Chris McSweeney takes us through the all-time best ever pop-punk covers of popular songs (AKA when pop punk bands stop singing about skateboarding and getting dumped).
Mainstream music today is fucking terrible. It’s an incoherent mess of robotic thumping, terrible hip-hop and cookie-cutter sugary fluff vomited onto YouTube and Spotify by living, breathing Abercrombie and Fitch catalogues. There was a time, however, when the conditions of the music industry and society in general were just right to allow a smattering of amateur punk bands to break into the mainstream and capture the imagination of a generation with a very short attention span. Hot on the heels of post-Nirvana nihilistic slackerdom, but with the accessibility that comes naturally with coherent lyrics and bouncy chord progressions, these pop punk outfits dominated the alternative music scene from around 1995-2005. A wide margin of it was pretty dreadful, but that’s not the part anyone remembers.
For whatever reason, a time-honoured tradition of this particular genre was to cover a mainstream song or two, typically from the 80s (a decade well known for ruining well-written songs by producing them terribly). Below I have collated the all-time top 10 pop punk covers (in and around the aforementioned era of 1995-2005). If you spot any notable omissions, that’s because they’re fucking awful or I don’t know them or both.
Disclaimer: This list contains only covers by “Kerrang-era” pop punk bands, covering reputable pop songs – updating them cleverly to make them listenable. Good covers by classic punk bands are not in short supply (i.e. Sid Vicious’ “My Way”), but they are not included here. Furthermore I do not give a flying fuck if Bring Me the Ocean or We Are The Mallory Knox did a sick melodic-metalcore cover of some insignificant Taylor Swift B-side.
10: Smooth Criminal – Alien Ant Farm (Michael Jackson cover)
This song was one of pop punk’s peak mainstream successes, and pretty much the only reason that you’ve heard of Alien Ant Farm (and perhaps the only reason you’ve heard of the song Smooth Criminal I might add). The year 2001 was more-or-less consumed by this song. Its appearance on Brian May’s wildly popular Air Guitar Compilation Album gave it a huge boost in listenership.
9: Beat It – Fall Out Boy (Michael Jackson cover)
Yes, it’s another Michael Jackson cover. Last one, promise. With a video that features Turk from Scrubs and Buster from Arrested Development (not to mention a bitchin’ solo by John Mayer), needless to say this track was “the shit” on its release in 2008.
8: Kiss Me – New Found Glory (Sixpence None the Richer cover)
I wanted to place this higher, but screw it. New Found Glory deserve it for having a lame back-catalogue. Still, in 2007 or thereabouts, the lead singer of my high-school band approached me and asked if I wanted to cover this song. I said no, because I was only familiar with the Sixpence None the Richer version which my mum had on a CD in the car. Through my young, adolescent eyes I could see no way of adapting it to our style because I was a moron, apparently.
7: Take on Me – Reel Big Fish (A-Ha Cover)
This was another fairly easy one to include. From all the way back in 1998, this cover was released with the soundtrack to my all-time-favourite film (that I’m ashamed of) BASEketball. If you’ve not seen it, watch it. It was Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s first live-action role after South Park got popular, and it’s brilliant, in kind of a stupid way. Check your brain at the door. Either way, alongside “Sell Out”, ska-punkers Reel Big Fish built a career off of this one, and usually close their live shows with it. I’ve seen them do it twice and it’s amazing.
6: I Just Can’t Wait to Be King – Suburban Legends (The Lion King)
If you’re unconvinced by just how emphatically pop punk can improve a well-known song, listen to this. I challenge you not to be impressed. Compare this to the original. The blasting horns jettison the cheesy 90s Disney pap and transform this song into what should be a damn well-known pop punk cover. Incredible stuff. Listen to it loud. Suburban Legends are sometimes known to support Reel Big Fish, so keep an eye out. They always play this live.
5: Under Pressure – My Chemical Romance feat. The Used (Queen/Bowie cover)
I’m sort of breaking my own rules here. Most of this list consists of songs by none-too-reputable artists (in terms of rock/alternative credibility). Covering Bowie and Queen is surely sacrilege. However, this one-off performance of Under Pressure by MCR and The Used (at a charity gig for the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami) gives the subtly produced original the soaring guitars and extravagant vocals that the final third of the song arguably deserves. It’s not the original, but it’s a worthy interpretation.
4: 99 Red Balloons – Goldfinger (Nena cover)
Often included in 80s “One-hit Wonder” compilations, 99 Red Balloons is one of the most readily adaptable songs in terms of pop punk: up-tempo, catchy melody and a couple of good riffs for the guitarist who looks like Voldemort to get his teeth in to. This is no doubt a terrific cover, but I should point out that I have the misfortune of owning Goldfinger’s “Open Your Eyes”, which (overlooking the single “Superman”) happens to be the worst album I own.
3: Total Eclipse of the Heart – Straight Outta Junior High (Bonnie Tyler cover)
One of the lesser known punk covers, this. Total Eclipse of the Heart is a bloody well written song, but doing a punk cover is tricky. Trust me, I tried – you just can’t get the tempo right. Somehow though, nigh-unknown pop punk outfit “Straight Outta Junior High” pulled it off spectacularly, while cutting a couple of verses and shaving about 3 minutes off of the song’s original duration. I have no idea what happened to “Straight Outta Junior High”, so I assume they all work as toll-booth operators now.
2: Dancing With Myself – Blink-182 (Billy Idol cover)
As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a pop-punk anything unless Blink-182 is somehow involved. This 1997 cover of Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” underscores the boundless enthusiasm the band had in its early days; just before Enema of the State, and long before Tom got all up-his-own-ass trying to be some kind of Bono/Space-Jesus love-child. This is another life-changing pop-punk cover, as far as I’m concerned. Stick around until the very end of the track to hear some obligatory early-Blink dick humour.
1: Boys of Summer – The Ataris (Don Henley cover)
Had to be, I’m afraid. Cover artists from numerous genres have plucked this song from obscurity over the years because it is a terrifically versatile piece of power-pop that would sound good coming from any instrument in any style (maybe with the exception of the triangle, in the style of Tuvan throat singing). You can’t go wrong covering the best solo song by the guy who wrote “Hotel California”. The Ataris got everything just right as far as this pop punk cover is concerned. Their sound deviates more toward alt-rock than traditional pop punk; kind of like a beautiful Green Day/Foo Fighters hybrid. However, possibly due to bad luck or lack of talent, they never really established themselves on the scene.
Some have complained about the lyric update in the second verse; swapping the phrase “Dead Head Sticker” for “Black Flag Sticker”. Personally, I like what they’ve done with it – let’s be honest; the pop-punk generation doesn’t give a shit about the Grateful Dead. Either way, this particular song, on sheer strength of epicosity has to take the #1 spot in the top 10. Now get out of my house.
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