“Not No Game”
Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Reissued
“Yeah, that whole LP means so much, you know, it wasn’t just slopped together. Every little thing that you hear on there means something, you know. It’s not no game that we’re playing.” – Jimi Hendrix on Electric Ladyland
In televised interviews, Jimi Hendrix was a laid back, bemused presence, often self-deprecating, laughing and smiling easily at his own remarks. On stage, he was a fearsome and ferocious performer, using his wild physicality to illustrate the electric tales told by his furious and outrageous guitar playing. But those are only external aspects of a man who must have had one of the sharpest musical minds in history. While seeing inside anyone’s mind is impossible, part of being an artist is having the ability to take what’s inside your head and make it a reality for others. And there may be no better illustration of how Hendrix thought than the alchemy he wrought from the raw materials of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower.”
It’s unclear exactly when he first heard the song. It might have been in the studio, before John Wesley Harding was released, on tapes provided by Dylan’s publicist. Perhaps it was at a party where he told Traffic’s Dave Mason that he intended to cover the song. What we do know is that Dylan’s version came out on December 27, 1967 and less than a month later, on January 21st, 1968, Hendrix was in the studio laying forth a startling new vision for the song. Joining him were Mason, drummer Mitch Mitchell, Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones, and producer Chas Chandler. Bassist Noel Redding was there for a time, but quickly lost interest in the slow progress of the session.
Take after take, Hendrix diligently counts in “One, two, one, two three,” and he and Mason play the opening riff of the song together, both on acoustic guitars. It starts out choppy, with Mitchell insistent on the drums, and the focus quickly turns to dynamics. “Ay!” Hendrix interjects during Take Six, bringing Mason and Mitchell to a halt and telling them to pay attention to “when the quiet part begins.” Mason starts to say something and Hendrix cuts him off: “Listen, listen, listen,” he says before demonstrating what he wants Mason to play during the softer parts of the song. Take Eight breaks down with Hendrix admonishing himself: “My fault, my fault, my fault, man I screwed it up. We don’t go loud yet.”
The rhythm and timing were also taking time to come together. As Take 10 dissipates, Hendrix sighs and says, “One more time. Watch the tempo, too.” Take 11 starts showing promise, but between Takes 13 and 14, Hendrix is on Mason’s case again: “Dave, try to make it more distinctive between the loud part and the soft part, okay?” The next few takes are wasted as Jones tries to figure out a piano riff that makes any kind of sense. Hendrix seems to be indulging him – or ignoring him – showing incredible focus by calling one take to an end with a “Wait a minute, the bass drum didn’t fit right in that part.” But maybe Hendrix gave Jones a look or said something when the tape wasn’t running because he soon picked up the vibraslap, a percussion instrument with an atmospheric rattle that became a critical part of the final song.
By the time it settles into Mitchell on drums, Mason on guitar, Jones on vibraslap and Hendrix himself playing a phenomenally subterranean bass part, the masterpiece starts to coalesce. Multiple overdub sessions took place over the next several months, as Hendrix applied finishing touches of which only he could conceive. Even so, when you hear the final version, mixed, mastered, and wisely slowed down a hair, the stunning electric lead guitar and Hendrix’s vocals almost seem like icing on the cake. Hendrix’s widescreen approach and painstaking work effectively turned Dylan’s original recording into a high quality demo, which is not something that happens very often!
Being a fly on the wall and witnessing Hendrix’s work ethic, attention to detail, and abilities to lead others to sonic nirvana while creating one of his masterpieces is beyond fascinating. But that’s not an experience you will get in its entirety from the gorgeous new 50th anniversary edition of Electric Ladyland, the album on which “All Along The Watchtower” finally found a home after first being released as a single in September 1968. Instead, the work put in by Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s longtime collaborator and engineer, John McDermott, a Hendrix historian and expert, and Janie Hendrix, the guitarist’s half-sister, has given us the definitive version of the only album over which one of music’s great geniuses had total control. And that’s a very big deal indeed, even if fanatics like me might miss some of the outtakes and studio chatter that we know is still in the vaults.
