In 1966, Jimi Hendrix was playing in small clubs in New York’s Greenwich Village, calling himself Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. The Animals were big in the UK at the time and had had eight US Top 40 hits between August 1964 and June 1966, so when Animals bassist Bryan ‘Chas’ Chandler checked out Hendrix live on the advice of Keith Richards’ girlfriend Linda Keith, Hendrix was prepared to listen. The Animals were playing in Central Park, although on the verge of splitting up, and Chas Chandler, already planning his next move, suggested to Hendrix that he relocate to the UK.
Chandler later said: ‘I remember thinking, this cat’s wild enough to upset more people than Jagger! When he did Hey Joe, a number I was planning to record as my first independent venture, that clinched it. He wanted to use a wider idiom than blues, and he was being drawn towards Bob Dylan-type fantasy, so we could give him a chance to write his own songs’.
Hendrix did decide to make the move, on September 23rd 1966, and, with Chas Chandler, formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience in October 1966 from auditioning musicians, starting with bassist Noel Redding, who had been working in a variety of English groups who were going nowhere fast. Apparently Redding was chosen because Hendrix liked his attitude towards music and his 'Afro' hairstyle, although Redding was actually a guitarist, being persuaded to switch to bass.
Then came drummer John 'Mitch' Mitchell, a child actor who had starred in a children's TV show, Jennings and Derbyshire, when he was a teenager. Now a session drummer, Mitchell had worked with The Pretty Things, Bill Knight & The Sceptres, The Riot Squad, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, and briefly The Who as a session drummer, while the band was deciding on a replacement for Doug Sandom, their eventual choice being Keith Moon.
Mitchell’s blitzgrieg, jazz-influenced style was part of the elements that made the Experience so exciting and the three went on to record three landmark albums, the first being Are You Experienced. The band signed with Track Records in 1966, a new label formed by The Who's managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, recording singles produced by Chas Chandler while simultaneously touring throughout England.
Hey Joe / Stone Free was released in December 1966 via Polydor Records, because Track Records was not yet operational, and became an instant hit, peaking at #6 in the UK in February 1967. Although the standard of the time was to use staff producers based at recording studios and employed by record companies, an important feature of the pioneering Experience sound and approach to recording was the way Chas Chandler organised the sessions. By using his own money to fund the first single and booking independent studios, Chandler could get the sound exactly the way he and Hendrix heard it – although early attempts to capture the tone of Hendrix’s amp were complicated by the volume at which Hendrix wanted to record.
Chandler also tried several studios, including CBS, Pye and De Lane Lea, and multiple recordings to get it just right, although ended up using the version from the very first session, at Kingsway Recorders on 23rd October. Once the Track contract was signed and the funds came in, Chandler was able to book more sessions to record an album, and more singles. The hugely influential Purple Haze / 51st Anniversary, recorded in three takes at Olympic Studios on February 3rd, came out in March 1967 and was the first release by Track Records on a special white label. It entered the Record Mirror charts at #39, zooming up to 3 in the UK and selling more than 100,000 copies.
In its release week, distribution rights in the US were signed by Reprise Records, who paid $40,000 for the privilege, the highest they had paid to date, although according to former Reprise publicist Stan Cornyn, the company didn’t initially get Hendrix, putting him on tour with The Monkees, until Hendrix demanded to leave the tour, with a PR spin that the 'ban' was instigated by conservative organisation The Daughters of the American Revolution.
Purple Haze was followed by The Wind Cries Mary / Highway Chile, released in May 1967. The Wind Cries Mary was written by Hendrix for girlfriend Kathy Etchingham, whose middle name is Mary, after he was left alone at home when she stormed out after a fight.
In between the making of these singles, the Jimi Hendrix Experience were also cutting the tracks that became their debut album, Are You Experienced, again with Chas Chandler behind the desk, at De Lane Lea Studios with engineer Dave Siddle, and Mike Ross at CBS. The latter part of the recording was mostly at Olympic Studios in Barnes with engineers Eddie Kramer and George Chkiantz, as was the final mixing, editing and compilation of the LP.
