Best cover ever

I could have titled this post “My favorite cover”, but to call anything ‘the best’ is an invitation to debate and disagree, so maybe my small circle of readers will weigh in with their opinions.

Had he lived, Jimi Hendrix would have turned 71 later this month. Hard to believe, no? Like JFK, whose assassination anniversary looms (and who would be 96 were he alive today), he’s forever fixed at the age we lost him: 27 years old and doing insane things on the guitar.  One is tempted to imagine the arc of his career had he not died in London in September of 1970.  Would he still be recording and performing live, like, say, Eric Clapton, a peer?  If so, what gems would be in his catalog by now?  Or would he have flamed out?  We’ll never now.  What’s important is that we have what he did leave behind.

Hendrix, JimiHendrix released just three studio albums while he was alive.  The last of these, 1968’s Electric Ladyland,  included a track that I consider the best cover version of a song: “All Along The Watchtower.”  And I guess it’s here that I should say that by ‘best’, I mean the most complete and utter re-imagining of an earlier version…a version that surpasses the original.  I would wager there are some people who don’t even know Hendrix’ version is a cover.  Bob Dylan wrote “All Along The Watchtower” in late 1967, and it appeared on his album John Wesley Harding.  The recording is rather spare and a taut two and half minutes long: Dylan himself plays acoustic guitar and harmonica, with Charlie McCoy on bass guitar and Kenneth Buttrey on drums.

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl

[Note that an explication of the lyrics could fill an entire post; I’ll leave that for the interested among you to explore on your own.  Suffice it to say that the interpretations abound].

Jimi Hendrix at the Datamix console at the Record Plant, New York, during the recording of the Electric Ladyland album.
Jimi Hendrix at the Datamix console at the Record Plant, New York, during the recording of the Electric Ladyland album. (Photo by Eddie Kramer)

Hendrix was a big admirer of Dylan, and began recording his own version of “Watchtower” just weeks after  Dylan’s was released.  For his version, Hendrix plugged in and unleashed four ecstatically blistering solos–lengthening the song by a minute and a half–and his engineer, Eddie Kramer, was very creative with what were, by today’s standards, a very limited set of studio effects.  (An interesting piece on the recording of “Watchtower” is here.)  No matter where I am or what I’m doing when I hear the song’s opening, at those first insistent strums on acoustic guitar I snap to attention and wait not only for that electric guitar line that will arrive in just 9 seconds, but for all the wonders that follow.

In an interview he did for the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel back in 1995, when asked how he felt when he first heard Hendrix’ version, Dylan replied: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there…..I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”


Trivia tidbit: In a rather eerie coincidence, The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones (1969), Hendrix (1970), Janis Joplin (1970) and The Doors’ Jim Morrison (1971) all died at 27.

9 comments

  • Surely not a tincture of provocation here? 😉

    I reckon you’ve nailed the core elements of a cover version. (1) A song worth covering. (2) An interpretation (or envisaging) that somehow augments the song and thus the listening experience.
    My first ‘knee-jerk’ reaction was to offer Lennon singing ‘Twist and Shout’ but on reflection I think it is a different question if one does not know the original. I certainly never heard The Isley Brothers until decades after the event. And I’ve never heard the ‘original’ by the Top Notes.

    Good stuff. Hope others offer some thoughts.

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  • I’m “snapping to attention” right there with you! “All Along The Watchtower” is an excellent choice. Another good one, in my opinion, is “Woodstock” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Joni Mitchell’s original is beautiful, but I always turn up the volume for CSNY.

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    • That is a good one! Another one I really like is in the ‘opposite direction’, i.e. a loud original to a quieter, restrained cover, rather than the other way around, and that’s Jose Feliciano’s version of “Light My Fire”. Thank you for weighing in!

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  • Well, I could bore on with vigour on the topic of originals vs covers, but rather than do that I’d like to make a couple of observations about the specific original and cover you present here. It was good to have the opportunity to listen to the two back to back. It had never occurred to me before that Hendrix’s famous opening solo takes Dylan’s harmonica line as its starting point. Also, I’d completely forgotten about the passage using slide (about 2 minutes in, before he starts he on the wah-wah pedal).

    As for the question of length. As you point out, Dylan’s original is very succinct. But had you asked me to guess the length of the Hendrix version from memory, I’d have said it was six minutes plus. It feels very BIG. Yet, it comes in at only four minutes.

    And as for the question of what Hendrix would have achieved had he lived longer. Well it is, of course, anyone’s guess. Given that he seemed to be able to do pretty much anything with the guitar, I’d have hoped that he would stretch out a bit more musically. Imagine what he could have achieved with more complex chord progressions that the ones that he favoured. And it would have been great to hear him spacing out with other great improvising musicians. His backing bands were excellent, of course, but they always felt like just that: backing bands. Don’t get me wrong: what he achieves within the particular musical context he chose was thrilling and life enhancing, and seeing footage of him is often riveting (it’s a cliché, I know, but that guitar seemed like a part of his body that he used to express himself, rather than a piece of electrified equipment) but I’d have enjoyed seeing him pushing the bounds a bit more. He could have worked with Chick Corea, or Miles Davis, or John McLaughlin…

    Thanks, as always, for a delightful post.

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    • Fantastic comments, GHB. Thank you! In one of the interviews with sound engineer Eddie Kramer that I read, Kramer said he thinks he remembers Hendrix using a cigarette lighter for the slide during the “Watchtower” recording sessions.

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  • Hi, Jeanne.
    I’m biased, of course, but I think I think I agree that this is the best cover ever. Talking Heads’ “Take Me to the River” and the Cowboy Junkies’ “Sweet Jane” would also be in the top 10, since, like Hendrix’s “Watchtower,” they’re true re-interpretations and not just cases of one artist sponging off of another artist’s talent. Dylan himself summed it up perfectly when he said Hendrix “found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there.” For me as a Dylan fan, an added bonus of Hendrix’s “Watchtower” is that it’s not one of those songs that whining non-Dylan fans claim they like because they only like Bob Dylan songs “when somebody else sings them.” For my money, the second-best Dylan cover is is Jason and the Scorchers’ “Absolutely Sweet Marie.”
    — Bob

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    • Thanks for stopping by, Bob. It’s especially meaningful to have comments from a longtime, and diehard, Dylan fan like you. I’d forgotten about the Cowboy Junkies and “Sweet Jane”: good one!

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