Jimi Hendrix’s sensational album, “Are You Experienced?” continues to remind fans that every song on the album is an adventure worth taking.
The first instrument Jimi Hendrix played wasn’t even remotely related to a guitar. It was a broom. As a young kid sweeping the house, he imitated his musical idols: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Curtis Mayfield, Steve Cropper and Cornell Dupree. It was after his father noticed the floor was clean, but always scattered with broom straws, that he bought Jimi his first instrument: a ukulele. Jimi played that until the fall of 1958 when, at 15, his father bought him his first real guitar for only $5. The following summer, Jimi finally laid his hands on an electric guitar, forever changing the path of rock music.
Jimi joined his first band, the Velvetones, in 1958, in which he played acoustic guitar. But after receiving his electric guitar, the Seattle native took off. He had a few brief stints in other groups, and toured with the backup band for acts like the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. Jimi signed his first contract in 1965, but continued to bounce from band to band until July 1966. It was then that Jimi signed an agreement with Animals bassist Chas Chandler to move to London and form a new band. Under Chandler’s management, Jimi appointed Mitch Mitchell as drummer and Noel Redding as bassist in his new group, The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The group soon gained fame in England, especially after the release of their first single, a cover of Billy Robert’s “Hey Joe,” which spent 10 weeks on the U.K. charts. Three more singles soon followed: “Stone Free,” “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” The band released their “Are You Experienced” album in May 1967. After touring various part of Europe, Jimi and the Experience came to the United States. It was later in the year that the U.S. version of “Are You Experienced” was released in the States, with only 14 of the original 17 tracks. When the Experience played their first American gig at the Monterey Pop Festival in California on June 18, 1967, Hendrix played B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” and Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” before lighting his guitar on fire. It was after this show that the Experience began their first U.S. tour, mismatched to open for teen idols, the Monkees. By now, the group had become known for Jimi’s revolutionary guitar sound.
The first track on the U.S. album, “Purple Haze,” has become interchangeable with the name Jimi Hendrix. Its recognizable riffs, deep drum rolls by Mitchell and echo quality have made it a rock standard. Jimi’s wild, quick, almost reckless playing give the song a hurried, other-worldly sound. Without being too over-the-top, it introduces the listener to Jimi’s signature style.
Another track on the album that seems to hold no musical structure, “Manic Depression,” is a haunting, intermittent song. It starts and stops, with Jimi plucking all kinds of crazy, twangy sounds out of his guitar. Mitchell matches Jimi’s energy by beating his drums at odd intervals which creates a long, layered sound when he holds the note. The song cries out for structure because, to the untrained ear, it seems to be a musical mess. Yet by Jimi’s tone and Redding’s bass, the song is clearly structured. It gives the feeling of disorganization but it is not. It is planned and perfected to give the impression of stretching to reach the outskirts of musical improvisation.
“Hey Joe” was the first single to be released in the United States It is a slow, subtle cover that meanders through a story of conflict and death. Jimi not only sings with conviction, but translates his feelings through his guitar. The powerful blues sound uses background singers and Redding’s daring bass line to give the song its own life. The song speaks to the listener as if it too has feelings of its own.
Another slow song, “The Wind Cries Mary,” is a therapeutic melody with distressed, broken lyrics. Thoughtful and reflective, the music itself surrounds the listener, giving comfort and reassurance. The tune is easy and laid-back. The lyrics are a different, matter though—sad and drawn out. Again, Redding’s bass helps to emphasize this, giving power to Jimi’s singing and guitar playing.
On the American release of “Are You Experienced,” “Fire” was placed directly after “The Wind Cries Mary” in the track list. This song is completely unexpected after “Mary’s” slow roll. Its fast and deranged tempo is breathtaking. Mitchell’s drums are pounding, taking cues from Jimi’s guitar. It has a maniacal, ripped guitar sound. Jimi sounds as if he’s shredding his guitar while pulling out its last breath of life.
“Foxy Lady” is almost fluid—it runs and drips and seems to pour straight from the heart of Jimi’s guitar, revealing his romance with the world and all the rhythm he finds in it. The song is a veritable sonnet to all that Jimi, Mitchell and Redding hold dear. A constant, simple love song, each instrument conveys deep emotion.
The album defined a particular time and culture, yet its anthemic songs continue to amaze new listeners. Redding and Mitchell followed Jimi into uncharted musical territory, but carved out their own sound to match Jimi’s unearthly guitar.
Although the album is a landmark in musical history, each song is distinct and essential to the album. Despite being reworked for its U.S. release, the songs flow well together. When it was re-released, three other singles were added to it, rounding out the album, creating a fuller musical package.
Jimi’s impact on the music world did not end when he died 37 years ago. His influence can be heard even today in bands like the White Stripes, Jet, the Black Keys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, the Police, Los Lobos and many more. Artists Johnny Lang, Ben Harper, Kurt Cobain, John Mayer and, most noticeably, Lenny Kravitz, attempt to sound and play like only he could. Jimi’s outlandish stage persona can be seen in Prince, Outkast and even the Black Eyed Peas.
Seminal albums like “Are You Experienced” changed not only the music, but the musicians themselves. Jimi stretched and tugged at every chord he played on the album, wringing the music out of his guitar as if for his life. Mitchell and Redding followed this earnest desire to create, and played some of their best work on this album. It is because of these artists that “Are You Experienced” stood out from others in its time. It changed rock music, giving artists the freedom to experiment and move with the confidence, flare and fearlessness that Jimi Hendrix has come to personify.