Make no mistake over the course of thrash metal’s ’80s-to-’90s run, the range, quality, and scope of the cover song was seemingly boundless. From Megadeth’s insistence on Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots” on debut Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good! and Carnivore’s rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” to Celtic Frost opening their Into the Pandemonium masterpiece with Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” and Destruction pulling The Knack’s “My Sharona” out of thin air on Cracked Brain, thrash metal, as a genre, wasn’t too afraid of shocking its fanbase as it busted out of its own very thin seams. But this list of the Top 5 Thrash Metal Cover Songs isn’t about making long-hairs uncomfortable with their favorite artists. That list will come later, I think. Rather, I’ve picked the five cover songs by artists storied and well known for their conviction, understanding (of the original), and their overall impact relative to the albums they helped promote or influence.
So, join me in Decibel‘s celebration of thrash metal bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Voivod, Sepultura and Slayer covering their favorite songs, for one reason or another. They may be Side B hideaways or they may be the first single and video, but whatever they are (or were), I’ve relished in the pursuit of the Top 5. Of course, no list is 100% right, but I feel I have a list that’s pretty damned close. In any regard, read up on how they impacted me (as a thrash-lovin’ teenage thrasher) as they were released, were exposed to me (over time), and how they ultimately helped me shape a wider musical viewpoint.
Thrash ’til death… Unless it’s an Elton John (Flotsam & Jetsam) or War (Exodus) cover. Then it’s… WTF were they thinking ’til death.
5. Metallica – “Breadfan” (1988 Elektra Records)
There were Metallica skate tunes (“Hit the Lights,” “Jump in the Fire,” “Trapped Under Ice,” “Disposable Heroes”) and then there were Metallica skate tunes (“Last Caress / Green Hell,” “Breadfan,” “Helpless,” “The Prince”). Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s my heavy metal – OK, thrash and death metal mostly — intake was coupled tightly with my interest in and faithfulness to skating. They were inseparable, as if married at birth, never to be separated by parent, school, or… fuck, force majeure! Metallica were favorites to skate to — along with Minor Threat, Circle Jerks, and Firehose — and by …And Justice for All, the Bay Area madmen were bleeding B Side jams that quickly became part of our jamlist. Go figure, however, that the most requested songs to play on the boombox weren’t from Metallica at all. Rather, their influences. From Budgie and Diamond Head – two bands we had never heard before – to Misfits and Killing Joke, Metallica had a knack for covering songs with drive, energy, and passion. That they translated — and weren’t part of …And Justice for All’s opaque prog — to the best skate sessions felt uncanny, as if they were made for us, a soundtrack to our then-teenage lives. “Breadfan” was the first of the Justice covers to feature prominently at launch ramp, curb block, and grind sessions. The main riff was simple and could be heard clearly between the clicks, clacks, and expletives. To “Breadfan,” we pushed harder, went faster, grinded farther, ollied higher… The high-octane quality of the rhythm, Hetfield’s handling of Shelley’s vocals, and the fact that it was longer than two minutes put the Eye of the Beholder “cassingle” at the top of our jam list. Funny, “Stone Cold Crazy” — another banger — was the only Metallica song to feature years later. By then, it was 100 percent death metal…
4. Voivod – “Astronomy Domine” (1989 MCA Records)
Nothingface is a beast. Heavy, odd, musical – classically influenced – challenging, and adventurous, Voivod had different intentions with their post-Dimension Hatröss music. What those intentions were? Probably (or exactly) only known to Voivod (and maybe Jeff Wagner and King Fowley). When our team of thrashin’ skate rats first heard “Astronomy Domine,” we were curious but unsure what to make of a band like Voivod covering Pink Floyd. At the very least, it wasn’t “Money” or “Us and Them” and it did make sense for Voivod the pick a Syd Barrett song (from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn), but metalheads like Voivod hammering into submission a song by a British prog outfit?! After a few months, it made sense, as several of us got deeply into the Barrett era (particularly A Saucerful of Secrets). From there, “Astronomy Domine” was a natural extension of Voivod, rendered as if from the minds of four Québecois, who catapulted out of obscurity with it, landing for the first time on the Billboard charts and featuring prominently on Headbanger’s Ball. In fact, “Astronomy Domine” was almost always the first (or last) track on mix tapes made for friends coming into our circle or from afar, just to show that we weren’t always or exclusively meat-headed Slayer, Metallica, and Sepultura addicts. We tried to show, however pretentious, we had a moderately wider musical palette. Ah, young minds…
3. Megadeth – “Anarchy in the U.K.” (1988 Capitol Records)
Megadeth were no strangers to surprise covers from the get-go. The Angelenos found common ground in Nancy Sinatra (“These Boots”), The Sex Pistols (“Anarchy in the U.K.,” “Problems”), Alice Cooper (“No More Mr. Nice Guy”), and Black Sabbath (“Paranoid”) throughout their career. In 1988, Megadeth issued So Far, So Good… So What! Uneven at best but sporting the same piss ‘n’ vinegar of Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? and Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good! Megadeth’s third full-length displayed they still had the fortitude to compete with the best — i.e., Metallica. Moored by singles “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “Mary Jane,” and “Liar” but leveled up exclusively by “In My Darkest Hour,” So Far, So Good… So What! was the best Megadeth could endeavor given the turmoil within (Poland and Samuelson) and out (producers Lani and Wagener). The cover of The Sex Pistols’ most popular song — second to maybe “God Save the Queen” — was smart, however. The British punk idols snarled, spit, and flipped off their adversaries with as much vitriol as Mustaine did in the ‘80s and ‘90s. That he plowed into “Anarchy in the U.K.” all his frustrations, dissatisfaction, and contempt certainly elevated the cover from ho-hum (most metalheads didn’t quite get Mustaine’s cross-culture connection to “These Boots”) to iconic. While revisits to So Far, So Good… So What! these days are seldom, when the desire to hear Megadeth at their most vulnerable, it’s “Anarchy in the U.K.” that is track #1 not “Into the Lungs of Hell.”
