10 cover versions absolutely loved by the people who wrote them

Jimi Hendrix, David Coverdale and Johnny Cash
(Image credit: David Redfern/Fin Costello/Redferns/Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Cover versions are easy to play but much harder to get right. It’s the rare band or artist who can turn in their own version of a classic song without ruining the original or provoking the ire of fans who love it. But occasionally they absolutely nail it, to the point where the track’s original authors showers the newer version in praise. Here are 10 covers that have impressed the people who wrote them in the best possible way.

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The Jimi Hendrix Experience – All Along The Watchtower

The textbook example of how to make a song your own. Jimi Hendrix took a semi-obscure Bob Dylan album track and fed 10,000 volts of electricity through it. Even Dylan himself had to bow down before the guitarist’s genius. “It overwhelmed me, really,” Dylan told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel of All Along The Watchtower in 1995. “He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them… He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using.”

Nazareth – This Flight Tonight

Nazareth were the kings of interpreting other people’s songs. Their 1973 version of Joni Mitchell’s crystalline dissection of love, distance, longing and regret saw them turning it into an exhilarating rock’n’roll anthem; albeit one with a heart full of soul. When the Scottish band met Mitchell in person just before they started a US tour, she expressed surprise that they’d covered the number, but she subsequently gave it her approval onstage at a gig in London, kicking off the show with the words: “I'd like to open with a Nazareth song.’”

Judas Priest - Diamonds And Rust

US folk singers clearly love the idea of rock and metal bands amping up their songs. Joan Baez gave Judas Priest her blessing after they delivered a metalised version of her 1974 song Diamonds And Rust –  reputedly inspired by her relationship with Bob Dylan – on 1977’s Sin After Sin album. “I love that!” she said in 2010 when asked about the cover. “I was so stunned when I first heard it. I thought it was wonderful. It’s very rare for people to cover my songs… but it’s always flattering when somebody does.”

Johnny Cash – Hurt

A rare example of a veteran musician covering a song by a younger artist. Johnny Cash turned Nine Inch Nails’ self-lacerating 1994 misery-fest into a stately elegy. NIN’s Trent Reznor told Alternative Press that hearing Cash’s version for the first as “like watching my girlfriend fuck somebody else.” But the penny dropped when he saw the striking video, contrasting the young Cash with the ailing figure he was now. “Tears welling, silence, goosebumps,” he said. “Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine any more.”

Dinosaur Jr – Just Like Heaven

Dinosaur Jr recorded their fuzzed-up version of The Cure’s pristine goth-pop gem for a punk rock covers compilation in 1989, just two years after the original was released. Cure mainman Robert Smith was wowed by their take on his song. “J Mascis sent me a cassette and it was so passionate,” Smith told Blender. “It was fantastic. I’ve never had such a visceral reaction to a cover version before or since.”

Whitesnake - Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City

Whitesnake’s majestic reworking of US soul singer Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s 1974 song helped put them on the map. A centrepiece of their shows from their very earliest gigs, it became both their signature song and one of rock’s great audience-participation moments, as captured on on 1980’s Live… In The Heart Of The City album. When original Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden met Bland years later, the latter expressed his admiration. “Are you the guy from The Whitesnakes? You did a good job,” Bland told Marsden. “I know one thing: you guys made a shitload more money than I ever did from that song.”

Disturbed - Sound Of Silence

Of all the endorsements bestowed on cover versions by the people who wrote them, Paul Simon’s admiration for Disturbed’s beefy reimagining of Simon & Garfunkel’s 1960s folk chestnut is one of the more unlikely. But after the Chicago metal band played it on a late night talk show, Simon himself emailed Disturbed singer David Draiman to give him the thumbs up. Really powerful performance on Conan the other day,” wrote Simon. “First time I’d seen you do it live. Nice. Thanks."

Metallica - Am I Evil?

Metallica have never been shy of boosting the bands who influenced them, and Diamond Head have been chief recipients. Lars Ulrich and co have covered four songs by the cult NWOBHMers, namely The Prince, Helpless, It’s Electric and, most famously, the eight minute riff-fest Am I Evil?. Diamond Head guitarist Brian Tatler certainly appreciates the nod. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so of course we’re flattered that they covered us,” Tatler told Classic Rock. “They could have covered Witchfinder General, couldn’t they?

Heart - Stairway To Heaven

Former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant has an up-and-down relationship with his old band’s most famous song, once donating money to a US radio station who promised never to play Stairway To Heaven again. But he’d seemingly mellowed towards the track by 2012, when he was reduced to tears while watching Heart perform an orchestral cover at The Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. “It's just a magnificent performance to watch and it kills me every time,” Plant later said. “It kills me in two or three different ways. It's just like, ‘Oh my God.’”

Guns N’ Roses – New Rose

Some old punk fans don’t have a lot of love for GN’R’s The Spaghetti Incident? (mostly) punk covers album, but The Damned guitarist Brian James – who wrote New Rose, covered by Axl and co on the record – isn’t one of them. “I like what they did with it,” James told Classic Rock. “The two guitar thing. They got labelled as a heavy metal band, but to me they had was a lot of punk in there.”

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.