Tuesday 20 August 2013

The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Electric Ladyland October 1968

For pure experimental genius, melodic flair, conceptual vision and instrumental brilliance, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland is a prime contender for the status of rock’s greatest album. During its 75-minute passage, it flirts with electronic composition, soft-soul, Delta blues, psychedelic rock, modern jazz and proto-funk, without ever threatening to be confined by any of those labels. It climaxes with a display of musical virtuosity that has never been surpassed in rock music. Small wonder that Hendrix found the task of matching this album insuperable: despite the splendour of much of his post-1968 work, he could never again capture the effortless magic of Electric Ladyland.

The album was a landmark in personal terms as much as artistic. During the early sessions, Chas Chandler effectively resigned as Hendrix’s producer; his formal disengagement as co-manager followed the next year. Meanwhile, internal dissension within the Experience led bassist Noel Redding to be absent for many of the Ladyland sessions. Sometimes Hendrix covered Redding’s parts himself; sometimes he augmented the three-man studio line-up to incorporate keyboards, brass or woodwinds.

Most importantly, Hendrix was able to expand the visionary painting-in-sound techniques he’d employed on tracks such as ‘Third Stone From The Sun’ (from Are You Experienced) and ‘EXP’ (from Axis: Bold As Love), to the point that he was able to build an entire side of the original double-LP — from ‘Rainy Day, Dream Away’ to ‘Moon, Turn The Tides’ — into an exotic suite, a seamless composition of fragments and improvisation that couldn’t quite be categorised as jazz or as rock. Fracturing those genre boundaries merely made it more difficult for Hendrix to reconstitute them in the future.

Electric Ladyland (Version 1) October 1968
Tracks: CD1: …And The Gods Made Love/Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)/Crosstown Traffic/Voodoo Chile/Still Raining, Still Dreaming/House Burning Down/All Along The Watchtower/Voodoo Child (Slight Return) CD2: Little Miss Strange/Long Hot Summer Night/Come On (Part 1)/Gypsy Eyes/The Burning Of The Midnight Lamp/ Rainy Day, Dream Away/1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)/Moon, Turn The Tides… Gently, Gently Away

The original CD release retained the naked “glory” of the original UK album cover, with its parade of slightly distorted female flesh. Hendrix hated that design, and he would have loathed this CD release even more. Not only was the mastering very poor, bathed in hiss and excess noise, but Polydor destroyed the original album concept by combining sides one and four of the double LP on the first disc, and two and three on the second. This magnificent piece of logic meant that ‘Rainy Day, Dream Away’ appeared after its intended sequel, ‘Still Raining, Still Dreaming’.

Electric Ladyland (Version 2) June 1991
Tracks: …And The Gods Made Love/Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)/Crosstown Traffic/Voodoo Chile/Little Miss Strange/Long Hot Summer Night/Come On (Part 1)/ Gypsy Eyes/The Burning Of The Midnight Lamp/Rainy Day, Dream Away/1983 …(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)/Moon, Turn The Tide… Gently, Gently Away/Still Raining, Still Dreaming/House Burning Down/All Along The Watchtower/ Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

During the initial phase of remastering for the Sessions box set, Electric Ladyland was sensibly reduced to a single CD (without shedding any of its contents) and the running order was restored to Hendrix’s original instructions. But the sound quality was only marginally more satisfactory than the first release.

Electric Ladyland (Version 3) 1993
Tracks : as per Version 2
Excellently re-mastered, Electric Ladyland now sounds as breathtaking on CD as it did on vinyl in 1968. Michael Fairchild’s notes in the lengthy booklet are superb, and so is the sound quality — from the tumultuous sonic landslide of ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ to the delicacy of ‘Moon, Turn The Tides’ — which, bizarrely, is listed on the back cover as lasting for just one minute, not 10.

All songs written by Jimi Hendrix unless otherwise indicated.