Foxy Lady (spelling changed in the tracklisting to match iTunes, and facilitate your iPod play) was one of the first songs recorded for the album, on December 13th 1966 at CBS Studios, right after the Experience had performed on TV show Ready Steady Go! The song marked the debut of what became known as the ‘Hendrix chord’, a dominant seven sharp nine, and was described at the time by Hendrix as ‘about the only happy song I’ve written.’ Predominantly used in jazz from the 1940s, the chord was used by the Beatles, who called it the ‘Gretty’ chord, because it was taught to them by Jim Gretty who worked at Hessey's music shop in Whitechapel, central Liverpool. Hendrix also used the dominant seven sharp nine chord throughout Purple Haze.
Pushed into writing an original number for the B Side of Hey Joe rather than the planned blues number, Killing Floor, Hendrix came up with Stone Free, and after that seemed to be an unstoppable song machine, although rarely spent much time going through the arrangements with the band in the studio. The band also don’t seem to have spent long on the sessions, laying down a minimal amount of takes for each song.
Manic Depression, an explosion of effected excitement, features Mitch Mitchell’s Elvin Jones influenced drum swirls in 9/8 time. Written as result of a gig at London’s Roundhouse, at which Hendrix’s white Fender Stratocaster was stolen, the song was inspired by a comment from Chas Chandler that Hendrix looked like a manic depressive. The recording was started at De Lane Lea Studios on February 24th1967, Hendrix playing a replacement sunburst Stratocaster, and finished off in March. When one reviewer described the track’s ‘ugly guitar’, Hendrix responded: ‘Manic Depression is ugly times music. Our music is getting uglier.’
First laid down on December 13th 1966 at CBS Studios, Red House was recorded several times by The Experience. Red House is a tour de force of electric blues, and, although released in various takes, rarely bettered as an example of Hendrix’s blues prowess. Always a staple of Hendrix’s repertoire, the version on the original release of Are You Experienced features bass player Noel Redding using a regular 6-string guitar, but playing only the bass strings. According to Hendrix, it was ‘a $5 guitar that he bought off Alan Freeman, which is held together with bits of sticky tape and makes a great sound.’
According to Eddie Kramer, several versions of Red House were recorded, with the track finally finished ‘only in early April’, though it is generally agreed that the Dec 13 CBS sessions were the origin of the two different versions that appeared on the UK first release of Are You Experienced, and the US version of Smash Hits, the track having been left off the US release of Are You Experienced, which included instead the hit singles. Said Hendrix: ‘…everybody was scared to release it in America. They said, ‘Man, America don’t like blues, man!’ Blues is a part of America; it means Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson; it means Muddy Waters and Bo Diddly. It doesn’t necessarily mean that folk blues is the only type of blues in the world. You can have your own blues.’
Can You See Me was recorded on November 2nd 1966, and features double-tracked vocals, and use, in the early days of stereo recordings, of just one twanged note with heavy reverb, panned from speaker to speaker. The band had spent the last week of October jamming together to create some new repertoire, resulting in at least the musical format of Can You See Me and Fire, to which Hendrix later added lyrics. The November 2 session included three songs, after the band had rehearsed and then, according to Noel Redding, had seen the Shadows' lead guitarist, twangmeister Hank Marvin, which might account for the twangy note above. Can You See Me was one of the three tracks removed from the North America release of the album to be replaced by the UK hits.
Love Or Confusion was started at Experience sessions on November 24th, then had fuzzed overdubbed guitar added completed in April 1967. Hendrix had met early effects wizard Roger Meyer after the first recordings, and Meyer, a huge Hendrix supporter, started to supply the guitarist with specially-designed effects units, including the octave divider used on the Purple Haze solo and many different fuzz units. Love Or Confusion was at one time considered for a single release, but the attention switched to Purple Haze once Hendrix had delivered the more obvious track.
I Don’t Live Today was recorded on February 20th 1967, apparently after the Experience had appeared at Bath that night, so it was probably one of the all-night sessions that characterised the recordings, which were done at short notice, for short periods of time, as budgets allowed. The atmospheric recording, which features dive bombs, sirens, and animal cries, also illustrates the studio ingenuity which made Are You Experienced such a revelation when it was released. Effects that are commonplace nowadays were brand new then, including the ‘wah-wah’ effect, which is a rapid switch of a tone control from treble to bass and back again, controlled by a foot pedal. The wah-wah pedal hadn’t yet been made available, and its first recorded use was to be on Cream’s Disraeli Gears album (Tales Of Brave Ulysses, recorded in March 1967 and released in November), so the effect was created on I Don’t Live Today by Hendrix rapidly twisting tone controls on the mixing desk by hand during the mixing process. Pete Townshend later described the results was being like ‘trucks and lorries driving over you.’ Hendrix did then have the privilege of being the first artist to feature the wah-wah pedal on a hit, with his Burning Of The Midnight Lamp single, released in August.
