Punk bands love to cover pop songs. If there’s a universal thread running through the genre from practically the moment of its birth to the present, it’s the continual appropriating of sugary-sweet Top 40 hits with the avowed goal of speeding them up and adding distorted guitars. Whether you’re talking about Sid Vicious covering “My Way” or any number of contemporary groups turning in hyper-caffeinated takes on songs like Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” the tradition may not be venerable, but it is omnipresent through the years.
Nowadays the subgenre is just part of the furniture when it comes to punk (witness the Punk Goes Pop series of compilations, now entering it’s eighth volume and counting), but it was the 1990s that saw the cover-song pasttime cross over into the mainstream. It’s for a simple reason: That’s the decade when punk—primarily in the form of its snotty and adolescent incarnation as pop-punk—broke through into the mainstream, period. The underground was no longer quite so underground, and as grunge, indie rock, and punk stormed the Billboard charts, the wealth of hopped-up cover songs followed apace.
There are innumerable punk covers of pop hits, so consider this hourlong primer a confined one: We’ve restricted it solely to recordings from that decade, and only to covers of songs that were pop radio hits. (A few additional caveats: Only one song per act to avoid a blanketing of well-known covers via the Ramones and other such repeat offenders. Also just one song per original artist—do you realize how many damn Beach Boys punk covers there are?) We prefer web pages that load, so we’ve forgone all YouTube links (save one borne of necessity) in favor of the following Spotify playlist. Enjoy this trip back to the decade when it was suddenly no longer weird to hear a high-speed, snarling version of “867-5309/Jenny” on your local mainstream rock station.
1. Social Distortion, “Ring Of Fire” (1990)
The decade kicked off with one of the most esteemed of long-running punk acts (Social Distortion had already been around for 12 years at this point, give or take a mid-’80s hiatus for Mike Ness’ addiction problem and legal woes) turning in a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” on its self-titled album—and first for a major label, kicking off the band’s most commercially successful period. Social Distortion was one of the most creatively successful, too.
2. Propagandhi, “I Want You To Want Me” (1993)
Back when the Canadian act was still largely hewing to a goofy and engaging pop-punk sound (one that has radically changed into a much more hardcore/thrash sound in ensuing years), Propagandhi’s first album, How To Clean Everything, offered up this light-speed take on the Cheap Trick classic. Note the format of many a punk cover: starting with a mellow and traditional tempo before launching into a punked-up take, and devolving into a bunch of guys just yelling “fuck” by the end.
3. Me First And The Gimme Gimmes, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” (1999)
Unlike many punk acts that would throw the occasional covers of pop tracks onto B-sides or pepper them into their live acts, Me First And The Gimme Gimmes decided to forgo the annoyance of writing their own songs, becoming a full-time punk-rock cover band in the process. Made up of punk luminaries like NOFX’s Fat Mike and Lagwagon’s Joey Cape, Me First tackles a different theme or musical era with each record; “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” from 1999’s show tunes-centric Are A Drag, nicely encapsulates the band’s pop conversion process.
4. Ramones, “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” (1993)
The legendary Ramones have more than a few options to choose from when it comes to great covers, but this one, off 1993’s Acid Eaters, a covers album dedicated to the band’s favorite 1960s influences, is a highlight.
5. The Muffs, “Kids In America” (1995)
The Muffs, the ebullient Southern California pop-punk act led by Kim Shattuck, always sounded like they were crafting anthems for the rebellious teenager in everyone, but the groups’s cover of Kim Wilde’s 1981 hit helped the earworm get rediscovered by a new generation of kids.
6. Pennywise, “Surfin’ U.S.A.” (1996)
Behold, the aforementioned Beach Boys, ubiquitous in the punk-covers landscape, and here represented by Pennywise, who delivered a pummeling, razor-sharp version of the 1963 tune for the benefit compilation Music For Our Mother Earth, where the band was far from alone in looking to Brian Wilson and company for inspiration.
7. J Church, “Don’t Bring Me Down” (1998)
J Church didn’t just have one of the most formidable release schedules in punk rock (its catalog, including singles, EPs, and splits, numbers well over 100 records), it had one of the more appealing covers of the era. It’s a pretty faithful rendition, albeit one that strips away the original’s cool electronic vibes and adds a reckless abandon.
