A Slight Return To Electric Ladyland 50 Years Later
Have you ever been to Electric Ladyland? Chances are if you’ve ever fallen in love with classic rock guitar heroism, you’ve paid a visit to Jimi Hendrix’s personalized dream world some time in the past five decades. The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s third and final album, released 50 years ago today in the US, is a vast realm to get lost in, the sound of the universe that big-banged into existence with Are You Experienced expanding in all directions faster than anyone can keep up. Any of the LPs Hendrix released during his brief moment in the spotlight could reasonably be called his best, but Electric Ladyland, with its pointed ambition and dizzying cross-genre sprawl, stands as his magnum opus.
It’s wild to consider that this band released its whole storied discography in under a year in a half. First came Are You Experienced, a pile of surefire hits that cohered into an album by sheer force of personality. Axis: Bold As Love, released less than seven months later, had more of a consistent aesthetic, as if many of the songs were cut from the same fabric. Having mastered two distinct breeds of LP, Hendrix then spent most of 1968 letting his creativity explode in every direction.
Electric Ladyland is the most adventurous album of Hendrix’s career, skipping from style to style while maintaining the same fantastical spirit. A month before the Beatles unveiled their own genre-hopping double-disc behemoth, Hendrix delivered one all his own — the difference being that only one creative visionary, not four, was responsible for all this disparate inspiration. OK, technically, bassist Noel Redding, who had formed his own band and was in the process of becoming estranged from Hendrix, contributed “Little Miss Strange.” But even more than the rest of Redding’s Experience tracks, that one has always felt like an odd interruption, a sudden return through the looking glass before stepping back into Jimi’s dimension.
The album’s 87 minutes contain multitudes. In revved-up rockers “Crosstown Traffic” and “Come On (Let The Good Times Roll)” you get, respectively, history’s best use of kazoo in a rock song and one of Hendrix’s most iconic covers — albeit not even the most momentous recording of another artist’s song on this album. The soul burner “Long Hot Summer Night” lives up to its name, as does the frantic, hallucinogenic “House Burning Down.” “Gypsy Eyes” is punchy psychedelic blues-rock, while harpsichord and wah-wah guitar come together on the fever dream “Burning Of The Midnight Lamp.” They even dip their toes into ambient sounds on the interlude “Moon, Turn The Tides… Gently, Gently Away.”
Some of the finest moments are the ones where the band stretches out and flexes its improvisational muscle. The galloping romp “Rainy Day, Dream Away” jams its way across three-plus minutes then picks back up three tracks later as “Still Raining, Still Dreaming,” as if you’ve stepped out for a smoke break and returned to find them still wailing away. The original 15-minute “Voodoo Chile,” recorded to sound like the inside of a smoky nightclub, could turn even the most fervent blues skeptic into a believer. With Steve Winwood sitting in on organ and Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady on bass, its groove is canyon-deep, its detours intense and brightly colored. And on the 14-minute epic “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be),” Hendrix’s signature brand of psychedelia is blown out to prog-rock proportions worthy of its fantastical subject matter. If this was guitar god Hendrix’s attempt to show he could hang with the studio-as-an-instrument crowd, he made his case.
All that, and we haven’t even gotten to Electric Ladyland’s pair of timeless classic rock radio staples, which emerge at the end of the album as if rewarding you for completing the journey. First comes “All Along The Watchtower,” maybe the best Bob Dylan cover in recorded history, if not the best cover altogether. Sung with the soulful rock power of a born showman, boasting an apocalyptically hard-hitting rhythm section infused by Traffic’s Dave Mason and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, and weaving Hendrix’s endlessly inventive six-string noodling into that foundation, the track is a testament to how much of a personal imprint one can put on a three-chord folk song. It’s no wonder Dylan has been borrowing the arrangement ever since.
It all finishes up with “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” the gnarled and explosive blues-rock masterpiece that probably sold more wah-wah pedals than any marketing department in the world. As a 15-year-old kid at the end of the ’90s, nothing sounded cooler. As a 35-year-old man well into the 21st century, the song continues to represent a platonic ideal of virtuosity in a world overrun by Blueshammer fakes. Hearing Hendrix wring such chaotic inspiration from his instrument, you never doubt for a moment that he could stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of his hand. The myth was complete.
As it turned out, so was the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s catalog. Hendrix would go on to explore a heavy funk sound on Band Of Gypsys, a live album recorded on New Year’s Day 1970 with a new lineup including Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums. And as his various posthumous releases attest, he had plenty of great songs left to write. The best of them, First Rays Of The New Rising Sun, attempts to piece together the album he’d have released had he lived. Its 17 tracks suggest a move back toward pop accessibility following Electric Ladyland’s experimental head trip. As with every genius who died young — Hendrix passed away on Sept. 18, 1970 at only 27 years old — you can’t help but long to survey the creative mountain range that stood on his horizon, only to vanish in an instant. It’s hard to believe he’d have ever reached a higher peak than Electric Ladyland, but if the album proved one thing, it was the limitless possibility of Jimi Hendrix’s imagination.