Hendrix comes back from the grave
By the mid 1970’s any 50’s or 60’s recording artist who wasn’t still alive and making fresh music might as well have not even existed, no matter how famous they may have been in their heyday (Elvis being one exception). In this respect, Jimi Hendrix was hardly any different. And while his musical legacy was for all intents and purposes intact, the fact that he was no longer around, meant that it would never be possible for his music to keep up with all the latest creative trends and recent technological advancements. And as each new posthumous Hendrix release failed to sell in numbers sufficient to justify further investment, it appeared that the road had finally ended for one of Rock’s most talented and brightest stars. Or had it? Because strange tidings were afoot.
In 1973 Jimi’s manager, the notorious Michael Jeffrey, perished in a mid-air plane collision over France, thus leaving the door open for someone else to step in and administer the estate. Warner Brothers reached out to Alan Douglas, a record producer, who had not only known Hendrix, but had also spent time with him in the studio. So when Douglas informed them that he had a number of multi-track tapes in his possession, Warners agreed that another album/project might be worth considering. They also gave him access to the extensive tape library that had been meticulously compiled when Jimi was alive. After months of research, what Douglas assembled ultimately resulted in one of the most contentious and divisive albums in Rock history; which perhaps explains why it won’t go away. Well that, and digital technology. For as long as there’s electricity and the internet, nothing can ever truly die. But before we proceed to analyse its contents, one question will always remain: and that is from where does all this controversy originate? The answer is simple. In his infinite wisdom, Douglas made the somewhat radical decision to wipe nearly almost all the original contributions made by the musicians who had played with Hendrix at the time, whilst retaining Jimi’s own guitar and vocals, and instead replace those parts with session musicians, none of whom even knew the guitarist. But at least he had the good sense not to hire the rhythm section of KC and the Sunshine Band. No. What Douglas did was bring in a group of obscure though experienced players, who were more than capable of taking on the unique task that lay ahead of them.
Opener “Message to Love” first appeared on the live Band of Gypsys LP, but here we have a proper, and more importantly, polished studio recording, proving that the trio were more than just a live outfit, and had in fact spent some serious time in the studio perfecting their sound. This is one of Hendrix’s funkiest numbers, fortunately requiring only very minimal posthumous tinkering, where an additional guitar solo from another session has been carefully inserted, which actually adds rather than detracts from the song’s overall qualities. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (originally titled “Somewhere”) originates as far back as 1968, when Hendrix was busy recording Electric Ladyland. What was once an outtake has now clearly become a finished master, thanks to the contributions of Alan’s professional band of hired hands. “Crash Landing” was another promising demo Hendrix recorded in early 1969, but never fully realised. That Douglas chose to include it here is most likely due to the funkiness of the rhythm guitar than to the tune itself, which is nothing really all that special, even though the song obviously had potential. What you do have is an unfinished canvass being touched up by an assortment of other painters to make it presentable for exhibition. The funk continues with “Come Down Hard on Me Baby”, another promising composition which Hendrix never got around to completing. Allan Schwartzberg (drums) and Bob Babbitt (bass) are certainly in the pocket, and definitely improve on the original demo from 1970 (no offence to Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox), but it still sounds a little overcooked, no matter how enjoyable it might be.
Side Two begins with the proto-metal “Peace in Mississippi”, an almost free-form cosmic instrumental which Hendrix was capable of tossing off every now and then in between recording more serious stuff. It’s a heavy piece for sure, and probably a brave choice for Douglas to include on an album which was intended to appeal to the mass market. Easily listening this is not. Now we’re back with the Band of Gypsys with “Power of Soul”, here retitled “With the Power”. It remains the only track on the album without any overdubs, however it has been edited and rearranged, to the extent that it bears little resemble to the version that appears on South Saturn Delta. Once you’ve heard that recording, this one simply pales in comparison. “Stone Free”, next, was funky enough already, without requiring further rework by people who weren’t actually in the studio with Hendrix when he recorded it. Jimi sounds like he’s singing from a public phone box, while dialling in from Heaven. After listening to the master as heard on the four cd The Jimi Hendrix Experience boxed set, one begins to realise here that they’re probably being duped.
The last track, the enigmatically titled “Captain Coconut”, is a strange three-part instrumental. When Douglas was searching through the tape library, and found this, he believed it to be an experimental piece put together by Hendrix. In fact, it was engineer John Jansen who merged these three segments of music together whilst assisting Eddie Kramer in compiling the Rainbow Bridge soundtrack. Kramer rejected it, and so this musical Frankenstein was put away amongst everything else. It begins with a gorgeous Flamenco part, with Hendrix running his guitar through a univibe, giving it a lovely warbling effect. It soon segues into what appears to be another semi-Spanish section, before things get a little weird, as we head off into outer space for a couple of minutes, followed by some spooky, backwards guitar, which leads the song out. To the listener “Captain Coconut” is not so much a song, but a séance.
Listening to it today, Crash Landing is hardly the greatest of Hendrix albums, and at less than thirty minutes in length can scarcely even be called a proper LP. Even Douglas himself appeared to disown the record, deciding not to re-release it on cd in America. But that didn’t prevent it from being pressed in Europe and Australia. Were it not for all the controversy, I’m sure it would have disappeared long ago from the collective consciousness of fans, the same way an illegitimate child is cast out by its family, which means that none of this material will ever resurface any time soon, if ever, since all of these tracks can now be heard in their more or less original form on other compilations. Still, for me it remains an intriguing document of the times in which it was made. Although Douglas was subsequently vilified for his production methods, considering that the possibility of another Hendrix album making it into the charts in 1975 was about as likely as the US government admitting to the existence of aliens, I’m sure that Douglas felt as though he was left with little other option than to do what he did. And with the man’s recent passing, who am I to piss on his grave?