Beautiful obscurity: unexpected reworkings of “All along the watchtower”

By Tony Attwood

The aim of this little series is to look at a few Dylan songs and find some cover versions that take different approaches, including maybe one or two that you might not know.  Or if not, at least remind you of something from the past that you’ve not heard for a while.

In our first outing we looked at variant versions of Sweet Marie.  This time it is the turn of the Watchtower – which is of course somewhat odd, because for many years Dylan closed his concerts with his own cover version of the Hendrix cover version.  Indeed returning to the original, if you have not heard it for a time, can be quite a surprise.

Coming back to it after a while of listening to other versions, and Dylan’s own concert closer I find that I had forgotten just how plaintive the harmonica is, and how perfectly that captured the notion of the castle in the countryside and the outlooks watching for approaching enemy, while inside, life goes on, and on, unchanging.

And there is also that way harmonica just plays on at the end, a few notes of solo when all else has past.  I always have the same picture in my head at that moment, but then maybe that’s because all music becomes images to me.

In our previous look at cover versions Diego D’Agostino offered up Brian Ferry’s version – suitable restrained, although knowing Ferry’s work, perhaps not as refined as I had expected.  Indeed when I first heard this I thought, surely there must a way of doing an even more laid back version than Dylan’s original.  There is – it comes later.

The Dave Matthews Band showed us however that there is no point trying to out-Hendrix Hendrix because there are many other directions to travel with this, as with all songs.

The point is that the lyrics are so exquisite they will hold attention no matter where the music goes.  But when we do have a simpler version they have that additional chance to shine.

Personally I don’t know why there was a need to give us a full-on version at the end, but maybe that was the feeling of what the audience demanded.  Maybe in those days they did.

It is also not always necessary to tell us what the song is by playing that chord sequence over and over from the off – there is nothing in the rule book that says we can’t change all of it.  That’s the whole point of freedom of musical expression and the opportunities that cover versions give us.

The Battlestar Galactica version below isn’t one that I have rushed around telling people to listen to (as is my occasional wont) but I’m glad they had the thought to see where else the song could go.   Interesting but not yet at the ultimate.

Everlast make sure we know exactly where we are from the opening beat, but then do give us an unexpected decline in the volume for the instrumental verse before the lyrics enter.

And I think they were realising that those lyrics are now so well known (well have been so well known since the arrival of the JWH album) that something else was needed.  Just listen to the instrumental after the first verse has been sung.

What really needs to happen (in my view, no one else’s I’m sure) is for the drummer to be told this isn’t just about making a lot of noise.

So, enough of the ones that I enjoy, but which don’t take me to a higher level.  By which I mean a higher level than Dylan took me to when I heard the original on JWH, and just thought, “Oh my, oh my… where has he taken us to now?”  (Or something like that).

In those days, when I was also still studying classical music, I used to sit at the piano and play that chord sequence and then try and re-arrange in a mock classical-romantic theme and variations style.  Fortunately no one else heard that, and I’m sure it wasn’t very good, but in my head I was going somewhere.  Maybe one day someone will do that.

And yet that somewhere, which did only exist in my head, partly came to fruition with the extraordinarily entertaining TV series “The Young Pope”.  There is a beautiful contrast between the pope walking through the Vatican and the music… my only regret is that the band decided to led it build quite so much.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, with Willie Nelson guesting, are of course not going to give us a gentle ballad, but he plays and sings it as if greeting an old friend who he is so glad to see again, admiring the textures and colours, feeling every beat and every nuance, taking the endlessly repeating sequence, but still remembering that the lyrics hold everything together.

Stay with it to the very last, it’s worth it.

Of course Eric Clapton is not going to let a masterpiece like this go by without him leaving his imprint.  But what can he do when everyone else has done it?

What is so interesting is that he can just “do it” while hardly moving.  Now, perhaps for the first time, with the Young Pope version and Clapton, we can see just how much can be made from a three chord sequence and an unusual rhythm.  The lyrics now become less than what the guitar says after each line.  It’s an extraordinary talent – not just the playing of the guitar, but knowing what to do with a masterpiece that everyone else has left their mark on.

And so to the penultimate offering (or the second if you have, for reasons of your own, decided to work backwards).

Thea Gilmore, who has given us what I consider to be the ultimate “Drifter’s Escape” of course recorded this as well, and she has certainly provided a reinterpretation that, because of the new rhythm, does indeed cause much confusion (at least in my mind).  And that is what is needed with such enigmatic lyrics.

Brewer and Shipley give my first prize as they take us back to something approaching the original – and then keep going back.  The background vocals in between the verses are really an interesting extra.  They kept me with them all the way through.

Of course after all this you might well still prefer Dylan’s original – but then I’m not trying to say one shouldn’t.  It’s just a case of the new places each version takes me.  If you’ve travelled somewhere new, then I guess that’s good.  Or at least I hope so.

What else?

You can read about the writers who kindly contribute to Untold Dylan in our About the Authors page.   And you can keep an eye on our current series by checking the listings on the home page

You’ll also find, at the top of this page, and index to some of our series established over the years.

If you have an article or an idea for an article which could be published on Untold Dylan, please do write to Tony@schools.co.uk with the details – or indeed the article itself.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with getting on for 10,000 members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link    And because we don’t do political debates on our Facebook group there is a separate group for debating Bob Dylan’s politics – Icicles Hanging Down

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2 Responses to Beautiful obscurity: unexpected reworkings of “All along the watchtower”

  1. salvatore j fallica says:

    for a dylan researcher, this is invaluable. been following Dylan forever, actually from the beginning, and i didn’t realize there were so many cover versions of this song. thanks

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Glad you liked it. I enjoy working on this series, but was unsure if anyone enjoyed reading it!

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