Hendrix reconnects to his funk and R&B roots
The narrative is familiar enough to anyone who has done their research, or better still, read the liner notes of the more recent cd reissues. Basically if it wasn’t for Jimi Hendrix failing to notify his manager Michael Jeffery of a contract he once signed with PPX Studios owner Ed Chalpin back in 1965, this album wouldn’t exist. Chalpin was suing for what he saw as another record label profiting from an artist he considered as his. Eventually the court ruled that he was entitled to one new album by Hendrix, plus a percentage of royalties from all his previous records. For Hendrix and his management it was a bitter outcome, but one which Jimi himself was perhaps largely to blame for. Culled from four performances held at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East venue on New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day 1970, this was not The Experience. Backing him instead were old friends Buddy Miles (drums) and Billy Cox (bass). This would result in the Band of Gypsys proving to be his ‘blackest’ and most r&b oriented statement so far, at once reminding people of his African-American roots, while forging a new creative identity in an ever changing America.
After a brief introduction by Bill Graham, the LP starts off in a laconic yet funky fashion with “Who Knows”, where Hendrix sits behind the beat, instead of in front. The rhythm section is tight but fluid, while the call and response between Jimi and Buddy works extremely well. While not without its flaws (the whole song was pretty much a rehearsed jam after all), it is an infectious opener all the same. Many critics have remarked negatively upon Buddy’s extended scatting in the middle section, but personally for me it’s never been a problem. Hendrix really muddies his palette on this one with some of his dirtiest, funkiest playing listeners had been exposed to up to that point. No wonder Miles Davis said that this was his favourite Hendrix album, but also, I presume, because of the next song, the mighty “Machine Gun”.
In the 1960’s popular music was evolving at an ever increasing rate. Like the Jazz pioneers before them, rock musicians were ripping up the rule book, to the extent that there no longer seemed any limits as to what was possible. No doubt drugs helped the process, but so too did the cross-pollination of various races and cultures. At this point, rock and roll, in all its multifarious forms of expression, had transformed into a cult of worship, whose followers would daily pray, looking for answers. And at the core of all this fervour was the blues. Because for Hendrix, the blues was what it was all about, and “Machine Gun” has it by the mega-tonne. But this is not your ordinary Muddy Waters/B.B. King style blues. This is napalm-fuelled/cosmic/out of body/Aldous Huxley blues, the sort that will blow your mind and then leave you exhausted by the end of it. Essentially it’s a 12 minute sonic assault on the human senses and the musical equivalent to ‘shock and awe’, and a sort of one song soundtrack to the Vietnam conflict that was still raging at the time. Whatever the audience was thinking that night, it was probably along the lines of “What the fuck!”. This was what purportedly turned Miles onto Hendrix. And after one listen, it’s easy to understand why.
Side two begins with “Changes”, and this time it’s a Buddy Miles number. Buddy even sings the lead vocals, which must have pissed Chalpin off no end (maybe that was the intention). As r&b songs go, it’s pretty standard stuff. But as always, Hendrix manages to sprinkle a little of his magic (angel) dust, and hey, presto! It becomes an irresistible and infectious funk-rocker. Jimi’s wah-wah is subdued, but masterful, proving once and for all that he was more than just a flashy lead guitarist.
“Power To Love” follows, and after a relatively brief guitar introduction, Hendrix suddenly launches into a ferocious solo, unleashing a sonic wind in the process strong enough to flatten even the most serious of afros. It also marks a major departure from what people would have heard at an Experience gig. Here we have something far heavier, and trippier, and marks a clear delineation from anything heard on Electric Ladyland. Buddy thunders away, with sticks that sound more like baseball bats. Billy’s bass throbs and threads, while Hendrix does, well, what Hendrix does best, and that is play some of the most extraterrestrial guitar this side of Pluto.
Hendrix had originally performed “Message To Love” (listed as “Message of Love” on the album) at the Woodstock Festival some four months earlier with his Gypsy Sun and Rainbows band. Anyone who’s heard it I’m sure would have found it desperately under-rehearsed (like most of the concert in fact). Not the case here. This version is extremely focused. And while he would perform it on numerous occasions throughout 1970, none of those renditions hold a candle to the energy and discipline executed on this night.
Like “Them Changes”, it has a strong r&b flavour to it, with a driving rhythm, and some lovely backing vocals by The Ronettes, who were forced to sing from behind the curtains because Buddy didn’t want them to be seen on stage.
The album concludes with “We Gotta Live Together”, another generic Buddy Miles soul-funk tune, and which is something of an anti-climax. Why not end with “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”, or “Foxy Lady”? Both songs were performed on these nights, and either would have served as a more exciting way to draw proceedings to a close. Oh well, I guess it was once again Hendrix’s own way of saying ‘up yours’ to Chalpin, who was probably expecting a studio LP proper, or perhaps even a live greatest hits. After a sluggish beginning, the song does improve the moment Hendrix starts to turn up the heat with some hot and spicy licks guaranteed to give your speakers indigestion.
Ultimately Band of Gypsys remains something of a mixed bag, but what it lacks in cohesion, it more than makes up for in the sheer brilliance of Hendrix’s ideas and playing. “Machine Gun” alone would have guaranteed its place in history as one of Jimi’s greatest technical and imaginative achievements. And as unhappy as Chalpin was about the final product, the mere fact it had Hendrix’s name on it was enough to carry it to number 5 on the US charts, and would have pumped a lot of money into PPX’s shitty and second-rate recording business.
The Band of Gypsys would continue as a functioning unit, at least in the recording studio, for the next month or two, until the infamous Madison Square Garden show in January 1970, where it is rumoured that Hendrix took some bad acid and had to leave the stage after only two songs, resulting in the sacking of Buddy Miles by Michael Jeffery, who never really liked the group anyway. But whatever the politics at play behind the band’s demise, for two nights only, they were arguably one of the toughest and most potent power trios on the planet. And while Hendrix wasn’t exactly chuffed over the circumstances forcing him into it, just to know that if it wasn’t for him signing a piece of paper roughly a year before he became famous, this unique and incredible document would never have been made, and for that alone, we should rejoice.