Everyone knows that the BBC was once upon a time a generally conservative organisation by nature (maybe it still is, but I don’t work for them), full of pre-war as well as post-war stiffs who didn’t quite understand the newly emerging changes in youth culture that were taking place in England throughout the 1950’s and 60’s. Rock and Roll had become the latest religion for many of England’s young people, who saw it as a way of establishing a very different identity to that of their parents. Pirate radio played an important part in the equation, allowing for the first time anyone under the age of twenty to hear the latest pop tunes, and all those strange and wonderful sounds that were being created both in Britain and America, because you could bet that the British Broadcasting Corporation didn’t give a damn. And yet it is with great irony that following the outlawing of pirate radio stations by the English parliament, the BBC was, and with enormous reluctance I might add, persuaded to establish a ‘pop station’ of its own. Thus, in 1967, Radio 1 was born, and as far as Jimi Hendrix was concerned, the timing couldn’t have been better.
One aspect of this recent change in attitude was something known as “needletime”, an edict which dictated the amount of hours of ‘recorded’ music that could be played on air. The rest had to consist of live performances. The reasons for this are as odd as they are antiquated, but as far as rock historians are concerned today, it would prove to be a boon beyond their wildest dreams.
DJ John Peel should receive a medal, or at least a posthumous OBE, for requesting that Jimi Hendrix come in and record for his program. In an interview I heard many years ago, although he met Jimi, he didn’t actually take part in any of the recording sessions themselves, because he thought that the last thing musicians wanted was for some “groovy DJ”, as he put it, hanging around and basically getting in the way of things.
Things get off to a raucous start with “Foxy Lady”. Hendrix stays close to the original studio version here, unlike later versions which saw him improvise and stretch the arrangement somewhat. Alexis Korner introduces the next song, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” That Jimi was a Dylan disciple is no secret, and it’s a treat to hear him not only perform it but give it the full electric rock treatment. Hendrix demonstrates his blues roots with a hard rock interpretation of “Hoochie Coochie Man” (featuring Korner on slide guitar), which I’m sure, must have increased Eric Clapton’s already existing insecurities. On “Driving South” Hendrix reveals his R&B chops, while “Fire” sees The Experience in full flight, with sharp and frenzied drumming from Mitch Mitchell, along with Formula 1 riffing from the man on Fender.
Both “Little Miss Lover” and “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” illustrate Hendrix’s newly growing development as an arranger and song writer. He performs a scorching rendition of “Catfish Blues”, which must have frightened the pants off most other English guitarists at the time.
Now for a group who had only been together for a few months, they certainly show some serious simpatico on “Stone Free”, of the sort which would normally take many musicians several years to establish. “Love or Confusion” is a rare treat, as it’s not a song Hendrix played very often (to my knowledge), while “Hey Joe” is as ominous as ever. Jimi hams it up on Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog”, while another take of “Driving South” is arguably the most definitive version he ever recorded. The first disc rounds off with an embryonic “Hear My Train A Comin’”, which has a fantastic party atmosphere to it, and which finds Jimi in complete control of his instrument as well as the audience.
The second cd contains repeat performances of “Foxy Lady”, “Hey Joe”, “Driving South” and “Hear My Train A Comin’’, none of which differ all that much to the others, although are very much welcome in any case. We have a few tracks from Axis: Bold As Love, the R&B inspired “Wait Until Tomorrow”, the jazz-influenced “Manic Depression”, and a vigorous take of “Spanish Castle Magic”. Hendrix tips his hat to the Beatles, with a splendid interpretation of “Day Tripper”, which is soon followed by a jam with, of all people, Stevie Wonder (on drums amazingly enough), who apparently was just hanging around the studio waiting to be interviewed, until someone made the suggestion that he and Jimi should play together. What eventuated is hardly what I’d call a masterpiece, although it remains a fascinating glimpse into a world which will never come again. However this is not the complete recording of what took place. To hear that you’ll need to get in touch with your local bootlegger.
BBC Sessions finishes with Hendrix’s infamous appearance on the Lulu television show from 1969. The Experience tear their way through “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”, followed by a warm introduction by Lulu herself ahead of the next number, “Hey Joe”. It is at this moment that Hendrix defiantly changes course, choosing to kick things off with an almost free-form, feedback-loaded workout a la The Who, before launching into the song proper. However midway through, he suddenly stops, and says “We’d like to stop playing this rubbish and dedicate a song to the Cream, regardless of what kind of group they may be in. We dedicate this to Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce.” Before anyone knew it, The Experience burst into a raucous version of Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your love”, as a tribute to the group who had only recently split up. Such shenanigans led to Jimi being banned from ever performing for the BBC again, proving that in those days it didn’t take much to piss off the establishment.
That so much of this material has survived is a wonder on par with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. So many tapes were lost, erased or stolen, that it’s a minor miracle that any of it survives at all. What has been preserved is evidence of a time when rock musicians were not only breaking rules, but managing to invent a few new ones of their own in the process. The 60’s truly was a golden age, and a time when giants really did roam the earth. And The Jimi Hendrix Experience: BBC Sessions is a testament to that fact.