Nearly five decades on from his death, Hendrix’s guitar playing is still electrifying. Here are 10 key songs by a musician never equalled
Jimi Hendrix introduced himself to the world in December 1966, when he turned Hey Joe, a Los Angeles garage rock standard that had been a hit for the Leaves, into a murder ballad with some wild guitar pyrotechnics. He quickly followed it up with the self-composed Purple Haze, a psychedelic stomper showcasing the devil’s chords (the flatted fifths of the intro were known in medieval times as the diabolus de musica and strictly interdict). As monumental and monolithic as Purple Haze is, 51st Anniversary on the B-side is more nuanced and sassier. . The song continues a theme already explored – albeit somewhat gracelessly – in Stone Free, about Hendrix’s fear of commitment. He did err into misogyny now and again, though 51st Anniversary lays out a balanced case for and against marriage, envisioning the gold, pearl, china and tin anniversaries, and vivid recollections of the cheatin’ third, where nobody gets any presents. While the conjugal subjects can’t wait for the 51st to roll around, earlier marriage milestones are beset with troubles, infidelities and frequent visits to the whiskey house. With the traditional rocky verses juxtaposed against staccato choruses, and the subtle harmonic phrases at the end of each line in the first verse contrasting with the discordant conclusions in the second, Hendrix gives us the good side followed by the bad (and naturally the downside outweighs all the pluses). On tracks such as the gorgeous Drifting, right at the end of his career, Hendrix exhibits a tenderness regarding relationships that was sorely absent early on.
Animals bassist-cum-impresario Chas Chandler knew he had something special in Hendrix when he saw him playing in a New York basement. He brought Hendrix to London to challenge the established hierarchies of guitar divinity, from Eric Clapton down: “Chas Chandler knew that Hendrix was his secret weapon to demolish the caste structure of London’s hipoisie,” wrote Charles Shaar Murray in his Hendrix biography Crosstown Traffic. Hendrix was quickly teamed up with guitarist-turned-bassist Noel Redding (who’d never picked up the instrument before his audition) and drummer Mitch Mitchell, a jazz prodigy who fused his musical milieu with the outlandish showmanship of Keith Moon; the three-piece would be known as the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The 9/8 jazz shuffle of Manic Depression is a rare time signature for a pop song, but it swings along at a fierce pace, led majestically from the back by Mitchell. If Hendrix was Chandler’s secret weapon, then Mitch Mitchell was Hendrix’s. Hendrix’s lyric is less an exploration of mental illness than a despairing ode to difficult relationships and a desire to form a physical bond with the elusive music itself.
If The Wind Cries Mary is reminiscent of the interregnum between the end of a party and the laborious clean-up the following day, Hendrix actually wrote it after an argument about mashed potato with his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham, which culminated in plate throwing and flying pots and pans. “After all the jacks are in their boxes / And the clowns have all gone to bed,” he croons over the laziest of accompaniments, “you can hear happiness staggering on down the street.” Hendrix had apparently played it to the band as they were wrapping up a session in the studio, and with 20 minutes left, they laid the track down more or less at the first take. Other versions were recorded, but none had the ambient spirit or spontaneity captured on the original. It was rush-released as a single following the success of Purple Haze, with Melody Maker citing it as Hendrix’s finest moment, displaying “his true flying colours – a lyrical poet combining the deepest feelings with an overpowering, all-enveloping atmosphere and presence”.
4. Bold as Love
Hendrix’s flamboyant style can be traced back to his time playing guitar for Little Richard, from whom he reputedly picked up plenty of performance tricks as well as sartorial advice. Add to that his consumption of LSD during the summer of love, and it seems almost inevitable that all those tie-dyed colours would begin to run into his lyrics. “Fiery green gowns”, “turquoise armies”, “metallic purple armour” and “blue … the life-giving waters taken for granted” all make appearances in the hallucinatory first verse of Bold as Love, while reds, oranges and yellows permeate the second. What Hendrix means by the titular “Axis” in Axis: Bold as Love (the name of the album) we’ll probably never know, but what unspoken beauty is conveyed, even if nobody’s quite sure what that beauty means, exactly. Bold as Love begins with a sharp “anger”, then rides the exquisite, reflective trills of the verses, ending with anthemic guitars carried aloft a mighty musical crescendo, but not before a memorable, phantasmagoric five-second flanged fill from Mitch Mitchell. Bold as Love certainly lives up to its title, and it’s as dynamic and confusing and surprising, too (though unlike love, the song always ends triumphantly, no matter how often you play it).
5. If 6 Was 9
Axis: Bold as Love, recorded in a month during the summer of 1967, is widely regarded as Hendrix’s masterpiece, and at the centre of it all is If 6 Was 9, a hippy anthem a little more caustic than those his contemporaries were recording at the time. The numerological title remains a riddle wrapped up in an enigma, but for all its ambiguity, there seems to be plenty eating Jimi about the burgeoning free love movement, as well as its detractors. “If all the hippies cut off their hair / I don’t care / I don’t care!” he insists, before admonishing white-collar conservatives wagging their “plastic” fingers in disapproval. At five-and-a-half minutes long, it’s an experimental journey of inventive stop/start blues, the acid-fuelled paternal forebear of the more malevolent War Pigs by Black Sabbath. Hendrix uncharacteristically keeps the guitar gymnastics to a minimum, and instead unleashes a psychedelic recorder solo all over the outro as it disappears over the musical horizon.
To take Billy Roberts’ Hey Joe and make it his own was impressive; to do the same with Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower was a coup. Dylan himself was so enamoured with Hendrix’s version that he started to play it closer to the Experience’s arrangement on live outings. Soul and bluesmen from Muddy Waters to Curtis Mayfield can be heard in Hendrix’s playing, but Dylan manifested himself in Hendrix’s lyrics more than any other artist. In that sense All Along the Watchtower sounds like one of Hendrix’s own compositions, aided no doubt by one of his most elegant and soaring solos. There’s no flab, no flubs and no filler – it communicates in a language none of us can speak but we all understand. It’s mesmeric in the way it slips and slides, grunts and grinds, hollers and howls. Hendrix came across an interesting new device deployed by Frank Zappa called a wah-wah pedal, and he soon made that sound all his own, too. It’s still phenomenal when it comes on a stereo somewhere, no matter how many times you’ve heard it.
One of the last songs Chas Chandler had a tight handle on as producer before he and Hendrix parted company over the latter’s working methods (countless overdubs, hangers-on at the studio and so on), Crosstown Traffic is a pulsating groove-based number that’s practically proto-hip-hop, with its skittering drum track and quickfire vocal delivery. Released as a single in late 1968, it is indicative of Hendrix’s shifting focus towards R&B. As Charles Shaar Murray points out, Hendrix never had any trouble as a crossover artist, it was crossing back that was more problematic. In keeping with Hendrix’s spontaneous spirit, the musician grabbed his friend Dave Mason of Traffic – a rock stalwart best known as the guy who wrote Hole In My Shoe – and asked him to contribute backing vocals on the spot; his falsetto can be heard in the chorus.
8. Little Wing (live)
Okay over to you? What killer Hendrix track is missing from the list?