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Metallica: Best Cover Band Ever

Andrew Caballero, Getty Images

In his latest installment of his ‘Mean Deviation‘ column, music historian Jeff Wagner tells us why he thinks Metallica is the ultimate heavy metal cover band.

Wagner is the author of ‘Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal,’ an exhaustive history on the sound and its various offshoots.

Metallica: Best Cover Band EVER

The worth of Metallica’s discography is hardly a thing of great debate. The 1983-1991 period is one of the towering achievements in metal’s grand pantheon. And they’ve continued to reinvent themselves over the last couple decades, with varying degrees of artistic success. They could have quite in the early ’90s and rested on their laurels, so no matter what they do or what crazy-ass directions they take, they should be respected for keeping it going long past the point of really needing to. I say they radically reinvent themselves and become a cover band. Only cover songs. Seriously. Stay with me here…

When absolutely no one but Brian Slagel and Lars Ulrich‘s Ego thought they were the best band ever (1982), they’d play various L.A. clubs and present a variety of NWOBHM songs as their own. Even their first demo was made of two cover songs and one original. They just didn’t have enough originals in the early days, and the NWOBHM was the thing that fueled their fire, so why not: they kind of did own these songs, in a way. Young Metallica was a hungry beast, and whether they were ripping through an original such as “Hit the Lights” or co-opting Diamond Head songs as their own, their delivery was ferocious, their rhythmic steamroller ultra-heavy and impossibly tight. They learned their chops from Motorhead and Iron Maiden and took it even further over the top. And it wasn’t like Blitzkrieg or Savage songs needed revamping, but Metallica did it anyway and usually always capitalized and improved upon the originals. They sounded like bona fide Metallica songs, and without such intensive schooling, gems like “Creeping Death,” “Ride the Lightning” and “Leper Messiah” might never have come to be.

Metallica have continued to take others’ originals and reinvent them in interesting ways, making increasingly cool choices too, covering everyone from Nick Cave to Discharge to Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s gotten to the point where their cover songs are more fun to listen to than their originals. But that’s not saying much when we’re given stuff like St. Anger or Lulu. It would be easy to say the reason they’re such a good cover band is that their own songwriting has taken a serious dip in quality since the good ol’ days, but would that be too cynical. St. Anger still stinks though.

The evidence:

1. “Remember Tomorrow” (2008) Original by Iron Maiden, 1980

There’s really no better example of Metallica’s mastery of cover songs than this. The masterstroke here comes early, opening the song with a riff that doesn’t appear in the original version, but is thematically appropriate, and they re-introduce this passage at the end of the song too. Throughout, Lars Ulrich colors things up with some terrific drum fills and Kirk Hammett swoops in with some stinging guitar lines. And it’s another song proving that when he’s got great material, James Hetfield can still belt out some killer vocals. Their version of this Iron Maiden nugget serves to swing Metallica right back into the midst of their NWOBHM roots with one of the absolute most epic songs to emerge from the bygone but highly influential era.

2. Diamond Head: take your pick

Having covered most of Diamond Head‘s 1980 opus, Lightning to the Nations, at one time or another, it’s clear which band served as the most influential template for Metallica’s first originals. I won’t say Metallica’s versions of “The Prince” or “Helpless” are better than the originals, but they’re at least as good. Metallica is the best thing that ever happened to Diamond Head, and Diamond Head is the best thing that ever happened to Metallica.

3. “Mercyful Fate” (1998) medley of originals by Mercyful Fate, 1982-1983

First: medleys are pretty much pointless. Second: this one is not.

The influence of the Satanic Danes on Metallica is just about as significant as that of Diamond Head’s, especially taking into account Mercyful Fate’s focus on quality riffs and complex arrangements. Hetfield and the boys had the excellent taste to give Fate the nod on 1998′s Garage Inc. covers collection, expertly fusing MF’s “Satan’s Fall,” “Curse of the Pharaohs,” “A Corpse Without Soul,” “Into the Coven” and “Evil” into an 11-minute epic that not only worked, but worked extremely well. Here again Hetfield delivers the goods, and this time it could have been treacherous. Nobody can do King Diamond, so Hetfield didn’t even try, instead extracting the eccentric vocalist’s melodies and transposing them into convincing Hetfield-isms.

