All Along the Watchtower
"All Along the Watchtower" is a song written and recorded by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. The song initially appeared on his 1967 album John Wesley Harding, and it has been included on most of Dylan's subsequent greatest hits compilations. Since the late 1970s, he has performed it in concert more than any of his other songs. Different versions appear on four of Dylan's live albums.
|"All Along the Watchtower"|
Netherlands single picture sleeve
|Single by Bob Dylan|
|from the album John Wesley Harding|
|B-side||"I'll Be Your Baby Tonight"|
|Released||November 22, 1968|
|Recorded||November 6, 1967|
|Bob Dylan singles chronology|
|John Wesley Harding track listing|
Covered by numerous artists in various genres, "All Along the Watchtower" is strongly identified with the interpretation Jimi Hendrix recorded for the album Electric Ladyland with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Hendrix version, released six months after Dylan's original recording, became a Top 20 single in 1968 and was ranked 47th in Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Bob Dylan's originalEdit
Following a motorcycle accident in July 1966, Dylan spent the next 18 months recuperating at his home in Woodstock and writing songs. According to Clinton Heylin, all the songs for John Wesley Harding were written and recorded during a six-week period at the end of 1967. With one child born in early 1966 and another in mid-1967, Dylan had settled into family life.
Dylan recorded "All Along the Watchtower" on November 6, 1967, at Columbia Studio A in Nashville, Tennessee, the same studio where he had completed Blonde on Blonde in the spring of the previous year. Accompanying Dylan, who played acoustic guitar and harmonica, were two Nashville veterans from the Blonde on Blonde sessions, Charlie McCoy on bass guitar and Kenneth Buttrey on drums. The producer was Bob Johnston, who produced Dylan's two previous albums, Highway 61 Revisited in 1965 and Blonde on Blonde in 1966.
The final version of "All Along the Watchtower" resulted from two different takes during the second of three John Wesley Harding sessions. The session opened with five takes of the song, the third and fifth of which were spliced to create the album track. As with most of the album's selections, the song is a dark, sparse work that stands in stark contrast with Dylan's previous recordings of the mid-1960s.
Several reviewers have pointed out that the lyrics in "All Along the Watchtower" echo lines in the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 21, verses 5–9:
Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise ye princes, and prepare the shield./For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth./And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed./...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.
I haven't fulfilled the balladeers's job. A balladeer can sit down and sing three songs for an hour and a half... it can all unfold to you. These melodies on John Wesley Harding lack this traditional sense of time. As with the third verse of "The Wicked Messenger", which opens it up, and then the time schedule takes a jump and soon the song becomes wider... The same thing is true of the song "All Along the Watchtower", which opens up in a slightly different way, in a stranger way, for we have the cycle of events working in a rather reverse order.
The unusual structure of the narrative was remarked on by English Literature professor Christopher Ricks, who commented that "All Along the Watchtower" is an example of Dylan's audacity at manipulating chronological time: "at the conclusion of the last verse, it is as if the song bizarrely begins at last, and as if the myth began again."
Heylin described Dylan's narrative technique in "Watchtower" as setting the listener up for an epic ballad with the first two verses, but then, after a brief instrumental passage, the singer cuts "to the end of the song, leaving the listener to fill in his or her own (doom-laden) blanks."
Critics have described Dylan's version as a masterpiece of understatement. Andy Gill said "In Dylan's version of the song, it's the barrenness of the scenario which grips, the high haunting harmonica and simple forward motion of the riff carrying understated implications of cataclysm; as subsequently recorded by Jimi Hendrix, ... that cataclysm is rendered scarily palpable through the dervish whirls of guitar."
Dave Van Ronk, an early supporter and mentor of Dylan, disagreed with the majority view when he made the following criticism:
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.
Performances and subsequent releasesEdit
John Wesley Harding was released at the end of 1967, on December 27, less than two months after the recording sessions. The song was the second single from the album, released on November 22, 1968, but did not chart. A live recording of "All Along the Watchtower" from the album Before the Flood appeared as the B side of "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)" in 1974. The recordings came from separate concerts earlier that year at the Forum outside Los Angeles, both with Dylan backed by The Band.
Dylan first performed the song live on January 3, 1974, in Chicago on the opening night of his 'comeback tour'. From this first live performance, Dylan has consistently performed the song closer to Hendrix's version than to his own original recording. In The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, critic Michael Gray wrote that this is the most often performed of all of Dylan's songs. By Gray's count, Dylan had performed the song in concert 1,393 times by the end of 2003. According to Dylan's own website, through 2015 he had performed the song 2,257 times.
