All Along the Watchtower…can a remake, copy, be as good of better than the original? Innovation is not always about creating something entirely new. This is a great story–when you read what Bob Dylan had to say about Jimi Hendrix and what he did to the original version…two very different artists with incredible respect for each other.
“All Along the Watchtower” is a song written and recorded by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. The song, which has been included on most of Dylan’s greatest hits compilations, initially appeared on his 1967 album John Wesley Harding. Over the past 35 years, he has performed it in concert more than any of his other songs. Different versions appear on four of Dylan’s live albums.
Covered by numerous artists in various genres, “All Along the Watchtower” is strongly identified with the interpretation Jimi Hendrix recorded for Electric Ladyland with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Hendrix version, released six months after Dylan’s original recording, became a Top 20 single in 1968 and was ranked 47th in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Dylan wrote “All Along the Watchtower” along with the other songs on John Wesley Harding over the year or so following his motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966. His recuperation from the accident, which occurred near his home in Woodstock, New York, enabled Dylan to escape the excesses of touring and make a dramatic turnaround in his lifestyle. With one child born in early 1966 and another in mid-1967, he settled into family life and even took a growing interest in the Bible, as reflected in the album’s Biblical allusions, particularly in songs such as “All Along the Watchtower”, “Dear Landlord”, “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and “The Wicked Messenger”.
Several reviewers have pointed out that the lyrics in “All Along the Watchtower” echo lines in the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 21, verses 5-9:
Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise ye princes, and prepare the shield./For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth./And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed./…And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.
Commenting on the songs on his album John Wesley Harding, in an interview published in the folk music magazine Sing Out! in October 1968, Dylan told John Cohen and Happy Traum:
“I haven’t fulfilled the balladeers’s job. A balladeer can sit down and sing three songs for an hour and a half… it can all unfold to you. These melodies on John Wesley Harding lack this traditional sense of time. As with the third verse of “The Wicked Messenger”, which opens it up, and then the time schedule takes a jump and soon the song becomes wider… The same thing is true of the song “All Along the Watchtower”, which opens up in a slightly different way, in a stranger way, for we have the cycle of events working in a rather reverse order.”
The unusual structure of the narrative was remarked on by English Literature professor Christopher Ricks, who commented that “All Along the Watchtower” is an example of Dylan’s audacity at manipulating chronological time: “at the conclusion of the last verse, it is as if the song bizarrely begins at last, and as if the myth began again.”
Critics have described Dylan’s version as a masterpiece of understatement. Andy Gill said “In Dylan’s version of the song, it’s the barrenness of the scenario which grips, the high haunting harmonica and simple forward motion of the riff carrying understated implications of cataclysm; as subsequently recorded by Jimi Hendrix, … that cataclysm is rendered scarily palpable through the dervish whirls of guitar.”
Dave Van Ronk, an early supporter and mentor of Dylan, made the following criticism of the song:
That whole artistic mystique is one of the great traps of this business, because down that road lies unintelligibility. Dylan has a lot to answer for there, because after a while he discovered that he could get away with anything—he was Bob Dylan and people would take whatever he wrote on faith. So he could do something like “All Along the Watchtower,” which is simply a mistake from the title on down: a watchtower is not a road or a wall, and you can’t go along it.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
The Jimi Hendrix Experience began to record their cover version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” on January 21, 1968, at Olympic Studios in London. According to engineer Andy Johns, Jimi Hendrix had been given a tape of Dylan’s recording by publicist Michael Goldstein, who worked for Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. “(Hendrix) came in with these Dylan tapes and we all heard them for the first time in the studio”, recalled Johns. According to Hendrix’s regular engineer Eddie Kramer, the guitarist cut a large number of takes on the first day, shouting chord changes at Dave Mason who had appeared at the session and played guitar. Halfway through the session, bass player Noel Redding became dissatisfied with the proceedings and left. Mason then took over on bass. According to Kramer, the final bass part was played by Hendrix himself. Kramer and Chas Chandler mixed the first version of “All Along The Watchtower” on January 26, but Hendrix was quickly dissatisfied with the result and went on re-recording and overdubbing guitar parts during June, July, and August at the Record Plant studio in New York. Engineer Tony Bongiovi has described Hendrix becoming increasingly dissatisfied as the song progressed, overdubbing more and more guitar parts, moving the master tape from a four-track to a twelve-track to a sixteen-track machine. Bongiovi recalled, “Recording these new ideas meant he would have to erase something. In the weeks prior to the mixing, we had already recorded a number of overdubs, wiping track after track. [Hendrix] kept saying, ‘I think I hear it a little bit differently.’ The finished version was released on the album Electric Ladyland in September 1968. The single reached number five in the British charts, and number 20 on the Billboard chart, Hendrix’s only top 20 / top 40 entry there. The song also had the #5 spot on Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos.
Dylan has described his reaction to hearing Hendrix’s version: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” In the booklet accompanying his Biograph album, Dylan said: “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way… Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”
This version of the song appears at number 48 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and in 2000, British magazine Total Guitar named it top of the list of the greatest cover versions of all time.
There are a few other versions of Dylan’s work worthy of note: All I got is a red guitar, 3 chords and the truth
And of course… the Batllestar Galactica version…come on man… listen to it… very cool, very different..