The Day Jimi Hendrix Claimed ‘All Along the Watchtower’
On Dec. 27, 1967, Bob Dylan released his first album in more than a year with the understated classic John Wesley Harding. Among the great songs found on that LP was a tune called "All Along the Watchtower." Before the album's release, Jimi Hendrix obtained an acetate of the disc and fell in love with it. Less than two months after Dylan recorded it, Hendrix was in the studio recording his own take. On Jan. 21, 1968, Hendrix and the Experience settled in to make what would become the definitive reading of the song.
"There was no real rehearsal," said producer Eddie Kramer in an interview with Sound on Sound. "Jimi just played a six-string acoustic guitar while Traffic’s Dave Mason played 12-string. Mitch [Mitchell] 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.”
Hendrix's arrangement of the song fit the Experience perfectly. Taking the subdued pastoral shades of the Dylan original, Hendrix turned it inside out to show "Watchtower"'s underlying vibrant colors. A simple three-chord song with an armload of brilliant lyrics meet head on with the firepower of Hendrix and band and it's pure gold. With Kramer behind the board, the recordings took shape quickly. The signature guitar sound was, apparently, easily obtained. “I’d stick a bloody mic in front of [the amp] and hope for the best," Kramer said. "Recording was always a learning process for Jimi, so each take would be different."
Hendrix actually played bass on the recording after Noel Redding grew tired of the sessions. "Jimi was driving the train." continued Kramer. "He always drove the train, whatever he was doing.” The song was not only a highlight of the double-album Electric Ladyland (released in October 1968), it was also released as a single, hitting No. 20 in the U.S. and No. 5 in the U.K.
"He loved Bob Dylan," Kramer added. "He was fascinated by the color of the lyrics and the tone of the lyrics, and of course the chord sequences were wonderful, too. It was a very special song.” As for Dylan himself, in the liner notes to his Biograph collection, he writes, “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way. I liked Hendrix's record, and ever since he died, I’ve been doing it that way."