GOLD: 50 Years of Are You Experienced?

Standard

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced?

Released May 12th, 1967 on Track Records

BestEverAlbums: #30

RYM:  #36

There are two eras in the use of the electric guitar: that before Are You Experienced? and that after.  Before, it had a role to play mainly as a solid support – outlining odd chordings in jazz music, and pounding out familiar, well-worn rhythm sections in country, blues, and their bastard hybrid, rock ‘n’ roll.  Blues players had seen the potential in something more for the instrument even during the swampy days of the Mississippi Delta (lord knew Robert Johnson could make it sound like he had four hands) but it wasn’t until the post-war move to the industrial boom of Chicago that the genre began flashing out solo moments for it’s main instrument like searchlights in the night sky.  B.B. King, Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and especially Buddy Guy turned the instrument into something flashy, edgy, and utterly sexy.  Early rock ‘n’ roll, however, didn’t cotton much to this, being much more interested in sex than sexy.  Sure, Scotty Moore could bust out a good figure now and again, and the early Stones records had Keith Richards with some okay leads, but by and large these were all reverent tributes rather than attempts to progress the tradition.

In 1957, at the age of 15, a kid named James Marshall Hendrix started playing guitar.  He was a blues head almost from the start, but unlike a lot of his contemporaries in the late-Sixties counterculture he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1961 as a paratrooper.  When he was discharged, he kept playing guitar, now professionally.  Moving to Tennessee, he played in the Isley Brother’s band and then with Little Richard until 1965, when he switched to Curtis Knight and the Squires for a brief period before jetting off to England, where the rock ‘n’ roll world was picking up serious steam.  By then he had a serious manager, Chas Chandler of The Animals.  Shortly after landing he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience and from there the whirlwind began.  It is an interesting quirk of history that the initial demos for Are You Experienced were rejected by Decca Records, who also passed on The Beatles back in the early 1960s.

Are You Experienced, the first record from the power trio of Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding, and drummer Billy Cox, was a major revelation for rock ‘n’ roll.  By 1966 even the mop-top proto-boy band Beatles were delving into psychedelic substances and sounds; the “Sound of the Sixties” was fully alive in London, and the spark that ignited the entire shebang turned out to be a guy from Seattle steeped in R&B and the blues who played guitar like a supernatural being sent to Earth to teach everyone to trip.  Right from the beginning, “Purple Haze” showcases the absolute liquidity that Hendrix played with; the rhythm under the verses utilizes a jazz chord (C7(#9)) that sounds dissonant on it’s own but played with the strut and stoned sexuality that Hendrix imparts into it becomes something seemingly fundamental and essential to rock ‘n’ roll as a whole.  “Fire” and “Foxey Lady” redefined the urgency of rock music; “Hey Joe” called on the dark and became a standard for garage bands ever after.  “The Wind Cries Mary” features guitar work that slips and slides in an impossibly romantic fashion, and the instrumental melody of “Third Stone From The Sun” reframes that style in a stoned, breezy way.  “Love Or Confusion” and “Are You Experienced?” conjure up lysergic visions that seem to frip and flit in the corners, as though Hendrix were translating an acid trip into a new language through his guitar.

To praise Hendrix’s guitar work is to only tell part of the story of Are You Experienced?  Billy Cox’s work on the drums is top-notch as well, filling in the bottom with a deft but aggressive fusillade of artillery fire that drives the squalling guitar leads before it.  The reason that The Experience’s cover of “Hey Joe” succeeds beyond any other is because Cox’s playing is particularly inspired; at the same time, his busy playing under “Manic Depression” lends the track a hefty relentlessness that befits it’s subject matter.  It’s a very jazz-inspired sound that propelled forward the idea (later reinforced by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, whose title track Hendrix would open his shows with) that rock ‘n’ roll was more than just JD rebellion; it was an American art form building on previous American traditions that was in the right place at the right time to deliver a culture bomb to the world.

Are You Experienced? was the beginning of Hendrix’s ascension.  Three years later he would be dead, but the innovations and playing he brought to the world of rock ‘n’ roll changed it forever.  The sense of speed and abandon that guitar slingers chased in his wake stems directly from his heart and fingers, and the formation of hard rock and metal would be a very different thing without him.

