There’s something truly special about a punk band deconstructing a previously adored song and turning it into a grime-filled, riff-laden, pogo-inducing anthem. It’s the kind of subversion that would have made those original punks from the seventies very proud indeed. In fact, it is something all punk bands have done throughout its sticky life as a genre. Punk rock begs for covers to destroy and, below, there are 20 of the best.
If you were a teen at the turn of the millennium, chances are that your love of pop-punk acts was permeated with the odd ’Punk goes pop’ compilation. Usually, this put the already saccharine tones of pop-punk’s bounciest bands alongside some cheesy eighties pop — a marriage made in heaven. It was the kind of introductory amuse bouche that had us salivating for the main meal we have cooked up for you. These are the 20 defining covers in punk’s rich history.
A punk band should be able to do three things to be considered great. They must always stay true to the punk ethos, of which there are so many strands we would waste our time detailing them all. A great punk band must always, always deliver a fire-breathing live show. After all, if a band can’t make you sweat then they likely aren’t worth your time. And finally, you must be able to turn any song, piece of music or radio jingle into a punk song within about five minutes of hearing it.
While it’s more than likely that the names featured below spent a little more time on constructing their covers, the balance of tearaway fun and irreverent artistry is something all 20 managed to pull off with aplomb. It means we have a list of songs and artists which have not only infiltrated the mainstream with their covers but gone on to define the very songs themselves.
Punk’s 20 greatest covers of all time:
20. ‘Dancing With Myself’ – The Donnas
The Donnas have taken on plenty of covers in their time and can boast songs form KISS, Motley Crue, Alice Cooper and plenty others in their canon. But their most beloved covers is of Generation X’s classic ‘Dancing With Myself’.
The cover came as part of the soundtrack for 2004’s teen cult classic Mean Girls and has been adored ever since. There’s not much in the way of change on the cover, The Donnas keep it fairly aligned with the original, but there is an insurmountable amount of energy in this recording which gives it the extra zip it deserves.
19. ‘Boys of Summer’ – The Ataris
Another early noughties entry, this time from The Ataris and their 2003 record So Long, Astoria. It was a seminal album from the group who had been making music for years prior. However, this album shot the band into stardom and largely off the back of this near-perfect cover.
‘In This Diary’, a classic pop-punk number, originally slated as the lead single from the record but the band’s cover of Don Henley’s landmark song ‘Boys of Summer’, became the song that gained major radio airplay. Though there were plenty of similar covers at the time, The Ataris cover remains one of the finest of the era.
18. ‘Baby, I Love You’ – Ramones
This one was included on the Ramone’s disastrous album End of the Century produced by the infamous Phil Spector—a clash of personalities that would almost end in fights every time the band and he stepped into the studio.
However, if there was something to take from the record it was this classic cover of The Ronettes’ ‘Baby, I Love You’ which lets the band do their best impression of a sixties girl group. As well as Joey Ramone providing a unique but tuneful vocal the band slow things down, shimmying and shaking like they were about to meet Berry Gordy for lunch.
17. ‘Go Your Own Way’ – NOFX
It gets easier and easier to dismiss bands like NOFX in 2020. Their goofy attitude often besmirches our deeply held opinions of what music should be about. That said, to take oneself too seriously is to seriously misunderstand what punk is all about, as this cover of Fleetwood Mac’s classic proves.
Shared as the final moments of the band’s 1989 album S&M Airlines the band even invited Bad Religion singer Greg Graffin to tag along. The dual vocals may not be note-perfect but the sentiment of the song is plain for all to see.
16. ‘Woo Hoo’ – The 5,6,7,8’s
It may not seem like the most obvious cover in the world but when The 5,6,7,8’s took on this semi-instrumental track as part of the Kill Bill soundtrack, the world lost its mind for a little moment. It’s not often that covers can launch a band but shortly after their performance in one of the film’s most blood-thirsty scenes, the band were booked across the world.
Festival sets were plenty and the group secured themselves a few more albums but, in all reality, this was the peak of their career.
