The Infinite Jukebox: The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’

Listen carefully: this is the Sound of the Apocalypse. Forget two riders, these are the winds that blow Four Horseman onwards.
The first piece of Jimi Hendrix music I ever heard was when ‘Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)’ was rushed out in the wake of James Marshall Hendrix’s death in October 1970, and briefly held the Number 1 slot before Dave Edmunds and ‘I Hear You Knocking’ improbably cleaned up the rest of the year. To a musical newbie such as myself, freshly fifteen and still not a year of listening to Radio 1, this was the sound of an alien life-form, not music that I could in any understand.
And the Seventies were not kind to me in terms of understanding Jimi Hendrix, when my prog-rock listening friends were into music with more keyboard wizardry than guitar heroics, when Radio 1’s propensity for oldies would only go near the singles and then but rarely, and when it would take until the turn of the Eighties into the Nineties for me to finally solicit a friend into lending me those three albums so that I could at last begin to understand for myself what people saw, and heard, in Jimi Hendrix.
But long before then, I had heard ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and found in it something that I could understand, that instincts as yet too nascent to stand for themselves responded to. This is the sound of the end of the world.
Those acoustic guitars that storm through the intro, the powerful, muscular drumming, the sense of space surrounding what sounds like more than three men. The guitar winding up into the first of several solos. Hendrix, more upfront, more strong than in the past, on songs he had written himself, echoes the sound of the music by singing ‘There must be some way out of here’, but the music has already stolen from us any idea that there will be.
The song comes from Bob Dylan, which enables it to be structured as a song, but Hendrix has taken it apart and put it back together again, in a way that Dylan himself has followed ever since, but the solos are Hendrix himself, riding on the wind. They are short, intense, fluid, punctuating those moments between the verses, as the sound of finality rises.
The hour is getting late: Hendrix cues off this to spiral away into the most expressive of his solos, uses all the sounds he can bend out of his guitar, including a brief backwards slide. The acoustics perpetuate the rhythm, Mitch Mitchell muscles up, Noel Redding holds the two together…
And All Along The Watchtower…
We are on the walls, the last walls, looking out over the devastation. Outside in the cold distance… two riders were approaching…
And Hendrix screams into the sound of the end of the worlds, his guitar howling into the void that is coming, all words gone, only the music to tell us what comes forward from the last horizon that you or I will ever see…
There is almost common consent that this is one of the greatest cover versions ever recorded. George R R Martin didn’t need to invent the Nazgul and the Armageddon Rag, he could have just popped this on the stereo and played it.
Yet in a way it was my gateway back into the rest of Hendrix’s short but bountiful career, the gateway inwards and the song was the gateway outwards. I took in his music, found a place and a meaning for it many years after the effect, added to my understanding after decades of listening to imitators and disciples.
And still I come back here, to stand on the edge, and know that when it all comes crashing down and the last fire and ice breaks upon us, I have heard the wind howl and seen those cold blank shapes moving their slow thighs, slouching towards us, not to be born but to wipe the universe clean. And Hendrix’s last solo will accompany their slow advance upon the Watchtower.


4 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’

  1. One of my favourite records ever and a masterclass in guitar playing: the solos show Jimi’s mastery of divergent styles – slide, wahwah funkiness, rhythmic country swing. But the purpose is not to show off but to echo the conversation between different characters (the joker, the thief etc) described in the lyrics.

  2. If I gave the impression that I thought Hendrix was showing off, I apologise. It’s a fast track summary of everything we are, a gesture of utter defiance in the face of what comes at the end. Truly magnificent.

    1. Martin, no you didn’t imply that at all. I simply meant that switching styles in the way Jimi does is purely song serving and not merely a demonstration of technical wizardry. I put that a bit clumsily but I’m in total agreement with you.

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