Like many Gen X-ers, I discovered the brilliance of Jimi Hendrix for myself in the mid/late 80’s, probably due to the numerous twentieth anniversaries at the time in music and pop culture in general. His death fifty years ago today is usually presented as just a given, and in the grand scheme that’s what it was. As with some of his contemporaries who died young, it’s hard for me to imagine Hendrix as a septuagenarian, but who knows? I wasn’t even aware until recently of the concern that extreme negligence of others if not foul play may have been involved. It never occurred to me that there might be more to it than the generic narrative of the overindulgent musician who had one too many pills, drinks, or both.
As with other artists I’ve listened to most of my life, my interest in Jimi’s music has shifted and evolved. While I still love his three core albums, I’ve begun to hear his posthumous releases such as the tracks on First Rays of the New Rising Sun in a much more enjoyable light (pun not really intended). Where would he have gone with his music? Would anything have come of his developing association with Miles Davis? What if he were alive today?
At the same time, now when I watch his performances such as at Monterey Pop or Woodstock, I’m hearing the magnificence of his renditions of Wild Thing and The Star Spangled Banner, performances which to me in the past were overshadowed somewhat by his showmanship. A handful of songs and his persona drew me in as a fifteen year old, but the substance of the music keeps it fresh for me as I approach my own fiftieth anniversary of life. Now that Hendrix poster which adorned my various teenage/early adult bedroom walls has its place in my son’s apartment at college. And on it goes. It may be hard to imagine Jimi Hendrix at seventy-seven, but it’s unfathomable to think of the music world without his incalculable contributions.
I was not frequently absent from school when I was a child. However, when I did miss school because of an illness, I tended to make it count. As in three or four days in a row. Not that I was always sick the entire time. I just didn’t want to go back once I’d settled into a cozy routine of morning cartoons and the afternoon B-movie on the independent channel before the usual after school lineup of reruns. There was a price to pay, however. By the third day or so my mom would return from work having visited my teacher at some point during the day and bestow upon me the dreaded stack of makeup schoolwork. What does that little anecdote have to do with my blog?
Well, I’ve had some spells of absenteeism from this hobby over the past year. But unlike grade school, it really bothers me looking back at the album release 50th anniversaries I’ve missed. It’s as if I’ve disrespected these artists by not celebrating their albums properly. Indeed, it gets a little strange between my ears at times. Anyhoo, looking back at my notes from March and April there are a few albums I’d like to belatedly acknowledge as we move forward over the next month or two (and does anyone really know or care what month it is anymore?). Some titles I’ll address individually, others in clusters. Starting now.
3/23/70 (April 24 U.K.): Leon Russell – Leon Russell
Leon’s solo debut was a classic out of the gate. It contains the oft-covered A Song for You, as well as Delta Lady. He also had a little help on the album from a cast of A-listers including Harrison, Starr, Jagger, Clapton, and too many others to list (see wiki link at the bottom). Leon Russell and the following two albums in this post all represent, in my mind, a shift in rock music around this time whereby artists were breaking free of stylistic constraints. Leon was a prolific songwriter and gifted musician, and like his friends Delaney and Bonnie he blended southern gospel elements, blues, and rock into a unique sound that his English musician friends fit right into.
3/25/70: Jimi Hendrix – Band of Gypsies
Like many of my generation (X) who became Jimi Hendrix fans, it was due to his famous three studio albums augmented by whatever film we could view of the man, either in the Woodstock and Monterey documentaries or on VH1 (remember when VH1 was presented as sort of an MTV for Baby Boomers?). When I explored Jimi’s other commercially available music at the time (early 90’s) it was obvious he had been broadening his musical horizons before his death. Cry of Love and Band of Gypsies were in my collection, but they weren’t played often. It took a few more years and perhaps a little more musical maturity on my part to “get it.” Now I enjoy First Rays of the New Rising Sun (comprising most of the first three posthumous Hendrix releases) and the funk/R&B fused rock of Band of Gypsies as much as any of the original three. If only he’d lived long enough to make that album with Miles Davis.
3/30/70: Ginger Baker’s Air Force – Ginger Baker’s Air Force
And now for something…completely different. On January 15, 1970, Ginger Baker assembled an eclectic group of musicians for a sold-out performance of Afro/jazz/rock fusion at the Royal Albert Hall. Band members included early Baker influences Graham Bond and Phil Seamen, plus Winwood, Gretch, and Wood of Traffic, post-Moody Blues/pre-Wings Denny Laine, and Remi Kabaka, who would also add flavors of Afro-fusion to music by other British music luminaries of the era. Critics, of course, hated the subsequent album, Ginger Baker’s Air Force. They aren’t too fond of albums produced by drummers, as they tend to be heavily, uh, drummer-centric. I find it to be an interesting and listenable album. Unfortunately I’m limited to listens on YouTube, as the CD issue readily available for purchase these days is a vinyl rip, and a poor one at that. (A better quality release from ’98 containing both Air Force albums and a solo Baker album currently goes for $144 on Amazon – no thanks.) One of these days I’ll have my turntable set up again and I’ll find a used vinyl copy. One of these days.
