The debate on whether Jimi Hendrix was the greatest electric guitarist ever, is a debate that will see no end!
On this, the fiftieth anniversary of his death it is in fact, a monumental sign of respect that that issue is still discussed.
In some ways, it really doesn’t matter, because his all too short legacy of authorised releases speak for themselves. We could go through the alphabet starting at A for acclaimed, go to B for brilliant, C for Celeritous with Z for Zealous and go through again trying to describe the man and his music.
His death had as big an impact as his first gig in London.
On the evening of 24th September 1966, Jimi Hendrix played his first ever UK solo gig at the exclusive Scotch of St James club in Mason’s Yard; a peaceful courtyard which is now dominated by the White Cube modern art gallery.
Rod Harrod promoted Jimi Hendrix’s first show in London and in the book, Jimi Hendrix – The Day I Was There, he says – Jimi turned everything way beyond advisable levels. Feedback was coming from everywhere and it was a club that only held 120 in the downstairs room maximum and another 50-odd upstairs, if you squashed them all in.
Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, The Who’s managers, were there, and when Jimi had played they were falling over themselves, tripping over the chairs to get to Chas. They told him, ‘He’s great. We want to manage him.’ Chas said coldly, ‘Sorry, boys, I’m going to be managing him with Mike Jeffery.’ ‘Well, we want to produce him.’ ‘Sorry, boys, I’m going to produce him.’ They were trying desperately to think of a way to get involved.”
From moment one his music demanded attention, and history shows, there was plenty of his music and, plenty of attention.
James Marshal Hendrix – better known as Jimi Hendrix, was born in Seattle Washington and learned to play guitar as a teenager and grew up to become a rock legend who excited audiences in the 1960s
In the following decades his story and his star continued to burn brightly as generation after generation of guitarists and music enthusiasts rediscovered the man and his music.
My way of celebrating his legendary status is to have a retrospective look at his unbelievable 1968 release of Electric Ladyland (released in October of that year).
In my mind it was his tour de force.
There were only four album releases during his life. Three of these were with The Experience.
- 1967 – Are You Experienced
- 1967 – Axis Bold As Love
- 1968 – Electric Ladyland
The fourth was with his group A Band of Gypsys:
- 1970 – Band of Gypsys (Live)
So, why does this album hold pride of place not only in my collection, but many collections?
I do have all four of those official releases that were produced before his death and many of the posthumous releases, official and unofficial. This is the only double album, coming in a gatefold form.
Well it would be easy to argue simply on the basis of value for money, for in this double album there are 16 brilliant tracks.
Now it can just as easily be argued that with a maestro like Hendrix, it really is an issue of ‘quality’, and not ‘quantity’. That argument would be easy to defend but, we don’t need to!
With Electric Ladyland we are in the splendid position of having both!
However, with Electric Ladyland, it all just coalesces in the most skin tingling and and mind-blowing album of ….?
Well, here we begin to suffer from the issue that mere words cannot adequately describe what we hear.
In this album his music reaches stratospheric height and indeed it is the pinnacle of his compositional skills. The album is lovingly blended with some of the most unbelievable guitar playing – ever!
Jimi’s collaboration on this album included with a range of outside musicians- Dave Mason, Chris Wood and Steve Winwood from Traffic; future Band of Gypsys drummer Buddy Miles; Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady; former Dylan organist Al Kooper; and members of ‘the Serfs‘: Mike Finnegan on organ, Freddie Smith on saxophone, and Larry Faucette on congas.
Jimi was always welcoming of other artists making a contribution. For example Whitney Houston’s mom sang backing vocals on “Burning of the Midnight Lamp.”
Sometimes these contributions didn’t work out. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones stumbled by the session, decided to help out and play some piano but it just didn’t work and was abandoned. being mindful of not hurting Jones’ feelings, Jimi moved Jones over to percussion; the rattling that punctuates the song’s intro is the sound of Jones hitting a vibra-slap.
It is common knowledge now that Jimi suffered from insecurity, reputably recording 50 takes of “Gypsy Eyes”.
Yet despite this, this is HIS album, with him stroking, caressing, powering, shaking, being some of the superlatives that can be used to describe his playing.
In fact his manic attention to detail – his perfectionism, created a lot of problems such as causing his manager/producer to quit during the making of the album. Jimi also worked extensively with the bass guitar on a number of the tracks much to the consternation of Noel Redding.
A brief mention of the famous cover.
It appears as though the cover was far from what Jimi wanted.
Below is a picture which more accurately reflected what the great man wanted, as opposed to what he got.
Would the album have been as successful if the existing cover had not been used? Of course it would.
However, it did result in a cover that is both memorable and certainly at the time because of its nature, it very much assisted in having people talk about it. You know the old saying; there is no such thing as bad publicity!
