Sometimes you miss music the first time around. That was true for me and Jimi Hendrix, the man who set fire to the cosy cottage of sixties pop music. The ex-paratrooper landed with a multi-hued explosion in the UK, producing not one but two key albums in the seminal year of 1967.
Old friend and passionate Hendrix follower Steven Newstead was in on the ground floor, as he joins Vinyl Connection to explain…
The first release by the Jimi Hendrix Experience was the single “Hey Joe” in December 1966, in the UK. I liked what I heard on the radio and bought the 7”. The B-side, “Stone Free” was also impressive. But my life changed forever when I wandered into my bedroom one night and heard something astounding on the radio, thirty seconds of wailing, glass-shattering guitar underscored by a chant of “purple haze”. What the hell was this? I was hooked.
There was another single in the UK, the third, released in May 1967. This one was a surprise, and a pleasant one. Instead of the much-loved guitar assaults of the previous songs, this was a pretty ballad, “The Wind Cries Mary”, with lyrical rhythm and lead guitars. An album—in glorious mono—came out in the UK at around the same time. By now albums were starting to be seen as the real statement of intent by an artist (thanks, Beatles) and this one was highly anticipated due to the preceding singles and the buzz surrounding the band’s performances around swinging London.
The album had none of the singles on it (thanks again, Beatles?) and in its title threw down the challenge Are You Experienced (no question mark). I thought I was experienced (in some ways) but was about to become a lot more so. Musically, at least.
The cover shot of the band was dark, almost sombre, with Jimi’s black cape wings outstretched over the heads of his white boy associates, one either side. On the back, a black and white collage highlighting the band leader, with bios of the band. Jimi’s detailed his years as a jobbing musician in the States, backing some of the great R&B acts of the time. It finished with a quote, “All we are trying to do now is create, create, create music, our own personal sound, our own personal being”. Very ’67. I recall noticing the back cover had no track listing. It wasn’t long before I didn’t need one. Even now, fifty years on, I can hear and see Are You Experienced with a hundred times more clarity and detail than the record player I first played it on could possibly have delivered.
“Foxy Lady” is an ideal opener, and a great pick as a single. It has that amazing Jimi chord and a great riff that has become iconic over time. The lyrical content centres on the sort of playful sexuality that has its roots in the blues. But it’s the next track, “Manic Depression” which starts to change things. A full-on assault from start to finish, “Manic Depression” matches sound and message in a powerful expression of helplessness and frustration.
After that, “Red House” offers glorious respite—a straightforward 12 bar blues which became a highlight of Hendrix live shows.
I’ve always regarded “Can You See Me” as the weakest song on the album, but it does point towards the end of side one as “Love Or Confusion” again mirrors content in sound. The concluding song on the first side is “I Don’t Live Today” with more lyrics of depression and despair…“feel like I’m living at the bottom of a grave”. But the significant element of this song is the double-timed jazzy outro with Jimi exploring feedback and other noises to an extent never before heard on record. It was a taste of what was to come.
Side two opener, “May This Be Love”, is a neglected classic. A sweet ballad with beautifully clean lead guitar, a stye that would reach its zenith later the same year with “Little Wing”.
“Fire” is a punchy, riffing song that would grab fans but not scare off radio programmers. But it is the next track which is the centrepiece of Are You Experienced.
Despite the slowed down and indecipherable spoken word element (an exchange between Jimi and manager/producer Chas Chandler on alien spacecraft checking out Earth), “3rd Stone From The Sun” is primarily an instrumental. There are spoken verses from Jimi—this time at normal speed—which include the famous line “you’ll never hear surf music again”. This is generally considered to be a statement of intent, referring to the Fender Stratocaster Jimi favoured. The Stratocaster was the instrument of choice for oceans of surf-music guitarists in the early 60s and “3rd Stone” amply demonstrates Hendrix’ success in taking his sound somewhere else entirely. Its lovely main theme has been referenced countless times over the intervening years while the first lead break lays out the Hendrix style we now know well. But the subsequent break involves the sort of experimental squawks, wails and effects that totally shredded the envelope. Line up this track against anything else from around the time and it is completely in a league of its own.
“Remember” is pleasant enough, but slight compared with the rest of the album. It does, however, serve as a buffer between “3rd Stone” and the final voodoo psychedelic assault.
“Are You Experienced” is experimental yet cohesive. There are backwards drums and guitars (Beatles inspired yet again!) but deftly controlled to support the song. It’s a strong and potent completion.
Hendrix was 24 years old, Noel Redding 21 and drummer Mitch Mitchell a youth of 19 summers when Are You Experienced was released on May 20, 1967, a week before Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles milestone album kept the Experience LP from top spot on the UK charts yet the influence of both albums is undeniable and far-reaching. Cobbled together in disparate sessions in various studios when time was available between live gigs and television recording, Jimi Hendrix debut remains a striking achievement. We were definitely now experienced.
The US story was quite different from the UK, Europe and Australia. In his birth country, Hendrix was unknown until the Experience performance at Monterey Pop Festival drew attention to his musical and visual potency. As for the album, the US release of Are You Experienced on Reprise three months after the UK was a significantly altered beast. A quite different cover and the inclusion of all three single A-sides (at the expense of “Red House”, “Can You See Me” and “Remember” gave North American listeners a very different experience. As for Jimi, he’d already moved on.
Jimi Hendrix Experience — Are You Experienced Released: May 1967 Label: Track Record Duration: 39:58