The alternative reworks: 10 grunge takes on classic tracks

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There was usually an ‘anything goes’ to every single aspect of grunge rock. It was always about doing whatever you wanted, and if it sounded a little out of tune, it didn’t really matter as long as it sounded right to you. While that kind of mentality doesn’t lend itself well to cover songs, artists like Soundgarden and Nirvana were able to take classic tracks of ages past and beef them up to stadium size.

Then again, there was always a question of why these bands were covering these classic tracks in the first place. For all of the great songs that did justice to the original, there were just as many artists that were looking to take an axe to the original version of the tune, as if to knowingly mock the song for being an artificial form of rock and roll.

If they were mocking it, they seemed to be doing pretty good regardless, with many of the songs taking on a completely different character once they started performing. There are even a few cases where the song practically surpasses what the first artist did, either offering a new perspective or taking the lyrics and melodies in a much different direction.

While it’s unclear whether every artist approved of what had been done to their tracks, none of these artists were looking to tear down what had come before. It was all about having fun with a few cover tunes, but in doing so, they turned what could have been considered dinosaur rock and turned it into the biggest anthems of the 1990s.

10 grunge covers on classic tracks:

10. ‘Mrs Robinson’ – The Lemonheads

No grunge songs were meant to sound nice and happy. If you looked at anyone on the streets of Seattle looking to get a deal, chances are you would come across a lot more brooding than genuine smiles. There was still room for power pop in the mix, and The Lemonheads at least got their time in the spotlight by doing justice to a folk classic from the 1960s.

Taken from a soundtrack album, the band’s cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’ is just the kind of update that the song deserves, making a song about an overbearing seductive parental figure look all the more sleazy with heavy guitars behind it. Just like most bands who get their foot in the door with a cover, The Lemonheads would soon fall by the wayside, with their album It’s A Shame About Ray sounding like it’s all building to the one cover at the end.

From the looks of it, frontman Evan Dando hasn’t been bitter about having a cover song as his claim to fame, eventually performing multiple albums of covers throughout his career. Grunge may have gone hand in hand with the sounds of despair, but who says we couldn’t have a little bit of fun in between?

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9. ‘Goin’ Blind’ – Melvins

The Melvins are often one of the most overlooked and criminally underexposed bands of the Seattle scene. They may not have had the huge hooks, but if it weren’t for them breaking down doors and their connections, chances are that the sound of grunge would look a lot different, and the classic version of Nirvana would have ceased to exist. Melvins always did things their way, though, and hearing them try their hand at a Kiss song is one of the most refreshingly weird things ever to be associated with Kiss.

Since the actual song is an extremely tasteless story from the perspective of a 93-year-old oggling over a 16-year-old girl, Buzz Osborne makes the song feel like it sounds. Drenching everything in as much sludge as he can, the entire song is practically a horror movie version of the original, where this girl desperately needs to find help to make sure this creep doesn’t follow her home.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some tongue-in-cheek humour to it as well, with the odd sound effect and bum note doing everything it can to make the song sound even more wrong. Gene Simmons may have his place as ‘The Demon’ behind the shock rockers, but this is the wildly surreal update of the tune that Frank Zappa would have been proud of.

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8. ‘Dancing Days’ – Stone Temple Pilots

When talking about the start of the Seattle scene, Stone Temple Pilots always felt like a bit of a touchy subject. The band may have had all the hallmarks of a grunge band, but the fact that they came from San Diego made them look like they were cashing in on a trend rather than being in it for the right reasons. No one can fault a band for wanting to be famous, though, and it’s not like they didn’t have chops to back it up.

While Soundgarden may have been one of the most logical grunge bands to cover Led Zeppelin, Scott Weiland does a decent job at bringing ‘Dancing Days’ to life. Since Houses of the Holy was always one of the most eccentric Zeppelin albums, the off-kilter riff feels like it’s tailor-made for grunge music, especially with Weiland’s more subdued vocals.

The DeLeo brothers are also no slouches behind their instruments, and their knowledge of different jazz harmonies makes the whole thing sound like it’s floating in the air throughout its runtime. There are a thousand ways to play a Zeppelin song poorly, but this is one of the few bands to cover Zeppelin who didn’t sound like the music was two notches about their skill set.

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7. ‘Landslide’ – Smashing Pumpkins

When putting together different B-sides, covers are bound to come up. You need to fill out the CD however you can, and it’s not out of the question to play a cover tune if you can justifiably pull it off. Though Smashing Pumpkins may have been on the fringes of grunge throughout their career, their reverent cover of the Fleetwood Mac classic ‘Landslide’ fits right at home with the greatest alternative ballads.

Coming off of Siamese Dream, most listeners already saw what the inside of Billy Corgan’s brain looked like, especially on the dark tunes like ‘Today’ and ‘Disarm’. So when you have him interpreting lyrics about getting older, it feels like he’s actually grown as a person throughout the process, knowing that he can’t go back to the basement to play music the same way ever again.

That kind of mentality may work for the song, but it wasn’t always that way in the real world, as Corgan hung on to his credentials and band leader and played almost all the parts on most of the Pumpkins’ best material. Time may make you bolder, but in the case of Corgan relating to his original bandmates, I believe that lyric should go somewhere along the lines of ‘time makes you colder’.

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6. ‘Hate The Police’ – Mudhoney

There isn’t one band in Seattle who couldn’t claim to have been severely impacted by punk rock. From the first time Ramones or Sex Pistols came to the mainstream, these musicians knew that that was more in line with what they wanted to do than the radio rock they heard every day. The problems may have been different from one generation to the next, but Mudhoney figured things stayed the same when covering ‘Hate the Police’.

