You might be wondering why a blog that usually focuses on marketing, social media, law, and family matters including my family’s passions for circus and acting is posting an article about rock music. The reason is simple: I fully intend to win a bet.
I started my career in journalism early, interviewing rock stars (at age 10, John Lennon was my first interview subject), reviewing concerts and albums, and writing chatty “personality profiles” of celebrities. My work appeared in magazines, on the UPI newswire, in various newspapers, and in music-industry magazines around the world. But I changed careers in 1978 after single parenthood made the travel and late nights that came along with the job of music critic difficult.
But one of my long-time friends bet me that I couldn’t come up with a list of the 10 best rock and roll cover songs without resorting to old staples like Aerosmith’s Come Together. As it happens, I have an iPod that is sprinkled with a number of great rock covers, so I fully expect my friend to be buying lunch one day next week.
My iTunes “favorites” playlist does include many “old standard” covers, like You Can’t Hurry Love by Phil Collins, Wilson Phillips’s cover of Daniel, The Clash version of I Fought the Law, Jimi Hendrix’s version of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, Joe Cocker’s With a Little Help from my Friends, Joan Jett’s I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll (yes, it’s a cover — the original was by Alan Merril and The Arrows), Pink’s take on Bobby McGee, the Lenny Kravitz cover of American Woman, the Guns N’ Roses version Knocking on Heaven’s Door, and Nirvana’s The Man Who Sold the World.
But it also includes more recent interpretations of great songs like, Kimberly Nicole’s cover of House of the Rising Sun (from The Voice), Puddles Pity Party’s cover of Royals, Juice Newton’s version of Angel of the Morning, Alien Ant Farm’s Smooth Criminal, Linkin Park’s cover of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers cover of Higher Ground.
But the bet was very specific: 10 great covers, not a list of all of my favorite covers. So, in reverse order, here’s my list of the Top 10 Rock Cover Songs.
#10 Andrea Boccelli and Mary J. Blige: Bridge Over Troubled Water. When he sees this, my son Geoff is going say, “That’s not a rock song, Mom!” No, it’s not. But when Simon and Garfunkel’s fifth studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water was released in 1970, it quickly climbed to the top of the rock music charts and was the Album of the Year. Over 50 artists (including Elvis and Aretha Franklin) have covered it in the decades since. But it was this version that won a Grammy, and it was well deserved.
#9 Metallica: Turn the Page. The first time I heard Bob Seger’s Turn the Page, it instantly went onto my favorites playlist. Unlike many of the other songs on this list, I was a fan of this original from the first — and said so in a lengthy interview with Seger that earned me a prize for best entertainment interview of the year. And then, years later, along came the Metallica version and my allegiance changed. Just, please, don’t make me listen to the countrified Jason Aldean/Seger collaboration called Crossroads (Turn the Page). I find the video for the Metallica version incredibly sad, but it fits the lyrics perfectly. (The actress in the video, Ginger Lynn, was a porn star in the 80’s, and got caught up in the FBI’s case against the use of underage actors in the adult entertainment business when she refused to testify on behalf of Traci Lords. She ultimately served time for her refusal and tax evasion. She seems like the perfect “face” for this video.)
#8 JD Fortune: California Dreamin’. As with many of the others, nearly everybody seems to cover the Mamas & Papas standard. But temporary INXS frontman JD Fortune (press reports say the band fired him for drug use after one tour) puts on one heck of a show when he covered it on a reality TV show (as in the video below), or when he performs it live in the small clubs where he now performs. (If you’ve never heard his original work, here are a couple of my favorites: Ride or Die, Afterglow, and Pretty Vegas.)
#7 Van Halen, Pretty Woman. The Roy Orbison original version was already a “golden oldie” before I started listening to music, but it’s still catchy and I do like it — especially the music video with clips from the Julie Roberts film. It’s a better music video than the original Van Halen video — which is quite frankly bizarre. But it’s hard to deny the way the Van Halen version gets into your head and stays there. Love the music — the video, not so much.
#6 Smashmouth: I’m a Believer. Yes, I am putting a song from an animated movie on my list of favorite covers. The Monkee’s original version is pure bubble-gum pop, and I loved it when I was a pre-adolescent and heard it for the first time. I’ve heard Mickey Dolenz sing it within the past few years, and I like his newer versions better than the original. But Steve Harwell’s vocals and the arrangement created for Shrek put the Smashmouth version on iTunes my favorites playlist.
#5 Ozzy Osbourne: Working Class Hero. There are dozens of excellent covers of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero — it’s been covered by Marianne Faithfull, Green Day, The Manic Street Preachers, Marilyn Manson, Cee Lo Green and half the garage bands in the world, I think. Lennon’s original is sad and soulful. But what sets Ozzy’s version apart is the world-weary grit in his voice. I don’t think this is a young man’s song, and Ozzy’s age and experience with addiction serve him well in his version of the song. It gives me chills every time I hear it.
#4 Hollywood Vampires: Five to One / Break On Through. The Hollywood Vampires is an American rock supergroup formed in 2015 by Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp and Joe Perry to honor the music of the rock stars who died from excess in the 1970s. The band name derives from The Hollywood Vampires, a celebrity drinking club formed by Cooper in the 1970s whose members included Ringo Starr and Keith Moon of The Who. Cooper has said that the purpose of the original drinking club was to see who could out drink the others, and over time he watched members fall prey to drug and alcohol-driven deaths.
Cooper and Depp share vocals and guitar, Aerosmith songwriter Perry is on lead guitar, Michael Andrew “Duff” McKagan (Guns ‘n Roses) plays bass, while Matt Sorum (The Cult, Guns ‘n Roses, Velvet Revolver) is on percussion. They have released one studio album, Hollywood Vampires (2015), featuring guest appearances by Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Joe Walsh, and movie icon Sir Christopher Lee among others. What makes their covers of rock classics is the sheer talent of the band members — and I think Johnny Depp holds his own in some very rarefied company.
#3 Shattered Sun: Return to Serenity. Shattered Sun is a local Texas metal band, just recently signed to Victory Records. There are those who will think that putting them near the top of my list of favorite covers is blasphemy. But if you think that, you haven’t heard this band. When they play live, they’re absolutely on fire. And their first album, Hope Within Hatred, is one of the best heavy metal albums in recent memory. Lead singer Marcos Leal has a voice that can touch your grandmother’s heart — or give teenage boys the kind of high that only the best metal bands can. This is a band to watch — and the last time I said that about a band was after hearing an unknown group called Supertramp at an A&R showcase. The Shattered Sun version of the Testament anthem Return to Serenity is better than the original, I think.
#2 Disturbed: The Sound of Silence. I’ve never been a huge fan of Disturbed, but I live with a 14-year-old who likes them. I discovered this song when he bought Disturbed’s sixth studio album, Immortalized, in July 2015. Track 11 on the album is a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” and the moment I heard lead singer David Draiman’s raspy voice — damaged, he told Tablet magazine, when he was a teenager suffering from bad acid reflux — I fell in love with its gritty beauty. Draiman’s voice is a perfect match for the lyrics of the 60’s classic, and brings a whole new edge to it that I absolutely love.
# 1 Heart: Stairway to Heaven. Originally produced for the Kennedy Center Honors series where Led Zeppelin received the nation’s top arts honor, this song’s ethereal beauty and production values made it the most popular song on Heart’s recent tours. It had the surviving members of Led Zeppelin in tears, and it has the same effect on me. Here’s a link to Zeppelin live in 1975 — I love Robert Plant’s voice, but I still think Heart’s version beats the original. Gorgeous!