All Along The Watchtower (1968)
Jimi Hendrix Experience
Imagine for a moment that Dylan’s original, old Catskill Mountain, wooden-porch version of “All Along The Watchtower” had never been released and that you were completely unaware of the version by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It could be this year or any year.
(Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album was released in the last week of December 1967. Hendrix’s monstrously excellent cover of the song came
out in September 1968.)
On the radio or your streaming service or through the good graces of a friend sharing music, you first hear the apocalyptic opening of “Watchtower” by the Zeus of guitar gods. You hear him play bass lines as fabulously as he plays his combo rhythm and lead guitar bits. You will hear the strange electric-calypso rhythms that Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones provides. You will hear Dave Mason’s electric 12-string providing an eerie, far-off rhythm bed for Hendrix’s star-turn screaming guitar.
The Hendrix version
You won’t hear Jones’ piano playing. It was mixed out. You won’t hear Dave Mason’s bass work (he also tried his hand at that instrument). It was mixed out. Regular Experience band bassist Noel Redding walked out of the sessions in London. So you won’t hear him. (You will hear regular drummer Mitch Mitchell.) And you won’t hear the 40 overdubs that Hendrix laid down in London and New York. You’ll just hear the final mix.
The music that Jimi and the others recorded is downright scarifying. It slashes and scratches, mars and claws. We said apocalyptic above, but we are thinking of the kind of end-of-days scenario where there are serpents, griffins, gorgons, fiends, imps, trolls, disembodied limbs, ghouls of every order, waste and gales of dust, faces coming out of nowhere, and worst nightmares realized.
“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”
Some critics regard John Wesley Harding as emblematic of the end of Dylan’s first phase of songwriting insofar as it is less socially critical than earlier work. Yet it is hard to hear the last two lines of lyrics (above) and not think that he is ranting at businessmen who might as well be drinking his blood, and plowmen who turn over his personal life in hopes of finding something and making coin from it.
The second verse is enlivened by the Hendrix “reading” of it. He convinces the listener that he is in on the private knowledge that in no way can it be that “life is but a joke.” Jimi breathes a fury into the verse.
We can be reasonably sure neither Dylan nor Hendrix means a (ha-ha) funny joke, but rather that there are many people who don’t take existence as having some larger import, along with actions, words and care for others and the planet. With words so powerful, a rest should come. But there is no rest.
“Watchtower” then breaks wide, wide open into one of the most thrilling guitar breaks in a short (four-minute) song that has ever been performed.
Musical themes that were hinted at behind the lyrics come out like wolves from behind trees in a dark forest. Hendrix gives a succinct lesson in slide guitar, then in the flamboyant wah-wah technique, before focusing his scheme on good old hard-ass Rock-N-Roll riffs. All in a mere 67 seconds.
It is as if instead of playing his coal-fire-snorting Stratocaster, he strung the stinging strings down your spinal column and plucked and slid, bending and stretching every note, feeding each sound directly into your central nervous system.
All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too
The song flashes and shakes like an earthquake into the final couplet, in this version Hendrix inserting the word “cold” to make his singing cadence scan properly:
Outside in the (cold) distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl
This can’t end well. Wild animals and faceless, unidentified riders appear, both the cat and the Four Horsemen reminiscent of John’s Book Of Revelations. In the last book of the New Testament, Christ is referred to as “the Lion of Judah.” And the horsemen? Well, take your pick: Conquest (or Pestilence), War, Famine and Death on his pallid, corpse-colored horse.
Not something to be exposing the little ones to on a stormy night.
Hendrix and the band then reprise the Rock portion of the middle break, accelerating the tempo perceptibly. But he also has the wonderfully commonsensical approach of speeding up while toning things down just a couple notches.
Jimi moans and groans and utters “all along the watchtower,” sowing seeds of unease while the listener waits as in Revelations, for a moon the color of blood.
“Watchtower’s” album, Electric Ladyland was The Experience’s last studio album and reached the #1 slot for two weeks in November of 1968.
You can imagine the stir “All Along The Watchtower” caused when it first hit the airwaves. Loud, rash, uncompromisingly visionary, it entered mainstream consciousness just as America and much of the Western World seemed on the verge of a transcontinental nervous breakdown. It fit the times hand in glove.
It’s easy to picture Dylan whispering like a ghost in Jimi’s ear, giving inspiration… and giving thanks.
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- Never failing to slap at “writers and critics who prophesy with their pens,” Dylan jabs again in “All Along The Watchtower” with the line, “plowmen dig my earth.” He was more specific in a 1995 interview: “I have had good and bad accolades. If you pay any attention to them at all, it makes you pathological. It makes us pathological to read about ourselves. You try not to pay attention or you try to discard it as soon as possible.”
- In the same interview he addressed the Hendrix “Watchtower” version directly: “It overwhelmed me, really… He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there… I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” (Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel)
Also by Jimi Hendrix Experience on SongMango.com:
- Voodoo Child (Slight Return)When Jimi hits the main riff, the whole thing blows up like a napalm strike.