15. ‘Steppin’ Stone’ – Minor Threat
During a comparatively short career, Minor Threat managed to deliver some landmark moments. One of which is their powerful cover of the sixties standard ‘Steppin Stone’, previously recorded by The Monkees and Paul Revere, to name a few.
But in one of the cleanest visualisations of an entire band’s work, you can hear in Ian McKeye’s vocals and the band’s furious performance that Minor Threat were the most authentic act around. They really meant every word they sang and we’re scared for anyone who did try to step on the band.
14. ‘The Passenger’ – Siouxsie & The Banshees
Taken from Iggy Pop’s LP Lust For Life, ‘The Passenger’ is a song that will likely outlive us all. So deeply entrenched with the gloom of city living, it’s hard to imagine a world without the track. It may seem like an overestimation, but the song is a tribute to the mercurial genius of Iggy Pop and, perhaps most importantly, his relationship with David Bowie. When the song was put in the hands of post-punk royalty Siouxsie and The Banshees, things kicked up a notch. If the prefix of ‘post’ says to you that this song should be on another list then you’re missing the encompassing nature of punk entirely.
Released on the band’s 1987 album Through The Looking Glass, Siouxsie’s vocal, as imposing and impressive as ever, leads the song into a brand new direction. Now far more haunting and with a whiff of cobwebs in the air, the song’s long-standing imagery is rendered in a fine gloom before being punctuated with a swinging beat and the brassy breath of modernity that now feels inextricable from the original song
13. ‘My Back Pages’ – Ramones
While ‘My Back Pages’ marked a moment that Bob Dylan changed direction away from “one-dimensional songs”, the Ramones decided to rip up the map and totally spin the song around when they put their own special sauce into the song’s recipe in the early 1990s as part of their covers album Acid Eaters.
It’s a powerful tribute to Dylan, whom most artists would say was an influence on their career, but perhaps held special meaning for the New Yorkers. Naturally, the track is imbued with the sense of urgency the group took everywhere with them.
12. ‘No Fun’ – Sex Pistols
If Iggy Pop is the Godfather of Punk, and he is, then it seems only fitting that seven years later his bratty godchildren, the Sex Pistols, would pay homage to the singer on their debut LP Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. Their cover of ‘No Fun’ would be so brilliant, in fact, that most people who bought the record thought it was their song.
Taken from The Stooges’ 1969 self-titled debut LP, Johnny Rotten and the band’s cover of the song is superb and laden with some serious menace. It was the final song the Sex Pistols ever performed on stage as they destroyed a year-long career in an instant. Still, it sounds fresher than ever before.
11. ‘What A Wonderful World’ – Joey Ramone
When the Ramones finally called time on their enigmatic career in 1996, the world was fairly certain the members of the band would drift back into obscurity. But for lead singer, Joey Ramone, doing so was not only vulgar but unwarranted—he still had a lot to say. It meant he was back out on the road within two months singing his own songs, or at least covers.
Ramone was never a particularly gifted singer but his idiosyncratic vocals on this number have made it a piece of music that almost anyone can connect with. Not only is the Louis Armstrong song ubiquitous but with an unconventional singer, it feels like a world that is far more attainable.
10. ‘Ring of Fire’ – Blondie
When one thinks of Blondie they think of effortless cool, dusky New York nights and the pulsating electricity of new wave punk. It makes the moment Debbie Harry and Blondie went country to cover Johnny Cash’s iconic hit ‘Ring of Fire’ all the more rewarding.
The idea of Harry’s heavenly vocals trying to reach the dark depths of Cash’s gravel toned bellow is one Blondie ditch fairly quickly and instead pay homage to the original composition by Anita and June Carter. The song was put together for the 1980 movie Roadie and sees the band provide a classically cheesy music video with all the new wave western attire you could hope for.
The video sees Harry plant a kiss on Meat Loaf’s character before taking to the stage in the aforementioned garb and delivering a rootin’ tootin’ good time for the adoring crowd. While the cover does come in the form of a fictitious live show, it is a testament to Harry’s ability to make any song truly her own, and perhaps to the heights of fame, she herself was beginning to climb.
