All Along the Watchtower: Dylan or Hendrix?

All Along the Watchtower brings two subjects to mind. Firstly, All Along the Watchtower paints a picture of societal changes coming just around the corner – a world where social justice demands a new definition of freedom. Of course, the second thing we think of while discussing All Along the Watchtower is who did it better? Dylan or Hendrix?

The Dylan or Hendrix debate rages on so furiously, we even see almost all subsequent versions take a side. Everyone from Pearl Jam to Neil Young to U2 to XTC has, not only covered All Along the Watchtower, but have chosen a version to cover. Some do a Hendrix cover, some do a Dylan cover. So, who did it best? Dylan or Hendrix? Was there someone else with a better cover? This is Cover vs Original: All Along the Watchtower!

Dylan or Hendrix
© 1967 Columbia Records | ©1968 Reprise Records

Bob Dylan’s version of All Along the Watchtower

All Along the Watchtower really shows the poetic prowess of Bob Dylan. With allusions to Isaiah 21, we get a sense that the two protagonists, the joker, and the thief, are in a metaphorical prison. The prison is their society, this is their Babylon in which they long to see fall.

Dylan substitutes a chorus for a harmonica solo, which is also very poetic (poems rarely have choruses). The verses (or stanzas) tell the story of the joker and the thief (and later on, the two riders) – thus they need no refrain. Instead, the lack of words in the “chorus” provides an almost anti refrain. We don’t hear “the message of the song,” we see the joker and the thief waiting, thinking, maybe for years….as the harmonica plays.

The rest of the instrumentation provides only a backbone to the text. A couple of acoustic guitars strum for the entire duration of All Along the Watchtower, setting a slow to moderate tempo. The drums provide a military cadence – as though to signify that revolution is coming.

Dylan gives us a masterpiece of a poem set to music in his (original) version of All Along the Watchtower.

Jimi Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower

From the moment Hendrix starts his version of All Along the Watchtower, it sounds like a different song. The tempo between Dylan and Hendrix’s version of the song is about the same, but Hendrix’s version is much more rock-oriented than the folk-based original. The instrumentation is not just the background music to a musical poem….it’s a major part of the song.

The drums still keep a military cadence, but they’re more set to attack mode. We get less of a march and more of a charge. Of course, we also hear an electric guitar instead of a harmonica…this is Jimi Hendrix after all! We also have a couple of extended guitar solos. If Dylan’s harmonica symbolizes the waiting and pondering of the joker and the thief, Hendrix’s guitar symbolizes the anguish, pain, and longing as they wait.

Finally, we have Hendrix’s vocals. They’re soulful, they’re full of anger and rage and hurt and even fear. Hendrix’s vocals cry out for justice….for a resetting of society.

Hendrix took the quasi poem of All Along the Watchtower, and gave it music.

XTC’s version of All Along the Watchtower

XTC really did not do covers. All Along the Watchtower is the only cover they recorded for a studio album. To be fair, XTC did cover “Citadel” by the Rolling Stones in concert (it was a coin toss on which cover they would do for their 1978 album, White Magic”).

XTC had only heard the Jimi Hendrix version of All Along the Watchtower before recording their own version. So Hendrix had the biggest influence on XTC’s All Along the Watchtower (although we hear a tribute to Dylan in the form of a harmonica section). Despite Hendrix’s influences, XTC really does their own thing on All Along the Watchtower. Giving us an almost jam-band groove on every verse. The drums are almost non-existent, the bass groove is prominent. The vocalist, however, certainly does a good job in mirroring Hendrix.

In short, XTC gives us a Hendrix inspired covered, mixed with a little bit of Dylan, and a heaping helping of their own style.

U2’s version of All Along the Watchtower

U2’s All Along the Watchtower, from Rattle & Hum, has a special place in my heart. In 1989, I was in eighth grade and I had no idea the song was a cover. I was not well educated on Hendrix, and I only knew Dylan as a guy they sometimes played on the oldies station. But U2 was (and still is) my band! I probably would not care so much about All Along the Watchtower if U2 had not covered it so many 34 years ago. But I digress.

U2’s version of All Along the Watchtower takes elements from Hendrix but mostly follows Dylan. The drum cadence and tempo certainly sound like Dylan’s version. The Edge’s guitars, while electric, have more in common with the acoustic guitars from Dylan’s version than they do with Hendrix’s guitars, as they provide a baseline for the song. The singing, however, while Bono’s voice sounds nothing like Hendrix’s, Bono certainly has the passion heard in the Hendrix version. This is not a song where the joker and the thief wait patiently for the impending justice, this is a version where they cry out for this justice. Of course….it only makes sense, as half of U2’s catalog cover songs crying out for social justice.

U2 adds a few lyrics….”All I got is a red guitar, three chords, and the truth. All I got is a red guitar. The rest is up to you.” With these lyrics, we expand on the third character on All Along the Watchtower. The narrator, who in previous versions only told the story, now shows a clear moral to his story. This narrator tells us how to obtain the change, the fall of society’s Babylon. The narrator can only tell us the parable….we have to take the action. To solidify this thesis, at the end of the song we hear The Edge play the first five notes of the Star-Spangled Banner…as if to say we can do this, even in the USA.

U2 shows us a mostly Dylan inspired version, mixed with the passion of Hendrix, but with a dash of their own message.

T.S.O.L.’s version of All Along the Watchtower

The T.S.O.L. version of All Along the Watchtower covers mostly the Dylan version of the song, but with a punk flare. This works better than it sounds, as Dylan’s songs have always followed a punk ethos. T.S.O.L. uses a significant amount of acoustic guitars, though they do mix in a few Hendrix inspired electric guitars as well. The vocals sound passionate, jubilant, but also impatient.

To sum it up, T.S.O.L. plays All Along the Watchtower as though Dylan wrote the song in 1992.

Dave Matthews Band’s version of All Along the Watchtower

DMB sounds pretty oblivious while playing All Along the Watchtower. Dave Matthews Band appears to ignore the Dylan or Hendrix argument altogether. Instead, DMB gives us a crowd-pleasing live performance. The first third of the song is stripped down to minimal instrumentation, and Matthews singing slowly and softly. Of course, one of the most annoying parts of the song happens in this section. Someone lowly chuckles after the line “There are many among us who think their life is but a joke.” Any credence the song has at this point just left the building.

The second part of the song is fairly decent. Following more of the Dylan than the Hendrix version, we still see more of DMB than anyone in the mix. Almost every instrument on stage erupts, and actually sounds pretty amazing. Matthews’ singing, however, feels a little forced and uninspired.

The final third of the song turns to crap really quickly with an unnecessary and long saxophone solo, accompanied by a very “groovy” sounding organ. Still, a delightful fiddle duet graces our ears after the sax has been put to bed.

Dave Matthews Band, while inspired by Dylan, try to do All Along the Watchtower their own way.

Neil Young’s version of All Along the Watchtower

If there’s a defining voice in the Dylan or Hendrix argument, it must come from Neil Young. After all, Young ran in the same circles as both Dylan and Hendrix. Young has the same passion found in both men. So what does Young’s version say? It’s all about Hendrix. Sure, Young’s version pays tribute to both Dylan and Hendrix, but the all-electric, loud guitars and almost yelling passion in the vocals shows that Young likes the Hendrix version best.

Oh, and does it rock! Seriously! Neil Young might do the best cover of Watchtower since Hendrix. Young reminds us of his version to (ahem) keep on rockin in the free world.

Pearl Jam’s version of All Along the Watchtower

Pearl Jam’s version is everything we expect a Pearl Jam cover of All Along the Watchtower to be. Loud and unapologetic guitar solos (that might make Hendrix reach for earplugs), Eddie Vedder’s in your face vocals, and even a few profanities added to the lyrics. Despite their personal flair added to All Along the Watchtower, Pearl Jam’s version favors Hendrix.

A defining (and almost deafening) moment in the Pearl Jam cover of All Along the Watchtower comes at the end of the song. Vedder yells, “Two riders were approaching” and then screamingly echoes the line “Two riders were approaching!” We assume Vedder gets the song before this point… but Vedder proves he gets the song with this emphasis on the line. Pearl Jam proves they know that social change is still on its way.

Pearl Jam’s grunge version would be nothing with Hendrix, but they add a lot to the song with their own sound.

Dylan or Hendrix: version of All Along the Watchtower is the definitive?

Bob Dylan himself loved Hendrix’s version. Dylan even plays All Along the Watchtower in the Hendrix style now. So in a sense, we can say that Hendrix wins the battle (though I doubt either Dylan or Hendrix would see this as a competition). Add to that, most artists follow the Hendrix style. Sure, they add elements of Dylan, but Hendrix really unlocked the song….and most bands seem to recognize this. Even the covers that follow Dylan more than Hendrix still utilize some of Hendrix’s innovations to the song. So, it’s clear…in the question of Dylan or Hendrix, Hendrix wins hands down.

Personally, I prefer the Hendrix version myself, and while everyone’s preference differs, most people when asked prefer Hendrix. Of course, I still love the Pearl Jam, U2, and Neil Young covers. Even the T.S.O.L. and XTC versions were decent. Just say no to DMB though. They bastardized the song and should never be allowed to play All ALong the Watchtower ever again. Heck, let’s force DMB into retirement altogether.

There was one other famous version of all Along the Watchtower I left out. Though not a definitive version, Bear McCreary left us scratching our heads during Battlestar Galactica Season 3 cliffhanger. The lore says the colonists had their own version of All Along the Watchtower, millions of years before Dylan wrote his own version. Regardless, it’s still more Hendrix inspired than Dylan inspired. Still, we wonder, will there be a new debate between Dylan and Hendrix in 14 million years from now? I guess all of this has happened before, and it will happen again.

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