I was obsessed with the thrash metal band Anthrax in the late ‘80s. After repeatedly seeing their videos on MTV, I purchased several of their albums and even saw them headline the Headbangers Ball Tour in 1989.
Around that time, I remember having a heated dinner-time discussion with my brother about Anthrax’s long-term musical prospects. “They won’t be around in five years,” my brother declared. I was more confident in the band’s sustainability, but even I couldn’t have predicted that thirty-two years later the group would be celebrating its 40th anniversary. I doubt even they could have imagined such longevity. Metal still rules, apparently.
The band marks its official start date as July 18, 1981, when guitarist Scott Ian and founding bassist Dan Lilker formed the band. They celebrated the milestone this summer with the release of an extensive YouTube documentary chronicling the band’s history and a digital livestream concert.
Though they’ve had many lineup changes over the years, for the past decade it’s been largely stable. Four of the five members I saw play in 1989 are still performing with the group: founder and rhythm guitarist Scott Ian, drummer Charlie Benante, bassist Frank Bello, and vocalist Joey Belladonna (who has had several stints in the band). These days, Jonathan Donais handles lead guitar duties, one of many to hold that title over the decades.
As with any long-running musical franchise, the group has had its highs and lows. The band experienced mainstream success in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as they were regulars on MTV and had several gold records. Their fortunes slipped in the mid-and-late ‘90s; one record label dropped them, and another label folded just as they were releasing their eighth album.
In the new millennium, they have endured as one of the elder statesmen of the metal genre. The group appeared alongside their thrash metal cohorts Megadeth, Slayer and Metallica (who also turn 40 this year) in a series of massive stadium shows in 2010 dubbed The Big Four. Since then, they have continued to tour and have released two well-regarded studio albums.
Unlike many of their fellow metal gods, the band seemed to approach the genre with a sense of humor, poking fun at themselves along the way. In 1992, they appeared on an episode of Married…With Children. Then, in 2003, they had a brief cameo in Calendar Girls, a film about a group of British ladies who go topless for charity.
This sense of euphoria seems to have filtered through to their covers as well. Whether the band is playing songs by the likes of Kiss, the Temptations, Joe Jackson, Black Sabbath, or Boston, they come across as if they’re having a great time performing the songs. Here’s a rundown of some of the best cover songs they’ve released in their four decades.
Anthrax – I’m Eighteen (Alice Cooper cover)
Anthrax’s 1984 debut album Fistful of Metal is the band’s only record to feature vocalist Neil Turbin. He was dropped from the lineup shortly after its release. For their “I’m Eighteen” cover, Anthrax sped the track up, adding some powerful lead guitar and a thunderous call and response on the final chorus. On the track, Turbin channels the high-pitched howling of such great British metal singers as Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson.
Anthrax – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (Black Sabbath cover)
This cover song actually played a big part of my early musical education. Amidst my Anthrax musical binge in the ‘80s, I bought the group’s EP I’m The Man on cassette, largely to hear the rap-metal-powered title track. Mixed in between the three separate versions of “I’m The Man” was the full-fledged thrash tune “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.” The track features heavy-pounding distorted guitars and Joey Belladonna’s wailing vocals. I remember rocking out to it with one of my friends, thinking it was one of best songs I’d ever heard.
My friend just happened to mention it to his guitar teacher. The guy told him, presumably with a bit of frustration in his voice, that it was actually a Black Sabbath cover. Given the song’s title, this should have been obvious, but impossible for the average 11-year-old metalhead to know in pre-Internet days. Intrigued, I went to my local music store, Scotti’s Record Shop, and found a copy of the album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath in the discount CD bin for $8.99. Though I was surprised at how mellow some of the tracks were (see “Fluff”), to this day the Sabbath album still stands out as one of my all-time personal favorites.
Anthrax – Antisocial (Trust cover)
Founded in the late ‘70s, Trust was a French hard rock band that fused elements of rock, punk and metal. Though largely unknown outside of Europe, in the late ‘80s their song “Antisocial” became essential metal listening when Anthrax recorded a cover for their 1988 record State of Euphoria. The band translated the song from French to English (and later released a French version). The track, with its easy-to-sing chorus “You’re Anti/You’re Antisocial,” became a metal anthem. But it was the video that truly defined the song. It was a classic example of an ‘80s-style “It’s great to be a rock star” video. It showed the band playing on a custom stage, looking as if they were having the time of their lives, which perhaps they were.