May This Be Love dates from April 1967, and was part of a marathon session at Olympic Studios on the 3rd, lasting from 6:30 pm to 3:30 am, which concluded the album recording, with takes of Highway Chile and Are You Experienced? as well as May This Be Love. Described by Hendrix as a ‘peace of mind song', May This Be Love was originally known as Waterfall, and opens with slide guitar, one of the only three album tracks on which Hendrix in known to play slide.
On February 3rd 1967, the Experience played a show at the Ricky Tick club in Hounslow. Effects wizard Roger Meyer accompanied the band, and remembers that Hendrix, at the end of the set, shoved his Fender Stratocaster through the club’s ceiling, bending the guitar’s tuners. Needing a replacement for the recording session they planned after the gig, Noel Redding went to Blaises club in South Kensington to reclaim his own Fender Telecaster from his previous band’s guitarist, who had borrowed it. The band went straight into a session at Olympic that lasted until 6:30 am, and recorded Purple Haze and Fire, the solos of which, according to Noel Redding, were recorded on his Telecaster. Fire’s music had been worked out in November and its final lyrics were inspired by an incident at Noel Redding’s house, during which the ever-polite Hendrix asked Noel’s mother if it would be OK to stand next to the fire, as she later recalled.
Third Stone From The Sun, the sole instrumental on Are You Experienced, is, at 6:40, much longer than any of the vocal tracks on the album, but by no means outstays its welcome. Drawing its inspiration from Hendrix’s longstanding interest in science fiction, the basic track was laid down at the December 13th CBS session that also saw the recording of Foxy Lady and Red House. Roger Meyer maintains that recording of the track spanned some months, because he had met Hendrix in December and recalls successive sessions where Hendrix would spend a small amount of time adding a highly-effected piece each time. The track, whose title refers to Earth, as being the third planet from the Sun after Mercury and Venus, saw the last recording sessions for the album, on 4th April, 1967, when Hendrix’s vocal effects were laid down. When the slowed down voices on the track are sped up, Hendrix is heard to be talking to extraterrestrial creatures. Somewhat oddly, the tune was borrowed by Cozy Powell for his hit single instrumental Dance With The Devil in 1973.
By the time the album entered its second half of recording sessions, Olympic was the preferred studio, and it is probable that Remember was recorded there in the second week of February 1967. Described by Noel Redding as ‘one of those off-the-cuff songs’, he related that the band would commonly lay down the backing track first, after which Hendrix would write the lyrics and overdub vocals at a future session. A similar approach was recalled by Redding on the album’s final and title track: ‘We just learned it in the studio and that was it, basically.’ Remember was one of the three tracks removed from the North America release of the album to be replaced by the UK hits. On Monday April 3rd, Hendrix gave two interviews then started an Olympic recording session at 6:30pm, lasting till 3:30am. The last one for the album, the session included work on Are You Experienced? as well as Highway Chile and May This Be Love. Are You Experienced? features much backwards recording, including the bass guitar, according to second engineer George Chkiantz.
Finally released in May 1967, two weeks after Hendrix’s third UK Top 10 hit The Wind Cries Mary, Are You Experienced has remained a critical and commercial success since its release. The album reached #2 in the UK, behind The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The US version of the album added the UK singles, excluded from the UK album, as was the UK custom at the time, designed to give better value for money for staunch fans. The album stayed on the UK charts for 33 weeks, while in the US, where it was released in August following Hendrix’s triumph at the Monterey Pop festival, it hit #5, staying on the chart for 106 weeks. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #15 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.
The 1993 CD reissue of Are You Experienced mentions on the back of the CD sleeve: ‘Each song meets essential requirements for a comprehensive rock education’. Amen to that.