I don’t know if you have noticed, but depending on where and when Electric Ladyland was released, the track listings vary. My boxed set album mirrors the English release, only you need to remember – this was the halcyon days of vinyl.
People would stack their player with multiple albums, and so the tracks on this album may seem to be out of order, but you would put LP#1, Side 1 on your player, and then LP#2, Side 2 on top thus you would hear them in the correct order to which Jimi intended.
All versions of this album commence with the same 1st side on LP#1
- And the Gods Made Love
- Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)
- Cross Town Traffic
- Voodoo Chile
From here they vary. My copy runs in this order from Side 2, LP#1.
- Still Raining, Still Dreaming
- House Burning Down
- All Along the Watchtower
- Voodoo Chile (slight return)
LP#2 – Side 1
- Little Miss Strange
- Long, Hot Summer Night
- Come On – part 1
- Gipsy Eyes
- The Burning of the Midnight Lamp
LP#2 – Side 2
- Rainy Day, Dream Away
- 1983. . . (A Merman I should Turn To Be)
- Moon, Turn the Tides
The album opens with, And the Gods made Love.
The only criticism here is that really, it is a case of incorrect tense and that maybe it should have been And the God made Love.
For from the moment the track opens until it finishes, we are left in no doubt, that Jimi did not play his guitar, he made love with it!
And the Gods made Love
We move into the track with the album title. He asks, maybe he pleads, have we ever been to Electric Ladyland? – now, this is a rhetoric question. He doesn’t need an answer, for HE has! This is a beautifully crafted track that leaves us in no doubt that we are entering into a journey unlike any we have undertaken before.
And so we move through Crosstown Traffic, pausing only to try and wipe those tyre tracks that lay across our backs. We leave the track, a jangle of elements, a collage of images, the organised clutter and chaos of the musical city he has taken us through. How can he leave us in this state?
He can’t, and he doesn’t.
We don’t have time to get concerned before one of the most haunting melodies of all times is upon us. The man, the Voodoo Man of electric guitars, THE Voodoo Chile is among us. When he tells us he can move right on up to a mountain and chop it down with the back of his hand – we believe him, for he is the Master, he can do it all.
Still Raining, Still Dreaming and it could rain and I would keep dreaming if this track were playing.
“Rainy day, rain all day
Ain’t no use in gettin’ uptight
Just let it groove its own way
Let it drain your worries away yeah
Lay back and groove on a rainy day
hey Lay back and dream on a rainy day
Lay back and groove on a rainy day Lay back Oh yeah !”
This is a sublime track and when that wah wah pedal commences we know we are about to be taken on a very spacey journey.
Still Raining, Still Dreaming
This could be the ‘spaciest’ on the album, but it isn’t – that very special track is yet to come.
Mike Finnegan on organ, and Buddy Miles on drums. We are suddenly transported from a land of water, to a land of fire. A man of calculated extremes with those extremes expressed through his music.
Suddenly, House Burning Down.
Says Hendrix: “All my songs happen on the spur of the moment. On some records you hear all this clash and bang and fanciness, but all we’re doing is laying down the guitar tracks – then we add echo here and there, but we’re not adding false electronic things. We use the same thing anyone else would, but we use it with imagination and common sense. Like on House Burning Down, we made the guitar sound like it was on fire. It’s constantly changing dimensions, and up on top that lead guitar is cutting through everything.” (www.songfacts.com)
Bob Dylan, no question, a brilliant composer – so what happens when a man of Hendrix’s undeniable musical/arranging/interpretation talent melds with a brilliant composition by Dylan?
It results in yet another classic piece of music. When Jimi sings and plays All Along the Watchtower, we are instantly transported to that place!
When Jimi sings, “the wind begins to howl” – it bloody well does and a shiver goes down our spines. In some ways it’s almost as if Dylan wrote this track knowing what Hendrix would go through.
For when Jimi sings the opening verse, he could very well be bearing his soul to us.
“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.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan stated that Jimi’s version, was an improvement on his original.
We have experienced Voodoo Chile, why do a slight return?
Jimi did nothing without a reason. In the main version we are exposed to the raw power of the Voodoo Chile. Now in the reprise, we have a shorter version but it’s much heavier with the wah wah pedal. It isn’t a matter of which version is the better – one grew out of the other and has its own amazing strengths.
In what is an amazing sign of confidence in Noel Redding, we are presented with his composition, Little Miss Strange. Now I can’t believe the number of references that credit Jimi with writing this track.
Clearly those people didn’t just look at the credits on the album, but even so – it is clearly not a Hendrix style of composing and is very much a classy British Pop track with vocals provided by Noel.
Long Hot Summer Night. It grabs us from the opening with a short powerful riff that under any other circumstances any other group would have stretched out for all it’s worth. He has no need.
