This is the 66th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
After a motorcycle crash in the summer of 1966, Bob Dylan spent several months recuperating at his house in Woodstock, N.Y. During that convalescence, he spent his time writing songs. The result was “John Wesley Harding,” an album recorded at the end of 1967 and released two days after Christmas.
“John Wesley Harding” was praised for its musical departures. It was not rock like some of his recent albums had been, nor was it folk, which had been Dylan’s foundation. The album had a country flavor, though only a few songs on the album seem to be actual country songs. In an AllMusic review, Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote:
[The album] is informed by the rustic sound of country, as well as many rural myths, with seemingly simple songs… revealing several layers of meaning with repeated plays. Although the lyrics are somewhat enigmatic, the music is simple, direct, and melodic, providing a touchstone for the country-rock revolution that swept through rock in the late ’60s.
One of those layered songs was the album’s fourth track, “All Along the Watchtower.”
The song depicted a conversation between a joker and a thief:
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
Many have pointed out that the song’s imagery seems to borrow from the The Book of Isaiah:
Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise ye princes, and prepare the shield. /… 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.
This makes sense, given Dylan has referred to “John Wesley Harding” as “the first Biblical rock album.” But despite the praise that critics and scholars have bestowed upon “All Along the Watchtower,” not everyone was impressed. Folk singer Dave Van Ronk was critical of the songwriting, saying:
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.
But however clunky or awkward Van Ronk may have found the lyrics, a version of “All Along the Watchtower” went on to become one of the most iconic songs in rock music.
Just not Dylan’s version.
In January 1968, Jimi Hendrix was working on the third Jimi Hendrix Experience album. After his publicist gave him a copy of “John Wesley Harding,” Hendrix was so enamored with the record that he decided to cover one the songs for his own album. He wanted to record “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” but after learning that song was “too personal” for Dylan, Hendrix decided to cover “All Along the Watchtower.” He began recording the song on January 21, and he labored over the song for nearly six months.
Released in September of 1968, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “All Along the Watchtower” peaked at Number 20 in the US and Number 5 in the UK. It was his only Top 40 hit in the US.
Among the fans of Hendrix’s cover was Dylan himself. In 1995, he said:
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.
Though Hendrix’s cover has become the defining version of “All Along the Watchtower,” there have been scores of other takes on the song since his 1968 version.
Bobby Womack imbued “All Along the Watchtower” with some bluesy guitars on his 1973 album “The Facts of Life.” This cover was as soulful as it was rockin’, though, with Womack sounding as emotional as if he were singing about a broken heart.
Guitarist Dave Mason, who played on the recording sessions for Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” recorded his own version for his 1974 self-titled album. Mason’s version felt faster and smoother than the Hendrix version, though the guitar work was similarly psychedelic.
XTC’s 1978 debut album, “White Music,” included a jumpy version of “All Along the Watchtower” with a chopped-up delivery that channeled the cadence one might associate with David Byrne rather than Dylan or Hendrix.
U2’s 1988 album, “Rattle and Hum,” was a mix of studio tracks and live performances. The live tracks included U2 originals, as well as some covers. The cover of “All Along the Watchtower” had the pacing and tempo of Dylan’s original with the intensity of Hendrix’s guitar. But neither Bono nor Hendrix had ever deliver the lyrics with such mania as Bono, who wailed like a banshee trying to escape.
The Indigo Girls included a live version of “All Along the Watchtower” on the 1991 album, “Back On The Bus, Y’All.” The bare acoustic rendition was so intense that it made Bono’s delivery on the U2 version sound sedate and quiet. This cover sounded surprisingly raw and personal, as Amy Ray and Emily Saliers managed to eke out more emotion than any previous version.
In the fall of 1992, to celebrate Dylan’s three decades as a recording artist, several artists joined him to play his songs at a concert at Madison Square Garden. The double-disc album, “The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration,” was released the following year. The honor of performing “All Along The Watchtower” went to Neil Young.
Young has played the song live multiple times, including with Willie Nelson at Farm Aid in 1994…
…and with Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, appearing on “Road Rock Vol. 1: Friends & Relatives,” released in 2000…
…and with Bruce Springsteen in 2004.
Of course, Young was not the only artist to have added the song to his rotation.
The Grateful Dead played “All Along the Watchtower” at several live shows, including live recordings on at least a few albums, including “Dozin’ at the Knick,” released in 1996…
…as well as the band’s album of all Dylan covers, “Postcards of the Hanging.”
The versions on these albums, as well as the dozens of recordings on YouTube, show that The Grateful Dead’s “All Along the Watchtower” was as much about jamming on a guitar solo as it was about the particular lyrics.