In recent years, Dylan in live performances has taken to singing the first verse again at the end of the song. As Gray notes in his Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:
"Dylan chooses to end in a way that at once reduces the song's apocalyptic impact and cranks up its emphasis on the artist's own centrality. Repeating the first stanza as the last means Dylan now ends with the words 'None of them along the line/Know what any of it is worth' (and this is sung with a prolonged, dark linger on that word 'worth')."
The original recording of "All Along the Watchtower" appears on most of Dylan's "greatest hits" albums, as well as his two box set compilations, Biograph, released in 1985, and Dylan, released in 2007. In addition, Dylan has released live recordings of the song on the following albums: Before the Flood (recorded February 1974); Bob Dylan at Budokan (recorded March 1978); Dylan & The Dead (recorded July 1987); and MTV Unplugged (recorded November 1994).
The Jimi Hendrix ExperienceEdit
|"All Along the Watchtower"|
European single cover
|Single by the Jimi Hendrix Experience|
|from the album Electric Ladyland|
|Format||7-inch 45 rpm record|
|Recorded||January, June–August 1968|
|Experience US singles chronology|
|Experience UK singles chronology|
The Jimi Hendrix Experience began to record their version of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" on January 21, 1968, at Olympic Studios in London. According to engineer Andy Johns, Jimi Hendrix had been given a tape of Dylan's recording by publicist Michael Goldstein, who worked for Dylan's manager Albert Grossman. "(Hendrix) came in with these Dylan tapes and we all heard them for the first time in the studio", recalled Johns.
According to Hendrix's regular engineer Eddie Kramer, the guitarist cut a large number of takes on the first day, shouting chord changes at Dave Mason who had appeared at the session and played twelve-string guitar. Halfway through the session, bass player Noel Redding became dissatisfied with the proceedings and left. Mason then took over on bass. According to Kramer, the final bass part was played by Hendrix himself. Hendrix's friend and Rolling Stones multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones played the various percussion instruments on the track. "That's him playing the thwack you hear at the end of each bar in the intro, on an instrument called a vibraslap." Jones originally recorded a piano part that was later mixed out in place of the percussion instruments.
Kramer and Chas Chandler mixed the first version of "All Along the Watchtower" on January 26, but Hendrix was quickly dissatisfied with the result and went on re-recording and overdubbing guitar parts during June, July, and August at the Record Plant studio in New York. Engineer Tony Bongiovi has described Hendrix becoming increasingly dissatisfied as the song progressed, overdubbing more and more guitar parts, moving the master tape from a four-track to a twelve-track to a sixteen-track machine. Bongiovi recalled, "Recording these new ideas meant he would have to erase something. In the weeks prior to the mixing, we had already recorded a number of overdubs, wiping track after track. [Hendrix] kept saying, 'I think I hear it a little bit differently.'"
Release and chartsEdit
The completed version was released as a single in the US on September 21, 1968, almost a month prior to the album release on Electric Ladyland in October. The single reached number five in the British charts, becoming the first UK stereo-only single to do so, and number 20 on the Billboard chart, Hendrix's highest ranking American single.
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."
Hendrix's recording of the song appears at number 47 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and in 2000, British magazine Total Guitar named it top of the list of the greatest cover versions of all time. Hendrix's guitar solo is included at number five on Guitar World's list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Solos.
- Jimi Hendrix – lead vocals, guitar, bass
- Mitch Mitchell – drums, percussion, backing vocals
- Noel Redding – backing vocals
- Additional personnel
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The Nashville TeensEdit
The earliest recording of the song, other than by Dylan, was by British pop group the Nashville Teens, who had previously had a hit in 1964 with the song "Tobacco Road". Their recording of "All Along the Watchtower", produced by Vic Smith, was released as a single in the UK and Europe on Decca Records in March 1968, some six months before Hendrix's version. The recording was described by the NME as "both effective and commendable", and by Record Mirror as a "reasonably strong song idea", but failed to have any commercial success, and the band left the Decca label soon afterwards.
Dave Matthews BandEdit
Dave Matthews Band has played the song since the band's inception in the early 1990s. Their rendition maintains Dylan's three chord structure and key signature but differs in style. Dave Matthews typically begins the song slowly with just bass, vocals and acoustic guitar. The band members come in after the line "the hour is getting late", picking up the tempo and intensity. The band's members then take extended solos, culminating with the line, "No reason to get excited." "Watchtower", as it is referred to by the band's fans, is a concert staple, often performed as either a closer or as an encore. In all, they have covered the song live more than 750 times, including solo performances by Matthews, and it has appeared on nine of their officially released live albums, though the band has never released a studio version.
