Ten times massive bands covered punk songs (and didn’t ruin them)

A montage of members of guns n roses, metallica and nirvana on a colourful background
(Image credit: Gutchie Kojima/Shinko Music/Getty Images, Paul Natkin/Getty Images/Press)

For the most part, the punk rock scene of the 80s and 90s saw itself as the enemy of the mainstream: a self-sustaining DIY ecosystem that actively thumbed its nose at rock stars, major labels and the vampiric culture of big business. 

That said, the divide wasn’t necessarily clear-cut: many of the musicians who went on to become megastars cut their teeth listening to punk rock, taking knocks in the pit at hardcore shows and touring toilet venues for gas money. And, as is natural, these musicians sometimes wanted to give the bands and hard times that forged them some props.

The mix, though, didn’t always prove favourable, with the rough ‘n’ ready source material often losing its energy, bite and chutzpah when performed by seasoned pros with instruments, experience and recording budgets that would’ve seemed inconceivable to their influences. While the history of big-ticket rock bands paying homage to their punk idols is pockmarked by ill-advised flubs (Megadeth, Slayer, Rage Against The Machine, all take a bow), there remain a handful of examples that retain the power, snot and spirit of the originals. Here we pick ten occasions when big-time artists got their punk on and didn’t fuck it up...   

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Nirvana - D-7

Parking for a moment the illness, deep existential woe and crippling addiction, Nirvana’s meteoric rise to megastardom also left the band in a troubled place ideologically, with Kurt Cobain a grudging rock star who retained a deep love of underground music and knew what it meant to ‘sell out’. The positive flipside to this was being able to use his influence to champion friends and bands he simply loved, from The Melvins and The Meat Puppets to Jawbreaker, Shonen Knife and The Vaselines. Among the numerous bands Nirvana gave props to were legendary Portland punk act The Wipers, echoes of whose jagged drive and gloomy melodies can be readily detected in Nirvana’s own material. The band’s fraught take on D-7 can be found as a B-side to Lithium, and interested parties should also dig around for the band’s Return Of The Rat cover. 

Metallica - Last Caress / Green Hell

When it comes to inspirations and influences, Metallica always adopted a generous, pay-it-forward attitude, whether they were pushing overlooked NWOBHM heroes, bigging up ugly UK punkers or getting hands-on with the Pushead-powered thrash of Septic Death. While the sweary, schoolboy tittering of The Anti Nowhere League’s So What might be the first thing that springs to mind in terms of the band’s punk covers, we’d suggest checking in with their Misfits twofer of Last Caress and Green Hell instead. Gracing 1987’s The $5.98 E.P. – Garage Days Re-Revisited, this lean, three-and-a-bit-minute medley packs a hefty wallop and suggests James Hetfield was having a whale of a time getting his Evil Elvis on. 

Guns N' Roses - Ain’t It Fun

While bassist Duff McKagan might have served in the punk rock trenches, anyone clued into the antics and lyrics of The Most Dangerous Band in the World™ would expect them to be more in tune with doomed, damaged acts like The New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols over the more enlightened worldview of Crass, MDC or The Dicks. True to form, flawed covers album "The Spaghetti Incident?" paid homage to a range of louche, wayward punk acts, including The Misfits, Fear and The UK Subs. It was the album’s first single, though, where the band truly nailed it: Ain’t It Fun. This leering number was originally penned by Rocket From The Tombs and, later, taken on by The Dead Boys. Here GN'R tap into the original’s sneering, slow-to-boil menace, and, true to bad boy form, include a very naughty word that broadcasters and radio stations seemed somehow oblivious to at the time.

Sepultura - Crucificados Pelo Sistema

Brothers Max and Iggor Cavalera grew up hungry for any form of musical extremity they could get their hands on, thinking nothing of plopping Slayer, Motörhead and Hellhammer on a tape next to ragged Scandinavian punk. The band merrily nodded to the likes of The Dead Kennedys over the years, but the most fitting choice here feels like their hat tip to countrymen Ratos de Porão. Sawing their way through enduring underdog anthem Crucificados Pelo Sistema, the Seps recreate the song in slightly neater, tidier fashion while somehow losing none of the original’s wild, vicious energy.

