Perhaps no time in the career of Jimi Hendrix was as critical to his success as the months he spent in the U.K. and Europe over 1966 and 1967. Jas Obrecht’s new book, Stone Free: Jimi Hendrix in London, September 1966 – June 1967, catches the legend at the moment of his transformation from an unknown American guitarist to the darling of Swinging London. This day-by-day account brings the era to vivid life, starting in New York City, where Hendrix meets future manager and producer Chas Chandler, and continuing in the U.K. There, Hendrix undergoes an extraordinary evolution as he forms the Jimi Hendrix Experience with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, writes and records the songs that would be released on the group’s early singles and debut album, Are You Experienced, and continues to grow as an innovative guitarist.
In this excerpt about the group’s exploits in February 1967, the Jimi Hendrix Experience are touring beyond London after the release of their 1966 debut single, “Hey Joe.” Travel was hard, the gigs were small, and the venues were unprepared for the trio’s high-intensity, high-volume shows. But as he geared up to record their follow-up single, “Purple Haze,” Jimi also made some important connections that shaped his sound and musical vision. —GP Editor
During their February travels outside of London, the Experience never knew quite what to expect. Noel Redding brought home this point in an article he penned for Beat Instrumental about the group’s February 1 performance in the coastal town of South Shields. The venue was the New Cellar, a late-licensed bar promoted as “The £50,000 Disco Club.” “About the only bad gig we’ve had so far was at South Shields,” Redding wrote:
“We arrived a little late and we were in a bit of a rush. We were on the back of a revolving stage just getting tuned, ready to be swung round any minute. We had got these new 200-watt [Marshall] units and just as we were tuning, Jimi’s amp blew up. He quickly plugged into mine and I looked round for something to borrow. In the end I had to make do with a tiny amp which the other group had been using—it must have been all of five watts. As we swung round, we opened up and the sound was terrible. My bass was just buzzing like mad. Gerry [Stickells, the group’s road manager] came up, gave me the P.A. amp, and put the vocals through this tiny thing. Of course, from then on we couldn’t hear a word except in the breaks where we were singing and not playing, and even then we just heard a tiny whisper. As if that wasn’t enough, at the end of the spot we were taken back round on the revolving stage and as we went the audience grabbed us. I was hanging on to Jimi and he was hanging on to Mitch and we very nearly got crushed against the wall as we went round. It’s quite a life working with Jimi, but I enjoy it.”
Playing at such a high volume increased the likelihood of amp failures and other equipment breakdowns. “We needed to be loud — and I mean deafening — to deliver our concept of a complete orchestra in three pieces,” Redding explained. “We blew amps left, right and center as we pumped up and up, trying to fill the whole hall and any gaps between us and the audience with sound. In order to hear me, Jimi liked one of my speakers on his side. I had no trouble hearing Jimi. Poor Mitch, who at times couldn’t even hear us (no monitors) but could follow by watching the rhythm of my fingers, was left in the middle to beat his brains out electronically unassisted, trying to compete with hundreds of watts full up with nothing but sheer energy. The miking of drums was unheard of, and our electrical demands were already terrorizing clubs.”
On February 2, “Hey Joe” jumped to number seven on the charts. That evening’s Top of the Pops rebroadcast the Experience’s December performance of “Hey Joe.” As it aired, the Experience were in Durham, getting ready to perform at the Blue Pad, an R&B club in the Imperial Hotel. Ian Wright, photographer for the local newspaper, the Northern Echo, witnessed the sound check: “They started, and it was a bloody racket. It was indescribable. After a few minutes they blew the fuses in the amps, then they blew the fuses in the lights. It all went black.” Soon afterward, Jimi gave a brief interview to Allene James, who covered the newspaper’s music beat. “He was staying at the Imperial Hotel,” she remembered, “and he had a white poodle on the bed. He could certainly play the guitar, but I thought he was quite unassuming. He was actually quite shy — he wasn’t one of the many showoffs that I have interviewed in show business.” About two hundred people attended that evening’s concert in the smoky ballroom.
Afterward Tony Carrington, lead guitarist of the Vipers, was having a drink with Jimi in the hotel bar, the Bolivar, when a roadie came in to report a missing Fender Stratocaster. “Hendrix didn’t seem that bothered,” Carrington remembered. “He was concerned about his white guitar, which was the best one. But it was his black one that had gone, and this was the one that was more or less used for show, to bang around the mike stand and the amps.... It had been used and abused and was not in a pristine condition. It did not even sound good. It was a dog as guitars go.” In a conflicting account, pub owner Kenny Beagle said that Hendrix “went down to the Bolivar and was really kicking off about it, going berserk. People were trying to pacify him, but he was very volatile.” Upon leaving the venue, the band had to push their van through snow to jumpstart its engine.
