“I want a big band. I don’t mean three harps and fourteen violins. I mean a big band full of competent musicians that I can conduct and write for. And with the music we will paint pictures of earth and space, so that the listener can be taken somewhere.” Three weeks after Hendrix made that statement he was dead. He left behind him a veritable mountain of tape reels, detailing the many hours he spent recording, both in studios or otherwise, whether finished masters or works in progress, demos, experimental jams, following the man’s death it was all up for grabs. Some of the finest recordings Hendrix made before he died were released posthumously on the Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge albums, both serving as worthy musical monuments to the man’s legacy. But there were still some missing gaps. Because in the vaults remained several vital pieces to the puzzle yet to be presented, pieces that would hopefully shed further light on the genius of Jimi Hendrix.
War Heroes was the third record of studio recordings issued after his death, and the last under the stewardship of Jimi’s original engineer Eddie Kramer. Hendrix had made some statements about the Vietnam War in his time, and I can only guess that the title was based with that in mind. Although there can be no disguising that this was ultimately an album of outtakes, and leftovers from various sessions recorded during the previous two years before his passing. At least three tracks had been approved by Hendrix: “Highway Chile”, which was the b-side to “The Wind Cries Mary”, along with the funk/rock excursions of “Izabella” and “Stepping Stone”, recorded with the Band of Gypsys. However the last two tracks saw Mitch Mitchell overdub new drum parts in 1971. For the rest if the LP, Kramer and Mitchell had to sift through the many multi-track recordings, selecting two songs from the Electric Ladyland era, the jazz-instrumental “Tax Free”, which was a composition written by Swedish pair Hansson & Karlsson, who had actually jammed with Jimi in Stockholm 1967, and the reggae-ish “3 Little Bears”, a fun albeit hardly substantial piece, where all Jimi appears to be doing is goofing off in the studio. And speaking of goof-offs, “Peter Gunn Catastrophe” has Hendrix, Mitch and Billy Cox enjoying themselves in the studio, breezing their way through a version of Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme, from the TV series, before falling apart near the end, where Hendrix performs a brief parody of “Jealousy” by Frankie Lane. It’s all pretty silly stuff, and perhaps goes some way to explain why the album failed to sell in the sort of quantities no doubt the record company was hoping for.
But it’s not all bad. The instrumental “Midnight” is an exceptional late night jam from April 1969, and stems from one of the last sessions made by the original Experience with Noel Redding. Hendrix went through multiple takes in order to get it right (this is take number 8), which means that Hendrix was attempting to give the composition some form and structure. Elmore James’ “Bleeding Heart” opens the album, and was a recording Jimi had been working on as a possible candidate for his next record in 1970, First Rays of the New Rising Sun. Although apparently never finished to Hendrix’s satisfaction, it remains an outstanding interpretation nonetheless, and a funk-blues masterpiece and the sort of thing Funkadelic would simply kill for to have had on one of their early LPs.
“Beginning”, otherwise known as “Jam Back At the House”, is a Mitchell penned instrumental with some blistering guitar from Hendrix. One can only hope that an unedited version will one day find its way onto an official release, because that’s the one to hear. Although it must be said that since Jimi himself played a part in the editing and mixing process, along with Kramer, in late 1970, it’s little wonder his old producer is reluctant to make any changes.
Overall, War Heroes was one for the fans, and while the choice of material could have been better (no “Power of Soul”, “Drifter’s Escape” etc), it remains a more than decent collection of odds and sods, and something of a curio for the hard-core tragic. Most of these tracks can be heard on other albums, and in superior fidelity, so unless you own the original vinyl, there probably isn’t much point in picking this up. Unless that is you are desperate to hear “Peter Gunn Catastrophe” and the original mix of “3 Little Bears” (where Hendrix uses the F word a couple of times, providing a clue as to what he really thought about the song).
So, it’s highly unlikely that we shall ever see a re-release of War Heroes; however with the recent reissue of Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge, one can never really know, especially if there’s a dollar to be made from the multitude of disciples and worshipers out there in the world. God knows there’s no shortage of them.