Hello there! This week we will discuss a fantastic rock ‘n roll song, All Along the Watchtower. We will first review the original song by Bob Dylan. Next we will feature covers of this song by Jimi Hendrix and by Neil Young.
Bob Dylan and All Along the Watchtower:
Bob Dylan is one of the greatest, quite probably THE greatest, singer-songwriters of folk and rock music. We have discussed his work several times. In an earlier blog, we reviewed his cover of The House of the Rising Sun. We also discussed his version of Four Strong Winds. Later, we covered his song Mr. Tambourine Man and also It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. Finally we produced a post celebrating his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.
So here we will focus on the story of All Along the Watchtower. I will dedicate this post to my friend and colleague Glenn Gass. Glenn has developed a course on Bob Dylan at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, and in addition Neil Young is one of Glenn’s favorite artists.
All Along the Watchtower was one of the songs on Dylan’s great 1967 album John Wesley Harding. The album was named after a Texas outlaw John Wesley Hardin (though the name is mis-spelled). The cover of that album is shown at left.
After his motorcycle accident in July 1966, Dylan spent more than 18 months recuperating at his home in Woodstock, NY. All the songs on the John Wesley Harding album were written and recorded in the fall of 1967.
After three albums of electric R&B music, on John Wesley Harding Dylan switched back to a more familiar territory, with songs that were more in the folk-rock or country genre.
Below is a photo of Bob Dylan with an acoustic Gibson guitar and harmonica. He is recording his first album Bob Dylan at Columbia Records’ New York studios in November 1961.Embed from Getty Images
John Wesley Harding was recorded at Columbia Studio A in Nashville, TN. The album was produced by Bob Johnston, who had also produced Dylan’s previous albums, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.
Like Dylan’s previous few albums, the lyrics on some of these songs are rather personal, and in several cases somewhat cryptic.
This is certainly the case with All Along the Watchtower. It paints a vivid picture of two people, the joker and the thief, who are conversing with one another.
“There must be some way out of here” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”
“No reason to get excited”, the thief he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate.
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”.
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
There has been an enormous amount of speculation about Dylan’s intent on this song. First off, it has been pointed out that the lyrics are strongly reminiscent of chapter 21 of the Book of Isaiah:
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.
Of course, Bob Dylan is certainly not going to confirm or deny these hypotheses.
It has also been pointed out that the song has a complicated structure. The last two lines of the song appear to provide the beginning of any action that is occurring.
However, with all great Dylan songs one can simply ignore all the speculation, and just sit back and enjoy this fascinating and powerful word-poem, embedded in a terrific musical setting.
Here is the audio of Bob Dylan’s recording of All Along the Watchtower.
On this rather sparse recording, Dylan accompanies himself on acoustic guitar, and is backed by Charlie McCoy on bass and Kenneth Buttrey on drums. After each verse, Dylan interjects a plaintive solo on harmonica.
All Along the Watchtower was released as a single in Nov. 1968. It failed to dent the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts. This is strange, because as we will see the song has been tremendously influential, and has incredible staying power. For example, there are roughly 200 covers of Dylan’s tune.
And now here is Bob Dylan in a live performance of All Along the Watchtower.
I don’t know when this concert took place, or any other details, but I consider it a fascinating performance. First off, Dylan performs it as a hard-rock tune. The audio is somewhat unbalanced (too heavy on bass and drums); however the net effect is to heighten the immediacy of the band.
As we will see, Bob Dylan’s performance owes a lot to Jimi Hendrix’ cover of this song. Dylan freely acknowledges this; not only does he admit to incorporating elements of Hendrix’ cover, but he considers his performances of All Along the Watchtower to be a tribute following Jimi’s death.
I know of no other song that Dylan has modified because of someone’s cover of his tune, so this is quite a statement from Bob.
All Along the Watchtower is probably Bob Dylan’s favorite song in his live concerts. It is estimated that through 2015, Dylan had performed the tune 2,257 times (yes, there are people who count this stuff!!)
We will end this section with a bit of fluff. Every year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame throws a concert to introduce its newly inducted class. The class of 1988 included Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Drifters, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, the Supremes, Les Paul and Berry Gordy, Jr. – wow, what a group!
The Hall of Fame induction ceremony and concert always finishes with an “All-Star Jam.” At this point the entire group sings some of the most memorable tunes from the honorees.
Here is the group ‘singing’ All Along the Watchtower.
In addition to honorees Dylan, George Harrison and Ringo, and Les Paul, I believe that I caught sight of Paul Shaffer, Billy Joel, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Little Richard, Mick Jagger, Mike Love and Yoko Ono.