9. ‘Police & Thieves’ – The Clash
To feature a cover on your debut album is one thing but to feature a relatively unknown cover on your debut punk album is a deliberate thumb to the nose of the genre’s soon-to-be-adopted principles. Paradoxically, tearing up those principles is an extremely punk thing to do— it’s all very confusing. What isn’t confusing is The Clash’s quite marvellous cover of Junior Murvin’s reggae stalwart.
“They have destroyed Jah work!” recalled Murvin when he first heard The Clash’s cover. While we’re not sure they were aiming to destroy the song for the creator, they certainly did change up the entire track and turn it into a foot-stomper. Chances are, if you’re a reggae fan then this may be a step too far. If you just love music, then you’ll adore it.
8. ‘Dear Prudence’ – Siouxsie Sioux & The Banshees
Siouxsie and The Banshees featuring Robert Smith dared the British establishment and decided to record their very own rendition of The Beatles hit ‘Dear Prudence’. “It was a surprise, but it didn’t really sink in until we’d finished the touring and we were back home for the winter,” Siouxsie remembered. “Then we thought, ‘Blimey! We got to number three!’ ‘Dear Prudence’ got played a lot on the radio, and of course, we did the Christmas/New Year Top Of The Pops. I don’t remember much about doing it except for I was wearing a new leather dress that a friend had made for me, and stripy tights.”
Recalling how she and the band came to the final conclusion that the next step needed to be a Beatles cover, Siouxsie Sioux said: “When we did the 100 Club Punk Festival , we were wondering: ‘What shall we do?’ And we ended up doing the thing based around the Lord’s Prayer. And Sid and I were laughing, ‘Oh, we should really mess up a Beatles song!’ And that attitude was still there. I remember growing up with the White Album. I loved it for their experimenting. And then it gets fucked up? Much better!”
7. ‘My Way’ – Sid Vicious
Whatever you may think of Sid Vicious it’s hard to deny that he was an icon of his time. As bassist for the Sex Pistols, Vicious was the archetypal punk. He was the face terrorising the nation, the bloodied, bruised, dirtied and downright destitute punk—but he was also a star.
Alongside Johnny Rotten, Vicious quickly became the focus of the Sex Pistols. It wasn’t for his songwriting or his musicianship but for his punk sneer. He spat at everyone, he found himself in fights constantly, but what set him apart from everyone else—he really enjoyed being a punk, in every sense of the word. Vicious always wanted to be a star even after the Pistols had broken up.
A massive fan of David Bowie in his youth, Vicious had always dreamed of being an idol. It was what made him work with Siouxsie Sioux despite having very little musical skill, it’s what put him in Vivienne Westwood’s shop hoping to catch an eye, and it’s what made him sing the Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ in the 1980 mockumentary. But, as one might expect, Vicious truly did it his way.
6. ‘All Along The Watchtower’ – XTC
When the punk’s new wave icons XTC were piecing together their debut album White Music together they were set on picking at least one cover. The idea for a cover was a toss-up between the Dylan song and The Rolling Stones song ‘Citadel’. Though Jimi Hendrix can claim the best version of this track, it’s hard not to appreciate the vision of this cover.
Frontman Andy Partridge explained: “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to cover one of these songs, because they’re both from people who represent the Old Guard,” he remembered.
“I think it would be mischievous to do either of these songs in a radically different way, and to show that we’re not in awe of the Old Guard, and that we can take something that they’ve done, smash it all up, and put it back together in our way.” It’s a dubby, punk masterpiece.
5. ‘Help!’ – The Damned
When The Damned burst on to the scene in a flurry of three-chord riffs and jet-propelled rhythm they did so with a backing of London’s cultural elite. They were another punk band chomping at the bit to reach a national audience. They finally reached a national, and quite possibly global, audience with the release of their single ‘New Rose’—a track that would influence thousands of musicians after it’s release in 1976. But perhaps equally as important was the band’s cover of The Beatles’ classic ‘Help!’.
It may well be considered a classic, it’s even one of John Lennon’s favourite songs the band ever did, but that didn’t stop it, or The Beatles, from being caught in the burning lasers vision of punk’s arthouse elite. The track would go on to be eviscerated by the new intensity of bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned were getting out of the reduction of music as an expert craft.
