The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced?
Released May 12th, 1967 on Track Records
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.