In addition, the band has had numerous musicians guest with them while playing Watchtower including Carlos Santana, Neil Young, Warren Haynes from Gov't Mule and the Allman Brothers Band, Trey Anastasio from Phish, Zac Brown, Bela Fleck, Robert Randolph, Marcus Mumford and Gary Clark Jr.
Irish rock band U2 first played a cover of "All Along the Watchtower" during their Boy Tour in 1981. Years later, during the Joshua Tree Tour in 1987, the cover was played for a second time, in San Francisco, California, with an additional verse added by Bono. This performance was later included as a scene in U2's 1988 rockumentary film, Rattle and Hum, and also appeared on the album of the same name. The performance was impromptu, with the band learning the chords and lyrics within minutes of taking the stage, and as a result, there were problems in editing the soundtrack. The song made its way into 47 live shows during the band's 1989 Lovetown Tour.
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Neil Young has performed numerous covers of the song, including a notable performance at Farm Aid in 1994, with band Crazy Horse and Willie Nelson. He also performed the song with Dave Matthews Band and with Booker T. and the M.G.'s at the Dylan 30th Anniversary Celebration at Madison Square Garden, a recording of which was issued in 1993 on The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration album. In 2000, Young performed a live version with Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, which appeared on his album Road Rock Vol. 1: Friends & Relatives. In 2004, he performed a version with Bruce Springsteen.
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Bryan Ferry recorded this song as a demo with Robin Trower in the mid-1990s. He completed the track during sessions in August 2006 for his Dylan tribute album Dylanesque released March 2007. It featured up-beat versions of Dylan's greatest hits.
After performing the song live four times from 2004 to 2006 with Pearl Jam, lead singer Eddie Vedder was asked to record "All Along the Watchtower" with The Million Dollar Bashers for the soundtrack of the Dylan biopic I'm Not There. Named for Dylan's song "Million Dollar Bash", the group was formed by guitarist Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. Its other members included Steve Shelley on drums; Television's Tom Verlaine, Wilco's Nels Cline, and Smokey Hormel on guitars; John Medeski of Medeski Martin & Wood on keyboards; and Dylan's bassist Tony Garnier.
In 2008, the song was played three times during Pearl Jam's US East Coast Summer Tour, including the Bonnaroo Music Festival. In 2009, the band was joined by Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones to perform the song at the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, England.
Bear McCreary/Battlestar GalacticaEdit
Television composer Bear McCreary arranged a distinctive version with non-Western tonalities of "All Along the Watchtower" for use in the final scene of the Battlestar Galactica season three finale "Crossroads, Part II". A version with all the lyrics was included on the season 3 soundtrack.
The song has been covered by many other artists, including:
- Brewer and Shipley
- Chris de Burgh
- Randy California
- Eric Clapton
- Devlin ft Ed Sheeran
- Dissipated Eight
- The Dream Syndicate
- Envy on the Coast
- Francis Cabrel, in a French translation titled "D'en haut de la tour du guet"
- Richie Havens
- Jeff Healey
- Michael Hedges
- Indigo Girls
- Dave Mason
- Van Morrison
- The Persuasions
- June Tabor
- Turtle Island String Quartet
- John Waite
- Paul Weller
- Widespread Panic
- Bobby Womack
In popular cultureEdit
The song as originally recorded by Dylan was used in the 1999 film American Beauty. Hendrix's version was featured in the movies Withnail and I, Rush, Land of the Lost (without Hendrix's vocals), Private Parts, Forrest Gump, Clockers, A Bronx Tale, Blue Chips, Vegas Vacation, Tupac: Resurrection, the 2001 remake of Brian's Song, Watchmen (among others), and also in television shows such as The Simpsons, in episodes "Mother Simpson" and "My Mother the Carjacker" and appears in the announcement trailer and title screen for the video game Mafia III. The Bob Dylan version appears as playable track in the video game Guitar Hero 5.
The song is featured prominently in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, serving as a critical plot element of the show. The lyrics are referenced in the dialogue multiple times, and the opening bars are a recurring theme throughout the show. The show features a new arrangement by Bear McCreary during the season three finale, and Jimi Hendrix's version during the series' finale.
A cover was used in the Fox television show Lucifer, covered by Tom Ellis playing the title role.
In the Sky Fortress expansion pack for Just Cause 3 released in 2016, the antagonist, eDEN, quotes the line "Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late"
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