Jimi’s unfinished masterpiece revisited
Within only a few months of completing his third LP, Electric Ladyland, Jimi Hendrix was already contemplating his next move. He began writing down potential titles, one of which was First Rays of the New Rising Sun. The only problem was that Hendrix himself had no idea in terms of what musical direction he should take. On previous said album he had tentatively dabbled in jazz, but didn’t have the confidence he felt was required as a musician to adequately go down that path completely. He knew he certainly didn’t want to make another album of straight forward rock songs.
The only immediate solution was to hit the recording studio, sometimes for entire days at a time, and see what happened. The end result was a lot of music, but also a lot of bills. Big bills. Renting studio time wasn’t cheap. So the idea was put forward that Hendrix should build his own recording facility. Why not? That way, he could spend as much time as he wanted perfecting his next, and any future project. But it would take time. So in the interim, Jimi continued to jam, seemingly unable or unwilling to come up with anything to his satisfaction.
Nowadays it’s a given that any band or musician will take at least two to three years to complete their follow up. But in the ‘60’s, even as little as six months was an interminable amount of time to wait between records, both for fans and record companies alike. Basically, it was all about product. And the longer an artist waited, the more likely it was for his/her numerous disciples to move on to the next “happening thing.”
But by late 1969, early 1970 Hendrix had either recorded and/or completed several tracks for what he was determined would be a double album (he even had ideas for a triple LP, but that would have been pushing things too far in the pre-compact disc age). Yet it wasn’t until construction of his new studio, aptly titled Electric Lady, was nearing completion, that work began in serious earnest.
But let’s be clear; First Rays of the New Rising Sun is not the album Hendrix had proposed. How could it be? Whatever grand design Hendrix might have had, he took it with him to the grave. What he left behind was a disparate assortment of songs in various stages of completion. So the role of compiling and completing it was left to Jimi’s trusted producer Eddie Kramer, and Mitch Mitchell. Not an easy job, to be sure. And a heart breaking one at that. But over the next few months that’s exactly what they did. The good news at least was that there was no shortage of material to choose from.
In the last two years of his life, Hendrix had amassed a virtual Aladdin’s Cave of musical treasures. Some 75 percent of his projected double album was already in the can. Yet the bad news was that due to all the complicated legal entanglements woven by his manager Michael Jeffery, dictated that it was necessary to stretch out the remaining material over as many releases as possible, effectively scuttling any possibility of issuing anything close to what Jimi would have originally intended. That was in 1971. Fast forward to 1996, and with Hendrix’s family having regained ownership of the Hendrix legacy, and more importantly the tapes, now meant that an approximation of First Rays… could finally be realised.
“Freedom” is the funk-rock opener, with a riff way ahead of its time, or at least until people starting copying his style only a few years later. Full of complex guitar overdubs, it was as if Hendrix was opening a door to the future. It might not have had the immediate one-two punch of “Purple Haze,” but this was a new sound for a new decade.
“Izabella” was first debuted at Woodstock, and is one of the better performances of that long set. The Band of Gypsys also recorded an extremely funky version which was rush-released as a b-side to the single “Stepping Stone” in early 1970, though it was quickly pulled from the stores. For some reason Hendrix had Mitch record new drum parts at Electric Lady, while additional guitar overdubs were added. The song obviously had potential, and how close this is to what Jimi would have finally achieved is anyone’s guess.
“Night Bird Flying” was another song recorded at Jimi’s new Electric Lady studios. Lots of guitars on this one, and probably one of his more complicated compositions. More importantly it remains one of just a handful of songs actually completed before his death, to the extent that he had selected it as the b-side to the album’s first single. What of the song itself? Well, it’s not easy to describe. As a pop tune it’s not one of his strongest. But instrumentally, it’s a revelation. There’s so much going on that the further you dig, the more you hear.
The fundamental structure for “Angel” dates to 1967, as a basic demo, and nothing more. As far as ballads go, this would be Hendrix’s most epic, and heartfelt. He himself stated that he wrote the song for his deceased mother, after she appeared to him in a dream. This was one track that required some fixing up after Jimi’s death, with Mitch overdubbing tom tom drums to complete a finished master.
As far back as February 1969, Hendrix had performed “Room Full of Mirrors” at London’s Royal Albert Hall. More of a jam than anything else, it wasn’t until later that year, with the Band of Gypsys, that he finally nailed it. This is a funk-rock monster, and would have made a fine single. The song itself is built upon a solid r&b rhythm, with some spacey slide and six string special affects beamed in from Jupiter. And after we’ve had our orbit around the solar system, here comes “Dolly Dagger,” another funk-rock hybrid, full of dirty guitar, and which sees Hendrix bitching about his old lady, in this case Devin Wilson, a very strong woman who also came with an even stronger addiction, namely heroin.
