We at the Niche offices figured it was about time we present our first obligatory “Songs you didn’t know were covers (Except that everybody actually does know)” article. But we’re going to leave the run-up-the-ad-impressions listicle-style article to the other publishers. Also, everybody knows that Bowie penned The Man Who Sold the World (and did it better, both on album and live on SNL a few years later), so we’ll have none of those non-revelations either. Instead, we’ll get some good opinion and debate from the Niche crew, on what is the superior version. Sometimes we’ll agree, sometimes we’ll disagree, and sometime we’ll resort to fisticuffs to resolve our differences..
Who did All Along the Watchtower better – Dylan or Hendrix?
Dave: I always thought that Watchtower was one of Hendrix’s weaker tracks. It’s not bad, and it would probably rate as the seminal track for almost any other group. And yes, both the intro and outro make for a good movie soundtrack. However, it lacks the soul, groove and funk of most of his other tracks – In fact, it’s quite dry. I prefer both B-sides to the single, the bluesy Long Hot Summer Night (UK) and psychedlic Burning of the Midnight Lamp (US); and if I’m listening to the album, I can’t wait to get onto Voodoo Child. To my ears, Watchtower sounds like an outlier to Hendrix’s style, and one that doesn’t augment his body of work too greatly.
On the other hand, Watchtower does stand tall among Dylan’s late-sixties contributions. Dylan singing, on acoustic guitar and harmonica, backed by electric bass and drums. Simple, but with strong statement. This has that Nashville groove, and clearly informed the country-rock genre that would begin to dominate soon afterwards. Heck, I’d even put the entire John Wesley Harding album toe-to-toe with From Elvis in Memphis.
Hope that I’m not being a bit jaded, but any novelty of Hendrix’s version was stripped away from the relentless airplay on FM-rock radio during my youth. Hendrix’s version just doesn’t excite me – Dylan’s does.
Dan: Unlike most of Earth’s population, the first time I heard “AATW” it was Bobby D’s original version. When I was growing up I would help my Dad paint houses in the summer months, and he would play mixtapes on a yellow boombox. One of those tapes contained the Dylan track, and I can recall being transfixed at the mystic tone in Bobby’s voice, the cryptic, biblical lyrics, the imagery of the wildcat approaching as the wind began howling through the trees. It was the subtlety of the music that impressed me the most, a soft bed of gently picked acoustic and lonely harmonica lines on which the heavy lyrical themes could safely rest.
It wasn’t until years later, when working in a warehouse where the Classic Rock Radio was always blaring, that my ears were assaulted by the Jimi Hendrix version. “Hey wait,” I thought as i went about my menial tasks (I may have been sweeping the floor or pushing a cart or something). “This is a cover of “Watchtower”. Not even a minute into the song and I knew I hated it. Jimi bellowed the the words in an ungainly howl completely devoid of the all-seeing wisdom Dylan had brought to the table. He wasn’t connecting the the old-world vibe the lyrics dredged up. He was just yelling it out as if this was “Foxy Lady” or something. And then there was the overblown guitar histrionics and the caveman pounding of the rhythm section, taking a dark, romantic whisper and turning it into a Cream-style power trio onslaught. It was so bad it offended me. I even said something about it out loud, which drew a loud retort from the line manager.
“It’s Jimi’s best song, bro.”
But it WASN’T a Hendrix song. Nobody seemed to realize this. I wanted them to know, but in the end they didn’t care. To them it was like hearing that “Slow Ride” was originally a Robert Johnson track (it isn’t). Who cares about the origins when you have a tried-and-true rock classic to play air guitar to? it was never going to matter to the people of the warehouse that the “everybody must get stoned guy” once did the song different. Fuck that guy and the harmonica he rode in on. Jimi Rulez. case closed.
Not long after that Bobby D came to town, playing the Stabler Arena with Patti Smith opening. Standing in the cheap seats, I was horrified when the grizzled old man on stage launched into the Hendrix version of “AATW” complete with some hired hand gee-tar slinger ringing that same Hendrix solo from his Strat as the arena shook with excitement. It may have even been the encore. Hands waved. Heads bobbed. Someone threw roses at Bob’s feet.
But there was at least one person in Stabler Arena that night who wasn’t happy at all to find that even Dylan himself thought the Hendrix version was better.
This only worked to solidify my resolve on this matter, and forever will I stand up against the warehouse Classic Rock FM people and Rolling Stone Magazines and Bob Dylan himself: The subtle and mysterious original “All Along The Watchtower” is worlds better than the blown-out Hendrix cover.
Don’t @ me.
David: I’m inevitably gonna either antagonize or find a middle ground in these things, and I’m going with the latter on this question. While agreeing on all that Dylan brings to his own song, I also dig the apocalyptic haze that floats across the wasteland of Jimi’s version. It’s digging the earth in the same misty hellscape alternate-version Planet Earth that The Doors were wandering through. So, how about everybody just gets on board for this live cover from Richie Havens, where he’s got Dylan’s stripped-down earthiness along with just a pinch of the “We’re goners” doom-saying that Master Hendrix brings to the party?