Cover songs have been both a blessing and a curse for Van Halen.

During the band's early club days, it honed its chops and eventually developed a distinctive sound by performing songs made famous by classic artists like David BowieZZ Top and Ohio Players. "We played everything just to get the people in," bassist Michael Anthony told KLOS. "And once they were there, we would sneak in some of the original stuff and kind of grow our original stuff from there."

The first single from Van Halen's self-titled 1978 debut album wound up being a cover of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me." The decision didn't thrill Eddie Van Halen, but it did help listeners zero in on exactly what was so special about his guitar playing.

The following year, tables were turned when they had to convince their producer to let them record what would become one of their most beloved covers. In 1982, the exhausted band was forced to include five covers on the hastily recorded Diver Down, a circumstance that helped contribute to the breakup of the original lineup a few years later. You'll find that story and others in the below list of All 10 Van Halen Cover Songs Ranked.

10. "Happy Trails" (Roy Rogers and Dale Evans)
From: Diver Down (1982)

The countdown begins with a farewell. Originally just a humorous add-on to their 1977 Warner Bros. demo tape, Van Halen dug out their a cappella rendition of Roy Rogers' theme song during the mad dash to find usable material for 1982's Diver Down. They wound up singing the song live at the end of most shows on the following tour. It's fun, but it's also barely a minute long, so it's hard to put it ahead of any of their other covers.

 

9. "A Apolitical Blues" (Little Feat)
From: OU812 (1988)

Five years after the Diver Down experience turned them off to cover songs, Van Halen voluntarily dipped their toe back into that world by tackling Lowell George's "A Apolitical Blues." It stands out on 1988's polished OU812 because they recorded it the same way Little Feat did: playing live together in one room. "I said, 'Let's get all sloppy and blues out," Hagar told writer Martin Popoff. "I sang and played rhythm guitar on that song. We played live, and Eddie overdubbed the piano part on it. Nothing else was overdubbed."

 

8. "Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)" (Margaret Young)
From: Diver Down (1982)

At least one good thing came out of Diver Down's rushed, cover-heavy sessions: Eddie and Alex Van Halen got to record with their father. Jan Van Halen, who played clarinet and saxophone in jazz and big bands, can be heard soloing all over the band's cover of the '20s relic "Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now.)" "I love what he did," Eddie said in a 1982 Guitar World interview. "My father hadn't played in a long time, because he had lost his left-hand middle finger about 10 years ago. He was nervous, and we told him, 'Jan, just have a good time. We make mistakes! That's what makes it real.'" Jan Van Halen died in 1986, and Van Halen dedicated their next album, 1988's OU812, to his memory. During a 2017 Q&A at the Smithsonian, a fan asked Eddie which late musician he'd most love to play with. He quickly answered: "I'd love to jam with my father again."

 

7. "Won’t Get Fooled Again" (The Who)
From: Live: Right Here, Right Now (1993)

"A Apolitical Blues" was the only cover song on the four studio albums Van Halen recorded with Sammy Hagar, but the band included a version of the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" on its first live LP, 1993's Live: Right Here Right Now. Hagar was familiar with singing Roger Daltrey's parts, having performed "Baba O'Riley" several times on his 1983 solo tour, while Eddie Van Halen found a creative way to replicate Pete Towsnhend's distinctive keyboard parts on his guitar.

 

6. "Dancing in the Street" (Martha and the Vandellas)
From: Diver Down (1982)

To hear Eddie Van Halen tell it, this might be the song most responsible for bringing about the end of Van Halen's original lineup. "Diver Down was a turning point for me, because half of it was cover tunes," he said in a 2014 interview. "I was working on a great song with this Minimoog riff that ended up being used on ‘Dancing in the Street.' It was going to be a completely different song. I envisioned it being more like a Peter Gabriel song instead of what it turned out to be, but when [producer] Ted Templeman heard it, he decided it would be great for ‘Dancing in the Street.'” Over the next few years, a series of dominoes fell: Van Halen built his own recording studio and insisted the band record 1984 there. Then he pushed past the objections of Templeman and David Lee Roth to record the keyboard-heavy No. 1 hit "Jump." Those moves permanently shifted the balance of power within the band, greasing the wheels for Roth's 1985 departure. Even though we never got to hear the song the guitarist intended for his Minimoog riff, that part does fit pretty well into their "Dancing in the Street" cover. And it's sure better than what Mick Jagger and David Bowie did to it three years later.

 

5. "(Oh) Pretty Woman" (Roy Orbison)
From: Diver Down (1982)

The plan was to buy time, and it backfired spectacularly. Exhausted after releasing an album a year for four straight years and touring nearly nonstop in between, Van Halen agreed to record a quickie cover of Roy Orbison's "(Oh) Pretty Woman" to buy themselves a break before recording another album. Only problem: They did the job too well, adding their own brand of charm, swagger and muscle to an already irresistible song. The single raced up the chart, becoming Van Halen's biggest hit since 1979's "Dance the Night Away," and suddenly Warner Bros. was pressuring them to make an album to capitalize on the unexpected success. The band stitched together four more covers, three instrumentals and a couple of leftover songs in 12 days, which resulted in the surprisingly cohesive Diver Down.

 

4. "Where Have All the Good Times Gone" (The Kinks)
From: Diver Down (1982)

Van Halen's club-days repertoire came in handy when they suddenly had just two weeks to make Diver Down. "We're capable of playing six different Kinks songs," David Lee Roth told Sounds in 1982. "I bought a double album from K-Tel or something that had 30 Kinks tunes on it. We learned all of one side and played them into the dirt during the club gigs, twice a night each one, because they sounded so good and were so great to dance to." The effortlessly simmering groove the band conjures on "Where Have All the Good Times Gone" makes you wish they'd done an entire album of Ray Davies songs. (You'll find another one a little lower on this list.)

 

3. "Ice Cream Man" (John Brim)
From: Van Halen (1978)

Eddie Van Halen isn't the only person playing guitar on Van Halen's debut album. David Lee Roth was performing solo versions of John Brim's "Ice Cream Man" before he joined the band, and he handled the song's acoustic opening on record and in concert, where the song became his big spotlight moment. Eddie Van Halen eventually takes over on electric guitar, breaking out one of the album's most technically challenging solos while stretching his fingers into something resembling an Alien Facehugger.

 

2. "You’re No Good" (Dee Dee Warwick)
From: Van Halen II (1979)

Although he was usually a big proponent of cover songs, producer Ted Templeman wasn't sure Van Halen should attempt to record the '60s R&B hit "You're No Good" for their second album. His biggest concern was that Linda Ronstadt had taken her own version of the song to No. 1 just four years earlier. "So what, man," Templeman recalls Roth telling him in his 2020 autobiography, A Platinum Producer's Life in Music. "We'll scare people with ours." The band indeed came up with a distinctive and menacing cover, proving its music could be more than just a party soundtrack.

 

1. "You Really Got Me" (The Kinks)
From: Van Halen (1978)

"It kind of bummed me out that Ted [Templeman] wanted our first single to be someone else's tune," Eddie Van Halen said of his longtime producer in a 1982 Guitar World interview. While there's no shortage of great original material on Van Halen, Templeman's "If it's been a hit once, you're halfway there" mentality served the band well with its cover of the Kinks' groundbreaking 1964 single "You Really Got Me." By tinkering with such a classic song right out of the gate, Van Halen basically announced their intention to rewrite rock 'n' roll's vocabulary for a new generation.

 

Van Halen Albums Ranked