…And The Gods Made Love
Conceived under the more prosaic title ‘At Last The Beginning’, this solo guitar concoction presaged the multi-dubbed delights to come, as Hendrix conjured magnificent pictures from musical genius and technical brilliance. Taped on June 29, 1968, during a single lengthy session.

Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)
Unlike the slightly later solo rendition captured on the posthumous Loose Ends collection, this soft-soul classic added studio trickery to the obvious influence of Curtis Mayfield’s guitar. With Noel Redding absent from proceedings, Hendrix handled the bass as well, and topped off a delightfully airy confection with some precise falsetto vocals.

Crosstown Traffic
Having just exhibited his command of the most subtle forms of soul music, Hendrix unveiled an aggressive, swaggering funk track — the basic track cut live in the studio by the Experience line-up back in December 1967 and then overdubbed in April and May 1968. Twenty-two years later, the Estate sanctioned the creation of a video to accompany the song’s belated release as a single: both visually and aurally, it felt stunningly contemporary alongside the funk/rock crossovers of Lenny Kravitz and Living Colour.

Proof that someone at the sessions had a sense of humour was the involvement of Traffic guitarist, Dave Mason — whose sole contribution to the track was to sing the name of his band in every chorus.

Voodoo Chile
Throughout 1967, Muddy Waters’ Chicago R&B song, ‘Catfish Blues’, was a regular inclusion in the Experience’s live set. By early 1968, it had mutated into an original Hendrix song, built around an identical riff, and with lyrics that paid their dues to some of the most unsettling images from the Delta blues tradition.

During a lengthy session on May 1, 1968, Hendrix, Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, Jack Casady (bassist from Jefferson Airplane) and Steve Winwood (from Traffic) worked their way through a series of lengthy free-form jams around the ‘Voodoo Chile’ changes. This was the longest, and most successful, with Hendrix’s surprisingly orthodox blues playing acting as counterpoint to Winwood’s sustained organ chords.

Down the years, there’s been much confusion over the exact spelling of this song, and its counterpart at the end of this album. I’ve settled on ‘Voodoo Chile’ and ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’, as being Hendrix’s preferences. What matters most, though, is that the two songs — offering vastly different takes on the blues — are the twin pillars of Electric Ladyland.

Little Miss Strange (Noel Redding)
For the second album running, Noel Redding was allowed to contribute — and sing — one number. Sadly, ‘Little Miss Strange’ did little more than repeat the ingredients of ‘She’s So Fine’ from Axis, and Electric Ladyland would be a stronger album without it. Like much of this set, it was taped during April and May 1968.

Long Hot Summer
Hendrix doubled up on bass and guitar, while Al Kooper’s keyboards took a minor role on this piece of urban soul, which was mixed idiosyncratically, to say the least. Mitch Mitchell’s drums were marooned on the far left of the stereo picture, while the other instruments never quite cohered into any kind of whole — as if the tape had picked up musicians from different rooms who happened by chance to be performing the same number.

Come On (Part 1) (Earl King)
The final song to be recorded for the album was this cover of a blues by New Orleans guitarist Earl King, cut on August 27, 1968. The Experience ploughed through the standard chord changes and lyrical imagery, take after take, and several near-identical versions have appeared on bootlegs in recent years. Pleasant but undemanding, its last-minute addition to the album was strange, in view of the fact that Hendrix left outtakes from these sessions like ‘South Saturn Delta’ and ‘My Friend’ unreleased.

Gypsy Eyes
From its train-in-tunnel drum phasing to its staccato guitar licks, ‘Gypsy Eyes’ was a masterpiece of creating substance out of little more than a riff and a message of love. Hendrix’s guitar patterns on this track, and the interplay he built up with his own bass runs, can be heard resounding down the history of subsequent rock/funk crossovers, notably Prince’s early-to-mid Eighties work.

