Since in my last article I wrote about a song that was co-written by the legendary Bob Dylan, I thought that it was appropriate to discuss another Bob Dylan contribution this week. I’m talking about a song that was written by the master wordsmith, (although his version is not the most widely known), “All Along the Watchtower.” This song certainly fits in with the fascination with classic American rock and roll that U2 showcased on Rattle and Hum. I might even say that the cover of this song that U2 performed on their Joshua Tree Tour was the culmination of that obsession. Bob Dylan is probably the greatest American song-writer ever, and Jimi Hendrix, who recorded what is likely the most well-known version of this song, represents everything that U2 was discovering during the last 1980s. Fortunately, U2 has managed to avoid the same excesses that brought an early end to Hendrix’s career.
“All Along the Watchtower” was a song that I was already familiar with when I first heard U2’s cover of the song from Rattle and Hum, but their version immediately became my favorite version, and for many of the same reasons that U2 was (and remains) my favorite band. First off, and most immediately apparent when listening to the song, is Bono’s voice. I’ve read a lot of people who claim to be in the know about what makes a good voice claim that Bono doesn’t have one. I guess I can respect that opinion, but to be honest, it isn’t whether Bono’s voice is great or not that matters to me, it is what he does with it. The passion in his singing, the effort that he puts into every note, the abandon with which he throws himself into each performance…those are the things that make Bono a great singer, and they are all on display in U2’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” Next up, we’ve got the band itself…the three classic elements of drums, bass, and guitar. A group of musicians can’t really call themselves a rock band without those three things, and U2 happens to have an expert at each of those three positions. Adam and Larry complement each other so well, with that hard-hitting snare followed by the bass drum and Adam’s expressive bass playing that breathes life into an often forgotten instrument, the pair makes rock music sound like a brand new invention. And The Edge…what can I say that hasn’t been said about this man? Classic but experimental, he combines new and old to create a sound that is all his own, even in a hoary old song like “All Along the Watchtower” that had been covered by countless artists before U2 ever got to it. Simply put, U2 owned this song.
Obviously, U2 has performed “All Along the Watchtower” live several times. There was one performance on the Joshua Tree Tour–the one on the Rattle and Hum album–followed by performances at every single show of the Lovetown tour. Since then, “All Along the Watchtower” has only been played at one U2 concert, and that was way back in 2001 on the Elevation Tour. I doubt that U2 will play “All Along the Watchtower” again…I feel that that time has passed. It was perfect for the late 80s when U2 was celebrating and discovering American music, but now I want to hear U2 playing their own songs. Especially some deep album cuts that we haven’t heard live before.