The next evening brought the Experience to the Ricky-Tick in Hounslow, Middlesex. Jimi climaxed the set by shoving the headstock of his Stratocaster, presumably the white one, through the club’s low ceiling. This damaged two of the guitar’s tuning machines, rendering the instrument temporarily unplayable. With the Experience’s first session at Olympic Studios scheduled for later that night, Noel scrambled to borrow a Fender Telecaster he’d sold to Trevor Williams.
Chandler, who wanted to refine the guitar sounds on the De Lane Lea takes of “Purple Haze,” hoped the Experience would fare better at Olympic. The facility’s large room could easily hold all of the band’s gear and better accommodate the roaring volume at which Jimi liked to record. Even with “Hey Joe” climbing the charts, though, the Experience had initially been refused admission due to Chandler’s lack of a credit history with the studio. Ultimately, Polydor [Hendrix’s label] opened an account there in Chandler’s name and supplied the necessary funds. Chandler was anxious to get it done. “With ‘Purple Haze,’ ” he explained, “Hendrix and I were striving for a sound and just kept going back in, two hours at a time, trying to achieve it. It wasn’t like we were in there [in the studio] for days on end. We recorded it, and then Hendrix and I would be sitting at home, saying, ‘Let’s try that.’ Then we would go in for an hour or two. However long it took to record that one specific idea, then that’s how long we would book.”
In his insightful book Ultimate Experience, John McDermott explained how engineer Eddie Kramer changed the way the Experience made records: “The pre-Olympic recordings featured Redding’s bass and Mitchell’s drums recorded in mono on two of the tape’s four available tracks. Kramer’s approach was to record Mitchell’s drums in stereo on two tracks, reserving the two remaining tracks for bass and Hendrix’s rhythm guitar.... Kramer and Chandler then took this tape to another four-track recorder, pre-mixing the four tracks down to two in order to create an opening for two more tracks. These two tracks could then accommodate Hendrix’s lead guitar, lead vocal, or any other overdub idea.”
Jimi, Kramer soon saw, had a clear idea of the sounds he wanted to capture on tape: “Jimi was the master executioner in terms of, ‘Okay, this is my idea. I know exactly how I want to play this, I know exactly how I want it to sound.’ And I would just be there to interpret what he was doing.”
On Jimi’s invitation, [effects pedal engineer] Roger Mayer attended the February 3 session. “There was not a lot of overdubbing on those cuts,” Mayer remembered. “There were probably a maximum of three guitar tracks with vocals and backing vocals. We would go into the control room, and Jimi himself did some of the complex panning from left to right — the panoramic control. He was very instrumental in the creative sound of the mix.” Mayer brought along his Octavia for Jimi to use for the solo sections.
After cutting new lead vocals for “Purple Haze,” Jimi proceeded to the guitar overdubs. With two of his Strats missing or out of action, it’s possible that his iconic “Purple Haze” solos were recorded with a Telecaster. Since Redding and Trevor Williams both played right-handed, the borrowed Telecaster would almost surely have been strung in the standard way for a right-hander. If Jimi used this guitar — the absence of whammy in the overdubbed solos adds weight to this notion — there are several ways he could have done it. He could have removed the Tele’s strings, flipped the nut, and restrung it in the manner to which he was accustomed. This would likely have been too time consuming. A simpler method would have been to use a Phillips screwdriver to swap two of the tuning machines from the Telecaster to the damaged Stratocaster, since they were interchangeable. Audio evidence, though, suggests that Jimi may have done what virtually any other guitarist would have found unthinkable: simply leave the Tele strung as is, flip it over, and wail away the “wrong way,” with the high strings on top.
Brian Delaney makes a compelling case for Jimi’s having used the right-hand-strung Telecaster, explaining: “Jimi’s first overdubbed solo, beginning at :48 seconds, sets up the next verse. The second overdub, at 1:08, is a repeat of the previous motif, but with Roger Mayer’s Octavia effect kicked on — it builds from the previous motif, if only slightly. The third motif, the abstraction of the ‘Purple Haze’ riff, at 1:12, sets up Jimi for lift-off at 1:18, when he again kicks on the Octavia for the solo. The notes he plays when he says ‘Help me,’ from 1:12 to 1:18, are a punctuation. They are a musical part, but not necessarily a ‘guitaristic’ part. A part like this is something you typically could only come up with in your mind, away from your guitar. Guitarists generally are stuck playing guitaristic things because their fingers and physicality have trained them to play a certain way on the instrument. But when you come up with a concept like Jimi’s musical idea in this part, then you have to go to a guitar and say, ‘How do I execute this idea?’ Then the final climax of the song and wailing ride-out have a distinctive downward-pull bend that you just can’t get using a tremolo. You can hear this effect when Hubert Sumlin played between the vocals lines on Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Goin’ Down Slow,’ or on certain songs by Otis Rush, who strung his guitar the ‘wrong way,’ with the high strings skyward.
