By Tony Attwood
I noted in the review of Dylan’s Nothing here worth dying for: that Bob was using a simple technique of playing the same chords over and over again and letting the rest of the band and the vocalists join in, even though they had probably never heard the song before this point.
The rotating three chord idea was not new at that point of course. “All along the watchtower” uses the same technique. “Drifter’s Escape” goes even further into minimalism as a way of constructing music, and offers just two chords and a never changing vocal line.
And it is interesting in the case of those two songs, the lyrical theme is about being trapped. “‘Help me in my weakness,’ I heard the drifter say” launches the Escape, while the Watchtower starts with the bleak, “There must be some way out of here.”
And maybe such thoughts were lurking at the back of Bob’s mind as he used the three chord trick again for 26 Storeys High in the “After The Empire” song recorded in 1985.
In this song the three chords are F, E7, Am. The Watchtower has Am, G, F (with an extra G thrown in as an introduction to the next line). Not the same, but a similar idea.
And the notion that “there must be some way out of here” is a theme in both – although in “26 storeys” the reference is (I think) to a criminal act having gone wrong and the criminals being holed up on the 26th floor. But I’m needing someone to disentangle all the words for me to be sure of this [Larry would you care to oblige as you have so often before?] but it may well be not that at all, but perhaps that the notion is that living in the tower block is so awful that suicide is the only way out.
But I might have got both approaches wrong.
Anyway, whatever the lyrics mean, suddenly, and seemingly without any warning at the 1 minute 44 seconds mark we get a middle 8 – a different section – which at least gives us a relief from the depression of the repeated three chords.
The middle 8 comes a second time – as before with a climax – and then suddenly we are back down to the three chord section. And there are some lines that are quite clear such as “Saturday night on the run” and “every window holds a loaded gun”.
The way the female singers come in, and the fact that the band knows about the middle 8 (with its unexpected semitone rise and fall at the end) suggests that this was not the first run through of the song, but it was possibly the last. There is no further sighting of the song; Heylin does not even have it listed.
Of course not too many people would attempt a song like this outside of the straight hard core blues genre, but Bob obviously is wanting to try something different as with the use of “Saturday night on the run” over and over at the end. This has a very interesting effect that suggests that the song could have gone further and become a particularly effective if particularly bleak moment in Bob’s catalogue, but it appears that didn’t happen.
So, two riders don’t appear from the distance, the drifter doesn’t escape, the stand off goes on.
This one take is all we have.
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