8. L7, “Hanging On The Telephone” (1995)
Punk covers during the decade sometimes appeared in wholly unexpected places. To wit: L7’s hard-charging cover of The Nerves’ song (made famous by Blondie’s indelible take) first popped up on the soundtrack to The Jerky Boys movie. The prank-call duo’s film was a box-office bomb, but its surprisingly decent soundtrack will live on thanks to tracks like this.
9. Goldfinger, “Rio” (1997)
Ska-punks Goldfinger looked back to the early ’80s for this double-time (at least) version of the Duran Duran hit. It was the first track on the punk-heavy compilation The Duran Duran Tribute Album, which featured Reel Big Fish’s take on “Hungry Like The Wolf” and Jimmy Eat World doing “New Religion,” among others.
10. Kid With Man Head, “Hotel California” (1997)
More than a few acts took a crack at this Eagles classic, but the lesser-known Kid With Man Head might have recorded the catchiest and most explosive variant as the closing track to its 1997 album, Flapjack Hairpiece, thanks to some expressive production values and a surprising ability to make it much less annoying than its original incarnation. True, they then do that annoying thing of ending the album with an extra few minutes of silence punctuated by bursts of juvenile “Fuck you!”-charged mini-rants, but hey, it was the ’90s. We were all learning.
11. Save Ferris, “Come On Eileen” (1997)
For a full-on ska-punk reinterpretation of Dexys Midnight Runners’ hit, look no further than glammy major-label signees Save Ferris, who took the mantle of “beneficiaries of No Doubt’s success” and ran with it, delivering this 1997 cover in the process.
12. The Suicide Machines, “(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden” (1999)
Not every punk cover has to be pushing the tempo into the red. The Suicide Machines’ cover of the internationally successful country-pop ditty may not have become as famous as Lynn Anderson’s version from 1970, but it manages to push the track into arena-rock territory, fusing half-tempo breakdowns with genial ska-punk riffs.
13. New Found Glory, “My Heart Will Go On” (2000)
Technically released in March 2000, we’ll let New Found Glory’s cover of the Titanic theme in on a technicality, as it was recorded in 1999 and appeared in early live sets by the band. NFG’s From The Screen To Your Stereo EP featured seven other songs from movies, including Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” from Armageddon and Cyndi Lauper’s anthemic masterpiece from The Goonies.
14. Lunachicks, “The Passenger” (1997)
Okay, so Iggy Pop’s now-iconic song wasn’t an American hit when it was first released back in 1977 on Lust For Life, but it hit the U.K. charts, so close enough. There are endless covers of it, but the Lunachicks give the track a sped-up, gnashing edge befitting their NYC sleaze-punk vibe. It was released on the 1997 compilation We Will Fall: The Iggy Pop Tribute.
15. Cap’n Jazz, “Take On Me” (1998)
Talk about a cover version that provokes anger. The young Chicago-based emo/art-punk group Cap’n Jazz included a rollicking cover of the A-ha tune on its posthumous compilation Analphabetapolothology, and while it’s become widely known, opinions are distinctly mixed. Either you’re on board with Tim Kinsella’s defiantly in-and-out-of-tune vocals, or you’re going to hit skip awfully quick on this one.
16. The Unseen, “Thorn” (1997)
For more than a minute, punk quartet The Unseen sticks to a muted, acoustic impression of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” seemingly faithful, until it comes to the end of the first refrain, where it lunges full-tilt into a scream-along take on the material that turns it into a punk paean. It’s almost surprising when the guitar solo isn’t followed by chants of “Oi!” (It does feature an obnoxious clip from The Breakfast Club, though.)
17. Mxpx, “Summer Of ’69” (1995)
The long-running (and originally Christian-affiliated) punk act Mxpx was delivering memorable punk covers long before it achieved major-label success toward the end of the decade, and with 1995’s On The Cover it released an EP’s worth of skate-punk-style interpretations, including this one of the Bryan Adams hit.
18. Less Than Jake, “867-5309 (Jenny)” (1995)
And we end with one of the first songs we referenced back at the beginning, an earnest and faithfully fast-paced cover of the Tommy Tutone classic by the Gainesville, Florida act Less Than Jake. First appearing on the Stiff Pole Records’ compilation Six Pack To Go, it eventually wound up on the group’s collection of early releases, Losers, Kings, And Things We Don’t Understand.