The 10 Best Unexpected Rock Covers

Scissor Sisters (Image credit: Jordi Vidal)

You think you know your rock inside out and back to front? Think again. Here are 10 famous numbers given a decidedly different twist by artists you wouldn’t entirely expect to be getting involved. Some are stunning, others should have been left on the cutting room floor. But all of them are definite eyebrow-raisers

10. Glee Cast – Don’t Stop Believin’ (Originally recorded by Journey)

AOR fans will most likely call this blasphemy, as the cast of ee-moh-shun-al US TV series Glee get to grips with the Journey classic. If you’re one for a show tune, then you’ll doubtless love this cheese-mongous version, all shiny teeth, over-emoting and sparkling über-production. If you’re not, then you’ll probably agree with us that this is aural murder of a genuine American stadium rock classic. Stick with the original people. There’s no need to tamper with a winning formula.

9. Aztec Camera – Jump (Originally recorded by Van Halen)

The perfect example of how it’s a song arrangement that creates a vibe, even more than the tune itself. Scottish new wave outfit Aztec Camera took Van Halen’s 1984 party rock anthem and, just six months after the original, turned it into what at first seems a gentle, acoustically-driven piece of inconsequential fluff. Around the 3.30 mark, however, the band start to rev up and a somewhat odd, ham-fisted extended guitar workout takes over for a couple of minutes. File under schizophrenic.

8. Sheryl Crow – D’Yer Maker (Originally recorded by Led Zeppelin)

Zeppelin’s cod reggae number from 1973’s Houses Of The Holy album divides opinion amongst the band’s devoted followers – and Sheryl Crow’s interpretation won’t help settle any arguments. Her version is faithful to the original, is perfectly competently performed, but feels like it has an emotional hole at its epicentre. It’s the kind of version you’d expect to hear from a technically proficient bar band in the States, of which there are thousands. Unfortunately that’s not a compliment.

7. The Corrs – Little Wing (Originally recorded by Jimi Hendrix)

Hendrix’s freewheeling spirit and uncanny ability to make music that sounded like nothing else isn’t replicated here. Which isn’t to say that The Corrs’ version of this 1967 song is entirely without merit. Andrea Corr puts some genuine soul into her vocal performance and the flecks of traditional Irish instrumentation undeniably create an atmosphere. But somehow you can’t help but feel the emotional intensity of the original has been flattened out here. It’s not disagreeable, but there’s undeniably something missing.

6. Devo – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (Originally recorded by the Rolling Stones)

Devo’s off-kilter take on rock is perfectly expressed on this downright weird version of the Stones classic. Whereas the original is packed to the gills with groin-thrusting r’n’b swagger, this 1977 interpretation deliberately takes all of the sex out of the tune and replaces it with something that lies in a curious no man’s land somewhere between arthouse new wave and offbeat pop. It’s almost no longer the same song, but it has its appeal nonetheless.

5. Little Roy – Very Ape (Originally recorded by Nirvana)

A real curio. Jamaican reggae artist Little Roy takes a thrashy punk outburst from Nirvana’s 1993 album In Utero and turns it into a roots dancehall extravaganza. It’s hard to imagine a song with less intrinsic danceable qualities. Yet Little Roy twists it and twists it again, until it takes on an undeniable, foot-tapping life of its own. Against all odds he pulls it off and delivers a spooky little number that is worth its place on the team.

4. Ryan Adams - Wasted Years (Originally recorded by Iron Maiden)

One of the hard rock legends’ more melodic tunes from 1986 gets an acoustic workover from punk and metal-loving Americana star Adams. It sounds like a terrible idea on paper, but Adams actually turns in a nice performance. There’s nothing gimmicky about this interpretation and Adams adds a layer of emotional depth that you might have a hard time finding on the original. Of course this has none of the power of Maiden, but then it’s not supposed to.

3. Scissor Sisters – Comfortably Numb (Originally recorded by Pink Floyd)

Do you have the stomach for Pink Floyd gone disco? There’s no denying that this 2004 interpretation by the American dance pop act uses the original as nothing more than a starting point for its own wild ride. But the unabashed booty-shaker found favour with Dave Gilmour himself. That’s not surprising, because it’s a nicely-crafted piece of work that shimmers across your speakers and simply dares you not to like it. As they say, free your mind and your ass will follow…

2. Shellac – Jailbreak (Originally recorded by AC/DC)

If the point of a cover version is to stamp a new personality on an old classic, then Shellac’s 1995 version ticks all the boxes. Nirvana producer Steve Albini takes a standard boogie romp, then turns it upside down and inside out to create an angular, disconcerting, but undeniably addictive version of the tune. The guitars are scratchy, the drums interestingly unpredictable and the bass suitably independent. It’s AC/DC, but not as we know it. And it most definitely works.

1. Johnny Cash – Hurt (Originally recorded by Nine Inch Nails)

When a cover version comes to inhabit the skin of a song so comfortably and so totally that it becomes the definitive version, that’s when you know something special has happened. Trent Reznor’s original song from 1994 was undeniably atmospheric, evocative and emotional. But Cash’s world-weary, stripped-down, predominantly acoustic take is so raw and so powerful that it moves the listener in a genuinely profound way. Cash was close to death when he recorded the song – and that only makes it more resonant.

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Howard Johnson is a music writer based in France. The editor of Rock Candy magazine, he's also written for Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, RAW, Q, MoJo and Japanese rock magazine Burrn!, and is a French football correspondent for World Soccer mag. He has also written a book on AC/DC, Get Your Jumbo Jet Out Of My Airport.