As all conflagrations begin, so too did this one. Plume of smoke rising, a spark, a licking of small flames taking in oxygen, building upon itself, a blaze bursts forth. Coruscating. Incandescent.
It burns still. It is a song.
All Along the Watchtower started as one piece of a suite of low-key, restrained songs from the Bob Dylan album John Wesley Harding. After the stormy years before (Dylan going electric – outrage, betrayal, a motorcycle accident), this was the sound of the woods.
All Along the Watchtower, with its reedy harmonica intro, prominent bass line, acoustic guitar, may have stayed a companion to the other songs on the album, but for, ironically, it going electric.
And the man who did so was Jimi Hendrix. Expanding the two-and-a-half minute Dylan version to four, Hendrix shot it into the stratosphere. It has never come down.
Half a century ago, Hendrix was turning the rock world on its head. He was reinventing the electric guitar, its playing and its potential. When his hands struck the wires and wood, a new soundscape opened up.
In early 1968, Hendrix was living in London and a song was going around in his head. It was All Along the Watchtower. Hendrix was a fan of Dylan’s. He had started recording Watchtower at Olympic studio, but after many versions was still not happy with it when he returned to the US. Over that northern summer in 1968 he kept working at it at the Record Plant in New York, until in September it was released and was met with popular success, reaching No. 5 in Britain and No. 20 on the Billboard charts, and critical acclaim.
Since his first performance of the song in 1974, Bob Dylan has performed the Jimi Hendrix version more than 2250 times.
It was very different to the original. Where Dylan’s had a balladeer’s folk feel to it (albeit a very short ballad by folk standards), Hendrix transformed it into a statement of drama and lightning opera. It was propulsion in a snaking groove that took it out of Dylan’s orbit and made it Hendrix’s.
It is perhaps the ultimate accolade to Hendrix that the creator plays the cover version of his creation.
Dylan has said as much: “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 licence with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”
In the liner notes to Biograph, 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.”
Since his first performance of the song in 1974, Dylan has performed the Hendrix version more than 2250 times. The official audio of the Jimi Hendrix Experience has been viewed about 96 million times on youtube.
Many have tried to dissect All Along the Watchtower. Some draw a line in the lyrics to the Bible, specifically the Book of Isaiah. In imagery and setting it does have Biblical overtones. Riders are approaching, wind begins to howl, a wildcat growls. These are not of modern times. But it also has a declaration of the inner battle to stand one’s ground, to be oneself. It was something Dylan experienced acutely in the sixties when he was being held hostage to how others wanted to categorise him. Perhaps Hendrix copped on to that, and then plugged the Fender into the amp and turned it to 11.
Given its brevity of only 12 lines, Watchtower is barely a clearing cough compared to works such as Desolation Row, which runs to 60.
“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.
However, in the myriad versions by other artists, what is missed in lyrical content is made up for in extended jamming that take the song into epic greatness, and it must be said, at times self-indulgence. But it has a universality to it that has seen it covered in genres from punk to New Age and back to folk. The range of artists affirms its greatness in both the original and its interpretation. They include Warren Zevon, Eddie Vedder, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Lenny Kravitz, Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson, Thea Gilmore, Bryan Ferry, Michael Hedges and XTC.
Hendrix gave it a life of its own, outside the original intent. And in doing so allowed those two riders to be forever approaching, the wind always beginning to howl, far into the horizon.