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Automatic Rejection

Fans of Jimi Hendrix are sometimes astonished to learn that the popular Hendrix tune “All Along the Watchtower” is actually a cover tune of a song originally composed by Bob Dylan. For those not clear on what I mean by the term “cover,” periodically some artist or band will record a song that is a redo of a song recorded by an earlier artist. “All Along the Watchtower” was noteworthy because it presented Jimi Hendrix as a lead guitarist displaying a level of prowess unlike anything ever heard in rock and roll circles up to that point. Nothing done by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Yes, Steppenwolf, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, or The Byrds captured the imagination of guitar aficionados at that time as did Jimi’s unusually gifted guitar playing.

The Hendrix cover of “All Along the Watchtower” was unusual for another reason. It was unusual in that it not only displayed shocking levels of lead guitar prowess, it also turned out to be more popular in many circles than the original Bob Dylan recording, which had come out six months earlier than the Hendrix recording. In fact, it even influenced Bob Dylan himself. He loved Jimi’s interpretation of the song, and actually did “covers” largely influenced by the Hendrix cover – essentially a cover of a cover.

In terms of rock and roll norms, having a cover be viewed in a more favorable light than the original is scarce.

Most of the time, even successful covers are typically seen in a somewhat less favorable light than the original. That doesn’t mean the cover is seen negatively, just not as accepted as the original.  Thus Elton John’s cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is seen as less compelling than the original recording by The Beatles. And as delightful as is Lenny Kravitz’ cover of “American Woman” by The Guess Who, it’s just tough to out-do the original. And while I simply love the soothing voice of Karen Carpenter, when you’ve got “A Ticket To Ride,” you really need to hear it from The Beatles.

And the list goes on: Aerosmith’s “Walk this Way” is the standard; Run-DMC’s cover is the wannabe.

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” is the original, while Ike & Tina Turner’s cover is the attempt at catching up with the sixties super band.

Petula Clark’s “Downtown” simply can’t be eclipsed by even Dolly Parton.

Why is this the case so often? Why is it that the original is usually preferred over the copycats?

I think it has something to do with human nature. We hear something original, and we allow that original “thing” (whatever it may be – music, architecture, business models, theologies, — whatever) to calcify into orthodoxies.

Thus, for many people who are reactive when a new idea, a new concept, a new way of doing things is proposed, their brains simply compare the “new” to the “existing” – that is, what is already familiar turf, and the “new” gets booted as unorthodox, as heresy, as an unwanted aberration.

This mental model is where the oft-heard phrase “But this is the way we’ve always done it” comes from. It’s an automatic and often unwise knee-jerk rejection of new possibilities. I suspect if Dolly Parton’s version of “Downtown” came first, that Petula Clark’s version would be seen as the somewhat lesser imitation.

So what’s the solution?

The solution is to assess all things on their own merits and not in comparison to what we already know. Our bias should not necessarily favor what came first. Thus, while Petula Clark’s “Downtown is the original, it is still, in my considered judgment, superior to all that have come after it. Yet although Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” was fabulous, Jimi Hendrix produced a version that was actually superior, as Bob Dylan would be the first to admit.

I will commit to evaluating ideas on their own merits, and not judge them against what I already know (or think I know).

Will you?

Ara Norwood is a multi-faceted and results-oriented professional. Spanning a multiplicity of disciplines including leadership, management, innovation, strategy, service, sales, business ethics, and entrepreneurship. Ara is also a historian, having special expertise on the era of the founding of our republic.
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