A huge amount of material has been released under Jimi Hendrix’s name. Discs vary from fine studio recordings made with his approval to appalling bootlegs of jams. It would take too much space to list the dubious albums, so we will concentrate on the good and the great releases. Those recordings made prior to forming the Jimi Hendrix Experience, in England, in 1966, are only of interest to hard core fans. All of the many bootlegs have now been superseded by the Experience Hendrix releases. The following is a list of the best quality studio and live work available.
If you are impatient, and don’t need to read all the waffle, just skip to the end and buy what I recommend there. But if you want to know why you should buy from that list, read on.
The first release by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, in December 1966, was a single of Hey Joe, backed by Stone Free. This reached number 6 in the UK charts, but made no impression in the US. Hendrix wanted to back Hey Joe with the Soul standard Land of a Thousand Dances, but drummer Mitch Mitchell protested that the band he’d just left had worked the song to death. Manager Chas Chandler insisted that Jimi write his own song. Stone Free seemed to emerge from nowhere. It was the beginning of a flood of creativity. All the shy guitarist had needed was encouragement.
Purple Haze followed in March 1967, with 51 st Anniversary on the flip side. The song made number 3 in Britain. Stone Free and 51 st Anniversary state a perennial Hendrix theme — his distrust of marriage, and his notorious Free Loving promiscuity, something that most British hippies desperately longed for. Many people believe that Purple Haze was a reference to LSD, but it is more likely, as Hendrix said, a song about ‘love and confusion’. It is an articulate lyric, set to a classic hard rock riff.
Hey Joe is a contemporary folk song. Purple Haze was one of the first songs to point towards Heavy Metal. The Wind Cries Mary is a Jazz ballad. Hendrix arrived in England the consummate master of all forms of popular music (save for Surf music, which he loathed). The Wind Cries Mary was written after an argument with his girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham, who hated to be referred to by her middle name — Mary. The fairytale lyric is both original and touching: ‘After all the jacks are in their boxes, and the clowns have all gone to bed’. The jazzy guitar is contrasted by flip-side Highway Chile’s piercing rock. The single reached number 6 in the UK, after a May 1967 release. It was backed by Highway Chile. These six songs are included on the CD re-release of the first Experience album, Are You Experienced?
The album came out in Britain in May 1967, and in the US in August 1967. All the songs on the re-release, except for Hey Joe, were Hendrix compositions.
Hendrix was a smash hit at the Monterey Pop Festival in California, in June 1967, and he finally cracked the US charts, with Are You Experienced? It peaked at number 2 in the UK, and number 5 in the US. The Experience were then signed to a tour with the Monkees. Imagine the horror of the Daughters of the American Revolution to find their eight-year-old grandchildren exposed to the pelvic gyrations of the grand master of guitar voodoo!
Are You Experienced? is a must have. Issued just weeks before Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it is probably the first mature album of the burgeoning British Rock scene. Hendrix had written the material in a couple of months, but almost every cut is a classic. From the opening guitar lick of Foxy Lady it is obvious that a new master had arrived. The album unites Blues, Rock, Soul and the nascent Psychedelia seamlessly. It rocks, it soothes, it spaces you out, and along the way it touches on the significant themes of youth, from depression to lust, and then puts us all in our place on The Third Stone From the Sun. There is nothing even remotely like this album in the history of music.
August 1967 saw the release of The Burning of the Midnight Lamp, which would eventually find a place on Electric Ladyland. Hendrix had an ear for sounds, and he insisted on bringing a harpsichord into the studio, and playing the basic track on it himself. The result is startling. Brian Jones had been grabbing every instrument he could find for a series of excellent Rolling Stones’ singles, and perhaps his friend Hendrix was influenced by this. Whatever the inspiration, the result is splendid, and the shuddering guitar genuinely seems to catch fire out of his frustrated sadness. The flip-side was The Stars that Play with Laughing Sam’s Dice. This can be found on the compilation South Saturn Delta. Astonishingly, Midnight Lamp only made 18 in the UK chart.
On Ladyland, Hendrix captures sounds that he had been developing in his performances. The sonic landscape that opens the album — And the Gods Made Love — remains a Hendrix trademark. Allowed to play with stereophonic sound, and the newfound technique of phasing, Hendrix explored fresh possibilities. Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland), is almost a Soul song, as delicate as anything recorded by Curtis Mayfield. Then Crosstown Traffic erupts across the speakers, another classic piece of power staccato, with the melody emphasised on — yes, that’s right — comb and paper. This in turn gives way to the long, perfect blues Voodoo Chile, a lustrous late-night jam with Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady, and Steve Winwood of Traffic, propelled by Mitch Mitchell on peak form. Here Hendrix ravels a mystical tale, brimming with metaphors and poetic allusions.
Hendrix once more showed his fluency in the language of Jazz with Rainy Day, Dream Away and Still Raining, Still Dreaming, which were originally a single piece. Hendrix wrote this song about relaxed patience in a Miami traffic jam. He told Hammond organist Mike Finnigan to be Jimmy Smith to his Kenny Burrell. Hendrix demonstrates his consummate ability to play without the huge amplifier stacks, or his multiple effects: he used a thirty-watt Fender Showman. Buddy Miles provides his first drum backings for Hendrix here, with his marvellous clipped, shuffle sound. Larry Faucette filled the backline on congas, and Freddie Smith provided cool saxophone.
