If there’s one thing you can count on from Tony Iommi, it’s how to recognise a killer song, so when he chooses a killer Jimi Hendrix tune, you’d be forgiven for expecting something mind-boggling. It isn’t.
In fact, Iommi went for the pedestrian ‘All Along The Watchtower’, a middle of the road rocker heard on countless B-movies and TV serials. Worse still, Hendrix didn’t write it, and the cover holds nothing of the drama, nuance or contrast of the Bob Dylan original. As covers go, Hendrix’s lacks the menace of U2’s superior makeover, bolstered by Bono’s verses during the exhilarating coda. But the Hendrix version does hold a towering guitar lick, which likely explains why it wound up in Iommi’s selection of personal favourites in 2018.
Unlike some of the other songs, Iommi chose not to offer an explanation as to why he chose this particular number, feeling that the music would do the talking (although in Hendrix’s case, it’s more screaming and moaning than talking). He tended to let Geezer Butler write the words for Black Sabbath, although his personal recollections offer a lyricism that’s rooted in the immediacy of an electric guitar.
“The Shadows were a huge influence on me and not only me, Iommi informed BBC Radio. “A lot of my friends, Brian May, David Gilmour, people like that, all took to The Shadows. I really loved what they do, I love the sound. It was classy and of course, in them days there weren’t many instrumental bands. Nobody sounded like that. It just appealed to me. And I could learn how to play or try to learn to play the tunes.”
The Beatles may have parodied the band with the biting ‘Cry For A Shadow’, but most British bands were in awe of the group, not least Hank Marvin and his penchant for shimmering arpeggios. More interestingly, Iommi included Django Reinhardt among the listings, which is fitting when you realise that the jazz player influenced Iommi. Both men had reduced movement in their hands due to industrial accidents, yet both mastered their particular genre, laced with their own sound and style.
Iommi also demonstrated a penchant for Doris Day and The Carpenters, which is interesting, if not entirely unexpected, when you consider the melodies that cement ‘Laguna Sunrise’ and ‘Changes’. Keenly aware that Black Sabbath were being pigeonholed by the music presses, Iommi stepped out of the ring of the hard-rock ring to embrace new sounds on Vol.4, the band’s fourth album, and one that showed Iommi’s devotion to Hendrix on the hair-raising ‘Supernaut’, a turbo-charged rocker based on barrelling drums and fiery riff.
Iommi was clearly enamoured enough with Hendrix’s playing to pay tribute to him, but his choice demonstrates a blandness that wasn’t in keeping with Hendrix’s more avant-garde sensibilities. He could have gone for ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’, a deeply-atmospheric rocker that enriches the romanticism of the words with a cutting guitar solo that pivots across the audios in a dazzling ten-minute exercise of ingenuity. Or he could have chosen ‘Foxy Lady’, a licentious rocker that pre-empted the immediacy of punk by 10 years. Better still, he could have gone for ‘The Wind Cries Mary’, a jangly, esoteric ballad that demonstrated Hendrix at his most elliptical and his most accessible.
Instead, he went for ‘All Along The Watchtower’, a shrill rocker that was so banal it wound up in countless commercials. In recent years, directors have used it to describe the political changing landscapes in America. OK, it worked for kitchen sink drama Withnail and I, but otherwise it’s only served as a portal, nay a snapshot, of the late ’60s, giving viewers who were too young or too stoned to remember it a taste of the times.
It turns up in Watchmen in a pointless segue from Dr. Manhattan’s departure from Mars to the cold snows that await Rorschach as he attempts to save the day from earth’s deadliest threat yet. And no matter how much the chorus fires up, or how deafeningly Hendrix wails, the magic simply isn’t there. The song fails to make the impression that the similarly blistering, but better realised, ‘Purple Haze’ could have achieved during that particular scene.
No matter, Watchmen is still an excellent film, and Iommi is still the man who wrote the towering riff that opens ‘War Pigs’. Clearly, the song spoke to him on an emotional level, and as highlighted before, the recording boasts an explosive riff. Like Hendrix before him, Iommi plays a left-handed guitar, so he may have recognised the American-born musician as an inspiration. “Well, I think he came up with something at the time that got so much excitement in it, his style of playing, playing upside-down,” Iommi explained. “And just the aggression and the way and he would do stuff behind his neck. Just things that didn’t happen”.