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The 10 Best Punk and Alternative Bob Dylan Covers

Bob Dylan (Credit: Bettman)

Bob Dylan is one of the most widely covered artists in popular music – hit versions of his songs by the Byrds and Peter, Paul and Mary helped make him famous, and Dylan covers by Jimi Hendrix and Guns N’ Roses permanently remain in rock radio rotation. And even artists from the punk and alternative scenes that tend to have less reverence for ‘60s nostalgia been drawn to the Dylan songbook, often giving his compositions dramatically different arrangements.

With Dylan’s first collection of new songs in eight years, Rough and Rowdy Ways, out now, here’s a look back at 10 Dylan songs that were memorably reimagined by punk, post-punk, indie, alternative, avant jazz and industrial artists.

10. My Chemical Romance – “Desolation Row”

“Desolation Row,” the mighty 11-minute closer from 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited, was quoted in Alan Moore’s classic 1987 graphic novel Watchmen. So when Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of Watchmen was released in 2009, emo icons My Chemical Romance recorded a cover for the soundtrack that included only three of the original song’s ten verses and compressed the song into a powerful three-minute anthem.

9. The Ramones – “My Back Pages”

At Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert, a lavish all-star affair at Madison Square Garden, Dylan sang “My Back Pages” with Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, and others at the climax of the show. A year later, the Ramones cranked up the tempo of the song for their covers album Acid Eaters. Joey Ramone let C.J. Ramone sing lead on “My Back Pages,” but was proud enough of the cover to bring a copy of the album backstage to Dylan at a concert in Tokyo. “Dylan walked over to me and said hello, it kinda freaked me out,” Joey said in an interview. “People always tell me, oh, Dylan’s in his own world, he doesn’t know what’s going on anymore. He knows.”

8. Scott Amendola Band with Carla Bozulich – “Masters of War”

California avant jazz drummer Scott Amendola’s band featured future Wilco guitarist Nels Cline on 2003’s Cry. And Cline’s Geraldine Fibbers bandmate Carla Bozulich guested on the album’s standout, a tour de force nine-minute rendition of “Masters of War” where Bozulich summons all the simmering rage of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s polemic against the military-industrial complex.

7. Ministry – “Lay Lady Lay”

“Lay Lady Lay” from 1969’s Nashville Skyline was the biggest hit from Dylan’s divisive country period, so it was a strange but inspired choice for industrial metal band Ministry to cover. They performed “Lay Lady Lay” for the first time in an acoustic set at the 1994 Bridge School Benefit with Eddie Vedder on backing vocals, but the version recorded for 1996’s Filth Pig coats the song’s swooning melody in distortion and bombast.

6. Patti Smith – “Drifter’s Escape”

You can’t put “punk” and “Bob Dylan” in the same sentence without bringing up Patti Smith, the most faithful Dylan acolyte among the artists who kicked off their careers at CBGB’s in the mid-‘70s. Smith met Dylan at one of his tour rehearsals at the Bitter End in New York City in 1975, a few months before her debut album Horses was released. They remained friends for decades including touring together in 1995. Smith has covered several Dylan songs in concert, including “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” at the 2016 ceremony where Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize. But her best studio recording of a Dylan track is a haunting take on “Drifter’s Escape” from 1967’s John Wesley Harding that appeared on the 2012 tribute album Chimes of Freedom.

5. Rage Against The Machine – “Maggie’s Farm”

Rage Against the Machine overhauled the music of the Bringing It All Back Home single “Maggie’s Farm” to fit their funk-metal sound on their 2000 covers album Renegades. But the take-this-job-and-shove-it attitude of the song is perfect for an anti-authority RATM anthem, and Zack de la Rocha specifically delivers the version of the lyrics that Dylan used in an especially fast and aggressive rendition of “Maggie’s Farm” that ruffled feathers at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Guitarist Tom Morello also covered Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” for his Nightwatchman solo project.

4. Sonic Youth – “I’m Not There”

“I’m Not There” was one of the dozens of songs Bob Dylan recorded in the famous Big Pink house with the Band in 1967. But it didn’t appear on the first official album of the sessions, 1975’s The Basement Tapes, and existed only on bootlegs for decades. Then Todd Haynes named his 2007 film I’m Not There, in which six different actors depict different versions of Dylan, after the song, and the ’67 recording was finally given its first commercial release on the movie’s soundtrack. The album features Sonic Youth covering “I’m Not There” with Thurston Moore on vocals, and Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley played in the Million Dollar Bashers’ house band that backs Stephen Malkmus, Tom Verlaine, and others on a variety of Dylan covers throughout the soundtrack

3. XTC – “All Along the Watchtower”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s classic 1968 cover of “All Along the Watchtower” has loomed large over every subsequent rendition of the song; even Dylan’s own live performances owe a debt to Hendrix’s transformation of his song. But XTC’s post-punk dub reggae version of “Watchtower” on their 1978 debut album White Music is the closest anyone has come to escaping Hendrix’s shadow. There’s a rubbery bassline, ominous organ, and no guitar — even singer Andy Partridge’s manic bursts of harmonica bear little resemblance to Dylan’s harmonica part on the original.

2. Jeff Buckley – “Just Like a Woman”

Folk singer Tim Buckley bristled at comparisons to Bob Dylan in the late ‘60s. But his son, Jeff Buckley, was a devoted Dylan fan who had several covers in his early solo performances, including “Mama, You Been On My Mind” and “If You See Her, Say Hello.” Buckley met his hero after signing to Dylan’s longtime label Columbia Records in 1993 and wrote him an apologetic letter after poking fun at him in a live performance. But his gorgeous ’93 studio recording of Blonde on Blonde’s “Just Like a Woman” wouldn’t be released until it appeared on the 2016 compilation You And I, long after Buckley’s 1997 death.

1. PJ Harvey – “Highway 61 Revisited”

Polly Jean Harvey’s Dylan fan parents suggested she cover the title track of 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited. But they probably didn’t expect how their daughter, along with producer Steve Albini, drummer Rob Ellis, and bassist Steve Vaughan would turn Dylan’s dryly funny song about World War III inside out as a bombastic highlight of her second album, 1993’s Rid of Me.