An expanded version of this article appears in my new book ‘Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time’. Buy it at Amazon.
Brian Jones was in bad shape.
The Rolling Stone had staggered into London’s Olympic Studios, where Jimi Hendrix was trying to record a new Bob Dylan song, “All Along the Watchtower.” Though Jones could barely stand upright, he demanded to play on the track. There had already been many takes and the arrangement was just starting to come together, but Hendrix, ever accommodating to his friends, sat Jones down at a piano. Jones jumped right in, not letting inebriation limit his enthusiasm, and began producing off-beat clunks and clangs that caused Hendrix to stop the take in frustration after only 23 seconds.
What would become known as the greatest cover song ever recorded was quickly falling apart.
Where Hendrix first heard “All Along the Watchtower” is a matter of some debate. His publicist at the time, Michael Goldstein, says he played it for him at a Greenwich Village party before Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding was even released.
“I went to dinner with [Dylan’s manager] Albert Grossman in an awful Mexican restaurant around 46th Street,” he says. “He gave me this cassette and said, ‘Here’s a sample of Dylan’s latest songs.’ I had a party a week or so later and Jimi was there. I said, ‘How would anybody like to hear something from Dylan that you haven’t heard?’ and I played the tape. Jimi came up to me and said, ‘Hey Mike, can I take that home with me? I really want to listen to that again.’ I said, ‘Sure you can have it, what the hell do I care?'”
Hendrix’s girlfriend Kathy Etchingam, who he was living with in London at the time, says he first heard it like any other Dylan fan would have: he bought a copy of the record. “It was soon after he came back [from the States],” she recalls. “I remember him having the album when he came back along with a bottle of duty-free American whiskey. We played it over and over again. He just loved it.”
There are other stories as well. Dave Mason of Traffic has described a party he threw in London as Hendrix’s introduction to the song. And Michael Fairchild, in the Electric Ladyland reissue liner notes, points to a session Hendrix played on with Paul McCartney’s brother Mike McGear as a possible first exposure.
It may not really matter though, because there was no way Hendrix was not going to hear “Watchtower” sooner or later. Though it was certainly in vogue among musicians to namecheck Dylan, Hendrix was the type of superfan who carried a Dylan songbook in his travel bag, who once almost started a fight in a Harlem club after making the DJ play “Blowin’ in the Wind” (which, not surprisingly, cleared the dance floor), and who pestered Dylan’s guitarist Robbie Robertson with questions about how Bob wrote his brilliant songs (Robertson’s reply: “Usually on a typewriter”). He even dumped a girlfriend using lyrics from Dylan’s kiss-off song “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine”).
He had been covering Dylan songs himself as early as 1965, as a session player for Curtis Knight’s “Like a Rolling Stone”-ripoff “How Would You Feel,” and the actual “Like a Rolling Stone” became a staple of his early live shows. It was after hearing one such performance that Chas Chandler, bassist for the Animals (who had recently had their own hit with “House of the Rising Sun,” a song they had heard on a Dylan record), decided to sign him and become his manager.
He would record a few Dylan songs in his career – “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window,” “Drifter’s Escape,” “Tears of Rage” – and toyed around with others. A Rolling Stone interviewer in 1969 described him idly strumming along to “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” while answering questions. “It’s not a wonder to me that he recorded my songs,” Dylan himself wrote in 1988, “but rather that he recorded so few of them because they were all his.”
Though stories differ, he met Dylan at least once, but any interactions were by all accounts inconsequential. In that same Rolling Stone interview, Hendrix reported “I only met him once, about three years ago, back at the Kettle of Fish [a folk-rock era hangout] on MacDougal Street. That was before I went to England. I think both of us were pretty drunk at the time, so he probably doesn’t remember it.”
For his part, Dylan recalls another meeting, equally inauspicious. “First time I saw him, he was playing with John Hammond,” he wrote in the liner notes to career retrospective Biograph. “He was incredible then. I’d already been to England and beyond, and although he didn’t sing, I kinda had a feeling that he figured into things. The last time I saw him was a couple of months before he died. He was in that band with Buddy Miles. It was an eerie scene. He was slouched down in the back of a limousine. I was riding by on a bicycle. I remember saying something about that song ‘Wind Cried Mary,’ it was a long way from playing behind John Hammond. That was my favorite song of his – that and ‘Dolly Dagger’… I don’t know, it was strange, both of us were a little lost for words, he’d gone through like a fireball without knowing it, I’d done the same thing like being shot out of cannon.”