Even though Hendrix probably couldn’t have handled having Buddy Miles as a permanent member of his band (or was it buddy’s band as some have suggested?), without him, and his solid pounding, some songs just wouldn’t have worked. And this is as good an example as anything. As the title suggests, “Ezy Ryder” is a perfect road song, and one for all the guitar heads out there, who like nothing more than to grab their tennis racket, crank up the stereo, and for the next four minutes forget about their boring life.
But just as “Ezy Ryder” will make you stand up, “Drifting” will make you sit down. This is one you can play for your wife, and not offend her obviously more sophisticated sensibilities with all those annoying Fender histrionics. This also took a little bit of posthumous poly-fill by Jimi’s surviving colleagues to complete. But based on the results, you’d never really know. The vibraphone and backwards guitar work extremely well together, and I recommend that you listen to this at night, with the lights off, and with only the warm glow of the amplifier in order to get the full spooky effect.
Beginning side three of the record is, well, “Beginnings,” better known as “Jam Back at the House,” from his Shokan/Woodstock Festival days. While I’ve always enjoyed it as a composition, the mix on here could have done with a little tweaking, to the point where it really does seem unfinished, unfocused even. While it’s certainly plausible that Hendrix may have considered including it on his next album, in this incarnation at least, the possibility of that happening was highly improbable.
“Stepping Stone” is all testosterone funk, with more guitars than Joe Satriani has had original ideas (no offence Joe). This was originally recorded by Band of Gypsys, but Mitch went ahead and replaced Buddy’s drums with his own following Hendrix’s passing, failing to improve on it in the process.
This is where things get controversial, certainly amongst all the Hendrix geeks, who argue that “My Friend” has no place on First Rays… since it harkens back to his Electric Ladyland days. While he would no doubt never have authorised its release had he lived, it’s nevertheless a worthy recording, and interesting in that it contains contributions by Paul Caruso and Stephen Stills, the former an old friend from his pre-fame Greenwich Village days.
“Straight Ahead” is a full on wah-wah fest, and something of a ‘message song’, whose lyrics may seem a little dated, at least to modern ears (although tell me how many people will be quoting One Direction twenty years from now?). The mix betrays the arrangement, which is a lot more complex than on first impression, and while I believe Hendrix would have found a place for it somewhere, it still needed just a few more tweaks and adjustments.
By 1970 Hendrix had made enormous strides not only in his playing but also in terms of who he was as an individual. Likewise the Flower Children, who had also grown up, and while “I Want To Hold Your Hand” may well have been acceptable when you were 12, by the time one is in their early twenties, they’re no longer in rock and roll kindergarten (although with lyrics such as “goo goo g’joob” one would seriously have to wonder). “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” was central to Jimi’s theme, and had he lived to finish it, I am sure it would have been the song. Unfortunately the version presented here is likely to be about as close as we’ll ever get to what might have been. The lyrics are as cosmic as always, but it’s the guitar which shines most, and even in its unfinished form, one can still hear great things. Of everything he did, this is my favourite composition. Blues, Jazz, Flamenco, it’s all here.
The fourth and final side to the album starts with “Earth Blues,” originally another Band of Gypsys recording, but overhauled at Electric Lady by Jimi and Mitch. There’s some debate as to whether it would have made the final cut. Regardless, it remains a more than decent psychedelic-funk-gospel number full of trippy guitar (just for something different), and which will have you praying at the acid alter in no time.
“Astro Man” is one of those (car)tunes that if you don’t take too seriously, is quite enjoyable. The lyrics are hardly T.S. Eliot, but the music is fun all the same. Things get more serious with “In From the Storm,” a track which was in all likelihood completed, except for the final mix. Hot and sweaty wah-wah, sexy female backing vocals, heavy rhythms, you name it, Jimi threw it in.
And now we get to the saddest part of the album, the end. “Belly Button Window” seems to mean different things to different people. Mitch Mitchell said that Jimi wrote it for his then pregnant wife, and that remains probably the most likely meaning. According to Eddie Kramer Hendrix hadn’t quite finished with it, and probably intended to re-record it at some point. Even as it is, it’s still a marvellous tune. Just two guitars (wah wah and straight), with vocals. This represented one of Hendrix’s last official studio sessions, and a befitting, sombre way to close the curtain on what was a unique and incredible talent.
Had Hendrix lived I have no doubt that First Rays… would have proved to be just as popular as any of his previous albums, perhaps even more so. While not as immediately groundbreaking as his debut, for sheer sophistication it’s probably his most accomplished. It could also be argued that this would have marked the end of his pop/rock period, what with jazz-fusion and more progressive forms of music beginning to rise in popularity at the turn of the decade. And with potential collaborations with the likes of Gil Evans and Miles Davis on the horizon, who can guess as to what new directions and musical inventions were yet to be explored. All we do know is whatever those paths might have been, will forever remain a mystery.