Retrospect | Fifty Years of Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?
Fifty years of one James Marshall Hendrix, and what can we possibly add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said? Haven’t critics, fans, guitarists, songwriters, producers, and fanatical cultists gushed enough? Absolutely not, and you’ll hear the likes of me bellowing for fifty more. This is the album that broke rock music and birthed the concept of the sonic whirlwind guitar player: that earth-shattering individualism and idiosyncratic, unapologetic, brash artistry.
Are You Experienced? brought a new guitar language into the world, built on foundations of orchestral feedback, crunch and stomp in the line of Dave Davies, and blues fluidity unparalleled. Classics such as ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Red House’, ‘Manic Depression’, and ‘Foxey Lady’ still cause aspiring guitarists to scream at tablature books in frustration to this day.
Messrs. Redding, Mitchell, and Kramer are no footnotes to this story though. The profoundly dexterous rhythm section of Mitchell and Redding sleekly mish-mashed rock and jazz stylings which acted as Hendrix’s launch pad. Combining this with Eddie Kramer’s capacity to keep up with the main man’s colossal sonic ambitions in the control room made it all possible.
Producer Chas Chandler of Animals fame only brought Kramer into the fold in the second half of recording sessions, however – at the Olympic studio in London. This meeting of minds facilitated Kramer’s clever creativity as an engineer and acted as a vital catalyst in this ground-breaking record. His memoirs recall that Hendrix’s ideas ‘…came fast and furious with a devilish glint in his eye as he would rack up a particular sound from his amp that would give me a challenge to interpret what was going on from the floor of the studio to bringing that enormous sound into the control room.”
One such innovation was to record Hendrix with microphones both close and distant to his Marshall stack, crucial for capturing a sound so powerful and wide that you didn’t even need to use monitors to hear playback: “Sometimes, it got so loud we’d turn the monitors off and there was really very little difference”, recalled Olympic tape operator George Chkiantz.
Kramer also took the unusual step of recording Mitchell’s drums in stereo across two of the four tracks, with Redding’s bass and Hendrix’s rhythm filling in the rest. “From there, Chandler and I would mix this down to two tracks on another four-track recorder, giving us two more tracks to put on whatever we wanted, which usually included Jimi’s lead guitar and vocals as well as backing vocals and some additional percussion”, said Kramer.
The ethereal emigré
It’s difficult to know what it must’ve been like to hear this record for the first time. Pop music had simply never seen such experimentalism, and the kids still had one and six months respectively to wait before ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ and ‘Disraeli Gears’ could complete the psychedelic broth of 1967.
No other track is as other-worldly as pop music’s first venture into deep space nine -‘Third Stone from the Stone’. Perhaps Flying Lotus’s ‘Cosmogramma’ is the only worthy modern day comparative for what it must’ve been like to experience this a half-century ago. Split into three distinct sections marked with acid jazz, spoken word poetry, and psychedelic soundscapes, this is by far the album’s most ambitious and left-of-field project.
Warm major ninth chords glide over Mitchell’s cymbal ballet and Redding’s ostinato bass lines, as intermittent echoes of science-fiction-influenced alien communications haunt the background. Queue the Wes Montgomery-esque octave melody line that the piece is famous for, granting space to drift in before Hendrix’s sudden whammy bar drop completely changes the composition’s trajectory. The culmination is nothing short of a psychedelic seizure; music critic Charles Shaar Murray described it as, “screams, whinnies, sirens, revving motorcycle engines, burglar alarms, explosions, droning buzz-saws, subway trains, the rattling of disintegrating industrial machinery, the howl and the whine of motor shells.”
But a close rival for the album’s crown of transcendentalism is the title track, with its signature reversed-tape rhythmic scratching. The work is driven by Mitchell’s militaristic snare, a heartbeat of a piano chord, and Eastern-influenced drones on the rhythm guitars. All secondary to most magnificent 60 seconds on the entire record: that guitar solo is an almost spiritual experience; the rhythmic twists and elegance of it are nothing short of stunning. To this day, I still get an adrenaline-tinged shiver up my spine when that final cavernous roar of feedback returns at the end.
And those lyrics, with the listener invited to dissociate from their own mind and float above in self-reflection. Despite the overtones, Hendrix is not drawing us toward a stereotypical druggy drop-out, but to let go and be at peace with yourself – “not necessarily stoned, but beautiful.”
Another noisy monstrosity of mention is the tribalistic ‘I Don’t Live Today’. More fits of overdubs and full-mix warps of volume swish around the mind like nothing else of the time. “Aw, there ain’t no life anywhere”, sighs Jimi as the band descends into violent noise. God knows what the engineers at the mastering studio must’ve thought of tracks like these – on an early recording of Purple Haze, Chandler wrote “Deliberate distortion – do not correct” on the box of tapes before sending them on for mastering.
Even after pushing all of the album’s mesmeric exploration aside, there’s still a huge chunk of analytical-meat to chew: the man was a phenomenal songwriter. Try the proto-heavy metal dirge of the groovy main riff from ‘Foxey Lady’, with that opening trill that just oozes sex and mystique. Or how about the wistful reflections of ‘The Wind Cries Mary’? A lyrically Dylan tune with heartfelt guitar lines that could only be Jimi. On display here are the early hallmarks of his distinctive rhythm playing, expanded upon later in ‘Axis: Bold as Love.’
