Non-Obvious: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “All Along The Watchtower” (1968)


You’d think the greatest rock cover of all time would have a very memorable groove. The second greatest, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” certainly does. So what is the groove of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower”? Try tapping it on your arm. Nothing will seem right – not unless you enfold it in a full mental replaying of the track.

Dylan’s original recording of the song on John Wesley Harding is not elusive in this way. It rides on a surprisingly hard, regular drum attack with a snare hit on every beat.

Watchtower

Bob Dylan, “All Along The Watchtower”

(That drum pattern has more affinity with a snappy piece like “Uptight [Everything’s Alright]”.)

Working impetuously with a Eureka! concept of a new arrangement of Dylan’s song, Hendrix ended up layering at least three grooves together.[1] One of them is basically the original drum part of Dylan’s version. Another is the dum-dum-dum-dum stated by the guitar to start the proceedings:

1……………….2……………….3………………4……………….
…………………………………………………….dum dum
DUM DUM DUM DUM…………………..dum dum
DUM DUM DUM DUM…………………..dum dum

Another is imposed by the bass in the instrumental verses, starting at :53:

1……………….2……………….3……………….4……………….
WOM BUM BUM……………………………BUM [BUM]
BUM BUM  BUM…………………………….BUM [BUM]

The other most important repeating pattern is the rhythm acoustic guitar striking chords on most beats, except with frequent accents on the 3-and:

1……………….2……………….3……………….4……………….
C minor……..C minor……..B-flat…………………………..
A-flat………..A-flat………………….B-flat………………….

Just like Dylan’s scene-setting phrase “All along the watchtower,” the musical structure set up by Hendrix’s opening is stunningly non-obvious. Well, we know what a “watchtower” is, but there’s the puzzling notion of “all along” it (eventually suggestive of prowling a prison yard or stockade); similarly, we get the “Dum dum dum dum” pattern in the music with no trouble, but even as lead guitar licks support the “dum dum dum dum” pattern in measures 5 through 8, the rug is being jiggled under our feet as the drums shift back and forth between reinforcing the “dum dum dum dum” and false-starting the rhythm used in the Dylan track. If this were merely tricky and entertaining I’d call it a case of wrongfooting, but there’s no definite moment when a change clunks into place. If you concentrate on it you can keep counting the same cycle of four beats, ignoring the blizzard of bass drum and snare drum misdirections, until :17 when measure 8 is extended by a half-beat—on purpose or not, I couldn’t say. Starting around :18 with measure 9 we settle into the four-beat cycle we’re going to have for the rest of the way, though you can’t really be sure of this until :21 when the snare starts hitting every beat.

I’ve tried to account for a way of starting in “All Along The Watchtower” that’s both arresting and enigmatic. The greatest assets of the track, no doubt, are the intensely imaginative lead guitar parts that come in so many different shapes from so many different directions, stylistically, leading up to finally reaching that high note, the Howling Wind hook, at 3:39.[2] The rhythmically uncertain start and the howling high note conclusion are, if you like, your Entry and Exit Hooks.

______________________________________________________________

[1] See Keith Shadwick’s account of the recording sessions in Jimi Hendrix: Musician (San Francisco: Backbeat, 2003), pp. 138-139.

[2] This good point about the last high note is made at Reason to Rock.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Ways of Starting and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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