2. Slayer – “Dissident Aggressor” (1988 Def Jam Records)
The pre-Internet days of music discovery paved interesting paths. Unless an older brother, cousin, uncle (rare), neighbor, fellow church goers (common!), or upper school stoners had succumbed to the charms and evils of heavy metal and were willing to share their secret grimoire of knowledge (and dubbed cassettes), exposure to past and present were limited to — gasp! — magazines. As dudes just discovering the joys of our teenage years, we consumed every bit of information from the “darker” bands — Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax, Exodus, Testament, etc. — from Hit Parader, Circus (mostly trash), Creem (mostly trash), and Metal Edge while they were on the stands. We’d buy, however, anything that catered to our tastes. Rare publications like Power Metal, the Creem-funded Thrash Metal, Metal Forces (ultra-rare!), and Kerrang! It was a bonus when Thrasher would drop a name or two in their back-end music feature. For Slayer, we had grown-up and feasted mightily on both sides of Reign in Blood. Slayer was ritual. Daily, on the bus and in study hall, after school while shredding the Green Monster, and before bed to set twilight time just right. When the thrash metal titans dropped South of Heaven, we were enthralled. Songs, cover art, lyrics (mostly Araya’s!), and tempo. Speed always killed, but Slayer stepped off the gas and still sounded like Slayer. Yes, still killer! In some ways, better! “Dissident Aggressor,” a back-of-album Priest track from Sin After Sin, felt natural, even haunting next to “Mandatory Suicide,” “Ghosts of War,” and the title track. Friends often debated which track they disliked the most — usually “Cleanse the Soul” or “Dissident Aggressor” — but Slayer’s interpretation of the obscure Priest gem was and still is amazing. Sure, it lacks Priest’s dynamic qualities, such as Halford’s unrivaled vocals at the intro and choruses, and alters the lyrics a bit, but memories of South of Heaven’s Side B, particularly “Dissident Aggressor, remain steadfastly positive.
1. Sepultura – Orgasmatron (1991 Roadracer Records)
I had no idea “Orgasmatron” was a Motörhead cover upon hearing it for the first time in a friend’s bedroom in the summer of 1991. We were both heavy Sepultura fans, entirely and absolutely engrossed in Arise, the pivotal full-length that defined much of 1991 for not just the two of us but our entire troupe in a very small mid-Michigan town. I even had a massive Arise poster — I had planned on framing once I got a job — that we’d stare at silently up to or past “Subtraction.” It was summer, our sophomore year quite nearly a tombstone, and my friend pulls out the Dead Embryonic Cells cassette, procured that evening from Wherehouse Records. We pour over the Dead Embryonic Cells J-card while “Dead Embryonic Cells” blasts over his seemingly expensive stereo. We both saw the Motörhead attribution to “Orgasmatron” and were bummed intensely. We had never heard the original, much less anything outside of “Ace of Spades,” a cool track but unfitting for two young bucks eager for speed, aggression, and brutality. To know that our idols were covering, much less explicitly endorsing an “old hat” felt slightly like betrayal. We were almost 16 at the time, but the sentiment was pure. Then, “Orgasmatron” comes on. Simple, heavy, and with posturing with one of the deepest grooves since the Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon. Stunned, my friend hit the rewind button. We had to hear it again. Max’s gravel-throated voice fit perfectly the dire — anti-religious — lyrics. Sepultura effortlessly captured Motörhead’s surreal vibe, amped it up a notch, and made it feel like a natural extension of Arise. Now, in older age, I tend to prefer the Wizzö and Würzel version — check out this live video from ’84 (HERE) — but a return to Sepultura’s “Orgasmatron” reminds of mysterious times, launch ramps, kick flips, Hot ‘n Now, and our devotion to four long-hairs from a world away.
And 10 More (Honorable Mentions) go to:
1. Anthrax – “Antisocial” (Trust cover)
2. Danzig – “The Hunter” (Albert King cover)
3. Excel – “Message in the Bottle” (The Police cover)
4. Kreator – “Lambs to the Slaughter” (Raven cover)
5. Nevermore – “The Sounds of Silence” (Simon & Garfunkel cover)
6. Metallica – “Last Caress/Green Hell” (Misfits cover)
7. Slayer – “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (Iron Butterfly cover)
8. Testament – “Nobody’s Fault” (Aerosmith cover)
9. Overkill – “Frankenstein” (Edgar Winter Group cover)
10. Mordred – “Superfreak” (Rick James cover)