‘May This Be Love’ mixes linguistic and musical poetry in motion. Jimi’s meticulous left-hand fretboard dancing and volume swells create a truly hypnotising solo that comes across like a weeping string section. During the verse and chorus, Mitchell’s rolling percussion flows gently underneath the distant guitar arpeggios and romantic lyrics, making this one the prettiest track by far.
Flying back in with the hard rock (on the UK version that is…), Mr. Redding’s finest hour comes with ‘Fire’ and his charging chromatic riffs. Any number of YouTube live versions showing Mitchell’s powerhouse of a high tempo polyrhythmic drum beat are impossible to sit idly to. For other heavies, check the rambunctious ‘Can You See Me’, with its signature reverb-soaked gunshot of a bend note, or ‘Love or Confusion’ for a taste of Hendrix’s brain-melting whammy bar and other enchanting overdub work.
‘Highway Chile’ is the true muscly rocker of the album, however. Those opening bends come out of the speakers like a punch to the face, before taking up the horse trot rhythm of the verse. You’d be hard pressed to find lyrics as rollin’ stone hippie this:
“His old guitar swung across his back
His dusty boots and his Cadillac
A pavement here just a blowin’ in the wind
Ain’t seen a bed in so long it’s a sin”
Oh, and that gut-wrencher of a solo – images flood the mind of a clichéd captain counter-culture riding his motorcycle across America. Corny it may be, but it rocks.
Face-melting lead guitar is probably what Hendrix is best remembered for and ‘Are You Experienced?’ delivers in droves. The dirty, back house 12/8 blues of ‘Red House’ was the very kind of lead work that dropped the jaws of the 1960’s London music scene’s elites (hint-hint Richards and Clapton). ‘Manic Depression’s waltzy-jives set an unusual meter for the most furious fuzz-laden guitar work on the album; you can picture a teenage Angus Young having his first 360 degree guitar solo orgasm to this tune in his bedroom. Mind you, ‘Stone Free’ isn’t short of change for an utterly ripping solo all the same.
But it all comes back to ‘Purple Haze’: that sleazy strut of a riff and marshy verse that incorporates the ‘Hendrix chord’ – an E7 with a sharpened ninth. You don’t need to speak music to know exactly what I’m talking about. Chandler played a key role to the unique and novel range of sounds and effects on this long-feted recording. Guitar lines were recorded at half-speed and subsequently sped-up to raise the pitch, and audio panning gave the sound a sense of transition similar to how we hear a car driving by. Assistant engineer Roger Mayer developed the Octavia pedal for Hendrix – crucial for that sitar like sound in the solo where Hendrix drops in and out of the Mixolydian mode and back into greasy blues.
Clapton might’ve been declared God, but the 1960s music scene needed a Yin to the carefully-crafted, smooth, and diligent virtuosity of his Yang in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and now Cream. Nothing shy of an unpolished metallic howl untethered from an alien world by the intergalactic space demon Hendrix would do. After all, the abrasive extremities of Hendrix’s lead work is the essence of the man himself: a minister in spiritual ecstasy delivering his sermon at the electric church.
You wouldn’t necessarily be aware in 2017 of the amount of self-indulgent tripe that polluted the contemporary psychedelic scene – these things get lost in time like everything else. The Experience stood out because they fused a home-grown R&B, jazz, and soul sensibility into the uncharted meanderings of psychedelic London’s trippy musical travails. This grounded their music into a form with more direction and scope; all that experimentalism was paying off with the ultimate power trio’s capitalisation.
Numbers like ‘Remember’ and ‘51st Anniversary’ take a more traditional leaf out of the book of soul and R&B. This is in no doubt due to the years the Experience members individually spent on such musical circuits, most notably Hendrix with Little Richard and Mitchell with Georgie Flame and the Blue Flames.
Naturally of course, ‘Hey Joe’ has to come centre stage for the Experience’s best testament to such teeth-cutting. The track is a reworking of the Leaves’s hit and blanketed with the silky backing vocals of The Breakaways. Chandler was convinced to conscript Hendrix for an album after seeing him play this tune in New York’s Café Wha? It’s easily one of the most popular tunes in Hendrix’s catalogue, and sure it might be overplayed to death, but it’s a guitar classic through and through. The more nuanced and velvety solo shows a contrast to the biting aggression elsewhere on the album. To speak volumes with few notes is a skill every blues guitarist needs to have, and one not lost on Hendrix while digging into the fuzz-splosions on ‘Stone Free’ and the likes.
Revolution, revolution, revolution
It’s an overused phrase and I hesitate to use it, but ‘Are You Experienced’ truly did change the face of popular music. Not that the Experience were alone in stretching the limits of what could be put to tape in the 1960’s, but an enormous chunk of the innovations on this album were genuinely unprecedented. It’s really one of those albums, one of those moments in musical history, that has so much influence that you can hear it in seemingly completely disparate artists even today (see Cosmogramma comparisons above). From May 1967 onward, guitar music was driving what was closest to expressing the most abstract oddities of the subconscious, and rock n’ roll noise pollution was now mainstream.