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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. The Hendrix version, released six months after Dylan's original recording, became a Top 20 single in 1968, received a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2001, and was ranked 47th in Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2004.

Bob Dylan's original



Background

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.

Recording

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.

Analysis

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:Commenting on the songs on his album John Wesley Harding, in an interview published in the folk music magazine Sing Out! in October 1968, Dylan told John Cohen and Happy Traum: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."

Dave Van Ronk, an early supporter and mentor of Dylan, disagreed with the majority view when he made the following criticism:

Performances and subsequent releases

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 adjacent to 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 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')."{{Full citation needed


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 Experience



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.

Recording

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 City. 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 charts

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.

Reception

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 Worlds list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Solos.

Other recordings

The Nashville Teens

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.

Pearl Jam

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.