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EXCUSE ME WHILE I TOUCH THE SKY: THE STORY OF JIMI HENDRIX part two

Please read in conjunction with JIMI HENDRIX part one, originally intended as part of an unpublished book to follow up “Within You, Without You”.

JIMI HENDRIX AND THE EXPERIENCE: THE STUDIO ALBUMS AND SINGLES

Jimi Hendrix’s first album, ‘ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?’, ***** was released on Track Records in the UK in May 1967. In the US, it wasn’t released until August with three singles, ‘Hey Joe’ *****, ‘Purple Haze’ ***** and The Wind Cries Mary’ **** replacing three of the UK album tracks, ‘Can You See Me?’, ‘Remember’ and ‘Red House’.

The UK version: Side One: Foxy Lady; Manic Depression; Red House; Can You See Me; Love or Confusion; I Don’t Live Today

Hendrix hit the ground running with the powerhouse sexual innuendo of the opener, experimented with double-tracked vocals and guitar stereo separation on ‘I Don’t Live Today’, both completed in 1966, while anguished subjects like the ‘frustrating mess’ of ‘Manic Depression’, the crazed emotional entanglement of ‘Love or Confusion’, and what Peter Doggett describes as the ‘magnificently malevolent psychic voyage’ that is ‘I Don’t Live Today’, with its suggestion of reincarnation, revealed early on that Hendrix was not afraid to tackle any subject and apparently, had ‘carte blanche’ to do just that. ‘Red House’ was a Chicago style slow blues that would endure in Hendrix’s stage act, and provide an important component of his canon, with a compilation album called ‘Blues’ eventually appearing in 1994.

Side two: May This Be Love; Fire; Third Stone from the Sun; Remember; Are You Experienced? Experienced in what? Was it sex, drugs or something more esoteric or spiritual perhaps? The title track takes the album out in a swathe of phantasmagorical experimentation with backwards tapes, guitars mimicking saxophones and unhinged psychedelia. Before it, Hendrix gives us his first piece of musical science fiction ‘Third Stone from the Sun’, the irresistibly sexy chorus of ‘Fire’, with drummer Mitch Mitchell excelling. ‘May This Be Love’ signposted early on what a melodic and inventive guitarist Hendrix was, while ‘Remember’ proved he could solo with the best of them.

As if this weren’t enough, in October of 1966, The Experience recorded the song (with backing vocals by The Breakaways session group) that Chandler had heard Hendrix playing in New York, a night that changed the destiny of popular music. That song, of course, was ‘Hey Joe’, released as a single, and appearing on the American version of ‘Are You Experienced?’ The song has a chequered history. Written by Californian Billy Roberts, he sold it to Dino Valenti of the Quicksilver Messenger Service who copyrighted it under the name of Chet Powers and shared it with his friend David Crosby, only for Los Angeles group The Leaves to beat The Byrds in the race to release it. The slower, more bluesy version was developed by Tim Rose and this was the incarnation that Hendrix incorporated into his early stage shows in 1966.

‘Purple Haze’ and The Wind Cries Mary’ were recorded on the same day in January 1967. Both unique in their own way, ‘Purple Haze’ would become a massive hit and garner much radio play owing a little to parts of The Beatles ‘Revolver’ but ultimately, a new form and direction for music with the whammy bar reaching new heights of intensity. ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ is a haunting, shimmering love song.

Two other songs from the ‘Are You Experienced?’ sessions emerged on the UK and US CD ‘Experience Hendrix’ releases: ‘Highway Chile’ and ‘51st Anniversary’ respectively. While neither was as strong as anything that appeared on the original albums ‘51st Anniversary’ is interesting as a rueful reflection on and recollection of the state of marriage presumably prompted by his own parents’ relationship, and his own uncertainty as expressed in other songs musing on what love is and what love means.

AXIS: BOLD AS LOVE ***** is preferred by Hendrix luminaries like Charles Cross and Noel Redding but it was a very different kind of album. I have always preferred the first although consider both to be absolutely essential, and must concede ‘Axis’ is more ambitious and a step forward. It is a remarkable indicator of the creativity of the artists responsible that such a strong second album flowed uninterrupted from the ‘Are You Experienced?’ sessions, allowing two exceptional LPs, by anyone’s standards, to be released in the same year within seven months of each other.

