What does it sound like?:
The cover’s just awful, for a start. I’m talking about the original UK release, with all the naked ladies. (I’ve used the alternative cover here, to spare your blushes). Hendrix himself famously hated it, publicly expressing his anger at the record company for going behind his back.
I wish I could find the full quote where he explains why he hates it, because it’s unwittingly hilarious, and it undermines any notion you might have that he was somehow a progressive feminist seeking to restore the dignity of these women. Turns out he LIKED the nudity… it was just that the lighting and wide angle made them all look distorted and ugly. (Shades of Spinal Tap: ‘What’s wrong with being sexy?’…. ‘No…. SexIST’…)
This kind of tragi-comic anecdote is indicative of the sloppiness that’s made Hendrix’s recorded output and subsequent legacy such a shambles. Never mind the endless bootlegs – even the official releases are a mess of half-baked packages and ill-timed reboots. In his lifetime, Jimi was a loose cannon with no real guiding hand, spewing out content with nary a game plan. So the chaos is understandable.
(Shame he never had a marketing team with the same focus as Dylan, a kindred spirit in the creativity stakes – both value feeling over rational thought, and have a tendency towards faux-intellectual gibberish, so both absolutely need outside guidance. Gibberish can be exhilarating when it’s packaged and polished).
Electric Ladyland, as a package, is a sprawling disaster of a thing. It’s the sound of someone at the top of his game, given all the drugs, girls and freedom he could ever want, firing off in all directions and deluding himself that he’s making great art. It’s a real shame, because the good bits are achingly, soul-shatteringly good (which I’ll get on to in a minute). At this point in his career he had the ability to hone his craft into a condensed, polished masterpiece. In short, he could have done a Jimmy Page and made a Led Zeppelin IV. But he didn’t.
Instead, we get a ragbag collection, trailing in the fag ash of psychedelia (a busted flush of a movement by ’68). A double album, naturally (because why not?), plastered with sloppy mixing and tacky effects. I can’t bear to listen to the thing all the way through.
We get worthy but endless blues jams (Voodoo Child), thin pop fluff (Little Miss Strange) and (save us) jazz funk (Still Raining, Still Dreaming).
He misfires right off the bat, with the pretentiously titled ‘… And the Gods Made Love’, a case study in how to waste time in an expensive studio by making funny noises. And he’s not Al Green, so track two, ‘Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)?’, is comically poor – a horny young man trying to sound sensitive by writing bad poetry.
But then Crosstown Traffic kicks in, and suddenly he soars. That’s premium grade Hendrix in a bottle right there. Sounding like a steroid induced re-make of ‘Season Of The Witch’ crossed with ‘Hey Bulldog’, the guitar is stripped back to choppy basics (even playing such primitive stuff, no-one ever quite sounded like Jimi hitting a guitar), twinned with a piano so tightly compressed it sounds like a wasp. It also has a break beat to die for and an addictive kazoo riff. (Yes, kazoo).
All of a sudden, the misogyny makes sense. Instead of being tacky, it makes you smile and pumps you up. His ego inflated by The knowledge he has a bigger ding a ling than Chuck Berry, Jimi is singing a breezy and confident ode to casual sex, with a succession of gloriously ridiculous car/libido metaphors (‘Ninety miles an hour is the speed I drive’, ‘Tyre tracks all across your back, baby’….).
He even resists the urge to lay down a solo, preferring to let the pop energy of the song speak for itself.
Skip to the end of side four and we get Crosstown Traffic’s equal, Voodoo Chile (Slight Return). Again, this is Hendrix at his absolute best. In a delicious, snakey little riff to start things off, he pretty much closes the book on wah wah guitar. (Twenty little seconds that no guitarist before or since has matched for sheer funkiness. He should really have started the album with that).
Mitch Mitchell’s drumming was uniformly superb throughout the career of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and on Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) he outdoes himself. With this kind of slow-paced, bluesy groove, so many drummers would be unable to avoid sounding lumpen, but Mitchell dances all over the place, a wash of airy cymbals and an insidious, chugging, rumba-inflected rhythm. This grounding gives Jimi the chance to go wild on top.
(I don’t get the criticism of Mitch Mitchell. I’ve come to the conclusion that it all stems from a campaign of jealousy started by Ginger Baker. Well, Ginger was wrong. And John Lennon’s regrettably short-lived supergroup The Dirty Mac is a demonstration of how much better even Clapton sounded with Mitch. I love Cream, I really do, but I’m acutely aware of their limitations. Tin hat duly donned).
There are sporadic little masterpieces dotted throughout the four sides of the LP (All Along The Watchtower turns Dylan into cutting edge, apocalyptic pop; Burning Of The Midnight Lamp is gorgeous harpsichord balladry), but overall the excess is tiresome.
I’ll concede that 1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be) deserves its thirteen minutes. It’s a strange science fiction opus that goes off into uncharted psychedelic oceans for what seems like an age, before climaxing in a truly thrilling massed guitar opera.
What does it all *mean*?
I think it’s proof that, in terms of studio output, Hendrix is best served by a single, well curated Best Of CD. Alternatively, if you want to experience the full effect of him wigging out live, go for the live footage like Monterey or Woodstock or (my favourite) The Lulu Show appearance.
Goes well with…
Browsing for records in a dusty second hand record shop. I can imagine the guy behind the counter playing this at earsplitting volume while you thumb through old Yes albums.
Might suit people who like…
Early Yes, early Floyd, Sly Stone, the Monkees’ weirder cuts, Zappa’s tamer cuts, Funkadelic, Jeff Beck, Led Zep. Plus I sense a certain affinity with the Stones’ On Their Satanic Majesties Request.