A new musical supernova hits London and the world
The story of Jimi Hendrix who went from starving nobody to international superstar has been told and retold so many times that it would be superfluous to retell it here. Had he never made it to London when he did, and remained a struggling artist playing for loose change in Greenwich Village, it’s quite possible the man would still be with us, albeit perhaps not as the world knows and loves him today. Think about it for a moment; there’d be no Are You Experienced or Electric Ladyland. It’s doubtful he would have ever got to play Woodstock, much less close the iconic festival. It took England to adopt and nurture him, and enable his genius to flourish in ways which would never have been possible had he remained in his homeland.
And so it was that Chas Chandler, bassist with The Animals, asked a young Jimmy James to fly back with him to London, convincing the guitarist that that was where things were really happening. Hendrix agreed, but on one condition; that Chandler introduce him to Eric Clapton, an agreement he fulfilled, and one which would shatter the Taj Mahal-sized ego of Clapton forever. Here was someone who could play better and more brilliantly than any other English guitarist. The year was 1966, and Chas had inadvertently thrown a Joker card at the whole deck of England’s pop-rock aristocracy.
But first he needed a band. Auditions were quickly organised, with Mitch Mitchell (drums) and Noel Redding (bass) selected as the rhythm section of what Chandler christened the “Jimi Hendrix Experience”. Now that the musicians were in place, he wasted no time in arranging a label deal, and getting his new sensation into a recording studio. The first track they cut was “Hey Joe”, a song Jimi had already been playing around the clubs of Greenwich Village, and which had long been a staple amongst the established folk scene, so nothing new there. Except that Hendrix manages to transform it into a blues-rock behemoth, full of menace and pathos, whose opening chords are at once both dangerous and hypnotic. However they also required a b-side, so Chas told Jimi to go away and write one. The next day he came in with “Stone Free”, his first original composition, and together they became Hendrix’s first major chart hit.
“Foxy Lady” is easily one of the most exciting album openers of its era, a song which needs no introduction, and one that must have scared the bejesus out of London’s close-nit music fraternity.
“Manic Depression” is basically a waltz, with some stinging guitar, and superb 6/8 octopus drumming by Mitch Mitchell.
“Red House” is pretty much your standard 12 bar blues, except that in the hands of Hendrix, it becomes a blistering six string workout. The only shame is that it’s so short, unlike his live performances, where he would extend it and improvise his solos.
“Can You See Me” and “Love or Confusion” are both competent album tracks, with plenty of energy, but little more. “I Don’t Live Today” was Hendrix’s dedication to the plight of the American Indians who he felt had been neglected by their own government, and one he would continue to perform throughout 1970.
“May This be Love” is a tender love song with some exquisite guitar at the end. Portions of the tune sound a little underwritten, but no doubt the pressure to record and finish the LP was enormous, so we can forgive the man for that. A bit of trivia: Emmylou Harris included a version on her highly recommended Wrecking Ball album.
“Fire” is another classic – a fast and furious number that could easily have been a single. The main riff clearly owes itself to Hendrix’s days playing with R&B combos such as Curtis Knight and the Isley Brothers, but the rest is all Jimi.
“Third Stone from the Sun” is a semi-instrumental three-part suite and reveals Jimi’s love of science-fiction, with lyrics about aliens visiting earth and who subsequently decide to destroy it. Jaco Pastorius performed it, and Stevie Ray Vaughan would often include it in his repertoire when touring.
“Are You Experienced?” is a psychedelic call to arms, replete with backwards guitars and pounding drums. “If you can just get your mind together/Then come across to me” Hendrix sings in the first verse. By 1967 songs about LSD were pretty common (“Itchycoo Park, “I am the Walrus” etc) and de rigour for any up and coming English pop group hoping to garner a little ‘head-cred’. But here we have something entirely different to the sort of psyche-whimsy normally floating around teenage bedrooms. Yet “AYE” is something heavier, as if it were beamed in from outer space.
“Purple Haze” kicks off with a devil’s chord that that is capable of knocking the listener’s teeth out. Mitch thumps on the skins, while Redding throbs away on the bass. Was the song about drugs, or Christ, as Jimi’s born again Christian step-sister has claimed? (The original handwritten draft has the line “Jesus Saves” below the title). We’ll likely never know.
“51st Anniversary” sees Hendrix express his cynicism at the realities of a dysfunctional marriage. Apparently it was a difficult song to construct due to all the multiple guitar overdubs. Not an easy thing when one considers they had only four track technology to work with.
Legend has it that one particular day, the Experience had only a half hour or so left of studio time, so Chas asked Jimi whether there were any new songs he’d like to try out. Hendrix said that he had one. The band ran through it a few times, picked the best version, then overdubbed guitar and vocals. Done! Yes, boys and girls, writing a Top Ten hit was a lot simpler in the ‘60s. The lyrics to “Wind Cries Mary” are clearly inspired by Dylan, whom Hendrix absolutely worshipped. His playing is some of the most warm and tender he ever played, while the rhythm section provides delicate support.
“Highway Chile” is an autobiographical piece about life on the road for a lonely guitarist. Hendrix probably had Chuck Berry’s “Johnny Be Goode” in mind when writing it, although that’s where the similarities end. The main riff is more akin to hard rock, and overall another excellent tune.
Are You Experienced was an extraordinary debut by an even more extraordinary artist. For those who were born in the decades which followed, it will always remain impossible to fully appreciate the impact this album would have had on youth culture at the time. However one thing is certain, once it was let out into the world, rock music would never be the same again.