But as long as those versions might have been, no one can stretch out that song like The Dave Matthews Band. “All Along the Watchtower” has been a staple for the band’s live shows, such that it’s appeared on upwards of a dozen of the band’s albums, if not more. The releases that have featured a live recording of the song include “Recently” from 1994…
…the 1997 album, “Live at Red Rocks 8.15.95″…
…1999’s “Listener Supported”…
…”Live in Chicago 12.19.98 at the United Center,” released in 2001…
…”Live at Folsom Field, Boulder, Colorado”…
…”The Central Park Concert,” released in 2003…
…the 2007 album, “Live at Piedmont Park”…
… and 2010’s “Live in New York City.”
Of course, these are just some of the appearances that “All Along the Watchtower” has made on Dave Matthews Band’s albums over the years. It’s a fan favorite in concerts, but it probably also requires a die-hard fan to appreciate the recorded versions. Invariably, a Dave Matthews Band cover of “All Along the Watchtower” is at least six minutes long, if not twice that length. It’s a slow burn, with Matthews building up over several minutes of improvisations and jamming before picking up any speed.
Paul Weller’s seventh solo studio album, “Studio 150,” was his first full covers album. His take on “All Along the Watchtower” unfolded over six minutes as Weller sang over a subtle organ sound and back-up singers who sounded like they were plucked from a Gospel choir.
On Bryan Ferry’s 12th studio album, 2007’s “Dylanesque,” he offered his take on nearly a dozen of Dylan’s better-known songs. Keeping the pace of Dylan’s version, Ferry fleshed out “All Along the Watchtower,” filling in the instruments that hadn’t been in the original.
For the 2007 soundtrack to the Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” Eddie Vedder recorded a version of “All Along the Watchtower” with The Million Dollar Bashers, a supergroup comprising Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, Television guitarist Tom Verlaine, Dylan bassist Tony Garnier, guitarist Smokey Hormel and keyboardist John Medeski.
That same year, “All Along the Watchtower” appeared in the final scene of the “Battlestar Galactica” season three finale. The version, arranged by the show’s composer Bear McCreary, combined sounds of the East with heavy guitars.
In an interview with The Star-Ledger, McCreary said that when showrunner Ron Moore initially pitched the idea of using “All Along the Watchtower” in the show, McCreary thought he was “crazy”:
I said, “Ron, what are we doing? What is this supposed to sound like?” He had no answer for me, just that he didn’t want it to sound like Dylan or Hendrix or any version we’d heard, just that he wanted it to sound like “Battlestar Galactica.”
I went home and did this demo and thought I’d go for broke, do the most kick-ass demo I could — and that demo is virtually indistinguishable from the final version that went on the air. The e-mail I got from Ron was “I can imagine this fitting the scenes very well,” and I thought that was funny, because I had no idea what the scenes were. It was a very interesting collaboration between music and editorial and Ron. The first time I saw a rough cut, it had my demo of “Watchtower” already in it, and that was really helpful. Originally, I don’t believe that it said in the script “we continue to hear the song,” in the script they just say the lyrics and presumably you just hear the score, but when they heard what I had done, they decided to use the song itself — which was, yet again, an extremely daring musical choice.
In 2013, English rapper Devlin included a sampled version of “All Along the Watchtower” on his for his album “A Moving Picture.” Devlin’s “(All Along The) Watchtower,” which featured Ed Sheeran, used Hendrix’s riff as the backbone throughout the song.
The overwhelming number of “All Along the Watchtower” covers speaks not just to Dylan’s influence, but to Hendrix’s as well. To say the song became Hendrix’s defining song is an understatement. In the nearly half century since he recorded it, Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” has appeared near the top of several lists. It frequently has been dubbed one of the best covers of all time, with Popdose ranking it second only to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” When Rolling Stone compiled its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Hendrix’s cover was ranked Number 47.
Among covers enthusiasts, Hendrix’s recasting of the song is one of the most iconic. He was able to record a version of a Bob Dylan song at one of the high points of Dylan’s career and manage to shift focus away from Dylan. On top of that, Hendrix changed the way Dylan played his own song. He changed that song’s DNA. Few other covers have done that so noticeably. Perhaps Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” is the only one that has changed a song more than Hendrix changed this one. Perhaps.
But for as much as Hendrix’s version overshadow’s Dylan’s version, Dylan deserves credit for writing such an elastic and fungible song. Each cover of it has managed to sound distinct, from XTC’s disjointed take to the Indigo Girls’ raw acoustic cover. As large as Hendrix’s version looms, his iconic version frees anyone who covers it from trying to make the next definitive version. He’s already cornered that, freeing the cover artists to do whatever they want with Dylan’s richly layered source material.