Music Covers and “Renaissances”

One of the ways I think you know you may have hit upon a good theory is if it applies to a variety of areas of life.  If a historical theory holds water, it will do so by revealing something about the human experience in general, not just particular time periods.  Toynbee really impressed me with his theory of how civilizations interact across time, and this article got me thinking about how Toynbee’s theory of “Renaissances”  might apply with artists who cover other people’s songs.

As Toynbee elucidated, not all renaissances are created equal, with some giving life, and others taking it.  Music fans know that not all music covers have the same impact.  Some stink while others succeed.  But why?  Can we apply any general principles to our investigation related to our study of civilizations?  What makes for good or bad cover songs?

One of Toynbee’s theories is that interaction between two living civilization will bear more creative fruit than interactions between live civlizations and the ghosts of dead ones.  We only need to imagine the possibilities inherent in an active conversation between two people, and passively receiving a recording from the past to see the difference.  We can call a ‘living’ band one that is active at the time one of their songs is covered, and a ‘dead’ one as a band/artist no longer active.

First let’s examine some successful covers and see if they fit into the theory.Here are two great originals. . .

Toynbee claimed that one reason why interactions between the living can have more vitality is that the copying civilization (or in our case, artist) are by definition freed from the burden of rote homage.  They can’t merely repeat what the other existing band could easily do better, so they change it and put something of themselves into it.

Below Hendrix and Aretha Franklin cover Dylan and Redding.  These cover versions are deservedly better known, and superior to the originals:

Interestingly, Franklin patterns her version of ‘Respect’ right along Redding’s lines, but the switch of narrator from man to woman and slower tempo adds to the song’s swagger and gives it more life. Perhaps her gender difference with Redding allowed her to confidently assert herself rather than just mimic him.  With Hendrix, he takes Dylan’s song and gives the lyrics the weight, mystery, and energy they deserve.

Along the same lines, Joe Cocker had success interacting with the Beatles on his classic cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” at Woodstock, while the Beatles were technically still a living ‘civilization.’

Part of the reason for Cocker’s success is that he feels no need to emulate the Beatles, and is smart enough to know he cannot try and copy what the Beatles could do much better.

But not all would be so insightful.

Here is the Beatles’ “Come Together.”

A few years after they broke up and became a ‘dead civilization’ Aerosmith produced this monstrosity (and if anyone thinks that Ringo didn’t really have any chops, just compare his “light on his feet” performance with the elephant stomps of Joey Kramer):

Here Aerosmith, bringing back the ghost of the recently ‘dead’ Beatles, falls into a common trap.  They feel the need to pay homage, and lose any sense of creative space, producing the lifeless result we might expect under such conditions.  Lest you think Aerosmith an isolated example, let’s do another.

First, the classic original. . .

And now, Sheryl Crow’s regrettable cover of the then recently ‘dead’ Guns N’ Roses:

The problem is not that either Aerosmith or Crow lacks talent.  The problem is their proximity to the ‘dead’ source material creates the additional psychological burden.

Another principle for Toynbee is that of geographical distance.  Closer geographical proximity usually means closer cultural affinity, and less overall freedom.  We saw how in 15th century Europe southern Italy acted with less freedom to the classical revival than northern Europe in the post I linked above.  The Greeks and Romans were the southern Italians’ next door neighbors, but not so to those in the north.  The same can hold true in genres of music.  We see that when Aerosmith, a rock band, covers another rock band (the Beatles) the process of mimesis is often mechanical.  Hendrix and Dylan occupied different genres, as did Joe Cocker and the Beatles.  Franklin pulled off the very unusual feat of occupying similar territory as the artist she covered successfully, but as we’ve seen, the fact that Redding was still a ‘living civilization’ freed her at least from mere mimicry.

Jazz artists over time have often covered standards from popular music, but by the 1980”s-90’s this process grew stale.  Some jazz groups have started to revive the practice of using popular music as source material, but freed from attachment to the ‘Great American Songbook,’ they can choose from a whole new catalog.  Here is a ‘standard’ from my youth:

And here is The Bad Plus, completely reinterpreting it:

The ‘geographical’ difference of genre gives The Bad Plus much more freedom to create something new.

If you, like me, are willing to call Toynbee’s theory a success, are there others areas of life where we can apply his principles?

Many thanks,


And finally, a cover so awful and so bizarre I am shockingly at a loss for words to begin to categorize it.  Laugh, cry, or go running headlong screaming into the night — I can’t decide!  I dare anyone to actually listen to the whole thing. . .