and Confused”). But at least when they transformed Memphis Minnie’s acoustic blues into an electrified gonzo-rocker on their classic fourth LP, her name was credited alongside Plant, Page, Jones, and Bonham’s.
Extra special bonus factoid: Just how did Bonham create the song’s now-classic opening drum sound? Don’t worry, Gregg Bissonette recalled a conversation he had with LZIV engineer, Andy Johns, in the book Bonzo: 30 Rock Drummers Remember the Legendary John Bonham. “I said, ‘How about any of those drum sounds you got with John Bonham?’ He said, ‘First of all, don’t put anything inside your kick.’ He took a Sennheiser 421 and dangled it inside a little hole, soldered it, and that 421 was dangling inside there. He close-mic’d the drums, but he mic’d the drums so much from far away. He ran the drums through a PA system. He said when he walked in the room and heard Zeppelin play ‘When the Levee Breaks,’ he walked up to the top of the stairwell of this castle that they were rehearsing in, and he heard that [sings opening drum part] and he captured that.”
2. Jimi Hendrix Experience: “Hey Joe” and “All Along the Watchtower” (2-way tie)
[Billy Roberts and Bob Dylan]
It was darn impossible to decide between these two Jimi classics…so, a tie was allowed in this special case. Both originals – by Billy Roberts and Bob Dylan, respectively – are stark voice/acoustic guitar renditions (with Dylan’s also featuring harmonica). But when the greatest rock guitarist of all-time covered them, they were transformed into a showcase for his extraordinary guitar work (the former) and a dreamy/psychedelic pop gem (the latter).
1. Van Halen: “You Really Got Me”
How the heck do you improve on an already perfect rock song? Somehow, a young n’ hungry Van Halen accomplished the darned near impossible – when they valiantly took on this proto-punk/proto-metal classic by the Kinks. Yet another bonus factoid: When I spoke with the Kinks’ Mick Avory for AllMusic in 2023, he was complimentary concerning VH’s cover – “At least they didn’t just copy it, and did their own thing to it.”
Greg Prato is a longtime AllMusic contributor. 50 Rock Lists + Surprise Twists is his 43rd book overall, and is available as paperback, hardcover, and Kindle versions.