Perhaps the best story – though one confirmed by neither party – was told by friend Deering Howe in Charles Cross’s biography Room Full of Mirrors. Cross writes:
One day that fall [Howe] was walking down Eighth Street in New York City with Jimi when they spied a figure on the other side of the road. “Hey, that’s Dylan,” Jimi said excitedly. “I’ve never met him before; let’s go talk to him.” Jimi darted into traffic, yelling “Hey, Bob” as he approached. Deering followed, though he felt uneasy about Jimi’s zeal. “I think Dylan was a little concerned at first, hearing someone shouting his name and racing across the street toward him,” Deering recalled. Once Dylan recognized Jimi, he relaxed. Hendrix’s introduction was modest enough to be comic. “Bob, uh, I’m a singer, you know, called, uh, Jimi Hendrix and…” Dylan said he knew who Jimi was and loved his covers of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” “I don’t know if anyone has done my songs better,” Dylan said. Dylan hurried off, but left Jimi beaming. “Jimi was on cloud nine,” Deering said, “if only because Bob Dylan knew who he was. It seemed very clear to me that the two had never met before.”
Back in London, Hendrix and Etchingham spun John Wesley Harding over and over, and Hendrix knew which song he wanted to cover: “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” Then he had second thoughts. “He thought it was too personal,” Etchingham says. “It was Bob Dylan’s dream so he wasn’t going to take that, because he didn’t dream it himself.” (As John Perry notes in his book on Electric Ladyland, it also would have been an odd song for Hendrix to cover. The 3/4 waltz of “St. Augustine” was a time signature Hendrix never attempted in his career – the closest he came was “Manic Depression”‘s 6/8.)
After he got cold feet, someone, probably Etchingham (she admits she can’t remember for sure), nudged him towards “Watchtower.” “Sometimes I do a Dylan song and it seems to fit me so right that I figure maybe I wrote it,” he recalled later. “I felt like ‘Watchtower’ was something I’d written but could never get together. I often feel like that about Dylan.”
Unlike the later Electric Ladyland sessions in New York – which featured such a large crew of leeches and hangers-on that a frustrated Chas Chandler walked out for good – the January 21 recording of “All Along the Watchtower” was relatively calm. The song was so new that many people in the room had never even heard Dylan’s version. There was no rehearsal either; Hendrix just shouted out the chord changes as they went. “When he was doing his own arrangement, he did it very quietly, without being plugged into an amplifier, so nobody knew what he was doing because only he could hear it,” Etchingham recalls.
Following Hendrix’s lead were Dave Mason on 12-string guitar, Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, and Experience bassist Noel Redding – briefly. After a row with Hendrix early on, Redding stormed off to the Red Lion pub across the street. “We were having a few problems with the band already, and I said I didn’t like the tune,” Redding said in a BBC documentary years later. “I prefer Dylan’s version.” Or as he put it another time: “I told Hendrix to fuck off.” Mason eventually took over bass duties for the London session, though Hendrix swapped in his own bass line later.
“Initially there was no bass,” Kramer told recording magazine Sound on Sound in 2005. “Jimi just played a six-string acoustic guitar while Traffic’s Dave Mason played 12-string and Mitch was on drums. That’s how Jimi wanted to cut it, and as a result the track had a marvelous, light feel thanks to the acoustic guitars that were driving it. Jimi not only loved the lyrics but also the chord sequences of ‘All Along The Watchtower,’ and he just gave them a terrific bed to do a nice solo.”
Outtakes of that day in the studio confirm Kramer’s memory, offering an unusual way to hear the song – no electric guitar and no vocals, just a gentle rhythm jam. Hendrix was particularly concerned about getting the dynamics right. “Dave, make it more distinctive between the loud part and the soft part, okay?” he instructs Mason at one point with what sounds like growing frustration (this is not the first time on the tape you can hear him bring the issue up).
