Many people probably consider ’50s rock and punk rock polar opposites. The ’50s were all about conformity, many people argue, and the punk rock of the ’70s and after is all about rebellion. What many people fail to see, however, is that 1950s rock ‘n’ roll was the beginning of the nonconformist attitudes that permeated much of the ’60s and ’70s. The very genre flew in the face of racism, for example, by combining white “hillbilly” country music with black rhythm and blues music.
It shouldn’t seem so surprising, then, that many punk bands (and some indie rock bands) have paid homage to their rockin’ ancestors by recording their own versions of 1950s rock songs. Punk covers of ’50s and ’60s songs aren’t a booming genre, but there’s a surprising number of them out there. Here are 10 of the best.
And if you want to listen to the songs in question, I’ve done a lot of the work for you; just click on the YouTube link at the bottom of each song description.
10: “Palisades Park” by Freddy Cannon, covered by The Ramones
This is the one that started it all for me. “Palisades Park” by Freddy Cannon is one of my favorite ’50s rock songs (Cannon has such a gritty voice; it contrasts beautifully, and a little ironically, when he sings that he “fell in love, down at Palisades Park”).
When I was browsing through iTunes one day, I stumbled upon The Ramone’s cover of the song. I downloaded it and instantly fell in love. Here was a song that combined three of my greatest sonic fetishes: covers, punk rock, and the ’50s. After listening to it over and over again, it occurred to me: there must be other great covers of “oldies” hits from the ’50s and ’60s. And thus, this list was born.
9: “Oh Boy!” by Buddy Holly, covered by MxPx
Cover albums seem to be increasingly common, and MxPx’s first cover album, On The Cover (yes, there’s two volumes), includes a catchy rendition of the song “Oh Boy!” by Buddy Holly.
8: “Earth Angel” by The Penguins, covered by Ghoti Hook
While MxPx is the quintessential Christian punk band, Ghoti Hook is kind of like their lesser known little brother. They have their own cover album, Songs We Didn’t Write, which features a fast-paced, punk-rock take on The Penguin’s “Earth Angel.”
7: “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash, covered by Social Distortion
It was actually Johnny Cash ‘s wife-to-be, June Carter, that wrote the song “Ring of Fire.” Social Distortion’s take on the tune seems to channel a bit of Cash’s bad boy attitude while still injecting it with some originality.
6: “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Hailey and His Comets, covered by The Sex Pistols
The Sex Pistols were one of the quintessential punk bands of the ’70s. Bill Hailey and His Comets were, arguably, the originators of rock ‘n’ roll music. So it’s appropriate to see the Pistols cover one of Bill Hailey’s biggest hits, “Rock Around the Clock.” It became the anthem of a new genre of music and a new generation.
5: “Runaway” by Del Shannon, covered by The Misfits
The Misfits have an entire album made up entirely of covers of 1950s songs. It’s called Project 1950. The best song from that album, in my opinion, is their cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” I’ve thought for years that this would be a great song for a modern group to cover, and I’m glad someone finally did.
4: “Earth Angel” by the Penguins (yes, again), covered by Death Cab for Cutie
Yes, I’ve included a second cover of “Earth Angel” on this list, because Death Cab for Cutie’s is just as noteworthy (arguably more noteworthy, even) as Ghoti Hook’s. It’s a very different interpretation of the song that Ghoti Hook’s, however; it’s slower and more thoughtful.
Incidentally, the song appears on another album that consists solely of covers of 1950s songs: the soundtrack to the video game Stubbs the Zombie.
3: “Lollipop” by Ronald and Ruby, covered by Ben Kweller
The Stubbs the Zombie soundtrack contains another outstanding track: Ben Kweller’s cover of the song Lollipop. Kweller’s catchy pop rock is a perfect match for this upbeat song. A darker interpretation would have been completely incompatible with the spirit of the song; Kweller’s take merely gives the oldie a great modern feel.
2: “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens, covered by The Plugz
The Plugz were a Mexican-American punk band that formed in the 1970s. Its not surprising that they would cover a song by Ritchie Valens, one of the first Hispanic performers to hit the rock ‘n’ roll scene. Their version is definitely faster and edgier, though.
1. “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers, covered by Pearl Jam
“Last Kiss,” a song about a young man losing his girlfriend in a car accident, has to be one of the most heart-wrenching songs in the world. Pearl Jam’s take on the song is powerful, although I’m not sure anyone can match the emotional power of the original song performed by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers.