Picture a seedy New York City basement club, 1966. Jimmy James is slogging it out on the Chitlin’ Circuit, just another blues guitarist trying to make a living as a gun for hire, moonlighting in backing bands for the likes of Little Richard, Curtis Knight and The Isley Brothers. Skip forward just two years, and the reincarnated Jimi Hendrix had moved to London, recorded three albums, and achieved legendary status. It is his third album, Electric Ladyland, that is remembered as his magnum opus. As one of rock music’s most influential figures, there can never be too much said about this extraordinary piece of work.
Endless touring, recording, and chemical fatigue of the last two years had put great tension on Jimi and his band, which ultimately could not take the strain of the Electric Ladyland recording sessions at New York’s Record Plant. Chas Chandler, the producer and manager who had first discovered the unknown Hendrix and mentored him, quit after tiring of the guitarist’s infamous indulgences, having surrounded himself with obsequious fairweather friends and various hangers-on. The Electric Ladyland sessions were a world away from Chandler’s previous experience as a member of The Animals: whereas their classic hits such as ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ were often recorded in one quick take, Hendrix’s perfectionism and his harem of groupies meant that time and money were going down the pan. In one case, Hendrix’s taxi driver was even invited into the studio, and ended up staying for a six-hour jam session.
In many ways, Chandler’s departure set Hendrix free. He had discovered the guitarist in New York and brought him to London, but he had taken Jimi as far as he could. The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first two albums both had a strange Britishness to them, owing to Chandler’s influence. 1967’s Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love, both recorded in London, were packed with short, snappy explosions of psychedelic pop, bursts of colour from the very British palette of David Hockney and Peter Blake. Whilst Hendrix was clearly having a blast in these days, rarely seen without his trademark wide-brimmed hat and a smile even wider still, it was clear that by 1968, Chandler’s work was finished. He had transformed Jimi into one of the world’s biggest stars, but now it was time for Hendrix to do his own thing, on his own terms.
READ MORE: The Jimi Hendrix Experience // ‘Are You Experienced?’ at 50 years old
From a simple comparison of track listings, it is immediately clear that Electric Ladyland was something new. The first two Hendrix albums featured only one track each passing the five-minute mark, whereas Electric Ladyland was a double album with tracks reaching a whopping 15 minutes in length, each taking up an entire side of vinyl to themselves. This was clearly a new chapter in what was left of Hendrix’s career, and the songs themselves prove that.
By 1968, Hendrix’s reputation was beginning to undermine him. The Stratocaster arsonist who played his instrument with his teeth was much more than just a gimmick merchant, and Electric Ladyland is a powerful testament to this. His blues roots found renewed impetus and new fire within the album. After sessions at the Record Plant, Hendrix would go to nearby clubs like The Scene and Ungano’s, where he would perform jam sessions with the likes of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. These impromptu displays of virtuoso musicianship seriously bled into Electric Ladyland. ‘Come On (Let The Good Times Roll)’ is a pure blues-rock stomper with monstrous riffs, and ‘Gypsy Eyes’ has a rambling guitar line that predates Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath by some time.
And then there’s ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’. One of the heaviest, dirtiest pieces of music in the history of classic rock. Hendrix lays the foundations for rock guitar for decades to come, his smooth, fluid chops to be emulated but never bettered by almost every would-be rock star to pick up a guitar. The iconic introductory lick earns its place alongside ‘Stairway To Heaven’ on the list of riffs banned from guitar shops, and the track explodes like a gunshot out of the riff. The blues runs deep through these tracks, and Jimi’s passion can be heard on the strings themselves.
Whilst being more true to himself musically, Hendrix was also taking a deeper look inside himself lyrically on Electric Ladyland. For starters, Hendrix’s interest in voodoo can be traced back to 1956, when the 13 year-old Jimi was said to have gone through a voodoo initiation ceremony in Macon, Georgia. Voodoo was a West African tradition that had persisted in some African-American communities in the deep south, and had had a connection with the blues since John Lee Hooker. This story can be put into the same category as the Robert Johnson “crossroads” myth – as the legend goes, Hendrix’s musical abilities were transformed by the Faustian ceremony, emerging as the incendiary talent we are all now familiar with. This story was attested to by musician Eddie Kirkland, who claimed to have seen the ritual take place, and it certainly adds a mystery as to the origins of Hendrix’s otherworldly skill and spiritual passion for his art.
Electric Ladyland saw Jimi expressing his heritage, too. ‘Gypsy Eyes’ explores his Cherokee native roots. Hendrix’s maternal grandmother lived on a reservation, and his nomadic lifestyle would lead him to stay with her regularly. He would embrace his heritage, and was once thrown out of church for wearing traditional Cherokee garments that his grandmother had made for him, deemed to be too colourful and bold. This Native American influence must have had a profound effect on Hendrix, and themes of Cherokee spirituality run through this lament to his late mother, Lucille. She was often too ill to look after her children, and died in 1958, leaving them in the care of Jimi’s authoritarian father. ‘Gypsy Eyes’ can be read as Jimi’s last fleeting contact with his mother’s free spirit before their reunion in the next world. It is a powerful ode to the grief Jimi felt for his short time spent with his mother and a grand embrace of his spirituality.
‘House Burning Down’ took Jimi back to his Vietnam war days. He served as a paratrooper from 1958 to 1962 when he was discharged for masturbating on duty (so goes the legend – in reality it was due to a broken ankle from a parachute jump). But by 1968 the war had reached its nadir. The flower power of the Sixties was being mowed down by Buddhist monks alighting themselves on fire, the deadly Tet Offensive, the My Lai massacre of innocents, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Hendrix was especially upset by rioting amongst black communities, especially ironic in light of MLK’s dedication to pacifism. However, Hendrix was not quite a pacifist himself, supporting the Vietnam war and being prone to occasional eruptions of violent behaviour – that age-honoured rock star past-time of hotel room destruction. Whilst Hendrix was rarely explicitly political, ‘House Burning Down’ shows a realisation of the fragility of the hippie dream, the “make love not war” rhetoric growing thinner by the day. The introductory instrumental embodies the chaos as the “skies turn a hell fire red”.
Whilst being a return to roots in some ways, in a musical sense Electric Ladyland was a rocket ship trip into the future. Album opener ‘…And The Gods Made Love’ sounds exactly as its title would suggest. The slow motion vocals and heavily processed soundscape become an undulating, velvet ecstasy, slipping the listener into the lush romance of ‘(Have You Ever Been To) Electric Ladyland’. This track captures Hendrix at his dreamy and misty-eyed best. The swirling guitar tone is gorgeous, almost reminiscent of ‘Little Wing’, as are the syrupy jazz chords he caresses from the instrument. This track also features one of Jimi’s best vocal performances of his career. Hendrix was often very shy about his singing abilities, always asking for the vocal track to be buried deep down in the mix. However, after hearing ‘…Electric Ladyland’, he reportedly jumped for joy, exclaiming “I can sing! I can sing!” It is a touching reminder of the man’s perfectionism and personal insecurities. Hendrix really wanted to be the best, and was never satisfied with anything that did not match the sound in his head.
Much of the classic Jimi Hendrix Experience sound can be attributed to the wizardry of studio engineer Eddie Kramer. He was one of the ’60s pioneers in the art of using the studio as an instrument, and essential in putting the music between Jimi’s ears into practice, able to capture all the planetary sounds from the artist’s imagination. ‘Crosstown Traffic’ is a Hendrix classic, featuring all kinds of wacky noises including a kazoo-like doubling of the guitar riff played on a comb and cellophane. ‘Moon, Turn The Tides… Gently Gently Away’ paints an absolutely vivid and vibrant landscape in sound, with waves gently breaking against washes of backwards guitar, whilst ‘Burning Of The Midnight Lamp’ features the first documented use of the wah-wah pedal – that ducky, quack-like guitar effect that would come to be synonymous with Hendrix. The stumbling riff is doubled on a harpsichord, adding to the quirky babbling of the track.
One of the most famous tracks to be taken from Electric Ladyland is the cover of ‘All Along The Watchtower’. First recorded by Bob Dylan in 1967, Hendrix smashed the song to pieces before reconstructing it in his own inimitable way. The verses put Jimi in the foreground, belting out Dylan’s lyrics, whilst the instrumental bridges absolutely gallop at a roaring pace. Jimi’s guitar solos scream, then canter, then glide, before launching into a final howl to see the song to a close. Breathless stuff, and it is no wonder it is one of Hendrix’s best loved tunes. Dylan himself has conceded this version’s supremacy, and gave thanks to Hendrix at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
Even more impressive is the mid-album peak of ‘1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)’. The marching, riff-laden body of song quickly disintegrates into a spacious, dream-jazz improvisation, with a deep-blue colour palate that immerses the listener into open ocean, boundless and serene. It features some of the most impressive guitar runs and melody phrasing of Hendrix’s whole discography. With this track in mind, the thought of Jimi jamming with Miles Davis, as he is rumoured to have done, sends shivers down the spine. While Davis was revolutionary in introducing electric instruments and rock sounds into mainstream jazz, Hendrix was already showing signs of incorporating jazz elements into his hard rock, two years before the release of Bitches Brew. 1968 was also the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is fitting, then, that psychedelic rock pre-Electric Ladyland must have felt like a black-and-white TV set after the arrival of the star gate trip of Jimi’s third album.
Electric Ladyland marked the beginning of Jimi Hendrix’s transition from psychedelic psilliness to genuinely experimental artist. There are, of course, still elements of cheeky, sexy pop-rock, but they feel completely welcome alongside the more far-out material. The album was the pinnacle of his imagination, creativity, and skill. The last album proper to be released during his lifetime, this work remains his defining artistic statement, the most complete realisation of Hendrix’s intergalactic vision. Although he died in 1970, Hendrix’s spirit never left the planet. Learning the riff to ‘Voodoo Child’ is a rite of passage for any teenage guitarist, and the wah-wah pedal is now as much an essential part of psychedelic rock as the endless jams that will never match the skill and passion of Jimi Hendrix. Although his influence is often taken for granted, it is important on this 50th anniversary to remember just what he could do with a guitar and how it irreversibly changed rock music forever.
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Tags: 50 years old, 50th anniversary, album, Chas Chandler, classic 60s, Electric Ladyland, Jimi Hendrix, Louis Marlow, Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding, Reprise, review, The Jimi Hendrix Experience
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