Hendrix instructing the group on dynamics: [audio: Watchtower/Watchtower03.mp3]
“Watchtower” Take 11: [audio: Watchtower/Watchtower11.mp3]
Though uncredited on the final LP due to tension with Hendrix’s new manager, Chandler produced the track, while Hendrix’s trusted engineer Eddie Kramer oversaw the proceedings. With credits including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks, Kramer was Hendrix’s right-hand man behind the boards. “Jimi really felt he had an ally in Eddie, because he would always listen to his ideas,” drummer Buddy Miles said in the reissue liner notes. “Nothing was more important to Jimi than his music and Eddie was always pushing him.”
Take 14 is the first with a drunk Brian Jones fumbling around on the piano, and in the 23 seconds they make it before Hendrix cuts it off, you can already hear this is a bad addition. “He was completely out of his brain,” Kramer recalled. “Poor Brian, he was a good mate of Jimi’s and we all loved him. Jimi could never say no to his mates, and Brian was so sweet. He came in and said ‘Oh, let me play,’ and he got on the piano…and we could just hear ‘clang, clang, clang, clang, clang…’ It was all bloody horrible and out of time, and Jimi said ‘Uh, I don’t think so.’ Brian was gone after two takes. He practically fell on the floor in the control room.”
“Watchtower” Take 14 (with Brian Jones): [audio: Watchtower/Watchtower14.mp3]
Jones was eventually switched to percussion – that’s him playing the thwack you hear at the end of each bar in the intro, on an instrument called a vibraslap – and the session wound down after 27 takes. The song did not yet have vocals or most of the electric guitar parts, but the basic rhythm track was in the can, for Hendrix to tinker with and overdub later.
And overdub he did. Endlessly.
After a lengthy break for Hendrix to take on a slate of tour dates, the Electric Ladyland sessions had moved to New York’s Record Plant, where the majority of the album was cut (the only other songs with Olympic roots were “Crosstown Traffic” and “Burning of the Midnight Lamp”). Hendrix tinkered with “Watchtower” for months, upgrading the master tape from the original 4-track offered at the London studio to take advantage of the state-of-the-art 12-track machine at the Record Plant. When 16-track came in the picture, he upgraded again, adding more parts each time. What had started as an impromptu jam session with some friends became an obsessive endeavor.
“Hendrix would stop the tape, pick up his guitar or the bass, and go back out and start re-overdubbing stuff,” said Record Plant engineer Tony Bongiovi. “Recording these new ideas meant that 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 – and I don’t mean once or twice – he would overdub the bass and guitar parts all over, until he was satisfied. He would say, ‘I think I hear it a bit differently.'”
The sessions continued throughout the summer of 1968, six months after he had laid down the basic track in one day. At some point, he decided he could do a better bass track than Dave Mason had, and swapped it out. “Jimi was a fine bass player,” Mitch Mitchell said in the reissue liner notes, “one of the best, very Motown-style… Even being left-handed he had no problem picking up a right-handed bass – he just had that touch.”
During that time he also laid down the song’s most iconic moment: the guitar solo. And he didn’t just record one; he tried out many versions. Eddie Kramer has said by the end he had seven great guitar parts to choose from, not counting the countless others that got taped over.
Early mix that includes an unused solo (no vocals): [audio: Watchtower/WatchtowerMix2.mp3]
Hendrix divided the main solo into four discrete sections. The first he plays straight, flashing up and down the neck of the guitar for thrilling waterfalls of notes. Second comes the slide guitar, which was apparently so spur of the moment he didn’t have a slide with him. “I saw Jimi, frustrated, running around, trying to get a sound out that he had in his head, but not being able to do it,” his friend Velvert Turner said in the BBC documentary. “[He grabbed] beer bottles, soda bottles, knives, and everything trying to get the middle section where there’s a Hawaiian guitar sound.” He ended up using a cigarette lighter. Eddie Van Halen has called this section one of his favorite guitar solos ever.
