With a new documentary (now on Netflix streaming!), and the biopic starring Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000 of Outkast), the world is gettin’ all Hendrixified, which means it’s time to talk about my once obsession. I’ll start the conversation by submitting to you two propositions:
- Jimi Hendrix was the greatest single rock musician of all time.
- Electric Ladyland is the greatest rock album of all time.
But before I defend either, let me start with a story. When I was a teenager, I was Hendrix obsessed. I had multiple t-shirts, his studio work, including early stuff like this:
And probably a dozen live albums. My parents were children of the 60s, and I was raised on 60s music. My Dad, as part of my musical education I suppose, bought me a live album when I was 13 or 14, which featured the 12-minute version of “Machine Gun”, and when I got to that song I was hooked:
Then I bought the studio albums. I listened to to The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and thought it was great, but it felt incomplete, because it is. And that’s understandable: the Experience were thrown together more because they had the right look than because they fit together musically, with a frenetic, sometimes wild drummer, a guitarist playing bass, and Jimi, who was on a different planet. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Mitchell and Redding, the first time they jammed with Hendrix. Here you have two rock musicians, raised in the British scene, into psychedelia I’m sure, and British pop, who probably saw a black American guitarist and thought, “He’s probably going to be bluesy,” and then he plugs the guitar into the amp and started making impossible noises. It’s going to take a while for people to figure each other out in a situation like that, and on Experience, they hadn’t quite gotten it. Sure, it’s musically tight, but they never really go full Hendrix.
Then they tour for a while, get to know each other really well, go back into the studio and do Axis: Bold as Love, and they’re close, but still doing mostly straight rock, tour some more, work with some other musicians, and finally go back into the studio for the third and final time for Electric Ladyland, and they’re ready. Out of those sessions we get a double album with everything: straight rock (“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”, “Crosstown Traffic”), psychedelia (“Burning the Midnight Lamp”), straight blues (“Voodoo Chile”), pop (“Little Miss Strange”), a Dylan cover (“All Along the Watchtower”), an Earl King cover (“Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)”), and the experimental rock of “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” and “Moon, Turn the Tides… Gently Gently Away.”
It is the studio album closest to Hendrix’s live performances, and it is an album that no other guitarist could have made. I am not qualified to say that Hendrix was the most skilled guitarist of a generation of great guitarists, but I can say this: he did things that no other guitarist would do. Other guitarists of the 60s were limited by convention, but Hendrix was like a child, unencumbered by years of socialization, painting what he felt, but with the skill and the rich mental and emotional life of an adult living through one of the most tumultuous social periods of the last century, and a complete mastery of his brushes. One only has to contrast Hendrix’s version of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”:
With Vaughan’s straight, technically proficient but entirely uninspiring version (which servers mostly to show how good Vaughan is at playing the guitar):
To see what I’m talking about.
So the two propositions. I will defend them with five premises:
(1) “Still Raining, Still Dreaming”:
A continuation of “Rainy Day, Dream Away” three tracks (and one side) earlier, this track is really two tunes: there’s the melody, with Hendrix and others repeating the lyrics “Lay back and dream on rainy day,” and the guitar underneath doing its own thing. While the band plays the tune, Hendrix dreams away on the guitar, only occasionally joining the melody, and then almost mockingly, as if to say, “Don’t interrupt my Dionysian dreaming with your Apollinian reality, man.” It is a perfectly painted canvas, and one only Hendrix could have pulled off.
(2) “Voodoo Child”:
An almost 13 minute jam of perfect electric blues. I don’t mean that stuff the Brits were putting out in droves, particularly Zeppelin, but real, dirt floor in a juke joint somewhere in The Middle of Nowhere, Mississippi blues. Zeppelin’s blues were entirely removed from their context, where they became an exercise in imitation, reverent perhaps, but hollow, unemotional, absent. When Hendrix yells, “Fly on, fly on, ’cause I’m a voodoo chile!” and then punctuates it with his guitar, you know it’s the blues, you feel it in your bones.
(3) “1983… A Merman I Should Turn to Be”:
First, I’m pretty sure the opening riff has been copied by half the rock bands since, but putting that aside, what the hell is this? It’s a story, I think, with social commentary (I can’t imagine “1983” was chosen at random), and then minutes of trippy experimentation, almost free form jazz, with some sound effects, leading to a climax of guitar, bass, and drums that flies from one ear to the other, and then back to airy sound effects. It’s 14 minutes of utterly compelling strangeness that sounds like what you might get if you mixed Pink Floyd with late Coltrane.
(4) “Little Miss Strange”:
Noel Redding’s britpop, with Hendrix as his backing musician. In theory, it has no place on this album, but it fits perfectly and shows that Hendrix could do whatever the fuck he wanted to, and do it better than anyone else. Layers of guitar doing all sorts of weird things while Redding does straight pop. It’s perfect.
(5) “All Along the Watchtower:
I don’t care that it’s overplayed, that it’s one of the most played songs on classic rock stations to this day: it is a perfect Dylan cover. It sounds absolutely nothing like Dylan. It takes the song somewhere I can’t imagine Dylan could have imagined it going. It makes it into an epic tale, and the guitar does most of the telling. Hendrix turns it into a sort of dream, complete with that ethereal guitar solo in which the guitar gives point and counterpoint, and another point in again.
There you have it: 5 unassailable reasons why Electric Ladyland is the greatest rock album of all time, because it is so much more than rock. After Ladyland, Hendrix changed his lineup, and started going in new and exciting directions, more political, more bluesy, and then he died at 27. Twenty-fucking-seven. He was just beginning to do what he wanted, and it was beautiful. What could have been?