Track listing: EXP; Up from the Skies; Spanish Castle Magic; Wait Until Tomorrow; Ain’t No Telling; Little Wing; If Six was Nine; You’ve Got Me Floating; Castles Made of Sand; She’s So Fine; One Rainy Wish; Little Miss Lover; Bold as Love.

Following ‘Third Stone from the Sun’ on the first album, the next most explicit manifestation of Hendrix’s interest in science-fiction, that included watching Flash Gordon movies when he was a boy and reading sci-fi novels, comes ‘EXP’ on which, Hendrix pretended to be a musician friend from Greenwich Village, Paul Caruso, discussing UFOs on radio ‘EXP’. Much use was made of effects and stereo panning as well as some screeching guitars. On initial listening, the album tended to be dominated by certain songs like ‘Spanish Castle Magic’, written about a rock club in Seattle, ‘Spanish Castle’ and the brilliant guitar classic ‘Little Wing’. The latter song was thought (like the classic song of personal doubt ‘Castles Made of Sand’) to be inspired by the playing of Curtis Mayfield. Hendrix told his brother, Leon, the song was about his mother Lucille. Hendrix plays some glockenspiel on ‘Little Wing’ and fades out frustratingly early (check out the version on the outtakes CD). ‘Castles Made of Sand told the tale of a drunken husband and a ‘domestic’, a young boy playing in the woods pretending to be a Red Indian, and a crippled woman deciding to drown herself to avoid being hurt anymore before landing on a ‘golden winged ship, presumably her salvation. I quote this to illustrate how Hendrix was in a very select ‘league’ (one that included Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Jim Morrison) in terms of the complex imagery in his songs.

‘If Six was Nine’ was recorded in May 1967, and was a fantastic song about determinism which Peter Doggett reckons “prefigured the political funk of Sly Stone in 1969”. The lyrics are pretty far out, bordering on nihilism, Hendrix wryly commenting that he wouldn’t care if the hippies cut off their hair and taking a dig at white collar Conservatives. There’s also the spoken line about facing death and living his life like he wants to do, a recurring theme in Hendrix’s music. This song marks the blossoming of Redding as a bass player (remembering he was converted from guitarist to bass player to form The Experience) and Mitch Mitchell’s drumming became even more brilliant, the only comparison for freneticism surely being Keith Moon of The Who. Noel Redding sings lead vocal on his own ‘She’s So Fine’, a good piece of psychedelic rock with a Pete Townshend fashioned solo in the middle eight. Elsewhere there’s the soulful R&B of ‘Wait Until Tomorrow’, ‘Ain’t No Telling’ and ‘You’ve Got Me Floating’, the latter with backing vocals from members of The Move who just happened to be recording next door at Olympia Studios. The twin guitar dreamy drug imagery of ‘One Rainy Wish’, the Mitch Mitchell led testosterone charged guitar of ‘Little Miss Lover’, and the title track which Peter Doggett describes as “a typically subtle climax to an album divided between R&B dramatics and near-confessional poetry” brought a second remarkable album in the remarkable year of 1967 to a close.

In the BBC TV programme ‘Seven Ages of Rock’, Pete Townshend paid tribute, “Jimi changed the sound of the guitar. I think in many respects he changed the sound of rock far more than The Beatles.”

Charles Shaar Murray said Hendrix “redefined what it meant to be a guitar player, musician and artists, redefined the whole period in which he existed.” The sight of a left hander playing a right-handed guitar upside down sent shockwaves through London and, according to Roger Daltrey, the guitar ‘god’ Eric Clapton said he was going to have to practise more. Jeff Beck remembers Hendrix playing the bass line with his thumb, the lead with his little finger and the rhythm with the rest of them, and also thinking maybe he should find another job!


The double LP ELECTRIC LADYLAND (1968) ***** was rightly one of the ‘Classic Album’s chosen by the BBC TV series of the same name. In the opening scenes of this documentary both Track producer Chris Stamp and Experience bassist Noel Redding made the same point in slightly different ways, Stamp describing the album as like being “thrown into the future” and Redding asserting that the album was “well ahead of its time and still valid musically.”