 

 

Gold: 50 Years of Surrealistic Pillow

Standard

Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow

Released February 1st, 1967 on RCA Victor

BestEverAlbums: #314

RYM:  #476

The heads have known for a lot longer than fifty years what Grace Slick sang about on “White Rabbit”:  “Remember what the Doormouse said / feed your head.”  It had never been put in such a way that defined an entire generational ethos.  The song – the Jefferson Airplane as a whole – embodies the sound of San Francisco in the fabled Summer Of Love, 1967.  There were many other albums that came out of the same place at the same time, but few nail the period quite as well as Surrealistic Pillow.

 

This is psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll, full stop.  There’s the garage sounds that were lifted raw and steaming from the Nuggets era: “Go To Her”, “She Has Funny Cars”, and “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” go full out in competition with the Electric Prunes or the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.  The Beatles get nods on “My Best Friend” and “D.C.B.A.-25”, although the Beatles themselves would soon switch gears into a different direction entirely.  “How Do You Feel”, “Today”, and “Comin’ Back To Me” mirror the gentle influence of the bohemian folk scene.  Three of the final four songs play with the strong blues influence of the time:  “In The Morning” kicks out a languid swamp jam, driven by harp and and a deep underlying groove; “J.P.P. Mc Step B. Blues” built itself on an acoustic blues riff that was endemic to San Francisco at the time – it’s vibe would be replicated later in the year by Love; “Come Back Baby” modeled itself on the speed and hard-edged riffing of English bands like Cream.

 

Then there are the singles.  “Somebody To Love”, benefits from a harrowing vocal take from Grace Slick and a crisp, relentless backbeat.  There’s always been a kind of unsettling quality to the song, but Jim Carrey’s manic karaoke take on it in The Cable Guy brings that creepy vibe to the next level.  “White Rabbit”, of course, brings us right back around again to the beginning:  San Francisco, 1967.  Turn on, tune in, drop out.  Wear a flower in your hair.  Where do these lovely visions come from?  Why does my head feel so light?  Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.

GOLD: 50 Years of The Doors

Standard

The Doors – The Doors

Released January 4th, 1967 on Elektra Records

BestEverAlbums: #25

RYM:  #19

The Doors hurled mainstream pop music into the mystic unknown, launching missives of darkness, poetry, and power on the unsuspecting masses.  Fittingly, the album began on a beach, with Jim Morrison appearing back into Ray Manzarek’s life and singing the melody to “Moonlight Drive”.  After hooking up with a flamenco guitarist (Robby Kreiger) and a jazz drummer (John Densmore) the group spent a time perfecting their act as the house band at the Whisky A-Go-Go in L.A., where they expanded nightly on their songs until they included the stretched-out jams found on “Light My Fire” and “The End”.  The latter would cause the group to lose their gig at the Whisky due to the Oedipal nature of the song and Morrison’s heavy willingness to scream the word “FUCK!” in the middle of it.  It would go on to have a searing second life in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! where it would soundtrack Martin Sheen’s descent into his final madness and his assassination of Colonel Kurtz.  Following the recording session for the song, Morrison returned to the studio high on acid and mistook the studio’s red lights for a fire, resulting in all of the recording equipment being sprayed down with a fire extinguisher.

Elsewhere, “Break On Through”, the album’s first single, failed to make much of a dent in the charts but “Light My Fire” (the first composition Robby Kreiger ever penned) drove the album to #2 in the U.S.  Ray Manzarek’s autobiography (Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, highly recommended) contains a passage where he gets his first royalty check for $50,000 and he thinks that it’s supposed to be split among the whole band and his girlfriend breaks the news that it’s actually just his share.  Also of note:  the two covers, “Alabama Song”, a German opera song from the 1920s and “Back Door Man”, a slick, sleazy Willie Dixon song that the band hones into a finely-edged switchblade; the party-all-night swirl of “Soul Kitchen”; and the hard-charging bounce of “Twentieth Century Fox”.  The combination of hip, blues and jazz-influenced rock ‘n’ roll and eerie, mystical psychedelic unease would, er, light the fire of an entire generation of kids; that half-mad nighttime beat would inform both the more direct homage of the Psychedelic Furs and the more subtle insanity of Joy Division, as well as the vampires of 1987’s The Lost Boys.