Essential Records: 'Electric Ladyland' by The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Posted by Amoebite, June 13, 2016 04:24pm | Post a Comment

Essential Records Electric Ladyland Jimi Hendrix

Somewhere between the murky, secluded sixth and seventh grades, I saw a TV spot for an upcoming magic special in which a then unknown young man performed a card trick straight towards the camera. Not only did he know what card I had seen in his deck but he changed another card into that same card right before my eyes. The young man's name was David Blaine, and the special was called Street Magic. By now we're probably all familiar with David Blaine, and his deadpan style of magic and physical feats, but something that people probably don't remember about his first couple of TV specials is how great the music was. Let me tell ya, it was really good. My oncoming obsession with the David Blaine specials (I recorded them live on VHS, and watched them over and over again) was also my introduction to Dr. John, Sly & The Family Stone, Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder, and, most importantly, Jimi Hendrix.

Sure, I had heard Hendrix before; I vaguely knew "Purple Haze" and "Foxey Lady," and I knew he was considered a legend; but it wasn't until I watched David Blaine walking out of a tunnel in New York City to the wah-wah-ed intro to "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" that I really heard Jimi Hendrix. Now I'm sure to those folks who were musically aware pre-Street Magic this introduction might not garner major record store cred, but to my twelve-year-old self, this combination of sound and image was monumentally cool.

Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric LadylandAnd why wouldn't it be? That song just oozes with charisma, with its elusive guitar intro full of confidence and mystery, and its heavy, yet fluid, rhythm. The song has a sense of having always existed, yet having never been played before. And it practically hadn't when The Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded it. In fact the recording of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" off the album Electric Ladyland was taken from the filming of an ABC documentary about the group, and the song was an improvised jam they performed in front of the cameras to give the filmmakers footage of them in the studio. The music was probably inconsequential to the cameramen, but the last take was so good the band decided to close their album with it.

While this off-the-cuff recording style was certainly not alien to the Experience, it was the opposite of how most of Electric Ladyland had been recorded. The group's first two albums, Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold as Love, had been recorded with little or no prep in various studios around London, where the group was based, in between rigorous touring throughout Europe. Hendrix, an American who had found little success in his home country, had been taken to England by The Animals' bassist, Chas Chandler, where he was introduced to the creme de la creme (and The Cream) of London's music scene, and quickly rose to stardom. After nine months abroad, Hendrix returned Stateside for The Monterey International Pop Festival where, after burning his guitar onstage, he became a bona fide international sensation. By the time their third album, Electric Ladyland, was underway, Hendrix had the luxury of devoting longer periods to recording, doing take after take, and obsessively experimenting and overdubbing to no end. Not only that, he had taken the crew to New York to do it, where there was a whole entourage of musicians who would add bits to the recording.

While the first two albums seemed to reflect the spontaneity and excitement of "Swingin' London," Ladyland has a much weightier and layered feel, and has a much more apparent American R&B influence, especially with songs like "Long Hot Summer Night," "Rainy Day Dream Away," and a cover of Earl King's "Come On (Part I)." The rhythm guitar on the titular "Have You Even Been (To Electric Ladyland)" is Hendrix at his Curtis Mayfield-esque best, utilizing the skills he learned before stardom as a backup R&B guitarist.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience Crosstown TrafficWhether it's the two-and-a-half minute, punchy rock tune "Crosstown Traffic," the harpsichord-ed '60s pop of "Burning of the Midnight Lamp" or the 15-minute blues jam "Voodoo Chile" [the sort-of precursor to "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)"], each song has a personality of its own, yet all feels like part of one cohesive statement. The influence of each song is undeniable, if not in terms of songwriting, then certainly in terms of attitude, textures, and virtuosity. "Still Raining, Still Dreaming" points to future jazz/funk fusion; "Voodoo Chile" is a sort of Rosetta Stone for Blues/Rock jammers; the fiery, Olympian guitar intro to "House Burning Down" pushed the boundaries of the electric guitar from being a clunky, rhythmic instrument into an almost human scream; "Moon, Turn the Tides... Gently Gently Away" is an atmospheric, ambient soundscape, much more sophisticated than had been previously heard in the mainstream. 

While there certainly were plenty of drugs being taken, which no doubt had a significant influence, we can't overlook the fact that Hendrix also had a naturally abundant imagination. Sure there are plenty of experimental and "druggy" effects like in the album's intro "And The Gods Made Love," but it takes more than a few hits of acid to produce something on the scope of "1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)," a 14 minute science fiction story about a man and a woman building a submarine to live in the ocean as the earth is torn apart by war and destruction. Sure it could sound a little silly written out like this, but the musical quality of the song gives the story a very sincere and cinematic feel. What starts off as a military march played to a surfy-sounding guitar, with a lead guitar line that could be an orchestral melody for a string section, eventually loosens up into a lazily, funky rhythm before dissolving into a formless collection of ambient cymbals, sparse bass lines, and backwards guitars as the travelers find themselves deeper into the sea. Once deep enough, the ambient noises begin to find a rhythm, slowly solidifying into a structured song again, climaxing as the couple discovers the new world below the waves. What really makes this song stand out is how they pushed the studio recording process to do more than just adding in sound effects to support the story (think the clanging chains on "Yellow Submarine"), and turned the instruments into the sound effects themselves.

Jimi Hendrix Experience All Along the WatchtowerAnd, of course, how could I write about Electric Ladyland and not mention "All Along the Watchtower," the penultimate track off of the album, and the Experience's biggest hit, recorded immediately after Hendrix had heard the advance tapes of Bob Dylan's original version, and featuring some of his most melodic and soulful guitar playing, including that slide solo done with a cigarette lighter.

There's something cathartic about Electyric Ladyland closing with "Voodoo child (Slight Return)." While a pleasure to listen to, it's a hefty album; so when that mysterious and loose wah wah-ed guitar intro starts up, the freshness and spontaneity of it all feels like a deep breath of relief. A satisfied sigh of accomplishment. 

Don't try looking up the music to Street Magic on YouTube or on DVD. Probably because of licensing issues the soundtrack has been replaced with an ethereal instrumental score, which changes the folksy, "from the streets" feel of the original specials; though the magic is still as entertaining as ever. So inspired by those specials, I started studying card tricks myself, and began to break out of my shell performing them on the schoolyard at lunchtime. And so inspired by the intro to "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" I began playing the electric guitar, something that, to this day, is still a major part of my life. So thank you Jimi. And thank you David.

--Aaron Araki

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Street Magic (1), David Blaine (1), Crosstown Traffic (1), All Along The Watchtower (1), Voodoo Chile (1), Voodoo Child (slight Return) (1), Electric Ladyland (1), Jimi Hendrix (22), The Jimi Hendrix Experience (2), Curtis Mayfield (7), Yellow Submarine (5), Stevie Wonder (16), Bob Dylan (63), Essential Records (35)