There are sixteen tracks in all with Hendrix’s experimental sci-fi rock music, as premiered on AXIS BOLD AS LOVE including impressionistic opener And the Gods Made Love and all 13½ minutes of A Merman I Should Turn Out to Be.

Hendrix’s increasing fascination with Bob Dylan (He would carry a Dylan song book in his flight hand luggage) is represented by All Along the Watchtower with Dave Mason of Traffic joining in on acoustic guitar. Psychedelia was well represented also with an effective revisiting of Burning of the Midnight Lamp with studio tricks by producer Eddie Kramer including a guitar recorded at half speed to sound like a mandolin. Redding’s bass had a dirty, funky sound that complemented Mitchell’s propulsive drumming while Hendrix played harpsichord. Backing vocals were provided by Aretha Franklin’s backing group The Sweet Inspirations.

Crosstown Traffic is remembered by the crazy video accompanying it, had Dave Mason and Redding contributing to the vocals, while the ever inventive and adaptable Hendrix used a comb and cellophane for the kazoo sound. Little Miss Strange was mostly recorded in Hendrix’s absence, a Redding song on which he plays rhythm guitar, acoustic and 12-string guitar, with Hendrix adding electric wah-wah later. (Have You Ever Been To) Electric Ladyland sounds pretty freaky with its backwards guitar and Mitchell’s speeded up drums. There are two versions of Voodoo Chile, the long one with Jack Casady, of Jefferson Airplane, playing a form of slap bass and Steve Winwood on Hammond Organ and the shorter one, entitled Voodoo Child (Slight Return), which became a massive hit.

Drummer Buddy Miles described Rainy Day, Rain Away as one of the highlights of his career, comfortable in the shuffling ‘gut bucket’ drumming or “flirting with time” as he would call it. It featured no bass and had Mike Finnigan, of The Serfs, guesting on Hammond Organ, ‘comping’, or ‘shamming’ as the Americans would call it, ‘pumping’ not ‘walking’; Hendrix’s wah-wah calls and responses answered by Freddie Lee Smith’s sax as well as Finnigan’s organ. The idea for the song came from a washed-out day at the Miami Pop Festival on a backbreaking coast to coast American tour which Mitch Mitchell described as “giant stupidity”. House Burning Down was written as direct response to the Watts Riots with the assassination of Martin Luther King in mind, a protest song pleading with people to stop burning down their own neighbourhoods, “to get together” and “learn instead of burn”. The panning guitar sound engineered by Eddie Kramer sounds like a screeching wild cat and is thought to be a reference to the Black Panther Movement.

Long Hot SummerNight had a gospel feel with Hendrix, despite his lack of confidence as a vocalist, singing all the vocal parts, and Al Kooper guesting on piano. While artistically Hendrix seemed very happy with the album, a number of issues arose from it that would effectively lead to the dissolution of The Experience after just three albums. The reference acetate was mis-named ‘Electric Landlady’ and its sound disappointed when compared to the master tape. Hendrix was not happy with the UK cover featuring ladies culled from night clubs who all said they were Hendrix fans and were paid £5 to go topless and £8 to go nude: “The tits and ass” cover, as Rolling Stone magazine put it. Apparently, this had been the Track producers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp’s idea and led to the album being banned or only sold in brown bags as if from the top shelf of a newsagent. Hendrix was apparently furious, especially so since the sleeve he expected was based on a photo shoot with Linda Eastman, soon to become Linda McCartney, in Central Park.

Hendrix had directed and produced ‘Electric Ladyland’ and written most of it, and tracks like A Merman I Should Turn Out to Be were a million miles away from the 3 to 4 minute songs that manager Chris Chandler seemed to favour. Hendrix was becoming increasingly undependable in terms of studio discipline, Gypsy Eyes requiring around 40 takes largely because of a crowd Hendrix had invited into the control room from The Scene club a few doors down. Chandler understandably had suffered enough, said ‘See ya’ and abruptly left. Nor was Noel Redding impressed with Hendrix’s behaviour saying that he would turn up at the studio to start work at 6 p.m. only for Hendrix to show up at 3 a.m. Aside from the exhausting nine weeks of coast-to-coast gigs in the US, which left little time to prepare and record new material, Hendrix was always looking for clubs to play in after shows with New York’s The Scene a regular haunt. As Chas Chandler remarked, it wasn’t just touring but also partying that was wearing them out.

