All Along the Watchtower versus All Along the Watchtower - LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY! #31

I’ve had this idea in the pipeline for a long time, but given last week’s article comparing to identically named forms of media I decided I’d go along a similar, albeit more obvious route this week. It’s not clever, (although I’m not saying last week’s was either) I’m not going to make any profound observations; what it really boils down to is the equivalent of the age-old argument amongst children of:” “my Daddy could kick your Daddy’s butt.” On one hand we have Bob Dylan’s original, mysterious and stripped down version of his own All Along The Watchtower versus Hendrix’s legendary, 60’s-defining, Acid-drenched cover. Myself, a self-confessed Dylanophile, may not be in the most objective of all positions to adequately judge such a fictitious contest, but to deny that Hendrix’ version is less than a masterpiece would be sheer idiocy, so I won’t do that. Both versions bring extremely different things to the table and both are worthy of serious attention. So here we go: Dylan vs. Hendrix, All Along The Watchtower vs. All Along The Watchtower. The most exciting 60’s fantasy that doesn’t involve Marianne Faithful and a Mars Bar.

Bob’s version appears on his landmark album John Wesley Harding; an album of quiet, mysterious power that hearkens back to God-fearing days of yore. Packed with Biblical allusions, early modern English and minimalist tales of misfortune, it remains one of the very few albums that seems to get better each time I listen to it. All Along The Watchtower, while only 2 ½ minutes long is unquestionably a highlight and typifies the entire album. Oblique references to almost allegorical figures such as “the joker” and “the thief,” folk-like oppression, (“businessmen they drink my wine/plowmen dig my earth”) a sparse musical arrangement and the wailing, almost prophetic sounds of the harmonica. Coming in stark contrast to Dylan’s previous lyrical outpourings that were riddled with surrealism and bizarre non-sequiturs, All Along The Watchtower is surprisingly straight. The lyric, although sparse and deliberately evasive (Who are the joker and the thief? Why were these two riders approaching? ) are imaginative in their chronology. For example, the opening lyric: “There must be some way out of here,” – out of where? We arrive right in the middle of this brief tale, their predicament is revealed only in part as the song progresses, and in a Finnegans Wake-esque turn, the song appears to end with by segueing directly into the beginning again. In between these meagre lyrical interjections comes howling the impending harmonica, indicative of imminent disaster perhaps, perhaps not. What is most revealing about the song is how little it actually reveals, and how much we are free to expostulate, as I have just done, on the perceived meaning.

Hendrix’s interpretation, then, is as brazen as Dylan’s is restrained without stripping the song of its mystical qualities. One important thing to recognize is that most people (based on my experience, anyhow) will be more familiar with Hendrix’s version than the original, some going so far as to think that Hendrix actually wrote the song. We shouldn’t assume that people will have heard Dylan’s version before hearing this, and I wonder if Hendrix himself had this thought, because the cover doesn’t sound like a cover; it’s a new creation in its own right, living and breathing. Of course it’s indebted to Dylan’s original, but Hendrix adds his own touches and ideas; ideas that Dylan would never have thought of. And while the song remains brooding and ambiguous, a sparse arrangement cannot receive credit for doing so. Hendrix’s interpretation (and I prefer to use that word; “cover” implies that it’s merely a copy, plus the song is free to be interpreted in whatever way we choose. That’s what gives me something to write about, and that’s why Hendrix saw the song so differently. To quote Dylan himself, “It’s not me, it’s the songs. I’m just the postman, I deliver the songs.”) goes all out to create a psychedelic apocalyptic masterpiece. Mitch Mitchell’s intense drumming drives the track, the haunting harmonica breaks are extended with the guitar replacing the harmonica. The dynamics shift like the furious gallops of the horses carrying the two riders. A mind-altering, multicoloured slide guitar – supposedly played using a Zippo – penetrates the doom and gloom to provide a brief fantastical respite before the reality returns and the destruction resumes. While Dylan’s version ends abruptly, Hendrix’s presses on in resilience and defiance to extend the mystique further. And oh, that guitar playing. Jimi Hendrix is probably the only musician I’ve ever known of who is revered by all: metalheads, punk rockers, chavs, nerds, classical purists. And why? Sure, he was a great songwriter, (for anyone who disagrees and thinks he was merely a great guitar player and showman, listen to Castles Made Of Sand and Little Wing) not a bad singer and an icon of 60’s counterculture, but his guitar playing, obviously, was in a class of its own. And people recognize talent, (or they should) and no matter what your preferred type of music is, there’s no doubt that Hendrix was one of the most gifted musicians ever to grace this planet. And few of his recorded works showcase his masterly guitar skills than All Along The Watchtower.

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So to go back to my initial (and somewhat redundant) idea – who wins? Both songs in an arena, no holds barred – who emerges victorious? I’m not going to go all soft and say “they’re both winners” because you’d feel cheated, and rightly so. No. It causes me no displeasure whatsoever to declare The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s interpretation of All Along the Watchtower to be the superior one. And why? Well, while Dylan’s song gave birth to Hendrix’s version, meaning his interpretation would cease to exist without Dylan’s, it is unfortunately not quite as remarkable. I adore the song immensely, but let’s face it – Dylan has written and performed other, better songs in his career; heck, even on the same album. (Check out the masterly I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine) However, there is nothing in the entire history of recorded music that’s quite so harrowing, so breathtaking and so stunning as Hendrix’s amazing interpretation of All Along The Watchtower. The likes of Hendrix will not be seen again in our lifetimes. Here’s to his crowning achievement.

Words - Adam

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