Hendrix’s guitar chatters incessantly beneath the introductory vocal on Still Raining, before sliding into a solo, joined by the Hammond, and a second guitar. A mêlée is created with a repeated vocal phrase, which resolves into a prolonged guitar solo, ending with another section of wah-wah conversation.
Ladyland also houses Hendrix’s nod to the concept form that was emerging in British Rock with 1983.(A Merman I Should Turn to Be) and Moon, Turn the Tides gently, gently away. This is a psychedelic vision of a space age Noah, scorned by his contemporaries, who survives an apocalyptic earthwide war. It contains the spaciest effects ever recorded, as well as a section based on Ravel’s Bolero (also employed by Jimmy Page on Beck’s Bolero and How Many More Times). These pieces hinted at a projected mythological cycle about the planets. Traffic member Chris Wood added lyrical flute to 1983.
House Burning Down was an exasperated comment about the Watts’ race riots, in Los Angeles. The song focuses on the evident folly of destroying your own community in protest. It also features a soaring, burning guitar sound, that engulfs the sonic horizon like a sheet of flame.
Hendrix carried Bob Dylan’s songbook with him everywhere. Asked what he thought of Hendrix’s covers, Dylan said he wrote songs in the hope that Hendrix would cover them. All Along the Watchtower is a lament, made all the more poignant in this startling arrangement. In places the guitar lifts the stomach like a trip over a humpback bridge. The solo develops through a talking wah-wah to frenetic soaring. The backings were laid down in London, with the help of Dave Mason, yet another member of Traffic, on 12-string guitar. Hendrix often laid down parallel versions of songs, the alternative take of All Along the Watchtower can be found on South Saturn Delta.
Ladyland closes with Hendrix’s most popular song, Voodoo Child (slight return), which reached number one in Britain as a posthumous release. Hendrix came up with the immaculate opening riff while doing a sound check. He was a master of the talking guitar, and this is perhaps his most eloquent conversation. Voodoo was an important theme to Hendrix, as it had been to many earlier Blues artists. Here he boasts of magical powers, and speaks of another world beyond this one.
Sadly, this was the last studio album that Jimi Hendrix would complete. His work on his next project, The First Rays of the New Rising Sun, ended when he died on September 18th, 1970.
By this time, Hendrix was the most meticulous composer in the world. He was the first to understand that recording techniques allowed the gradual construction of a piece. Where others used the studio briefly to record rehearsed tracks, Hendrix ignored the enormous cost, and used the studio not only to rehearse, but also to improvise. He would typically record two basic tracks rather than one, and built upon each gradually. And he was a perfectionist. The same process had gone into his live work. Rough lyrics were often put over a song on the road, and he would change them as he toured (for instance, Purple Haze once contained the rhyme ‘Jesus Saves’).
There is nothing from the time to match the production quality of the pieces that Hendrix finished to his own satisfaction: Freedom, Night Bird Flying, Room Full of Mirrors, Dolly Dagger, Ezy Rider, Astro Man and Belly Button Window. All but Mirrors and Ezy Rider were recorded at his new, purpose built Electric Lady studios. They show an assurance beyond even Electric Ladyland. Hendrix was inventing yet another new direction — having mastered the new Blues, explored psychedelia, and laid a foundation for Metal. Now he was playing a marvellous fusion of Soul and Jazz. Something usually fast, and always funky, and demanding absolute virtuosity. It prefigured and outreached the development of funk.
Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox are the rhythm section on most of the tracks, and they tear along in complex melody and syncopation like an Olympic bobsleigh team. Neither of them had ever played better.
In October 1970, just weeks after his death, Hendrix had been booked for sessions with Miles Davis and the great Cool arranger — and Hendrix fan — Gil Evans. Davis and Hendrix were the two great innovators of the time, both restless in their invention, and their need to generate fresh ideas. It would have been an amazing party; a meeting of the giants of contemporary music. Evans kept Hendrix music in his own big band’s book for the rest of his life.
As it is, First Rays stands as a remarkable testament to genius. Even the least worked pieces hint at the unattainable. Then the Hendrix legacy was scattered to the winds: picked up as a thousand inspiring fragments by every electric guitarist from that breathtaking time onwards.
South Saturn Delta
The Jimi Hendrix Experience BBC Sessions
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
A slew of live recordings have been issued. As a general rule, it is best to stick with the Experience Hendrix releases on MCA. They tend to be from the original master tapes, and Eddie Kramer, the original engineer on many Hendrix sessions has worked long and hard to tidy them up.
The Jimi Hendrix Concerts
So, to sum up: if you want to buy just one album, make it the compilation Voodoo Child. Then buy the DVD Jimi Plays Berkeley. Add to that Electric Ladyland, Are You Experienced?, First Rays of the New Rising Sun and Axis: Bold as Love, and you have the basic collection. Add Band of Gypsys and you have the complete Hendrix-authorised set. If you want to extend the studio material, buy South Saturn Delta. By that time you’ll be yearning for Monterey.