Moby - That’s When I Reach For My Revolver

There was a point there back in the late 90s where Moby’s Play album seemed like the world’s biggest immersive installation: you literally couldn’t move without being assailed by one of the tracks on the radio, in the mall or while you waited for a string of car commercials to end so you could get back to Emmerdale. Prior to this ubiquity he had a modest hit with his take on Mission Of Burma’s 1981 classic That’s When I Reach For My Revolver, giving the band’s sinewy post-punk a distinctly 90s alt-rock sheen. Moby, of course, also had good punk form - he cut his teeth with teenage punx Vatican Commandos, served a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stint with Flipper and later worked with legendary Void guitarist Jon ‘Bubba’ Dupree. 

Arch Enemy - Nitad

On the face of it, Arch Enemy’s gleaming melodeath is a zillion miles away from the mohawks and patch-strewn jackets of crude 80s hardcore. Do some digging, though, and you’ll learn about Michael Amott’s early days in pre-Carnage, pre-Carcass D-beat act Disaccord - an experience that was neatly mirrored by fellow Carcass guitarist Bill Steer’s time in Disattack. Arch Enemy’s Covered In Blood covers album featured much of the fun and bombast you might predict (Iron Maiden, Scorpions, Judas Priest et al) but also threw in a handful of more savage numbers that spoke to Amott’s primal punk beginnings. The album included G.B.H. and Discharge numbers, but the band went deeper still, incorporating cuts by Skitslickers, Anti-Cimex and this raw, crude anthem by influential Swedish act Moderat Likvidation. As you might expect it’s heavier, tighter and better-produced than the original, but the band power through it with the kind of gusto that’d put many modern rent-a-crust acts to shame.

Machine Head - Alan’s On Fire

Burn My Eyes represented an unparalleled moment for 90s metal: a vital, hungry behemoth that welded thrash to groove and prided street smarts over tousled, pampered refinement. Appearing as a bonus cut on select editions of the album, this Poison Idea cover felt like a natural fit. Culled from PI’s 1990 masterpiece Feel The Darkness, Alan’s On Fire boasts glowering energy and seething muscularity, and closes on a propulsive riff fest that almost felt like it was tailor-made for Rob Flynn and co. 

John Frusciante - The Big Takeover

He might not have quite the punk rock pedigree of some of his Red Hot Chili Peppers bandmates (Flea played with Fear, after all…) but troubled guitarist John Frusciante spoke of an early Germs fixation and was introduced to the Chilis by Dead Kennedys drummer D. H. Peligro. While his 1994 solo album Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt suggests the fractured mindset of someone who wasn’t exactly having the best time of it (if you know what Your Pussy’s Glued To A Building On Fire is all about, drop us an answer on a postcard…), it also saw the inclusion of an interesting and surprisingly effective Bad Brains cover. Frusciante’s mandolin-laden rendition of The Big Takeover provides an anchoring point of near-sanity for the album’s stream-of-conscious experimentation, but also stands on its own as an affecting reimagining of a punk rock classic. 

Soulfly - Ain’t No Feeble Bastard

If Sepultura had moved away from the precision-tooled thrash of Arise and Beneath The Remains by the time of their 1996 internal schism, Max Cavalera’s post-Seps project Soulfly well and truly said ‘yes to the mess’ with Soulfly’s debut. Taking the raw, primal rumble of Roots one step further, Soulfy charged headfirst into lumbering grooves and protean, tarpit-sticky riffs. The European ‘special edition’ of the album added two Discharge covers, with the choice pick being an ugly, rumbling take on the brilliant one-two-fuck-you of Ain’t No Feeble Bastard.

Green Day - I Wanna Be On TV

Given Green Day's status as rock opera-penning squillionaires we often need to remind ourselves that they were once an honest-to-god punk band, playing armpit venues with the likes of Destroy and Neurosis. This cut, culled from the band’s Geek Stink Breath single, cleans up a track from Cali dirge punkers Fang – a ripper of a song, if you can get over the fact that singer Sam McBride killed his 24-year-old girlfriend.