Initially written by the band The Dicks, Mudhoney turned the song into one of the most ferocious tracks they had ever made, standing right alongside ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’. Like all Mudhoney classics, it’s also a bit of a goddamn mess, including Mark Arm shouting at the top of his lungs in the kind of tone that many would expect coming out of a sheltered kid who is lashing out at his parents for the first time.

Whereas this kind of singing would be out of place in almost any other song, Arm’s vocal tone actually suits the song a lot better, coming close to actually sounding in tune across the verses. It’s a bit dishevelled by the standards of most of the songs on this list, but if grunge never concerned itself with sounding pretty, why start now?

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5. ‘You’ve Got No Right’ – Hole

There has always been a certain sense of trepidation whenever someone talks about Courtney Love. Either she’s one of the leading voices of the riot grrl movement that helped pave the way for outspoken women, or she’s the Yoko Ono of her generation who separated Kurt Cobain from his bandmates. Love is more than capable of making classics on her own merits…even when it comes to covering songs by her husband.

Although Live Through This could have been Love’s major breakthrough as a mainstream artist, the sudden death of her husband months before it had come out cast a dark shadow on the rest of her career. By the time Hole got to appear on MTV Unplugged, they ended up giving us a tease of a Nirvana song that no one had even heard before.

Performed under the title of ‘You’ve Got No Right’, this was actually the first time many fans got to hear Nirvana’s ‘You Know You’re Right’, since Love had heard it and arranged it a bit more. Since this was clearly made for an acoustic setting, there are still crucial parts missing, but you can hear the song that was destined to become a classic hidden in there somewhere. Just goes to show you the amount of talent the Cobain clan had when you put acoustic instruments in front of them.

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4. ‘Rock and Roll’ – Foo Fighters

For all of the post-grunge bands that came out after 1994, Foo Fighters seemed like the one band that most people approved of. As much as Scott Stapp may have wanted to rip off Eddie Vedder for everything he was worth, watching Dave Grohl move on from his life in Nirvana seemed like a musical miracle had occurred. Whereas Nirvana ran from parts of the spotlight, though, Grohl was always proud to represent his love of the classics.

Throughout their career, Grohl was known to cover any artist that inspired him, going from The Bee Gees to Paul McCartney, depending on how he was feeling. Once the band got the opportunity to play at Wembley Stadium, they got the chance of a lifetime when Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin joined them for a cover of ‘Rock and Roll’.

Being one of the few times Taylor Hawkins assumed lead vocal duties, the entire song feels like the original Zeppelin tune on steroids, with Grohl pummeling his kit and Hawkins trying to channel his own ‘Golden God’ persona, albeit with a lot less of the golden locks than Robert Plant had. Since a Zeppelin reunion would never be possible without John Bonham, hearing Grohl pound out this beat was probably the closest we were ever going to get to see that power again.

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3. ‘Come Together’ – Soundgarden

Most Soundgarden fans knew never to expect the same thing twice. Despite all of the comparisons between Chris Cornell’s voice and Robert Plant’s, the amount of material you had to sift through on a Soundgarden project felt like listening to a bunch of different bands over the course of an hour. If there was one genre that Soundgarden knew like the back of their hand, it was how to make something sound sludgy.

Even though The Beatles helped pave the way for darker rock music with songs like ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, Cornell’s take on ‘Come Together’ is the kind of rock and roll stomper that most were clamouring for. While the song has been covered by countless bar bands throughout the years, the true MVP of the track is Kim Thayil, turning John Lennon’s classic riffs into the sounds of Hell across its runtime.

Whereas Lennon’s original sounded a lot more funky, this is the kind of version of the song that’s more rooted in the blues, even predicting the kind of guttural sounds that would be heard on Queens of the Stone Age albums a few years later. Kurt Cobain may have been the most outspoken Beatles fan in Seattle, but even he couldn’t do Lennon and McCartney justice like this.

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2. ‘Crown of Thorns’ – Pearl Jam

Most people are probably wondering when a song like ‘Last Kiss’ by Pearl Jam would appear on a list like this. Right in the middle of their massive run in the 1990s, their cover of the classic 1950s tune is good but lacks the kind of teeth expected out of Eddie Vedder. Whatever the king of yarling sang had to be from the heart, and on the 10th anniversary of Pearl Jam’s first show, Vedder unpacked a song a bit older than the band.

Since half of the band was still the core members of Mother Love Bone, Vedder suggested that they play the song ‘Crown of Thorns’ as a tribute to where the band came from. Although Andy Wood’s performance will never be eclipsed, Vedder is extremely reverent of the song, knowing that Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament would probably notice if he moved one vocal line out of place.

There may have been a lot of people in the audience that night who had no idea who Mother Love Bone even was, but Pearl Jam wasn’t just playing the song to celebrate where they had come from. They had graduated to the arenas now, so they were playing this song for all of the arena shows that Wood never got the chance to play.

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1. ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ – Nirvana

All good rock and roll tends to come back to the blues. Whether it’s alternative rock, heavy metal, or just whatever someone’s making in their bedroom, the root of all good angsty music comes from those bluesy roots that everyone starts with. Nirvana may not have been concerned with playing bluesy dad rock, but Kurt Cobain knew that he could do justice to one of the founders of the genre at the end of MTV Unplugged.

While a good half of Nirvana’s set on the show included a variety of covers of different art rock bands and legends like David Bowie, there was nothing that could follow this Lead Belly classic, with Cobain wailing his guts out throughout the entire song. Compared to all of the distortion they had when playing live, this feels like what Nirvana sounded like if they were in the room with you, creating the kind of angsty music that can only come from someone with a few demons in them.

The real power comes at the very end of the video, where Cobain takes a pregnant pause before finally finishing up the final line. For a brief second, you’re seeing the little boy behind this disaffected 26-year-old, only for him to snap back to reality in an instant to let out his pain one final time.

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