If there’s such a thing as the quintessential 1968 album, I believe this would be it. A recurring theme among many of these 50-year-old albums is the blending of 60’s pop and the trendy, fashionable, and overall quite brief psychedelic phase of rock and pop with harder rock, blues, and roots in general. It continues to amaze me how quickly music evolved in the 1960’s, and it’s a testament to how great the music is despite the short periods some of the sub-genres lasted in terms of their actual creation. The 1967 debut Are You Experienced may have been a Flower Power creation, and it’s continuing shelf life speaks for itself. But with the epic Electric Ladyland, we have what critics have deemed to be the full realization of Hendrix’s vision – a combination of all the aforementioned elements into a beautifully un-cohesive double album.
Ambitious and experimental, Electric Ladyland is the third and final album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It’s also the only one where Hendrix is credited as producer. Recording sessions took place over numerous months beginning in July of 1967 at Olympic Studios in London and at the Record Plant and Mayfair studios in New York. Chas Chandler, producer of the band’s first two albums, began overseeing the New York sessions but left the project as it dragged on due to Hendrix’s demands for repeated takes as well as the party atmosphere in the studio with many of Jimi’s friends and hangers-on.
Out of the chaos arose a double album that confused some critics at the time as being all over the place to its detriment, but one which you might have difficulty finding retrospective reviews of fewer than five stars. Much of the credit belongs to engineer Eddie Kramer, who is lauded for his experimentation with new mic techniques, echos, and backward tapes which were considered groundbreaking at the level of Phil Spector just a few years earlier. The album is a combination of the more psychedelic sound of their first two albums with the more blues and funk of the Band of Gypsys which followed.
And as a result of Jimi’s love for late-night jam sessions, there’s quite an array of guest musicians credited, including Jack Casady (bass on Voodoo Chile), Steve Winwood (Hammond organ on Voodoo Chile), Dave Mason (12-string on All Along the Watchtower), Chris Wood, Buddy Miles, Brian Jones (percussion on All Along the Watchtower), and Al Kooper (piano on Long Hot Summer – of course Al Kooper’s on this record!). By mid-November, Electric Ladyland was the #1 album in the US and #6 in the UK.
Arguably the most famous track from the album is Hendrix’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s AllAlong the Watchtower, which became the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s highest selling single. Dylan offered the highest praise possible for Hendrix’s version, which he’s stated Jimi made his own. Dylan described his own reaction: “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way… Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.” Bob has also stated,
It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.
Perhaps on the other end of the album’s spectrum is the mid-60’s Brit Pop sounding tune sung by Noel Redding, Little Miss Strange. Tony Glover, in his original Rolling Stone review, considered this song to be the most commercial sounding track on the album, which is a testament to how well the album has aged since that song is probably not at the top of most people’s list of favorites from the release, yet it’s still good.
And everything in-between? It ranges from the standard length guitar driven classics Crosstown Traffic and Voodoo Child (Slight Return) and the less celebrated but still very solid Come On (Pt. 1) and House Burning Down, to the epic jam that is Voodoo Chile and the experimental and fascinating 1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be). My favorite stretch of the album is Side Three, which begins with the jazzy, stoney Rainy Day, Dream Away. Having mainly listened to the album on CD, this segment extends for me into the first song on Side Four, Still Raining, Still Dreaming, with the final segment consisting of the three songs after it. As Glover wrote, Electric Ladyland is “an extended look into Hendrix’s head.” It seems Jimi had lots of twists and turns happening between the ears, which resulted in what is considered one of the greatest albums of all time.
A few years back, in addition to my daytime “real” job, I kept a part-time gig at a used music store. Employees took turns playing CDs of their choice and, as is the case in life, we didn’t all share the same tastes. In an effort to stave-off one of the many inevitable 35 minute discs of show tunes one of my co-workers was fond of, I’d pull the single-disc remaster (i.e., a full hour and fifteen minute disc) of this one off the shelf when it was in stock and let it rip. When my sons come for a visit, my 17-year-old heads straight for the Zeppelin and Hendrix. He mostly learned about them on his own.
I like to add YouTube album links to my posts, but not surprisingly only fragments of this one are available online. The Hendrix estate keeps a rather tight rein on his material. But if you like it, you probably own it. If you don’t own it, get it!