Here’s another in our VERSIONS series in which we take a song and examine it from different angles, different positions and different viewpoints. This time Jonathan Aird does the forensics on ‘All Along The Watchtower’.
Of all of Dylan’s songs, few have experienced the changes that ‘All Along the Watchtower‘ has. From the simplest of folk forms to the wildest of electric recordings. Here’s two versions of both approaches which go to show what a malleable song it is. Starting, naturally enough with the original album recording.
Bob Dylan (1967) Appearing first on ‘John Wesley Harding‘ the Dylan original is an austere folk song – with great sweeping changes of perspective that give it a cinematographic quality which is coupled with an unresolved mysticism. It’s a song of troubled minds “there’s too much confusion – I can’t get no relief” the Joker confides to the Thief after that desperate entreaty for a pathway to safer ground “there must be some way out of here“. There’s doubt there too – must there be a way out? Who says? A Joker? Get real!
Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968) Not the first cover of ‘All Along the Watchtower‘ to get a release – The Nashville Teens claim that honour. But the version by Jimi Hendrix, well, it’s an obvious choice – the obvious choice. Hendrix ripped the song apart and put it together again in a whole different way – adding urgency, adding swirling guitar to the paranoid fear and confusion alluded to by the lyrics. In later years Dylan would say of this version “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.” To take such possession of a Dylan song was a remarkable achievement.
Richie Havens (1990) Recorded for his ‘Grace of the Sun‘ album, and a frequent live choice for years before, Richie Havens brings his own folk sensibility to ‘All Along the Watchtower‘. There’s nothing tentative here – with percussive guitar playing adding a different sort of urgency to the song. With Richie Havens there’s always the sense of a mystery about to be revealed – and the emphatic closure to the song is as if to say “that’s it, that’s really it, did you catch the explanation?” This is from the ‘Live at the Cellar Door‘ album, it includes a fluffed line which is extemporised beautifully.
Neil Young (2002) A live favourite for Neil Young since his “godfather of grunge” days, which in its own way makes an attempt at a radical makeover of what had become the definitive electric version of the song. Neil eschews Hendrix’s subtlety and takes a typically heavy approach to ‘All Along the Watchtower‘. The guitar solo – and the song – takes on a nihilistic and apocalyptic mantle. You get the impression that the two riders approaching are just the advance party – war and famine perhaps – with plague and death just a little behind them. Lingering at the merch stall perhaps. With the guitar solo digging into ever deeper and distorted notes Neil Young has without doubt found a new and darker side to the song.