10 weird but unexpectedly good cover versions

Bands who have covered or been covered by other artists
(Image credit: Hiroyuki Ito/Mick Hutson/Xavi Torrent/Getty Images)

From Japanese hardcore copies of Limp Bizkit classics to shock rocker Alice Cooper performing a song by disgraced entertainer Rolf Harris, the world of rock cover versions is pretty much as weird and wonderful a place as you'd expect. 

Here, we scrape the bottom of the barrel and comes up with gold: cover versions that are way better than you'd expect them to be.

Louder line break

Crystal Lake - Rollin’

When you think of Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’, there are many images that spring to mind. You think of Fred Durst and crew atop the World Trade Centre filming what became an iconic video – not so much because of the band, but because of what happened to the building a year later. You think of Ben Stiller and Stephen Dorff featuring in the video, and you wonder how Durst persuaded them to not only take part, but also to be filmed listening to Limp Bizkit’s My Generation – the song on Stiller’s car stereo at the beginning of the promo. But mostly you think of Durst’s red baseball cap, and how tempting it would be to knock the thing off his head – something to which the singer knowingly alludes when, presumably on his say so, Stiller refers to him in the clip as ‘Hey, red cap’.

What you don’t think about is a Japanese hardcore band playing the song 14 years later and making a damn good fist of it. When Crystal Lake decided to cover Rollin’ for their 2014 EP Cubes, they did so largely because they just happened to like the song. Sure, it hardly fitted with their aesthetic, but whatever. As it turned out, their version was not only very good but it also spread instantly to a worldwide audience via YouTube and, rather than face ridicule for attempting to cover a song so utterly, inextricably identifiable as belonging to one band and one band only, they now have a global audience far bigger than their mid-level success in Japan ever brought them. Good job.

Mastodon - A Commotion

For Record Store Day in 2012 the Atlanta metallers teamed up with the most unlikely of musicians. The music of Feist, more usually a winsomely, whimsical indie chanteuse, was not the obvious choice for Mastodon to cover yet their version of her song A Commotion is remarkably good. Rechristened Feistodon for the project, Mastodon inject psychedelic power and thrust into a song that, in its original version, simmered with PJ Harvey-esque tension and angularity. They do it incredibly well too, to the point that the song is now arguably more Mastodon’s than Feist’s.

“I can’t believe the Feist thing actually happened,” Mastodon’s Brann Dailor told Loudwire. “As bizarre as it all seems, we’re into a pretty wide variety of music so it made sense to us. It didn’t really make sense to the fans, but when they heard it when it came out, I think people were pleasantly surprised. I felt like we did it right.”

In return, Feist covered their Black Tongue, converting it into something weird, angsty and gritty but also surprisingly enjoyable.

Mr Bungle - Shout At The Devil

Mike Patton is one of music’s great provocateurs. Whether he’s unleashing albums of wilfully unlistenable art-jazz noise terrorism or pissing in a shoe and drinking it onstage, the sometime Faith No More frontman takes a gleeful delight in seeing how far he can push things.

That urge to push buttons was in place early, if vintage footage of Patton’s original band Mr Bungle playing a high school talent show in 1985 is anything to go by. The 19-minute set sees the band – billed as “Bister Mungle” and fronted by a guitar-toting Patton – kicking off with a less-than-respectful version of Mötley Crüe’s Shout At The Devil, before treating the crowd to a four-track medley of ska-heavy songs by indie rockers Camper Van Beethoven, Kings Of Rock by hip hop titans Run DMC, The Village People’s Macho Man (complete with cowboy-hatted backing dancers) and even a verse from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1984 album track Baby Appeal (additional entertainment comes courtesy of various skateboarding stage invaders, adding to the madness).

Tori Amos - Raining Blood

For her 2001 album Strange Little Girls, Tori Amos covered a number of songs written by men and attempted to reimagine them from a female point of view. She mixed up the genres, tackling the rap of Eminem’s ‘97 Bonnie And Clyde, alongside more classic material written by The Beatles, Neil Young and The Velvet Underground.

Midway through the project her bassist, Justin Meldal-Johnsen suggested she try her hand at some metal, telling her that she “had tried pretty much every other genre of music, from rap to new wave to punk to country to pop, why not some metal?” He suggested she listen to the Slayer album Reign In Blood and she chose Raining Blood, the punishing, brutal closer.

Her version, though, bears almost no resemblance to the original. Floating her voice over haunting piano, she completely reworks the song. So much so that its original owners had no idea it was even theirs. “It took me a minute and a half to find a spot in the song where I knew where she was. It’s so weird. If she had never told us, we would have never known,” said guitarist Kerry King. “You could have played it for us and we’d have been like, ‘What’s that?’” Still, Slayer liked it enough to send her a bunch of t-shirts to say thanks.

It worked out well for the band, though. A few years later they were playing a European festival and were billed to go on before Amos. However, a late flight meant they were running behind schedule and, concerned they might have to cut their set short, they asked Amos is she minded if they played their full slot. She graciously agreed. “She said ‘No problem, play your whole set,” recalled guitarist Jeff Hanneman in 2011. “Like, wow. I thought she was going to be a bitch.”

The Sisters Of Mercy – Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)

Andrew Eldritch quickly cottoned on to the deep irony of cheesy pop reinterpreted with the grandiose, bombastic arrangements of goth at its most imperious. While Laughing Andy and his band delivered a truly dark reinvention of Hot Chocolate's tragic ballad Emma and a menacing take on The Stones' Gimme Shelter, they eventually went fully sardonic with this live remake of Abba’s disco classic. They’ve done much worse though.