After a yell of “Hey!”, the psychedelic wah-wah section begins. Hendrix was in fact one of the pioneers of the wah-wah, with Electric Ladyland marking one of the pedal’s first appearances on a major record (“Burning of the Midnight Lamp” features it even more heavily). For the last eight bars, Hendrix reins it back in for what might be thought of as the “rhythm solo,” mirroring and embellishing on the chords more directly before wrapping with a quick ascension.
Hendrix’s isolated guitar tracks (other instruments/vocals bleeding through a bit): [audio: Watchtower/WatchtowerGuitar.mp3]
Hendrix also recorded his vocals at the Record Plant. As always, he hated this part. Many friends and collaborators have detailed his terrible insecurity about his singing voice. “He’d always face the other way [when recording vocals],” Kramer said. “He hated to be looked at. He was very shy about his vocals.”
In fact, accordingly to his father Al Hendrix, a main reason the established guitar ace tried singing in the first place came from hearing Dylan, a sort of “if he can succeed sounding like that, why not me?” outlook. “I thought, you must admire that guy for having that much nerve to sing so out of key,” Jimi once said. He would in fact frequently defend Dylan’s voice in interviews, attacking those who accused him of sounding like a “broken-leg dog.”
After the endless overdubs and re-recordings of guitars, vocals, and bass, it came time to mix the record. By this point Chandler, who had produced the original London sessions, was long gone. His original mix had been relatively subdued, focusing heavily on the acoustic guitars and giving even the loud solos plenty of room to breathe.
Chas Chandler’s original mix (from 1997 compilation ‘South Saturn Delta’): [audio: Watchtower/WatchtowerChasMix.mp3]
The new version Hendrix mixed with Eddie Kramer went in the opposite direction. “It was a case of Jimi and I doing it together and just making it sound as commercial as we possibly could,” Kramer said. With 16 tracks at their disposable, they had plenty of room to add compression, reverb, chorusing, and other studio tricks to make the entire thing louder and more in-your-face. With many other tracks too long or too far out to ever take off, the goal for “Watchtower” was becoming clear: hit single.
It worked. Release as a single in the US on September 21, 1968, and backed with “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” “All Along the Watchtower” became Hendrix’s first and only Top 40 single on the Billboard charts, climbing from #66 on its debut to a peak of #20 (it made #5 in the UK, where Hendrix had more of a track record). It in fact sold more than the group’s previous four singles combined – and that includes “Purple Haze” and “Foxy Lady.”
It resonated particularly with troops in Vietnam. The army’s official radio broadcasts were tightly controlled, but GIs overseas had made a regular practice of setting up pirate radio stations in the field, and “Watchtower” began to get heavy airplay. One veteran recalled in Stephen Roby’s Black Gold, “I just spun the dials…lo and behold there’s Midnight Jack broadcasting: ‘Midnight Jack, man, I’m deep in the jungle… What can I play for you, man?’ He’s gone for about 30 seconds and I imagine he’s putting a reel-to-reel tape on and here comes Jimi Hendrix…”
Perhaps most importantly to him, Bob Dylan loved it too – though it’s not clear whether or not Hendrix ever knew, as all Dylan’s public comments occurred after Hendrix’s death. “It overwhelmed me, really,” Dylan told the Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1995. “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.”
The version of “Watchtower” Dylan played on 1974 live album ‘Before the Flood’: [audio: Watchtower/WatchtowerBeforetheFlood.mp3]
For his part, Hendrix seemed pleased that people liked the song but, true to form, didn’t say much. When asked if Hendrix ever commented on how he felt about the song’s success, Kathy Etchingham answers with a resounding no. “Jimi never sat down and talked about his music,” she says. “He just did it. He didn’t sit down and pick his music to pieces. He might have done it in his head privately, but he certainly didn’t do it [to others].”
Three months later, he had dropped “Watchtower” from his set lists and started ignoring or declining audience requests for him to play it. “We recorded that a year ago and, if you heard it, we are very glad,” he told a Frankfurt crowd. “But tonight, we’re trying to do a musical thing, OK? That’s a single, and we released it as a single, thank you very much for thinking about it, but I forgot the words. That’s what I’m trying to say.” His fans were clamoring for the song, his first real hit, but Hendrix had already moved on.
If you liked this story, 19 more like it appear in my new book ‘Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time’. Buy it at Amazon.