For someone as creatively instrumental as Jimi Hendrix, not being able to read or write music was of enormous frustration to him, thereby fanatically preserving onto tape anything and everything, as a reference for later analysis. Following the release of his magnum opus, Electric Ladyland, Jimi had reached a crossroads of sorts. Unlike nowadays where record companies generally give their artists a few years between projects (in fact they practically encourage it), in the 1960’s musicians were expected to deliver at least two LPs a year (something which never seemed to bother either Bob Dylan or The Beatles). Record companies invested a lot of money into their respective artists, and they expected a healthy return as a result. In this respect however Hendrix was different. In early 1969 he had no shortage of ideas, only a dearth of songs. If all he needed to do was produce an album’s worth of extended semi free-form jams, Jimi could have easily of handed in a new LP every month. If only he had of fallen in with the newly emerging jazz-fusion set, and played on records like In a Silent Way for instance, then his true calling might have come earlier and allowed him more leeway in terms of experimentation in other genres, rather than feeling trapped under the weight of a public who were expecting another “Purple Haze Part II”. What many of them didn’t realise was that Hendrix was fast beginning to outgrow the very music which had made him famous.
On Valleys of Neptune, what we have is a collection of studio recordings made predominately between February and May of 1969. And while each song in itself offers worthy insight into Jimi’s undisputed genius, as a cohesive whole however, it’s a bit of a mess.
Opener “Stone Free” is a case in point. On the surface it’s a funky and highly focused in-house workout. But when you dig a little deeper, i.e. read the liner notes, you realise that it is nothing more than a posthumous patchwork of separate takes that had nothing to do with one another, a practice I find questionable personally, since Hendrix himself had no say in the matter. The same goes with the title track, a song which many fans have been desperate to hear for decades. It’s true that “Valleys of Neptune” had potential, however in order to achieve a “finished master”, what they’ve done is employ a process not too dissimilar to the one adopted on the previous number. And the fact that he’s singing a little out of tune doesn’t assist matters either. Hendrix at his best? I hardly think so.
“Bleeding Heart” is much better. Well recorded and exceptionally performed, it contains some incredible soloing, even if drummer Rocky Isaac does seem to struggle to keep up with him. “Hear My Train” originally appeared in heavily truncated form on the obscure Midnight Lightning LP in 1975. Now we have the complete take, and it’s a ferocious beast to be sure. While I wouldn’t call it a ‘master take’ in the traditional sense, it’s probably about the closest he ever got.
“Mr Bad Luck” (otherwise known as “Look Over Yonder”) was recorded in 1967, and therefore probably doesn’t really fit with the apparent ‘theme’ of the album overall. The only explanation I can think of is that in the late eighties, Chas Chandler, Hendrix’s first producer in London, had in his possession a series of tapes, and who cordially invited Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding into the studio to re-record their respective parts over several recordings with the intention of using them for a future project. But for whatever reason the results never saw the light of day, until now.
Hendrix would often perform the Cream classic “Sunshine of Your love” at his live shows (sans vocals). This version stems from a rehearsal a couple of days ahead of his performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall in February 1969. It’s an impressive interpretation, with plenty of virtuosic muscle, as you’d expect. However unless you’re a complete newcomer to his music, you probably won’t need to revisit it very often. “Lover Man”, from the same day, is another brawny practice session, where Jimi’s instrumental abilities are on full display. It also contains more of those ‘80s overdubs mentioned earlier by the way.
One thing’s for certain, the man never stopped experimenting, and “Ships Passing Through the Night” is an interesting if somewhat imperfect embryonic rendition (his vocals are painfully out of tune I should add) of what would eventually transform into “Night Bird Flying” the following year. Running his guitar through a leslie rotating speaker, you’d be mistaken for thinking he had an organist playing with him. Intriguing, but little more.
“Fire” and “Red House” are again from the Albert Hall rehearsals, with the first serving as a rollicking bolide of sonic proportions, while the latter is a more relaxed and elongated affair, where as usual Hendrix takes us on an extended voyage through the attic of his fertile mind.
“Lullaby for the Summer” is a polished work in progress, the main riff of which had been floating around Jimi’s head for some time, until finally morphing into the funk-rock song “Ezy Ryder”. It’s a superb demo, but what it’s doing on this compilation I have no idea.
The album closes with “Crying Blue Rain”, another track from the Chandler tapes. It starts off well enough, with an atmosphere and manner reminiscent in some way of “Hey Joe”, until after a few minutes, where Hendrix suddenly unleashes a torrent of untidy riffs, and there the whole thing unravels, never to recover.
Ultimately Valleys… is a curious and yet confusing compendium of obscurities which would have no doubt remained lost beneath the sands of time, that is were it not for all the good folks at Experience Hendrix, the current custodians of the late guitarist’s legacy. I am still of the opinion however that the majority of this material, at least as it is presented here, would have been far better served on a boxed set, in order to give it a bit more context. Although for long time enthusiasts (of which there are no shortage), it remains yet another essential acquisition in the seemingly never-ending process of musical archaeology. And if you are going to plunder all those riches from the Pharaoh’s tomb, you might as well plunder from one of the best.