The All-Star Jam is generally a hot mess – it could as well be called “Practice? We don’t need no stinking practice.” I counted at least three drummers and three people on keyboards in this over-blown ensemble, and God knows how many are noodling around on guitar. Initially, it is not clear that Bob Dylan’s mic is on, and the song doesn’t actually end but simply runs out of gas.
Oh well, it’s fun rubber-necking at the incredible talent they assembled for this bash.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience and All Along the Watchtower:
We have discussed Jimi Hendrix previously on this blog. We first encountered him in a post that analyzed different pop-music takes on our national anthem. Next we reviewed his cover of the Chuck Berry tune Johnny B. Goode. And finally, we discussed his cover of the song Hey Joe. So here we will briefly review his life and career.
Jimi Hendrix is generally (and deservedly) considered the greatest rock guitarist of all time. He had a meteoric career – Jimi appeared almost out of nowhere; took the field of rock music by storm; and died less than five years after the start of his solo career.
James Marshall Hendrix was born in Seattle in Nov. 1942. He was a shy, introverted youth who spent considerable time in foster care as his parents were both alcoholics who became violent when intoxicated.
Jimi Hendrix’s first musical instrument was a ukulele with just one string. In 1958, he got his first guitar and taught himself to play by copying the guitar parts to famous rock ‘n roll songs.
Below is a photo of Jimi Hendrix performing at Royal Albert Hall, in Feb. 1969.Embed from Getty Images
After being discharged from the Army, Jimi moved to Nashville, where he performed at a number of black venues on what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. He also worked as a session musician for artists such as Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.
In 1964, Hendrix moved to New York and began frequenting clubs in Harlem. He was hired as a guitarist with the Isley Brothers band, and later worked with Little Richard’s backup group The Upsetters.
Hendrix got into trouble in both bands, as he persisted in showing off his flashy guitar technique when he was supposed to be toiling in the background for the star vocalists. So Jimi assembled his own band and began performing in Greenwich Village.
There, Hendrix caught the eye of Chas Chandler, who had been the bass player for the British Invasion group The Animals. Chandler brought Hendrix to London and hooked him up with guitarist Noel Redding, who agreed to play bass with the group, and drummer Mitch Mitchell, to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
After rehearsing for a couple of weeks in fall, 1966, the band was ready to go. Their first performances must have been phenomenal, because in November 1966, when the Jimi Hendrix Experience appeared at London’s Bag O’Nails Club, the audience included
Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger.
In January 1968, an associate of Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman brought Jimi Hendrix pre-release tapes of Dylan’s recording of All Along the Watchtower. Intrigued by the song, Jimi began working up a hard-rock version of the tune.
Hendrix recorded an initial version of All Along the Watchtower on Jan. 26, 1968. However, Jimi continued to work on the song for a number of weeks afterward.
At some point, bassist Noel Redding left the studio, and Jimi himself laid down a bass line. Rolling Stones member Brian Jones was present in the studio, and both he and Jimi provided contributions on various percussion instruments.
Jimi kept adding overdubs in subsequent weeks, and various sections of the song were added to or erased. As a result of these many changes, it is not entirely clear who is playing what on the final version.
So here is The Jimi Hendrix Experience in the audio of their recording of All Along the Watchtower.
In this recording, Hendrix gives a completely original and stunning version of All Along the Watchtower. The guitar parts are quite brilliant, showing Hendrix’ complete mastery of the instrument. We get virtuoso trills, stunning use of feedback, and unsurpassed work on the wah-wah pedal.
Several critics rate the Jimi Hendrix Experience version of All Along the Watchtower as the greatest cover of all time (for example, British magazine Total Guitar had it #1 in their list of the all-time great covers). Also, Guitar World ranked Hendrix’ guitar solo here as #5 in their list of 100 Greatest Guitar Solos.
Bob Dylan himself was eloquent in his praise of Jimi’s cover of his own song.
“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.”
The Jimi Hendrix Experience cover of All Along the Watchtower was released as a single in Sept. 1968. This debuted a month before the album containing the tune, Electric Ladyland, was released. The song went to #5 on the British pop charts and #20 on the Billboard Hot 100. This was the highest-charting single ever for Hendrix.
Here is Jimi Hendrix in a live performance of All Along the Watchtower.
This is from a performance in Atlanta in 1970. I’m sorry, both the audio and video quality are sub-par; however you can appreciate why Hendrix was such a bombshell. His guitar playing was so original and creative, and his technique was mind-blowing.
I enjoy this video because it focuses on Jimi’s guitar playing. You can see how he produces the amazing sounds that he coaxed from his Fender Stratocaster. Since Jimi was left-handed, he simply turned his axe upside-down. Note that this reverses the ‘normal’ positions of the high and low strings on the guitar.
