– 3 essential albums, an overlooked gem, a wildcard, one to avoid, and the best of the rest –
The summer of 1966 was a great one in London. England won the World Cup in Wembley Stadium, the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon hit the top of the charts, the American Billie Jean King won the first of her six Wimbledon titles and the Beatles delivered Revolver. In September, a pop culture atomic bomb was dropped on the city when an unknown blues guitarist was flown in by Animals bass-player Chas Chandler.
In the short time between being thrust into the spotlight of swinging sixties London to his abrupt death just four years later, Jimi Hendrix redefined what was possible on the electric guitar. He personifies rock guitar and serves as the perfect mix of blues, pop, soul, R&B and psychedelia. While he only released three studio albums during his life, a wealth of live albums, compilations and posthumous studio albums have been released with varying degrees of success. This buyer’s guide aims to stick a finger to the man and raise a peace sign to all the foxy ladies.
Start off with: Are You Experienced (1967, Track Records)
With only three proper studio albums available, it makes sense that these are all essential listening. It’s also good to tackle them in order, to see how Hendrix and his power-trio developed over time. The first of two albums in 1967, Are You Experienced shows us a bright new artist almost fully formed. Following on from the standard set by singles Hey Joe, Purple Haze and The Wind Cries Mary (all three of which were left off the UK release), the debut album also gives us Foxy Lady, Manic Depression and Fire to add to Hendrix’s bulging set list. In Red House, he creates a blues standard for guitarists everywhere, and delivers two psychedelic highlights in Third Stone From The Sun and the title track. The US version of the album arrived three months later and substitutes some of the album tracks for the previously mentioned singles, but it’s the UK version of the album that should be seen as the real deal.
Follow that with: Axis: Bold As Love (1967, Track Records)
Already bored with the theatre and histrionics of his stage show, Hendrix put the fuzz pedals to one side for his second studio album of 1967. A subtler, nuanced album from a singer-songwriter perspective, the material shows an artist maturing in both song composition and lyrical content. The barnstorming Spanish Castle Magic and Bold As Love remain as the only songs that might fit on their noisier debut. Everything else feels much more relaxed. Little Wing is a delicate blues ballad featuring superb use of the glockenspiel, Wait Until Tomorrow tells the story of two star-crossed lovers who were never meant to be, and Castles Made Of Sand shows a contemplative Hendrix addressing the issue of mortality and time slipping away. Recorded just 13 months after he landed in London, the album is an incredible achievement in both songwriting and performance. Given how swiftly he could write and record material, one wonders how many Hendrix albums there could have been had tragedy not taken him so soon.
Then get: Electric Ladyland (1968, Reprise Records)
For the Experience’s third studio LP, Hendrix recorded a double-album’s worth of material at several studios in London and New York. Where the first two records had been strictly a band affair, Electric Ladyland includes many guest appearances from assorted hangers-on and musicians. Traffic’s Dave Mason and Steve Winwood, the Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones and Bob Dylan-sideman Al Kooper all pop up across the album’s sixteen tracks. Again, the record gives us a high hit-rate of Hendrix classics – Crosstown Traffic, Long Hot Summer Night, early-era single Burning Of The Midnight Lamp, and his reworking of Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower. But it’s the last song of the album that remains as Hendrix’s magnum opus. Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) begins with an ominous, faded-in wah-wah-pedal before all hell breaks loose in a psychedelic reimagining of electric blues. It’s an everlasting testament to the musical genius of Hendrix, and you couldn’t find a more fitting song to be the last track on his final studio album.
Criminally overlooked: Stone Free (1980, Polydor Records)
Of course, where there’s money to be made you can always count on record companies sniffing around. Hendrix has released more albums from the grave than he did when he was alive; a raft of uneven posthumous studio records (thirteen at the last count) and dozens of compilations of varying quality. One particular favourite of mine is this 1980 offering from Polydor Records. It might suffer from the cover proclaiming it to be part of the ‘Special Price Series’, but the tracklist is killer. The usual offenders are here – Crosstown Traffic, All Along The Watchtower, Castles Made Of Sand and Little Wing – but it’s the inclusion of the non-studio album material that’s more interesting. Alongside a nice energetic version of the evergreen Johnny B. Goode, the highlight is Ezy Rider, taken from 1971’s The Cry Of Love. It’s the perfect, practically unknown Hendrix song, equal to anything released when he was alive.
The long-shot: Live At Woodstock (1969, Music On Vinyl)
This one doesn’t get a great deal of love, and it’s not hard to see why. Held over to ensure he was the final act to play the festival at the behest of his manager, rather than taking the headline slot on the Sunday night, it was 9am on Monday by the time Hendrix walked onto the stage with his much larger (than usual) band. Most of the 400,000 crowd had left, the 30,000 remaining had the hangover of all hangovers, and Hendrix himself could barely hide his disappointment. In the stark morning light, Hendrix and band deliver a set consisting of early classics, later masterpieces and lots and LOTS of jamming. It’s crazy how much improvisational material is played given the stature of the event. The highlight of the performance might be when Hendrix flashes the peace sign as he launches into his reworking of The Star Spangled Banner, but my favourite moment is his blistering version of Voodoo Chile (Slight Return). Amazing!
Avoid like the plague: Band Of Gypsys (1969, Polydor Records)
Coming just four months after the Woodstock performance, Band Of Gypsys finds Hendrix once again playing live as a power-trio. Captured at New York City’s Filmore East on New Year’s Day 1970, I’ve never really appreciated the heavier sound that bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles bring to the equation. The newer material is dirge-like and it just sounds like a bad trip. The sixties are officially over, they’re selling Beatles wigs in Woolworth’s, and this record shows it.
Best compilation: The Ultimate Experience (1992, Polydor Records)
1997’s Experience Hendrix: The Best Of Jimi Hendrix may have overtaken it as the readily available compilation, but my favourite will always be this similar 1992 release. There’s just something about the sequencing of a compilation of an artist you’re discovering that becomes way more important than it has any right to be. All Along The Watchtower followed by Purple Haze followed by Hey Joe followed by The Wind Cries Mary. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! I could do without the next song, Angel, and would swap it for the bizarrely overlooked Spanish Castle Magic, but that’s really my only criticism. Even the gold artwork on this release is so tied to the treasures within!
Best live album: Live At Monterey (1967, Legacy Records)
There’s a wealth of live Hendrix material, almost as many albums as the numerous compilations available, so it’s hard to nail these just to one essential release. If pushed, I’d go for this, his breakthrough appearance in America. Introduced by the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, Hendrix opens the show with an incendiary version of Howling Wolf’s Killing Floor. The set showcases early singles Hey Joe, Purple Haze and Foxy Lady, as well as covers of Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone and the Troggs’ Wild Thing. He closes by setting his Fender Stratocaster on fire, and rock music would never be the same again.
Considering that Jimi Hendrix died almost fifty years ago, there’s still a huge amount of material I haven’t yet heard. And it’s still coming out! 2018’s Both Sides Of The Sky completes a trilogy of albums intended as a follow-up to Electric Ladyland. It’s unlikely that anything will overshadow those three original studio albums by the Experience, but I’m sure there’s still the odd gem to be found.