It’s a problem I’ve noted more than once, when talking about an iconic song like this. My tendency is to assume everyone knows the story behind the song, and to just post YouTube videos. But then I worry that this is one of those obnoxious Boomer things, where something important to us is assumed to be important to everyone. So, some background for those who don’t live in Boomerville.
Bob Dylan started out as a folk singer, and pissed a lot of people off when he “went electric”. He released three of his greatest albums in the mid-60s (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde), featuring many of his electric classics like “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, and “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35”. He then had a motorcycle accident and largely disappeared from the public eye. Eighteen months later, he went to Nashville, and in three sessions totaling less than a dozen hours, cut the entire John Wesley Harding album, which was then released without fanfare a month later. It didn’t need fanfare … it was the first Dylan music in a year-and-a-half. And everyone was surprised to hear a largely acoustic album with country touches.
“All Along the Watchtower” was filled with Biblical imagery, much of it apocalyptic. “There must be some way out of here”, it begins. “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.” Later we learn that “the hour is getting late”, and as the song ends, “a wildcat did growl, two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.” The understated musical accompaniment forced the listener’s attention to the cryptic lyrics. It was an instant classic from someone who had written many of them.
And then Jimi Hendrix got ahold of it. It was the crucial year of 1968. Hendrix laid down basic tracks, take after take, adding overdubs, re-recording guitar parts. He worked on it over the course of several months … this, a song that Dylan had finished in a day, doing only five takes. Hendrix released it on Electric Ladyland, and it was a big, influential hit. Dylan himself was so impressed by Jimi’s version that he played the song as Hendrix did in concerts after that point (and he had plenty of time to get it right … Dylan has played “Watchtower” live more than any other song he wrote).
Here is the original:
The Hendrix version:
There are countless cover versions … the Grateful Dead alone played it more than 100 times in concert. Dylan put live versions on four different albums, although in an odd way, he was covering Hendrix:
But perhaps the most unusual version of “All Along the Watchtower” came in the science-fiction television series, Battlestar Galactica. Here is what I wrote about this, back in 2009: