Cover Versions: Metallica – Whiskey In The Jar  

COVER VERSIONS.  Some you love & some you hate.  Many of us could probably name plenty of cover versions that have completely ruined a great, if not iconic, song.  But this isn’t about songs that have been ruined – although that might be the subject for one or two Counter Culture reviews sometime in the near future!  On the contrary, this is about a cover version that, in my honest and humble opinion, is better than the original.  

To my mind, one of the best cover versions ever has got to be Metallica’s reworking of the Thin Lizzy classic, Whiskey In The Jar.  And one of the best live performances of it is this from the House of Vans, in London from 18th November 2016.  

Metallica performing in 2017. Picture from: Kreepin Deth, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Before we start to look at Metallica’s masterful version of this classic, it’ll probably be useful to provide a little background information about the song itself.  As some folks may know, Whiskey In The Jar is a traditional Irish song, thought to have been written in the 17th century.  The song itself is set in the southern mountains of Ireland – there are specific mentions of the Cork & Kerry mountains – and tells the tale of a highwayman who is betrayed by his wife or lover.  

The Dubliners, an Irish folk band, were probably the first group to really make the song popular.  Indeed, they included it on at least two albums – More of the Hard Stuff & Live at the Albert Hall– during the 1960s.   

Whiskey In The Jar has been covered by everyone from The Seekers to Bryan Adams.  However, the first version I ever heard was by the Dublin-based rock band Thin Lizzy who really brought it to prominence to my generation when their record company – Decca– released it in November 1972  

I have a very eclectic taste in music – and art in general – but have been into heavy metal & rock since my early teens.  My memory’s not as sharp as it was, but I’ve a vague notion that I’d seen Lizzy performingWhiskey In The Jar on TV.  I presume that this would’ve been on Top Of The Popswhich in those days was essential viewing for anyone interested in music.

Like most people, I was instantly hooked on the song – especially by the crisp & intricate introduction played by Belfast-born lead guitarist, Eric Bell.  Hopefully, this clip from 1973 will illustrate his musical prowess.

(Bell was one-third of Lizzy.  The other two were Brian Downey on drums & probably the most famous of all, Phil Lynott, who was the main songwriter, lead vocalist, and bassist.)  

Years later Bell showed that he’d lost none of his skill when he appeared with Gary Moore– a songwriter & former guitarist with Thin Lizzy.  Billed as Gary Moore and Friends: One Night in Dublin – A Tribute to Phil Lynott one of the highlights included Bell playing on this version of Whiskey In The Jar. 

Now that we’ve got what amounts to the history of Whiskey In The Jar out of the way, it’s time to examine what makes Metallica’sversion just so perfect.  

Metallica was formed in 1981 by main songwriter, vocalist & rhythm guitarist James Hetfield& drummer Lars Ulrich.  Both featured on Whiskey In The Jar alongside along lead guitarist Kirk Hammett& bassist Jason Newsted.  (Newsted was replaced by Robert Trujillo in 2003 & other former members include Cliff Burton, Ron McGovney & Dave Mustaine of Megadeth fame.)  

Whiskey In The Jar was actually the 21st single released by Metallica and featured on their 1998 covers album Garage Inc. The idea behind the album was to feature songs by artists that have influenced the band.  In addition to Thin Lizzy, it features covers of tracks from the likes of Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult & Lynyrd Skynyrd.  

So what makes Metallica’s version of Whiskey In The Jar just so perfect?  

For me it’s the way that they’ve taken a classic track, put their distinctive stamp on it, and made it even better than it was before.  For those into heavy music, there’s no getting away from the fact that Lizzy is most usually associated with Whiskey In The Jar – and rightly so.  However, there’s no mistaking that this version has Metallica written all over it.  

Earlier I mentioned that the introduction to Thin Lizzy’s Whiskey In The Jar had me & many others instantly hooked.  The same could be said of Metallica’sversion – although both versions are completely different!  Indeed, Metallica did away completely with Lizzy’s‘crisp & intricate’ intro & dive straight into the song itself.  

Despite the lack of a distinctive – almost iconic – intro, as soon as I heard Metallica open the song with a thumping ‘dun, dun, dun’ I was captivated.  I’ve absolutely loved their version from the very first time I heard it.  Every time I hear it, I find myself both headbanging – although, due to old age, it’s more of a slightly vigorous nod these days – and wishing that I could play any sort of instrument.  (Singing would be an extra bonus, but I gave up on that one years ago.)  

One of the things I love about Metallica’s version is that it’s just so powerful.  I’m wondering if that’s simply because they’re a much heavier band than Lizzywere – or is there something else to it?  To me, the combined & unrelenting beat created by Robert Trujillo on bass & Lars Ulrich on drums gives it the edge.  I also think James Hetfield has an earthier – maybe even more passionate – voice than Phil Lynott had.  Hetfield’s voice is very distinctive & is well suited to the song.  

Another thing I really like about the Metallica version can be seen at the gig that was mentioned earlier –  Here, I absolutely love Hetfield’s guitar solo (starting at around 2.55) which is completely different from the Lizzy original & his later interaction with the crowd who are clapping and chanting along with him.  

For me, therefore, Metallica have made Whiskey In The Jar their own and their version is simply by far the better version.  

Reviewed by John Field   

O  CHECK OUT the lyrics to Whiskey In The Jar here. 

O  COUNTER CULTURE would really be interested to hear the views of our readers relating to the Thin Lizzy v. Metallica versions of Whiskey In The Jar.  We’d also be interested to know what you think about cover versions in general.  Are there any that improve on the original – and are there any that absolutely butcher the original?  

1 Comment »

  1. Interesting. I too was hooked by those electrifying guitar notes of Bell’s – so very different from anything else at the time*1. You might not know but there’s no bass on Thin Lizzy’s version and on TOTP you can see Lynott playing acoustic guitar. Downey’s drums are excellent – and not as easy to reproduce as one might imagine. I have played this song as a drummer and guitarist (rhythm only) and have sung it many times, usually behind the kit but also ‘up front’ or around a campfire etc. I wonder if it’s the lack of bass that makes it less heavy? Probably. It straddles both folk and rock. The chaps were messing about between rehearsing and their manager (I think) spotted the potential for a single. Not sure the band were too keen. As a result of this they got booked into folk clubs where they played heavy rock! I can’t imagine Lynott’s vocals being bettered. I have heard Metallica’s version (but I would have to listen anew). And recently I read an article that had many audio clips attached from various bands. Still it’s Thin Lizzy’s version that rises supreme for me. And with Phil’s languid Dublin brogue translated through his singing – for me never bettered. The single Thin Lizzy released was a cut version on radio – but the song came out at over 5 minutes on vinyl – with a superb solo from Mr. Bell.
    Thanks for this review John.
    *1 – I think in 1973 Pilot released ‘January’ and that too had a very distinctive lead guitar line.
    Cheers!

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