“At the end of ‘Purple Haze,’ it’s a siren’s song, with the Octavia unrelenting and chaotic, and an occasional minor third overbend that is absolutely staggering — no one else was playing like this at the time. The ride-out could very well be the sound of a right-strung Telecaster on the lead pickup, having its treble string yanked downward toward the center of the fretboard in the upper octave with that Octavia. Both Strats and Teles of the era had tiny 7.25-inch radius fretboards that made bending problematic, but that never stopped Jimi. Jimi once said, ‘A Telecaster has two sounds — one good, one bad.’ He just used the treble pickup for the overdubs. Having owned an Octavia, I can honestly say that they don’t track too well, so a hot Tele treble pickup would help the cause, compared to a somewhat anemic Strat treble pickup sound. The realization that Hendrix may have easily overdubbed these parts as a lefty with a right-handed guitar really speaks to his unbounded guitar abilities.”
There is strong anecdotal evidence that Jimi could pick up any guitar or electric bass and play it either way with equal finesse. Chas Chandler, for instance, saw Jimi sit in with a jazz trio, playing brilliantly on a flipped-over right-handed guitar that belonged to the trio’s regular guitarist. James Gurley, whose band Big Brother and the Holding Company played shows with the Experience, insisted that “Jimi could play the guitar right-handed and left-handed. Either way! He could play right-handed guitar left handed, left-handed guitar right handed, right-handed guitar right handed, and left-handed guitar left handed. I could not tell any difference when I was listening to him play.” Andy Johns, who helped engineer the Experience’s Axis: Bold as Love album, saw Jimi do this in the studio: “It didn’t matter which way the strings went — he knew where the notes were. The guy was a genius! He was extremely clever.” Regardless of which guitar was used, the “Purple Haze” solo endures as a masterwork. “It freaked everybody out,” Kramer remembered, “because it’s one of the great, classic initial solos where psychedelia and blues are all rolled in together.” By session’s end the sun had risen and Hendrix and Mayer had begun a lasting friendship.
Electric Ladyland gets the deluxe treatment with a 50th anniversary reissue box.
While Jas Obrecht’s Stone Free pays tribute to the launch of Jimi Hendrix’s meteoric career, a new release from Experience Hendrix and Legacy Recordings celebrates what is arguably the pinnacle of his artistic achievement: the 1968 double-album Electric Ladyland.
The third and final studio release from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland is the source of such legendary Hendrix tracks as “All Along the Watchtower,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and “Crosstown Traffic.” For many fans it is Hendrix’s finest moment as a guitarist, composer and musical visionary. Electric Ladyland reached number two on the U.S. charts within a month of its release and went on to hit the top spot, becoming the Experience’s most commercially successful album.
To celebrate the record’s 50th anniversary, a Deluxe Edition box set of the album is being released, available as a 3CD/1 Blu-ray set and a 6LP/1 Blu-ray set. Both include the original double-album newly remastered from the analog tapes by Bernie Grundman. The box also includes Electric Ladyland: The Early Takes, featuring demos and studio outtakes, plus a new 5.1 surround sound mix of the entire original album by Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer. This marks the first and only time that a 5.1 mix has been done for a Hendrix studio album, presenting the original stereo mixes in uncompressed 24-bit/96kHz high-resolution audio.
“I had always dreamed of mixing Electric Ladyland in 5.1 surround sound,” Kramer says. “It always felt to me as the perfect vehicle for the kind of adventuresome stuff that Jimi and I were trying to do in 1968.”
The set also includes the previously unreleased Jimi Hendrix Experience: Live at the Hollywood Bowl 9/14/68. Part of Experience Hendrix’s Dagger Records official bootleg series, the recording captures the band onstage just weeks before the release of Electric Ladyland.
In addition, the Blu-ray disc presents the acclaimed, feature-length documentary At Last… The Beginning: The Making of Electric Ladyland. And if that’s not enough, the Deluxe Edition comes with a full-color, 48-page book containing Jimi’s handwritten lyrics, a poem and instructions to his record label, as well as never-before-published photos from the recording sessions shot by Kramer himself.
But perhaps the most important image associated with Electric Ladyland is a color photo by Linda (McCartney) Eastman, showing the band with children at the statue of Alice in Wonderland in New York’s Central Park. Hendrix’s own choice for the album’s original cover, the image was relegated to the inside of the U.S. version and printed in black and white. The U.K. version of the album, released by Track Records, omitted the photo entirely and instead featured a gatefold photo of 19 naked women, a decision Hendrix abhorred. The Electric Ladyland Deluxe Edition box puts it in its rightful place, just as Jimi wanted.
This is an excerpt from Stone Free: Jimi Hendrix in London, September 1966–June 1967. Copyright ©2018 by Jas Obrecht. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. www.uncpress.org.