That’s not to say that the Deluxe Edition is missing any perspective on Hendrix’s process, not by a long shot. In addition to McDermott’s excellent and detailed liner notes about the 13 months of recording that went into making Electric Ladyland (with significant breaks to meet touring obligations), we also get a demo tape Hendrix made on his Teac reel-to-reel tape deck while he was living at the Drake Hotel on Park Avenue near 56th street. While these bare-bones recordings may not be something you return to often, recognizing that the overall structure for sprawling epics like “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” and “Voodoo Chile” existed in Hendrix’s head prior to entering the studio is a thrilling insight that has to be heard to be believed. The Drake demo is also incredibly intimate, which only adds interest to songs that didn’t make it on to Electric Ladyland, such as “Angel” and “Cherokee Mist.”
The collection also includes a smattering of in-studio demos and jams, including the rollicking Take One of “Long Hot Summer Night,” with just Hendrix and Al Kooper (on piano), and “Rainy Day Shuffle,” a delightful bit of gutbucket with Hendrix playing Kenny Burrell to Mike Finnigan’s Jimmy Smith. While these and a lengthy demo of “1983” start to tease apart the mysteries of Electric Ladyland, that work must ultimately be done by our own ears, a task made easier than ever by the spectacular new mix. Without adding any modern bells and whistles, Kramer and remastering engineer Bernie Grundman pushed the original tapes to the limit, attaining a new transparency and revealing the layers that he and Hendrix assembled to create each track. More remarkable is the fact that they’ve done this without sacrificing any of the beauty and warmth which Hendrix lavished on all of his music.
The package also includes a Blu-Ray containing a documentary called At Last The Beginning…The Making Of Electric Ladyland, which is an expanded version of a film that’s been released a few times under different titles. If you’ve never seen any of these interviews before, it will be fascinating – and as context for further exploration of the album on your own, the film’s exploration of technical and cultural details is invaluable. I’m not sure if the discussion about Hendrix’s political awareness was new to this version, but in the times of Black Lives Matter, it is certainly newly relevant. One of Hendrix’s friends tells us that “House Burning Down” was principally about the Watts Riots and, after Kramer’s in-depth discussion of the dramatic guitar effects as the song fades out, says, “The sound of a panther at the end of it could mean a lot of things. There were some political groups around at that time that were extremely, extremely powerful and potent in the consciousness of this country.”
Hendrix’s relationship with African-American culture is complex, yes, but before you wonder if trying to connect him to the Black Panthers is a reach, consider that when introducing “Are You Experienced?” at the Hollywood Bowl concert that’s also included in this new set, Hendrix says the following: “We’d like to open up with a thing that goes…uh, start it off celebrating the call of the black panther, which will sound like…uh, try to get that sound together, and then we’ll go into Are You Experienced?.” Coincidence? With the release of Electric Ladyland only weeks away, I highly doubt it. Some reviewers have complained about the sound of the concert and it is rough indeed, but the more you listen to it, the better it gets. Also, the performance of Red House is one of the most staggering versions ever committed to tape.
I recently answered the patently stupid question “What’s the greatest album of all time?” with a convincing (to me, anyway!) analysis of why it has to be Electric Ladyland. Take some time with this package, which finally includes Hendrix’s original choice for a cover photo by Linda Eastman, and then try to persuade me otherwise. If you’re somehow not already familiar with the album, I’ll let Hendrix have the last word from an interview with Don Speicher included in Hendrix On Hendrix (Chicago Review Press, 2012):
Speicher: “What kind of things are going to be on your new record?”
Hendrix: “It’s what they call funk melodies. It’s slightly electric funk every once in a while, and it goes into blues and it goes into hard rock and it goes into complete opposites on some songs, complete fantasy, you know, which is the easiest thing to write about. Tell it the way you would like to see something.”
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