Revved Up Tracks With The Rev – Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower”

Album: Electric Ladyland
Producer: Chas Chandler, Jimi Hendrix
Engineer: Eddie Kramer
Mixing: Eddie Kramer
Year: 1968

It doesn’t happen often that a cover version becomes as big as the original version of a song. Even more rarely does it happen that the original artist thinks so much of the cover version that he adopts it himself. That was exactly what happened when Jimi Hendrix put his own spin on Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”. I remember the first time I heard it like it was yesterday. I was 13, had just gotten into the blues , had just gotten my first electric guitar and I’d been hanging out with a bunch of dudes much older than me (like, 18 or so) who had told me that I needed to hear Hendrix. At that point it wasn’t all that easy getting hold of something that wasn’t in the charts so I had to take a leap of faith. I saved up some pocket money (import CD’s were much more expensive than the usual stuff stores sold) and got a store in Cape Town to order a “greatest hits” compilation for me. On collecting the disc, I asked the guy if I could have a listen.  He put the disc in the player and handed me some headphones. When I hit “play” “All Along The Watchtower” started playing. My life changed at that exact moment.

There is something about Hendrix that just makes you realise that he must’ve been some sort of freak of nature. I’ve watched every bit of footage I’ve been able to find over the years and I’ve spoken to folks who have seen him live. He always seems like a guy who was, at the same time, wilder than everybody else but also more together. That aspect of his character comes across beautifully in this track. It seems beautifully calculated but it’s as unpredictable as driving through a Karoo pass. There is incredible beauty that surprises you around every corner but it’s dangerous at the same time. Just like Hendrix lived.

That dangerous way of doing things was apparently exactly the beginnings of Hendrix’s version of AATW. One legend has it that he was out partying, then got a bunch of musician friends together and, under the influence as they were, decided that it was time to go record the song, which he’d been wanting to record since he first heard it.  There is something to be learned from the way they did the initial tracks on this song.  And it’s the way a whole lot of classics had to be made. Four tracks were all they had so decisions had to be made fast.  Maybe that translates to the urgency of the track.  Having only four tracks to work with at any given time means having to bounce things.  And having to bounce things means that you have to get everything JUST RIGHT before you move on. Ain’t no turning back. I love this mentality of committing. So call me old… I still find that, in my own work, committing leads to instant results because you know exactly where stuff is gonna go and you can play into its strengths. These old cats had that concept down to an art form. Maybe that’s why, even though this record was done in different parts, over different continents, in different studios, on different equipment, it never sounds disjointed or slapped together. Hendrix knew what he wanted to achieve and Eddie Kramer could help him realise that dream.

The basic tracks were apparently cut live, which accounts for the energy in the track. I’ve not found any approach, in any genre requiring real musicians playing together, that yields the same results in terms of vibe than tracking a bunch of good musicians playing together. Hearing players feed off of each other and having that electricity that happens during a great, tight performance (apparently there were no rehearsal so they did just shy of 30 takes to get the vibe they were looking for) will get you excited to the point of having the hair on the back of your neck stand up and your feet not being able to stay still. Hot damn!

There is something really wide and epic about the soundscape of AATW that seems to support its soaring lead lines and Hendrix’s vocals, which delivers Dylan’s poetry in a way that seems almost soft but still aggressive, much as he hated his own voice. This depth and width can be attributed to a bunch of things: Firstly, that bassline (which, depending on whose story you believe, Hendrix played after Noel Redding got pissed off and walked out) is so round and soft that the whole track just seems to bounce on top of it. It doesn’t have much top end but still it sits in exactly the right spot in the mix and never turns the mix to mush. Then there’s Kramer’s use of delays and reverbs. I gotta say, this was a revelation to me. Getting into record production I had no idea of the differences between digital, analog and tape delays and all its variants. I just knew that I couldn’t get that depth, no matter what I did with my digital delay. Learning that our ears were designed to perceive anything with rolled off top end as something that’s far away – space, in other words – made this track’s size “click” in my mind. The delays, which were done using tape, which has a natural roll-off at the top of the frequency range, is so smooth that it swirls and sits behind the elements triggering it, making AATW so 3D that I can picture that wild cat growling in the distance.

The arrangement, of course, is masterful. The percussion in the tracks highlights certain sections and creates intensity for the leads and more aggressive vocal parts to break loose from. The bassline bounces in an almost “happy” way, still leaving lots of space but really making the low end of the track truly stomp-worthy. The way that things pan across the stereo spectrum and shift back and forth must have been nothing short of science fiction back in ’68. Hendrix’s vocals capture your imagination and never feel like “this is really a guitar guy’s album.” Nope, Eddie Kramer understands how, no matter how good you play that lick, if the listener can’t hear the guy sing the single don’t mean a thing.

A concept that influences the very core of records like these is how great engineers and artists like Eddie Kramer and Jimi Hendrix was/is able to use very few tools – even ones he doesn’t find particularly inspiring, like the console used in the USA-part of AATW’s production, which Kramer didn’t particularly care for – to bring life to their vision, going onto capturing the imagination of a whole generation. That seems to happen a lot less in these days of virtually having all the tools at our fingertips.

Hendrix had about 4 years to do what he did. It seems like he came in, never lost focus and was always dangerously pushing his own boundaries. I don’t think you can make meaningful music without having that mentality. AATW inspires me to commit, to use what I have and to exploit every possible tool I have at my disposal every time that spooky first chord hits my ears.

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