The Burning Of The Midnight Lamp
Already issued as a single long before the release of Electric Ladyland, ‘Midnight Lamp’ still fitted the album with its dense production (reminiscent of Phil Spector), unusual voicings (Hendrix on harpsichord and mellotron) and evocative imagery. “They said that was the worst record we’d done,” Jimi said in 1968, “but to me that was the best one we ever made.”

Rainy Day, Dream Away
On June 10, 1968, Hendrix, Buddy Miles, organist Michael Finnigan, sax player Freddie Smith and percussionist Larry Faucette jammed through a set of jazzy changes with a cool, late-night feel, and an equally laid-back lyric. Suitably overdubbed and edited, their lengthy ‘Rainy Day Jam’ was divided between this track and ‘Still Raining, Still Dreaming’. Initially, it introduced the brilliant suite of music that segued into…

1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)
Delicate guitar passages established a mood that mixed psychedelic rock and jazz, before Hendrix began to paint in words the portrait of a world torn by war and despair, from which the only escape is the sea. Playing all the instruments apart from flute (supplied by Chris Wood, the third Traffic member to guest on this album), Hendrix created an orchestral tapestry of sound, which flowed elegantly into a gentle chaos of tape effects, backwards guitar and chiming percussion, and then to…

Moon, Turn The Tides… Gently, Gently Away
Multi-dubbed guitar motifs restored the psychedelic jazz feel, vamping melodically for several minutes until the mood became almost frenzied and shifted into an electronically treated drum solo. At last, the familiar themes of ‘1983’ re-emerged, to guide the suite to its conclusion, and complete 20 minutes of stunningly complex and beautiful instrumental tonalities. These two tracks were taped in a single remarkable session, on April 23, 1968.

Still Raining, Still Dreaming
Still jamming, too, first through another verse of ‘Rainy Day, Dream Away’, and then into a coda that gradually wound down the mellow jazz groove of the original track.

House Burning Down
Another collaboration between Hendrix and Mitchell (Noel Redding played on just five Electric Ladyland songs), ‘House Burning Down’ twisted through several key changes in its tight, swirling intro, and then shifted again as the strident chorus moved into the reportorial verses. Like so many of Hendrix’s songs from this period, there was an atmosphere of impending doom in the air, inspired by the outburst of black-on-black violence that had shaken some of America’s ghettos earlier in 1968. “Try to learn instead of burn,” Jimi advised hopefully, before (as ever) finding salvation somewhere other than the land — this time via a friendly visitor from another galaxy.

All Along The Watchtower (Bob Dylan)
‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ was Hendrix’s first choice of material when he listened to Bob Dylan’s 1968 album, John Wesley Harding, for the first time. In 1970, he recorded another song from the set, ‘Drifter’s Escape’; but his arrangement of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ was so convincing that Dylan himself has been using it ever since.
In its original acoustic form, Dylan threw the emphasis of the song on its apocalyptic imagery. Hendrix used the sound of the studio to evoke the storms and the sense of dread, creating an echoed aural landscape that remains the most successful Dylan cover ever recorded. Dave Mason of Traffic contributed bass and acoustic guitar to the basic session on January 21, 1968; Hendrix completed his overdubs four months later, and the song subsequently became a worldwide hit single.

Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
Two days after recording the epic ‘Voodoo Chile’, Hendrix was back at New York’s Record Plant, with Mitchell and Redding, ready for this ‘Slight Return’. What evolved, over eight takes, was the single most impressive piece of guitar-playing this writer has ever heard, on a track that compresses every ounce of Hendrix’s ambition, musical technique, production skill and uncanny sense of impending disaster into five minutes. From its opening wah-wah chatter to the wails of feedback that bring the song to its close, it’s an extravaganza of noise and naked emotion. Its verbal imagery is ablaze with destruction and imminent death; and the music is equal to every last nuance. By its very nature, feedback evokes loss of control: during this performance, Hendrix handles it like a wizard controlling a hurricane.

Author: Peter Doggett

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