This may be his ‘sop’ to putting a commercial track onto this album, I don’t know – it is certainly a popular track and given Jimi’s ongoing concerns over his voice, it is amazing that he provides all the backing vocals as well.
Come On – part 1 is a composition by Earl King (he of “Let the Good Times Roll“) fame. In fact this IS that track, but interpreted in a way that only Jimi could do.
When he declares, let the good times roll and cranks up that Strat, they don’t roll, they erupt. What a great track for a party. It is a good times reminding us that it he was anything but mono dimensional in his choice of pieces to play.
There can be no doubt about it Jimi loved the ladies (and they loved him back). So Gypsy Eyes comes as no surprise (at least in concept). Gypsy Eyes may on the surface seem to be a lament of a man who has lost his lady with those Gypsy Eyes, but it is far more.
It is an incredibly complex piece of composition. It has at least two different drum variations and it features a complex interplay of guitar riffs between the guitar and bass.
It also has has an amazing melodic pattern making use of the pentatonic scale (for the musicians reading this), and, the goddamn guitar is nothing short of brilliant – with its long decaying single notes.
None of these components in themselves is new having been done over and over again by many other guitarists. But how Hendrix assembles and uses them, provides us with a song that is enjoyable to listen.
The Burning of the Midnight Lamp just continues to reinforce the genius of the man. Who the hell would conceive of using a harpsichord in electrosonic music?
Jimi was a unique musician in his own right and how he conceived of using it in such a strong piece of music is another indicator of his genius. The opening riff pattern remains burnt, indelibly, into my brain – the guitar is so expressive, but that delicate edge of the harpsichord provides the yin/yang push/pull that can turn a great piece of music into a brilliant piece of music.
Burning of the Midnight Lamp
His voice on this is as good as anything he sings, and he expresses his passion with his voice almost (note, almost) as much as he does with his guitar. If I wrote just one track this well, I would die a happy man!
So, we come to the final side.
Rainy Day, Dream Away. This is a just a groovy, groovy track. Once again Mike Finnegan is on organ, Larry Faucette on Congas, Buddy Miles on drums and Freddy Smith on Tenor Sax.
“Rainy day, dream away
Ah let the sun take a holiday
Flowers bathe an’ ah see the children play
Lay back and groove on a rainy day.”
The moment the sax and the organ kick in at the beginning we know we are in for one very laid back track. We know we are in for something special, little knowing that it is just a prelude to something even far more than special.
Rainy Day, Dream Away [In part]
That unbelievable track is the 13 minute 25 second audio-psychotronic odyssey, “1983. . . (A Merman I should Turn To Be)”.
This is one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of composition and playing in the era of the modern electric guitar.
Playing on this track are: Jimi, Noel and Mitch, ably supported by Chris Wood( ex- Traffic) on Flute.
After Voodoo Chile it is the longest track ever recorded and released on any of the four official pre-death albums.
Writing for the BBC, critic Chris Jones described the track as a “stoned classic”, praising the way it “[utilises] washes of backwards tape, jazzy timeshifts and far out fish-friendly lyrics to tell the tale of future apocalypse and return to the oceans“.
Now, some 50 years later, I believe that description was totally inadequate.
This is a truly symphonic piece of work. It may be the only real symphony ever written and played without a symphony orchestra instrument in mind. It is true genius in every way a word can describe.
The undersea journey is a journey of the inner and outer limits of our imaginations. He creates using the electric guitar in ways not conceived of before. Everything that can be done on a guitar to produce a sound, and experience, an emotion, is done! The music is forward, it is backward, it twists and turns, rises and falls, only to re-emerge to again form a mobius strip of sounds.
Then when we think we have all the images we can be provided with, the man reminds us of his genius with words. [If you are interested in these truly brilliant lyrics, just click on – 1983]
Writers have been confused as to why Jimi ‘destroys’ the piece with his playing at the end.
Rubbish! He does no such thing. He climaxes and then takes us ever so gently to the edge. This is the manner of the creation and destruction of the Universe. All things that are created must return to that from which they come. So it is he suddenly lets it die.
But wait! There’s more!
The final track is Moon, Turn the Tides.
It is only – 58 seconds long. In many ways as short as the previous piece was long.
We don’t die! We are reborn among the stars and stellar space of his imagination.
Thus the journey through this truly remarkable piece of work is concluded.
It is also very appropriate to believe that it might have been a piece that Jimi would want to have his life finish on as it so aptly represents him and his naturally born genius.
When he passed away, alone, on this day fifty years ago, he joined the pantheon of stars such as Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. whose careers were tragically cut short.
Yet in an ironic way that premature death just added to the legend that is Jimi Hendrix.
His music was colourful, his life was colourful – HE was colourful.
We will not see his like again!