This album is the masterpiece of a master. I bought the double LP when it came out. I wore that copy out, and another and another I copied to reel tape. I had it on cassette and I had the first CD reissue. I will never get tired of it, now 40 years later.
A short while back, Hendrix’ family regained the rights to all his music and began to set it in order. Travesties had occurred. After Jimi died, some of his unfinished recordings were ‘saved’ by erasing some of the original tracks, which were then overdubbed by session musicians. Early CDs were mastered from third-generation tapes of poor quality. Some of his masters were even found in the Columbia vaults, though Warner Brothers had owned them. This album was never mastered properly from day one.
Jimi’s albums have now been completely remastered by Eddie Kramer, the man who recorded them in the first place. There is a great DVD about the making of Electric Ladyland, where Kramer sits mixing the 16 track tapes on camera; bringing up little bits of background. All the people who were on the album are interviewed.
I happened into the CD racks at Wal-Mart and was shocked to find the official Hendrix family re-issue of Electric Ladyland for $10. Finding a 40 year old album at Wal-Mart is testimony in itself to the strength of this work of art.
Jimi’s rise to stardom coincided with advances in guitar amplification, recording technology, and signal processing. Sure, there are some guitarists today who can closely match his technique, and they all owe him a debt of inspiration. Jimi was a quantum leap in guitar playing; no one since has advanced the art of guitar as much as he did. Few have his reach; he had freakishly long fingers. He was obsessed with music of all kinds and even slept with his Stratocaster. Jimi and Kramer also pushed the envelope in recording technique and experimentation.
The opening track is an example of this. It’s a multi-frequency sonic wash extrapolated from Jimi talking and then run through several tape effects that include flanging, phase-shifting, line feedback, repeat echo and variable speed. You can look up how flanging is done, it’s complex and hadn’t been used much before. Now you can buy devices that re-create the effects that these men pioneered. They even built miniature Leslie speakers that sat on the console.
The title track is subtle, melodious and warm; a jazzy R & B song with layered harmonies and mutliple time changes. From there, we go right into the brash, stomping sound most people associated with Hendrix – Crosstown Traffic. You can almost see the inept driver careening in one of his Corvettes as he scolds a jealous woman. Jimi imitates his own guitar tone on a kazoo, of all things. What was Side One ends with Voodoo Chile; a long blues jam with Jack Cassady of Jefferson Airplane on bass, Buddy Miles on drums and Steve Winwood on organ. In the midst of some feedback, Jimi mocks critics with “Turn that damned gui-tar down!”
One of my favorites is Long Hot Summer Night, an eccentric doo-wop send-up in the ungainly key of C#, with Al Kooper on piano. Jimi does all the loopy vocals. This is followed by one of his most dazzling solos on Come On (Part One). I have slowed this track to half speed and still can’t pick out all the notes in the first turnaround of his solo; it’s truly an inspired moment.
Gypsy Eyes is also atypical of anything being done at the time, even by Hendrix. It’s poetic and evocative; I see Manhattan streets in the rain at night. Burning Of The Midnight lamp is even more experimental with Hendrix on Harpsichord and The Sweet Inspirations as a celestial choir. This isn’t Foxey lady, which is what you usually hear on oldies radio.
The shuffle Rainy Day, Dream Away is an incredible spontaneous jam as Mike Finnegan tells it in the DVD. Finnegan is playing organ/ bass on this, with Miles again on drums and Larry Fawcett on tenor sax. Miles says it’s the track he is proudest of in his entire career.
1983 and Moon Turn The Tides are another soundscape that hints at the direction Hendrix may have headed had he lived. Chris Wood of Traffic is on flute. Jimi plays bass on part of this, upside-down, and it’s some of Mitchell’s best drumming. The seagull sounds were Jimi playing headphones, feeding back into a vocal mike with echo.
What was Side Four is my desert island album side. It kicks off with the second half of Rainy Day. At the end, Jimi’s wah-wah guitar actually speaks a ghetto expletive and Kramer laughs. House Burning Down is stinging social comment about the riots of the day, with soaring guitars that orbit around your head. Next comes the classic All Along The Watchtower – Dylan’s favorite cover of any of his tunes, an arrangement he copied himself. When he released it on Live At Buddokhan, I actually heard a young DJ say “There’s Bob Dylan doing an old Jimi Hendrix song.” Talk about taking ownership, just as he had done with “Hey Joe” – his first single. Jimi used a Zippo for a slide on this.
The album ends with Voodoo Child – Slight Return, possibly the heaviest rock song ever written. As with Come On, this is just The Experience; live in the studio, with no overdubbing. This is as real as rock and roll gets.
If you love rock and roll, you need this album. If you like Hendrix, this is the one album you must have; it has it all. This is the greatest work of one of the greatest imaginations popular music has ever seen.
About the author: Jim Downing is a lifelong musician and music historian. He has written and been published in countless publications over the past 30 years. His father was a columnist for the old Tulsa Tribune who wrote Downing’s Street