Album Review Extra: 3 Versions of All Along The Watchtower

Album Review Extra: 3 Versions of All Along The Watchtower

We’ve been playing Neil Young in the office recently. He’s one of those artists where playing just one album isn’t really enough, so when we’d finished playing A Letter Home, on went Road Rock V1. What a band and I do mean what a band. Donald “Duck” Dunn, what a bass player, Jim Keltner drumming and Spooner Oldham on keyboards – add Neil Young and Ben Keith on guitars and the term tight and loose is never going to be far away. There’s also the added bonus of Chrissie Hynde helping out on a brilliant version of All Along the Watchtower – and that’s what this is about. It’s the last track on the album and when it had ground, spluttered, staggered and grunged its way to a predictable (and yet strangely un-so) climax, Barbara, who has the patience of an angel turned from her desk and said “I think that’s the best version I’ve heard”. Well, there was only one thing to do, and that was go find the Hendrix version and then one of Bob Dylan’s versions as well.

Neil Young’s version is everything you’d expect from Neil Young circa 2000: loud, grungy, disheveled, yet possessed of fierce and feral energy. It’s a track that sounds as though it would happily tear the woofer from your speaker and stick it right up the port. Great gobbets of Neil Young’s trademark distortion hit you with a physical force – and notice I haven’t used the word shambolic. Look at the line-up; this is a band that could groove in their sleep. It’s a very live sound as well, warts and all to some extent, but it does capture the energy so well and there’s a genuine thrill to suddenly hearing Chrissie Hynde. The louder you play this the better it’s going to get. It is good, it’s really good.

So was Barbara right? Hendrix next; yes Dylan wrote it but Hendrix made it, Hendrix produced the definitive version. Somewhere down the line it’s about attitude and Hendrix’s version has just so got it in spades. Who’s playing what?  Hard to tell. Look it up and it went from four tracks first to twelve and then to sixteen as Hendrix, still not happy with it, piled on more guitar overdubs. The end result doesn’t sound like that at all, it sounds fresh and spontaneous and bursting with energy. You can, on a decent system, hear all those different guitar parts and the thing that Hendrix was always just amazing at, throwing numerous guitar parts into a song without breaking the flow and rhythm.  Hendrix belongs to my childhood and was listened to in mono and on the radio, the great thing about music is that even through a crummy radio, All Along the Watchtower still sounded amazing and thrilling. In our dem room five minutes ago it sounded stunning. Still thrilling and exciting, but all those layers of guitar and that bass line and the twelve string acoustic – oh wow.

Dylan’s first version appeared on his album John Wesley Harding, but after hearing how Hendrix played it, Dylan’s versions changed. I think there are at least four (official) live recordings of Dylan playing All Along the Watchtower and the one we’ve picked is from Before The Flood, recorded with The Band in 1974. We chose this for the simple reason that The Band brings a whole new groove to the song, not everything on Before the Flood quite seems to suit Dylan and The Band, but All Along the Watchtower really works. The Band bring their trademark southern country/soul/ rock groove and the end result is infectious and exhilarating, with Dylan and The Band sparking off each other and clearly getting off on playing with each other.

Which one’s best? In truth, it’s going to depend, like everything to do with music, on the time, the place and the mood. Definitive version? It’s got be Hendrix’s. Still amazing, still sounds fresh and there’s good reason why everyone knows it. It’s quite brilliant.

Think you know a better version?  Then let us know.  Nigel Finn


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all along the watchtower bob dylan jimi hendrix neil young


2 comments on this post

  1. The best version of all along the watchtower is, in my humble opinion, by XTC on their 1978 debut album White Music

  2. Ian Browne is absolutely right – XTCs version takes the song into a whole new dimension. Also worth checking out is the version by the rather obscure jazz-rock/folk/prog band Affinity, on their eponymous sole album from 1970.

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