Rather than pay tribute to The Beatles’ 1965 song that adorned the B-side, The Damned totally torched it. A complete amalgamation of the song Vanian and co add a powerful vibrancy that the original certainly missed. It’s not the cleanest recording you’ll ever hear—it wasn’t meant to be.
4. ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ – The Slits
The Slits are one of those bands whose contribution to music is far too often overlooked. A staple of London’s punk scene the band transcended the genre to create energised post-punk capable of reducing a dancefloor to a sweating heaving mess. This is the same energy they bring to Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Hear It Through The Grapevine’.
Their 1979 debut record The Cut their sound had been polished and refined to provide a cultural blend befitting the city they were cultivated in. They picked up musical cues from reggae and dub, like much of the capital’s punk scene. Songs were not in any traditional format, deliberately challenging their audience to avoid being lulled into submission by the cradling reggae beat and instead engage with the off-beat guitars and emboldening lyrics. With that said, one of the best moments of the album does come via a traditional cover of an iconic song.
The Slits take on the smooth tones of Marvin Gaye as they produce an antithesis to his soulful sweet sounds. Recorded by a plethora of Motown artists including Gladys Knight, The Miracles and the Isley Brothers, it is Gaye’s 1967 release which still remains the fan favourite.
3. ‘My Generation’ – Patti Smith
It may sound a little obvious, but it’s fair to say that Patti Smith is the Godmother of punk rock. Way before Johnny Rotten was spitting on anything that resembled an establishment, Smith was creating rock and roll that designed to agitate, performed to perfection, and filled with the impassioned intelligent destruction. Her 1976 cover of The Who’s ‘My Generation’ is, without doubt, the epitome of all that spirit rolled up into one searing performance.
Smith’s imperious seminal album Horses would land upon the rock and roll world in 1975, complete with a whole host of reasons to recognise Patti as the Queen of punk that she is. Defiantly propelled by poetry, the violence of thought and expression throughout the album is a classic nuance of punk rock. ‘Gloria’, a cover of Them’s track from the ’60s, was one of the landmark moments on that album and it was backed with this killer rendition of The Who’s youth anthem of free spirits and feverish pace.
It is this idea that Smith takes, chews up, spits out and displays for all to see. It is that notion that is the epitome of punk. This is not an unadulterated outpouring of emotion, nor homage to the generation prior, this is a carefully cultured and deliberate destruction of everything before it. Even if it did lay along the same lines.
2. ‘I Feel Love’ – Blondie
When Blondie truly broke into the scene it was clear that they were the bridge between the avant-garde aggression of punk with the shining glitter of the disco era. With their song ‘Heart of Glass’, they managed to effortlessly bring the two opposing worlds together.
Just one year later and the band were performing a classic cover of the Donna Summer mega-bop ‘I Feel Love’ as part of their stunning 1980 show live at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. The show provided some of the above additions to the list but this cover is, without doubt, the finest.
We think it’s the best because it does everything a great cover should. Harry does her best to not only match but try to readdress Summer’s unstoppable vocal, in the backing Burke and Stein are naturally gifted, mirroring the intensity of disco’s incessant beat with their punk credentials. Together it culminates in a frenetic and furious homage to a classic.
1. ‘I Fought The Law’ – The Clash
They may well be the only band that matters, but The Clash were never afraid to dip their hand into the murky waters of music’s past and drag out a gem by the scruff of the neck. Having also covered songs like ‘Police & Thieves’ alongside their natural affinity with reggae and dub, this cover was a perfect fit.
Originally recorded by Sonny Curtis and then popularised the Bobby Fuller Four, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon take this track to a brand new, far more rebellious place with their cover of ‘I Fought The Law’. Strummer’s vocal, in particular, seems made for the song.
The Clash were in the middle of recording Give ‘Em Enough Rope when they stumbled upon the record in the jukebox of Automatt studios and instantly fell in love with it. Since then, it’s become a fantastic piece of their iconography and, above all else, one of punk’s lasting anthems. Its rebellious nature, non-conformity and gunslinging refrain make it a classic but the song’s continuous connection to the punks who have sung it from the rafters make it a champion.