No respectable music blog would be complete without at least one review of the master axe-man himself, and none more so than the last studio album completed during his lifetime, the eclectic and majestic Electric Ladyland.
By 1968 The Jimi Hendrix Experience, as it was known, had been touring like a tornado from one side of North America to the other, performing in ever larger venues and stadiums. This of course brought in a vast amount of money, providing Hendrix with the funds necessary to block book recording studios whenever and wherever he could in between shows, sometimes recording for days at a time (an expensive indulgence even today). At this point ideas seemed to be bursting out of his brain at a rate often faster than he could preserve them to tape. Such a fierce level of creativity resulted in him accumulating enough material for a double album, still a novelty in those days, and something which record companies often tried to discourage, partly due to the higher production costs, and partly owing to the increased price such an expanded format presented to your average purchaser.
The LP begins with the sophisticated sound-collage of “And the Gods Made Love”, a far more evolved and complicated composition than the sci-fi embryo that was “EXP” which opened Axis: Bold As Love. It is nothing less than a space-age suite, full of complex tape loops, slowed down vocals, and God knows what else. The post-coital conclusion segues beautifully into the lovely and soulful Curtis Mayfield inspired “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)”, another densely layered piece, and one which represented a clear departure from anything he’d written previously.
“Crosstown Traffic” was one of a few songs recorded at Olympic Studios in London the previous year. The lyrics are entertaining, and a clever analogy for a man who is obviously having a little female trouble.
“Voodoo Chile” is a blues-rock colossus, and is essentially an extended late night/early morning jam between Jimi, Steve Winwood and Jack Cassidy. Mitch Mitchell puts in one his finest performances, like a cross between John Bonham and Elvin Jones. Three takes were attempted, with the final deemed the master. Apart from some clapping and audience chatter, no other overdubs were required. At fifteen minutes it might wear the patience of some, but let’s not forget that people in the ‘60’s had longer attention spans than most individuals today. So what I recommend is to light up a jangle, turn the lights down, relax and enjoy the journey.
What would have been side two on the original LP opens with “Little Miss Strange”. Not only did Noel Redding write the tune, he also sings and plays acoustic guitar. Perhaps sensing Noel’s feeling of estrangement throughout the whole recording process, Hendrix probably felt that he should offer his band mate something in the way of keeping what little peace remained between them. The song itself is nothing special, but Jimi manages to raise it a few extra notches thanks to some energetic and inspired playing.
The one thing about Electric Ladyland is that you can really discern the difference between the “London” tracks, and the “New York” tracks. They are like night and day. And “Long Hot Summer Night” has New York written all over it. A very funky number, with some wonderful jazz, or at least I think so, or maybe jazz-fusion overdubs aplenty. Mitchell’s drums are as superb as always, and really add that necessary intricate flavour.
“Come On” is the second cover on the album, and although it’s an Earl King tune, you would never know it. And I know, because I’ve heard the original. First it’s a lot funkier, and faster, with a hot wah wah solo thrown in for good measure.
“Gypsy Eyes” was the one song which tried Chas Chandler’s patience to the extent that he walked out as producer, frustrated at what he saw as Hendrix’s inability to make up his mind as to what was a good performance or otherwise. And after attempting more than fifty takes of this particular track, Chandler decided that he’d had enough. Leaving Hendrix to his own devises, which was by no means a bad thing in itself, it just meant that his obsession with perfection would continue and ultimately plague his judgement, and thus hinder his future endeavours.
“Burning of the Midnight Lamp” harkens back to 1967, and was released as a single. For some reason I’ve always found the sound to be somewhat too murky, or muddy for me to enjoy it as thoroughly as I ought. It’s almost as if they were trying too hard to throw everything they could at it in terms of overdubs, as if Hendrix’s own ambition was beyond the technology of the day (which was often the case anyway). I much prefer the version he recorded for the BBC. It sounds fresh, and has an immediacy to it missing from its studio counterpart here.
And now we have some jazz in the form of “Rainy Day, Dream Away”. It’s a terrific piece, where Hendrix gets to flex his improvisational (albeit insecure) muscle. There’s some sax, and wonderful organ by Mike Finnigan. Buddy Miles is on drums; successfully playing with time, “gut bucketing” I think is what they call it. And a clear reminder of how much of this album consists of impromptu performance.
“1983… A Mermaid I Should Turn To Be” is a science-fiction epic where the lead protagonist takes us on a Homeric journey through a dystopian world. Part fantasy, part apocalyptic. This is where Hendrix really gets to pull out all the stops, and fulfil many of his loftiest studio ambitions. Multiple guitar overdubs, electronic sound effects, jazzy drum rolls, even a little flute courtesy of Traffic’s Chris Wood. This composition has it all.
“Still Raining, Still Dreaming” is actually the second half of “Rainy Day”. Whether the decision to split the song in two was due to the restrictions of vinyl, or an artistic choice, I guess doesn’t really matter. If the first half was the ‘rational’ side, then this is the ‘insane’ side, where Hendrix’s playing almost sounds schizophrenic in its wah wah induced frenzy. Maybe one day we’ll get to hear the entire jam in its unabridged form.
One of the many positive aspects of the burgeoning rock scene was the rising political and social activism that was taking place outside of the more conservative pop mainstream. An ever greater number of musicians were beginning to stick their necks out and make statements which were increasingly polemical in nature. The Vietnam War being one of the main galvanisers of dissension, the other being race. “House Burning Down” was Hendrix commenting on the recent riots in Chicago following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the futility, as he saw it, of black people burning down their own brothers’ houses, instead instructing them to “learn instead of burn”.
The first time I heard Hendrix’s interpretation of “All Along the Watchtower” it impressed me beyond belief. Here was something ancient yet new at the same time. It had a menacing, foreboding quality to it which I did not understand (forgive me, I was only a boy). It’s no secret that Hendrix was something of a Bob Dylan disciple, and probably one of the few black musicians who really responded deeply to what this white folky had to say. Outside of “Mr. Tamborine Man” by The Byrds, this is probably the most well known and best executed Dylan ever reinterpreted by another artist. Where the original was a relatively straightforward acoustic strum-fest, fraught with unintelligible imagery, Hendrix manages to turn the whole thing on its head, reinventing it in the process. It also represents his best vocal delivery at that point, and would remain his highest charting single in the U.S. (at least when he was alive). And his guitar playing isn’t all that bad either.
Hendrix would sometimes introduce “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” as the new American anthem to his audience. Certainly it has an urban, modern ghetto feel about it, and is a raw, visceral blues for the late 20th century and beyond. His guitar has a demonic sting to it which really bites, but obviously in the best possible way. It also has a primal and atavistic quality to it that which have shocked and frightened the shit out of many other guitarists at the time. In other words, a game changer.
When Electric Ladyland was released I wasn’t even born. My appreciation of it came much later, after its full impact had already been made and had perhaps already gone. But that mattered little to me. Because what it did was open up all the doors, and expose my mind to what was possible in music, at least in modern terms. And for that alone I will remain always in its debt, and eternally grateful.