Jimi Hendrix’ American break-through occurred at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Hendrix gave an unforgettable performance at Monterey, capped off when he set his guitar on fire at the end of his set.
Hendrix followed this up with a sensational performance at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969, at a time when he was the highest-paid rock musician in the world. Probably the highlight of his set at Woodstock was Jimi’s explosive performance of the Star-Spangled Banner, which used amplifier feedback, distortion, and sustain to replicate the sounds made by rockets and bombs.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience lasted for three mind-blowing albums. After that, the trio broke up in June, 1969 due to personal and musical differences.
Jimi Hendrix then performed with various groups of musicians. In 1970 he assembled a new trio, replacing Noel Redding from the original Jimi Hendrix Experience with Billy Cox. In mid-1970 this group commenced the City of Love tour – the live clip we showed was from this tour.
In September the City of Love tour had reached Europe. Hendrix spent the night of Sept. 17 with girlfriend Monika Dannemann. Dannemann testified that they had a bottle of wine, visited some friends, and returned to her apartment.
The following morning, Dannemann found Hendrix unconscious and unresponsive. He was taken to a hospital, but pronounced dead early that afternoon. A post-mortem autopsy revealed that Hendrix had died of asphyxia while intoxicated with barbiturates.
Jimi Hendrix’ tragic death was a major loss for rock music. Although he only performed as a solo artist for about five years, his creative contributions were truly mind-blowing. He was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Both Rolling Stone magazine and Guitar World rank Hendrix #1 on their list of the greatest guitarists of all time.
Neil Young and All Along the Watchtower:
Neil Young is a multi-talented singer-songwriter, who grew up in Canada but then moved to California in 1966. His first big band was Buffalo Springfield, which he formed with fellow musicians Stephen Stills and Richie Furay.
By the way, surely Buffalo Springfield has to be the only band named after a steamroller company! At left we show a funky 1924 steamroller manufactured by the Buffalo Springfield Company.
Following the breakup of Buffalo Springfield, Young teamed up for a while to form the short-lived supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Neil contributed to some of CSNY’s early songs and concert appearances, but fairly rapidly left that group.
Since that time, Neil Young has carved out an extraordinary career as a solo artist. He is exceptionally prolific, continuing to churn out albums at a rate of about one per year.
Neil Young is also known for his eclectic versatility. Much of his solo work is acoustic, however he also teams up from time to time with the band Crazy Horse to tour and produce hard-rock music.
Musical styles such as alternative rock and grunge also adopted elements from Young. His influence has caused some to dub him the “Godfather of Grunge.”
Below is a photo of Neil Young in concert, circa 1970.Embed from Getty Images
Young also has a distinctive guitar style. I am not a big fan of his guitar playing, but I have to admit that his guitar technique is unique. Young is adept on keyboards as well.
Here is Neil Young in a live performance of All Along the Watchtower.
This took place at the Bob Dylan 30th anniversary concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden in Oct. 1992. At this concert, the backing band included the three surviving members of Booker T & the MGs – Booker T. Jones on keyboards; Steve Cropper on guitar and Duck Dunn on bass. Anton Fig and Jim Keltner appeared on drums.
Here, Neil gives a spirited hard-rock performance of All Along the Watchtower, in a version clearly inspired by Jimi Hendrix. One of Neil’s inimitable guitar solos accompanies the song.
Neil Young’s songs cover a vast range, from political protest anthems to deeply personal topics dealing with relationships and breakups, to anti-drug songs (several of which involve colleagues who have suffered or died from addictions), to hard-rock anthems.
Neil Young has also made extraordinary contributions as a social activist. I will mention just two of these. The first is Farm Aid, a series of concerts organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Young to benefit small farmers and to provide them with some financial relief.
A second notable charitable organization is the Bridge School, an institution that deals with youth afflicted with severe disabilities. Young helped organize the school in 1986 and sponsors annual benefit concerts that raised a ton of money for this cause.
Neil Young has a very personal connection to the Bridge School. Of his three children, two have cerebral palsy and the third has epilepsy (Young himself suffers from epilepsy). Neil also was afflicted with polio in 1951, shortly before a cure for the disease was discovered.
For his contributions to rock music, Neil Young has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, initially as a solo singer-songwriter in 1995, and then as a member of Buffalo Springfield in 1997.
It is clear that working with Neil Young must be exceptionally difficult, but it is impossible to ignore his brilliance. We admire his versatility that ranges from acoustic folk to hard-rock to punk to grunge, and we salute a level of productivity that could fill an iPod with Neil Young songs. Long may you run, Neil.