4. “Blitzkrieg” (1984) original by Blitzkrieg, 1980

The odd syncopation of the main riff in this song totally sounds like an early Metallica original, and here again it’s obvious that without the NWOBHM, there would simply be no Metallica. And here again, Metallica threatens to overtake the original in terms of fire, intensity, conviction and performance. Amazing.

5. “Crash Course in Brain Surgery” / “Breadfan” (1987/1988) originals by Budgie, 1971/1973

British oddity Budgie never sounded so good. And like the Misfits, Metallica surely upped their profile ten-fold just by covering these little nuggets. Quirky, a bit eccentric, and admittedly total proto-metal songs in their original form, Metallica snipped the “proto” out of the equation and pounded these into tried and true metal monuments.

6. “Turn the Page” (1998) original by Bob Seger, 1973

Holy Shit, They Even Make Bob Seger Songs Sound Good! Yep, here Metallica take a song that was your basic FM classic rock radio fodder and inject a whole lot of brooding emotion into it, largely thanks to Hetfield’s absolutely excellent delivery. You know, during the live show, when James would kick the stool out from under him during the climactic part in “Nothing Else Matters”? This song has a couple of those kinds of moments.

7. “Astronomy” (1998) original by Blue Öyster Cult, 1974

Unlike many of these, which Metallica actually make better than the original, this version of BÖC’s mighty Secret Treaties epic is here simply because it was such a good choice for Metallica to make. And they perform it well enough, bringing out its proto-metal, Iron Maiden-ish elements, and locking down into some huge, bricklaying rhythm chunks elsewhere, transforming ‘Astronomy’ into a song you could easily believe was a Metallica original. Some of the more finessed subtleties of the original are gone, but it remains a respectful version. And if you say anything about this needing more cowb*ll, I WILL hunt you down and kill you. Good day.

Here’s the original, young’uns!

8. “Motörheadache” (“Overkill,” “Damage Case,” “Too Late Too Late,” “Stone Dead Forever,” “We are the Road Crew,” “The Chase is Better Than the Catch”). First performed by Metallica live in 1995 at Lemmy’s 50th birthday party, with the first four coming released as b-sides for 1996′s ‘Hero of the Day’ single. Originals date between 1978 and 1980.

What can you say? Metallica’s early sound owes a great debt to the pounding, metal-up-your-ass attitude and approach of the mighty Motörhead, and they proved their cover song chops with this string of Motörclassics from the most potent era of that legendary band’s run (and still running!). Lemmy responded a few years later by doing a ripping version of Metallica’s own “Whiplash.”

9. “The Small Hours” (1987), original by Holocaust, 1983

At the time Metallica picked this one for refurbishment, the song was a total obscurity, appearing on some forgotten 1983 live album by second-tier NWOBHM band Holocaust. But what a terrific choice it was, Metallica bulking this monster up to the kind of lurching monolith that stood tall against such similarly hulking Metalli-originals as “The Thing That Should Not Be” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Masterful.

10. “Stone Cold Crazy” (1990), original by Queen, 1974

Queen’s proto-speed metal rager given extra gas by the Metallicats. No extra blabber needed. The original kills, so does the cover, and it had a potency that almost harked back to the Kill ‘Em All days. Almost.

There are exceptions to everything, of course. We probably didn’t need “Whiskey in the Jar” or “Tuesday’s Gone.” But still, I’d be just as eager to see Metallica rip through a whole set of cover songs live as I would their originals, and I can’t think of another legendary band I’d say that about.

6 songs Metallica should really consider covering:

“To Cry You a Song” (Jethro Tull, 1970)

“The King Will Come” (Wishbone Ash, 1972)

“Windfair” (Bang, 1973)

“Despiser” (Gaskin, 1981)

Seriously, a Metalli-cized version of this would be amazing!

“Jailbait” (Aerosmith, 1982)

“Evil Has No Boundaries” (Slayer, 1983)

Read the April Mean Deviation Column

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