All Along The Watchtower has has developed something of a mythology all its own (even for a Dylan song). It first appeared on 1968's enigmatic (even for a Dylan album) John Wesley Harding. Since the late 70's Dylan has performed it live more often that any other song. Reflecting this it features on no less than four live albums.
For many it is a mystical classic - are there echoes of the Tarot in The Joker and The Thief? Dylan biographer Clinton Haylin found parallels with the Book of Isaiah (21:5-9) . For others yet, Dylan's Greenwich Village comrade-in-song Dave Van Ronk for example, it's the emperor's new clothes.
Hendrix's version was a no. 20 hit in the US and arguably has taken the song to a wider post-60s audience than the original album version by Dylan. In a further twist of mythology, soon-to-be-ex-Rolling Stone Brian Jones played piano on the track (sadly edited out).
The song was chosen by director Bruce Robinson to soundtrack the crumbling Camden Town of 1969, a visual metaphor for the death of the 60s, in his movie Withnail & I. Here's the scene…
The following playlist brings together 10 versions of the song – beginning with the Jimi Hendrix Experience version and Dylan's original John Wesley Harding cut.
Patti Smith rasps and growls through a live version at CBGB's in 1979; Bobby Womack's version finds the groove; U2's version from Rattle & Hum, features Adam Clayton's dumb as a quarterback with concussion bassline anchoring Edge's unusually discordant guitar and Bono's strangely tentative delivery.
Thea Gilmore's crystal vocal makes the arrangement around her shimmer. Bryan Ferry serves the song surprisingly well, pulling back on his famously mannered vocals (wish I could say the same for the soft rock arrangement, so earnest it makes me miss the U2 version.) Ferry knows what he's doing, though, and has previous Dylan form – see also his A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (1973). Paul Weller goes percussive AND soulful on his 2004 covers album Studio 150. Perhaps most intriguing is Pulitzer Prize-winning classical and Oscar-winning soundtrack composer John Corigliano's arrangement for soprano voice (here Israeli-born, Julliard-educated operatic soprano Hila Pitmann). What's interesting about this version is that the arrangement changes with each new thought/idea in the lyric – allowing us to explore the emotions in the song. It's hysterical, angry, confused, reflective and weary by turns.
The playlist closes with one of Dylan's own live versions – this from the Live at Budokan album (1978).