Shellac - Jailbreak

It’s hard to think of two bands more diametrically opposed than Shellac and AC/DC. Fuelled by guitarist Steve Albini’s righteous punk beliefs, Shellac represent almost the inverse of AC/DC’s stadium rock aesthetic. Yet, somehow, when Albini decided to cover the Australian rocker’s 1976 song Jailbreak, brilliance ensued.

The reason it works is because, though the two bands may operate according to completely different belief systems, musically there are plenty of similarities to be found. Both bands appear to thrive on apparently simple riffs – yet, dig below the surface, and they’re actually a good deal more complex than they seem. Both, too, have a certain dryness of sound – there’s very little flab in either Shellac or AC/DC, they simply get to the heart of the matter and then get out again. But while Shellac lack AC/DC’s groove, they do possess far more aggression – which is why their version of Jailbreak and its stuttering, hammering guitars works perfectly. Albini knew it all along, and in fact has long been a fan of AC/DC’s.

“AC/DC kick the shit out of The Rolling Stones,” he once said and has also explained why the band are often imitated, by never bettered: “AC/DC seemed to be a fairly simple band from a conceptual level and an execution level. It seemed like anybody should be able to do that. But everybody who tries just makes a fool of themselves. And the only band that’s like that, that’s any good, is AC/DC.”

Fiona Apple - Across The Universe

Singer-songwriter Fiona Apple gives the anti-folk treatment to this track from the Beatles’ 1970 album Let It Be. Apple’s version is understated, under-sugared and gently introspective. The story goes that John Lennon was inspired to write the lyrics 'words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup' by his wife going on and on endlessly about something when he wasn’t really listening. We hope she was reminding him to cancel his Amazon Prime before it renewed.

Korn and Slipknot - Sabotage

If you caught Korn opening for Slipknot on their 2015 tour you were guaranteed a good time; if you saw their Wembley Arena show you witnessed an event. Inviting a couple of members of the headliners onstage, Korn led the ensemble through this ripping cover of the Beastie Boys classic to a rapturous reception. Given the limited stage Korn were afforded we're not really sure why Sid Wilson is there, but his presence does add to the party atmosphere.

 Alice Cooper - Sun Arise

There’s an irony that, were Alice Cooper to cover to Rolf Harris today, there would be far more shock and outcry than when he did it in 1971. Back in ’71, Cooper’s shock rock shtick was in its nascent stages as the band attempted to fuse MC5-style garage punk into a more rock‘n’roll template, while fitting it to a wild and psychedelic stage act. Not that that made his decision to cover Sun Arise any more obvious.

Harris recorded Sun Arise in 1960, an attempt to follow the UK hit Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport. Unlike its comedy predecessor, though, this was to be a serious song in which he attempted to ape and honour Aboriginal music. But when his label, EMI, sent the recording to producer George Martin (who would go on to prove he knew a thing or two when he later became The Beatles’ producer), Martin said it was boring. Trimmed and re-written, the song went to No. 3 in Britain on its release.

A decade later, it would open the Alice Cooper stage show. At that stage, the band had released two albums and were struggling. Both records had tanked and they needed to turn things around. They wanted to work with the producer Jack Richardson, but he fobbed them off with his engineer Bob Ezrin, who he sent to watch them play but also to tell them to get lost. What he wasn’t expecting was that Ezrin – now one of the world’s most successful producers – would love them. And the song that did it was Sun Arise.

“There were moments within the stage show that were perfect Alice Cooper, and had me riveted,” said Ezrin. “The show would start with Sun Arise, where there was this twisted, Gollum-like character at the front of the stage with fang-like teeth and blood-red gums and eyes that looked like they were bleeding, with spider make-up around them. When the lights came up, there he was with a hammer in his hand, singing, ‘Sun arise, she come every morning,’ in the most goofy, diabolical way. The juxtaposition of that goofy Rolf Harris song with the character singing it: that was Alice Cooper. It was the ideal descriptor of what an Alice Cooper stage experience ought to be like. The thing was to come up with music that fit that stuff, that was appropriately moody and heavy.”

It would slot neatly into their third album, Love It To Death – the record that launched their career.

Limp Bizkit - Faith

Perhaps including Limp Bizkit is a fitting way to bring this full circle. When the nu metallers covered George Michael’s Faith, they became the latest in a long line of rock bands to cover a pop song with tongue firmly in cheek. It was something they had been playing live around Los Angeles for some time, heavying up the acoustic strut of the original as a bit of a laugh. However, when it came time to record their debut album, Three Dollar Bill Yall$, producer Ross Robinson told them to forget about putting Faith on the record. The band ignored him, recorded it anyway and, to Robinson’s surprise, he found that he liked it and so it stuck.

Someone who didn’t like it, though, was Michael himself. Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland revealed that the former Wham! man both hated the cover and hated the band for doing it. Which is probably fair enough.

Tom Bryant

Tom Bryant is The Guardian's deputy digital editor. The author of The True Lives Of My Chemical Romance: The Definitive Biography, he has written for Kerrang!, Q, MOJO, The Guardian, the Daily Mail, The Mirror, the BBC, Huck magazine, the londonpaper and Debrett's - during the course of which he has been attacked by the Red Hot Chili Peppers' bass player and accused of starting a riot with The Prodigy. Though not when writing for Debrett's.