Anthrax – Got the Time (Joe Jackson cover)
The band’s 1990 video for its cover of Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time” is the perfect antidote for the excesses of the ‘80s. The video features the band in all black, playing and headbanging in a small room. The short, bass-powered cover blends punk and metal and hinted at the hard rock trends to come in the ensuing decade.
Anthrax – Bring the Noise (Public Enemy cover)
Beyond their prowess as a thrash band, Anthrax is also one of the founding fathers of rap metal. You can either thank them or curse them, depending on your views of groups like Limp Bizkit and Korn. In 1987, they released the rap song “I’m The Man.” Several years later, in 1991, they covered Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” a song that mentioned the band directly: “Wax is for Anthrax, still it can rock bells.” Anthrax reworked the horns, scratches and samples from the original and replaced them with fast-moving, funk metal style drums and bone-crunching power chords. Chuck D and Flavor Flav joined the group on the track and in the video, but don’t call it a remix. In an interview for the Anthrax 40th Anniversary documentary, Chuck D calls it a cover, so we’ll take his word for it.
Anthrax – Pipeline (The Chantays cover)
One can draw a direct line from ‘60s surf rock to thrash metal. Surf rock is defined by its quick beats, heavy bass lines and fast-moving guitars. Both genres were meant as the background music for a specific sport: surf rock, of course, was for riding waves; while thrash served as the soundtrack to the skateboard park. On this cover of the Chantays’ instrumental surf rocker, Anthrax cranked up the distortion while keeping the melodic guitar riff from the original intact.
Anthrax – She (Kiss Cover)
In the early ‘80s, John Bush, lead singer of the metal band Armored Saint, got an intriguing job offer. The then-upstart metal band Metallica asked him to be the lead singer, as James Hetfield wanted to focus on guitar playing. Bush declined, and opted to stay with his own band. A decade later in 1992 he got a similar offer from Anthrax, who had recently dismissed vocalist Joey Belladonna. This time, Bush accepted.
With Bush in the lineup, the group covered Kiss’s “She” for the 1994 tribute album Kiss My Ass: Classic Kiss Regrooved. It might be the only album to feature Anthrax and Garth Brooks’ names side by side on the cover. The lyrics are downright silly, like a 12-year-old’s idea of a porno flick: “The powers are within her/ As she takes off her clothes.” Thankfully, the guitar parts are more memorable and serve as a solid foundation for Scott Ian and Dan Spitz to play off one another’s sounds. With Bush’s vocals and Charlie Benante’s drum beats, the song has a ‘90s grunge feel.
Anthrax – Ball of Confusion (The Temptations Cover)
Given the vast difference between Joey Belladonna and John Bush’s vocal styles, it’s no wonder Anthrax fans debate each singer’s contributions to the band. For those looking for the best of both worlds, there’s the band’s cover of the Temptations’ classic message song “Ball of Confusion.” Recorded for the 1999 compilation Return of the Killer A’s, the song opens up with the original’s familiar baseline. It then shifts into thrash mode as Belladonna and Bush trade off on vocals. Their voices are so different, that it feels natural when they sing the verses separately and come back together in the chorus. It’s almost as if they should have been in a band together. Or started their own vocal group!
Anthrax – Neon Knights (Black Sabbath Cover)
Speaking of bands with multiple singers, Black Sabbath has had many frontmen over the years. The second most famous singer was the great Ronnie James Dio, an operatic vocalist whose voice and sound had a very obvious influence on Anthrax’s Joey Belladonna. After Dio passed away, Anthrax paid tribute to him with this cover of “Neon Knights,” the opening track to Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell. Belladonna does such an expert recreation of Dio’s vocals, it’s a wonder Black Sabbath did not try to recruit him.
Anthrax – Smokin’ (Boston Cover)
Joey Belladonna rejoined Anthrax permanently in 2010. When not fronting the band, he sings and plays drums in a classic rock cover band called Chief Big Way, which regularly performs in bars in upstate New York. He fused both projects together on Anthems, Anthrax’s 2013 EP of rock covers. The album includes tracks by the likes of Journey, AC/DC, Thin Lizzy, and Rush. Belladonna’s voice soars as he sings like a great lost ‘70s frontman. The standout track is this take on Boston’s “Smokin’.” The track plays like a straight-up homage to Boston’s original and even includes some keyboards. Using that particular instrument was once considered an unforgivable sin in thrash metal, but on this cover it somehow feels essential.