I can think of twenty-five singles or EPs released with his name on them between 1967 and 1970, and there are probably more. The first of them, however, was never released on a studio album, Hey Joe *****/ Stone Free ****, originally released on the Polydor label in the UK on 16th December, 1966 and reaching #6 in the UK charts, staying there for eleven weeks in total. The A-side was originally released by US group The Leaves and the song had been copyrighted by William Moses Roberts Junior (Billy Roberts) in 1962. Hendrix’s version had ‘traditional arrangement, Hendrix’ on the label (abbreviated).

The next ‘45’, released on 17th March, 1967 was Purple Haze *****/ 51st Anniversary **** (#3 UK, both non-album songs on the Track label as well as all subsequent singles); then, on 11th May, 1967, The Wind Cries Mary ****/ Highway Chile **** (#6 UK) followed by Burning of the Midnight Lamp **** (a stereo mix of which appeared on the ‘Electric Ladyland’ album in 1968)/The Stars that Play with Laughing Sam’s Dice. **** (#18) on 19h August, 1967; All Along the Watchtower *****/ Long Hot Summer Night **** (#5 UK) on 18th October, 1968. Crosstown Traffic ****/ Gypsy Eyes **** was released in both the UK and the USA, on 18th November and 4th April, 1969 respectively on the Track and Reprise labels, reaching #37 UK and #52 US. The two last named songs were on Electric Ladyland. The group’s highest charting US single to that point was All Along the Watchtower/ Burning of the Midnight Lamp, released on 2nd September, 1968, and reaching #20. That was all to change in 1970 when a picture sleeve release of Voodoo Child (Slight Return)/ All Along the Watchtower/ Hey Joe made #1 in the UK, at the budget price of 6 shillings (30p in decimal money).

Under pressure to produce a successor to ‘Electric Ladyland’, Hendrix decanted to New York to jam with his old army buddies, bassist Billy Cox and guitarist Larry Lee, Latin drummer Jerry Velez, in addition to Mitch Mitchell and percussionist Juma Sultan in a conglomerate named Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. This wasn’t working out for Mitchell in particular and Hendrix considered the band not ready to undertake a lucrative tour of the southern states organised by mercurial manager Michael Jeffrey, citing illness rather than ill-preparedness as the reason. After some out of the way gigs, Lee, Velez, Cox and Mitchell all depart and Buddy Miles, then drumming with Electric Flag fills part of the gap. Miles suggests forming a band with Billy Cox, and the funky rock power trio that became known as BAND OF GYPSYS was born. It was late September, 1969, and during this period Hendrix meets Miles Davis and a project to record three original numbers from each musician with drummer Tony Williams stalls because of the financial demands of Davis and Williams. These sessions were arranged in the Hit Factory by Alan Douglas, later to become a controversial figure when he acquired the Hendrix estate after Jimi’s death.

On 27th November, 1969 it was Jimi’s birthday and he watched The Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden. On New Year’s Eve, the first of two nights at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East was recorded for the LP that would eventually be released as Band of Gypsys. A ‘45’, I’m A Man/ Stepping Stone was recorded in early January, 1970. 28th January saw Band of Gypsys play at the Winter Festival for Peace at Madison Square Garden, a fund-raiser in aid of the Vietnam Moratorium Committee. By early February Buddy Miles has reformed his Express and Billy Cox has returned to Nashville. Hendrix had a recording session with Arthur Lee at the Olympic Studio in London from which emerged The Everlasting First, which would appear on Love’s False Start album and Ezy Ryder.

Finally, following the release of Band of Gypsys to mixed reviews, a line-up of Hendrix, Cox and Mitchell agreed to do ‘The Cry of Love Tour’ which opened at the LA Forum on 25th April and included a date at Seattle’s Sick’s Stadium where a young Hendrix had seen Elvis in 1957. There were twenty-nine stops in the US and eight in Europe including The Isle of Wight Festival. When they play at the University of Oklahoma only a few days have elapsed since the infamous mortal shooting of four students at Kent State University in Ohio. Hendrix wore a black armband inscribed with a ‘K’ as he played Machine Gun.

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