Some of these classic rock cover songs are so good that most people have no idea they’re not the originals. Bob Dylan is the writer of two of the most well-known covers, with the other songs coming from a variety of artists who recorded them in the 1950s through the 1980s.
10 Billy Idol – “Mony Mony” (Tommy James and The Shondells)
Although originally released in 1981, it was the 1987 live version that propelled this hit to the #1 position on the charts, ironically dislodging another Tommy James penned tune, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” from Tiffany, from the top slot. Commonly heard at bars and dances, the chorus is typically sung with crowd-inserted obscenities including the line “Get laid, get f****d!”
9 The Clash – “I Fought The Law” (Sonny Curtis of the Crickets)
Popularized by the Bobby Fuller Four, this version from the Clash introduced by the band to U.S. audiences in 1979. Supposedly, the band had heard it on an American jukebox while recording in San Francisco.
8 Nirvana – “The Man Who Sold The World” (David Bowie)
Taped during Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged special in late 1993, this story of a man who owned the world and gave it away now seems strangely prophetic. David Bowie later added the track to his sets on his 1995 tour with Nine Inch Nails and many fans had no inkling it was his song, thinking he was doing a special Nirvana tribute.
7 Guns N’ Roses – “Knockin’ on Heavens Door” (Bob Dylan)
Originally written for the soundtrack of the 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, this Bob Dylan classic has been covered by many. Guns N’ Roses first released a live version in 1987, then a studio version in 1990 for the soundtrack of the film Days of Thunder followed by a modified version for 1991’s Use Your Illusion II. It’s still an integral part of their live set list.
6 Talking Heads – “Take Me To The River” (Al Green)
The Talking Heads were one of many to cover this song, their version debuting in 1978. Maybe singer David Byrne says it best: “Coincidence or conspiracy? There were at least four cover versions of this song out at the same time: Foghat, Bryan Ferry, Levon Helm, and us. More money for Mr. Green’s full gospel tabernacle church, I suppose. A song that combines teenage lust with baptism. Not equates, you understand, but throws them in the same stew, at least. A potent blend. All praise the mighty spurtin’ Jesus.”
5 Nazareth – “Love Hurts” (The Everly Brothers, written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant)
This is an example of a cover that is so good EVERYONE thinks it’s the original. There have been many versions of the song (Roy Orbison, Jim Capaldi, Triumph, Cher, Journey and many more) but none came close to the Top 10 recording done by Nazareth in 1975.
4 Joe Cocker – “With A Little Help From My Friends” (The Beatles)
Originally sung by Ringo Starr, Joe Cocker’s Woodstock performance of the song is cemented in the minds of many as a song for their generation. It didn’t hurt that it was also the theme song of the hit TV show The Wonder Years. Cocker’s version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001 and Ringo Starr still closes out each of his All-Starr Band shows with his rendition.
3 Van Halen – “You Really Got Me” (The Kinks)
This song became Van Halen’s first single from their debut album, rush-released due to the fact that a competitor rock band called Angel was also getting ready to use the song as the lead track on their next record. Eddie Van Halen has since been quoted as saying he would have rather released a Van Halen original first, but the track launched their career, and his too, with the opening prelude “Eruption” segueing into the classic.
2 Jeff Buckley – “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen)
Released in 1984 to little acclaim, Leonard Cohen’s original version of this song has now generated over 300 covers, with Buckley’s version becoming the most popular. Sadly, Buckley never got to experience his success, as he died ten years prior to the song being released as a single. His version was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2014.
1 Jimi Hendrix – “All Along the Watchtower” (Bob Dylan)
Interestingly, Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower” came out less than a year after the original, and became Hendrix’s only Top 20 Billboard hit. Recorded with all-star players including Dave Mason (Traffic) and Brian Jones (Rolling Stones), Hendrix labored over the song for eight months. Bob Dylan’s concert versions now resemble Hendrix’s vision. Dylan says, “He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way… strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”
Last updated: January 1, 2020