Who Did It Better? “All Along the Watchtower”

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Next up for “Who Did it Better?” is Bob Dylan’s classic “All Along the Watchtower” and Jimi Hendrix’s subsequent cover. Dylan is arguably the best songwriter in modern history, or at least the best American songwriter. He’s also created a catalog of tunes that just beg to be covered, in fact, “All Along the Watchtower” has been recorded by Dave Matthews, U2, Eddie Vedder, Neil Young, and even Eric Clapton. For us, it’s an added bonus that it was written in our own backyard.

Following a motorcycle accident in July 1966, Dylan spent the next 18 months recuperating at his home in Woodstock and writing songs, among them was “All Along the Watchtower”. The song initially appeared on Dylan’s 1967 album, John Wesley Harding, and it has been included on most of his greatest hits compilations. Since the late 70s, he has performed it in concert more than any of his other songs, and different versions appear on four of his live albums.

Before John Wesley Harding‘s release, Jimi Hendrix obtained an advanced copy and fell in love with “All Along the Watchtower.” Less than two months after Dylan recorded it, Hendrix was in the studio recording his own take. In January 1968, Hendrix and the Experience settled in to make what would become the definitive version of the song. In fact, Hendrix actually played bass on the recording after Noel Redding grew tired of the sessions. The song was not only a highlight of the double-album Electric Ladyland (released in October 1968), it was also released as a single, hitting #20 in the States and #5 in England.

Chris Arndt, Guitar / Jocelyn & Chris

I feel obligated to write a bit of a disclaimer here before I really dive into my thoughts on these two renditions of one of my all-time favorite songs. So, here it is: I am basically obsessed with any and all things Jimi Hendrix. What else would you expect from the lead guitarist in a retro blues-rock band? To me, Jimi is a lefty-strat-wielding, fringe-jacket-wearing deity. The man has no equal. That said, Dylan isn’t exactly a musical slouch, so I’ll do my best to give this head-to-head a fair shake.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at Dylan’s original version. First, mad props to him for being the songwriter; “All Along the Watchtower” is truly a brilliant tune. I know that “Bob Dylan is a good songwriter!” isn’t exactly an uncommon opinion, but still, it seems worth stating. And then, on top of that, his recording of it is wonderful too! It’s got everything you want out of a Dylan song: raw emotion and feel, lyric-forward arrangement, multiple harmonica solos, and that weird, indescribable folksy magnetism that runs through all of Dylan’s music. 

Unsurprisingly, Hendrix also knocks this song out of the part. He manages to keep some of the original folksy, raw feel (his lead guitar tone even sounds like a harmonica!) and pushes the lyrical content right to the front of the listening experience, but he also infuses the song with the Hendrix Experience’s intensity and psychedelic flair. Take that drive and add a frankly ridiculous number of ripping guitar solos and you’ve got the Hendrix formula for an awesome recording.

The winner of this pairing? Hendrix. Duh. I already told you, I’m a lead guitarist, and he’s Jimi Hendrix. What else could I have said?

Andy Gregory, Host of WEXT Radio’s The Local 518 Show 

Okay, well, this isn’t even a fair fight pitting two virtuosos – one of words, the other of guitar – against each other. Granted, it’s only one song, but I’m just going to say that Nippertown readers should seek out any acoustic or electric version by the “We Just Disagree” guy, Dave Mason.

Lori Friday, Troy Music Academy / Super 400

Jimi Hendrix was a great admirer of Bob Dylan.  There was a symbiotic relationship between the two of them that was fed and shaped by their music. Hendrix took some of Dylan’s lesser known catalog and anointed it with bone rattling excitement; All Along the Watchtower is a staggering feat of lyricism and in Jimi’s hands it became a other-worldly, swirling cosmic entity. How many songs can you think of that contain three (THREE) guitar solos, each topping the one before it?  Hendrix on the bass guitar as well, playing a masterpiece of rhythm; I’m sure he nailed it in one pass, it’s so loose and spaghetti like. I have to catch my breath after listening to this track.  This one must be played on an actual hi fi, no laptops.  It’s a living thing.  It was decades ahead of its time, for all time. 

Michael Hallisey, Managing Editor of The Spot 518

Strike me down, but I’m not a fan of Dylan. I grew up on Springsteen. Early on in his career, people wanted to compare Bruce to Dylan. But, Bruce is one of the reasons I developed a love for lyrics. Springsteen, Bob Seger, Kenny Rogers, The Eagles — these are the wordsmiths I was exposed to early in life. Dylan? I don’t know what the fuck that mushmouth is saying. I’m likely going to hell for saying that. Then again, listen to him sing “Make You Feel My Love.” I understand him there, but what the hell was that? I’m sorry. Jimi’s cover is one of several performances that defines the Vietnam War era, which is why you hear it while watching “Forrest Gump.” He has a distinctive voice to go with his magical guitar play. It’s Jimi’s song.

The Verdict

Dylan has described his reaction to hearing Hendrix’s version: “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.” In the booklet accompanying his Biograph album, 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.”

If Bob can go with Jimi’s version – so can we.

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