The Essential: Jimi Hendrix
Perhaps the most irresistibly magnetic and natural performer in musical history, Jimi Hendrix was also a studio visionary who expanded rock’s horizons, then departed – leaving a tangled posthumous legacy in his wake. Owen Bailey says: ’Scuse me while I list this guy…
Jimi Hendrix’s untimely death in September 1970, aged 27, left the world of music with just three official studio albums. Yet work was well underway on the fourth; a planned double or even triple LP. Hours, days, weeks and months of tape had rolled on by as Jimi – by turns seemingly inspired and indecisive – explored new sonic territory in his purpose-built studio and elsewhere, jamming with a revolving-door entourage of cohorts.
Not only that, but near-constant touring and the shortlived fireworks display that was the Band Of Gypsys project had amassed a catalogue of often mesmerising performances – an estimated 1,500 hours’ worth of recordings. When Jimi died, a void opened up… and some of this material was dusted off to fill it, while some was temporarily lost or squirrelled away.
For Hendrix’s fans, both then and now, what happened next was at best confusing, as legitimate and bootleg material was released to quench the thirst. Many revealed genuine insights; some infamously second-guessed the man’s creative wishes, attempting to finish off Jimi’s mythical next album by adulterating the demos and presenting them as a genuine coda to his brief career.
Ultimately, though – once the Hendrix catalogue changed hands in 1995 and was commandeered by his father and half-sister Janey – his legacy, under their watchful eyes and those of producer Eddie Kramer and researcher John McDermott, could finally flourish.
Our chronology aims to cover as much ground as possible for the vinyl lover who wants to hear Hendrix’s music evolve before their ears. Hence there are no pre-Experience inclusions, though they’re a compelling piece of the jigsaw; and due to the infernally complicated nature of the many posthumous releases across different territories and labels (and in different mixes), coupled with the difficulty of stating which of the many versions of his canonical releases are definitive rarities, we’ve stuck to including albums only, and their latest UK pressings, unless otherwise stated.
Are You Experienced (1967, Track)
On his thrilling debut, Hendrix filtered psychedelic blues-rock, R&B and more through his Strat, Marshalls, modded effects and studio tech to expand music’s horizons – and send guitar gods Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton scurrying for cover. Though the UK version omitted the band’s first three singles, everything here, under the auspices of Chas Chandler, explodes with power and creativity – one of the great debuts.
Axis: Bold As Love (1967, Track)
Within a month of finishing their debut, the band were back in the studio. In between Monterey and other live work, Hendrix expanded in all directions, casually coming up with powerhouse riffery such as Spanish Castle Magic, crafting oneiric doodles such as Little Wing and Castles Made Of Sand and voyaging into fusion on If 6 Was 9. From the futuristic stereo soundscapes of EXP onwards, the Experience made the difficult second album look a doddle.
Electric Ladyland (1968, Reprise)
‘Produced and directed by Jimi Hendrix’, as the cover proclaimed, the final studio album was a fully formed channelling of his driven, painterly vision, and a glimpse into several potential futures. A collaborative effort, its sprawling ambition and hybridising of genres produced Crosstown Traffic one minute and 1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be) the next. And yet it was on a ‘mere’ cover – of Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower – that he summoned his most consummate, timeless performance.
Band Of Gypsys (1970, Capitol)
Post-Experience, Jimi’s new trio with Billy Cox (bass) and Buddy Miles (drums) was a shortlived experimentation in fusing R&B, funk and rock. Shows at the Fillmore East on 31 December 1969 and 1 January 1970 were edited into a contractual-obligation-satisfying stopgap: yet Band Of Gypsys still contains some transcendent playing. More freeform than with the Experience, Jimi’s rinsing of all of his effects at once to deliver the magisterial Machine Gun is one of the pivotal guitar performances of all time.
The Cry Of Love (1971, Reprise)
Released six months after his death, The Cry Of Love was the first posthumous Hendrix record. Put together by Kramer, Mitch Mitchell and manager Michael Jeffery and crediting Jimi as producer (since he’d overseen mixes of half of it), it’s a fitting tribute to his creativity, but his vision was more faithfully realised on 1997’s First Rays Of The New Rising Sun. Ezy Rider is playful and riffsome; My Friend explores Dylan-esque storytelling, and Angel is Hendrix in a mood that’s both intimate and universal.
Rainbow Bridge (1971, Reprise)
The next posthumous release in the sequence is an extension of The Cry Of Love, comprising recordings from ’68 and ’70 in various states of undress, and a fearsome live performance of Hear My Train A Comin’ at Berkeley in May 1970. Guitar lovers will find plenty of sustenance – his futuristic harmony-guitar take on Star Spangled Banner, the splicing of rhythm and lead on Pali Gap and the fragmented-psyche leadwork on Room Full Of Mirrors are superb. Listen out for The Ronettes on Earth Blues…
Hendrix In The West (1972, Polydor)
Gathering together a selection of live tracks from performances at the Royal Albert Hall, the Isle Of Wight Festival, Berkeley and San Diego in ’69 and ’70, this puts to the sword any notion of Hendrix as a burnt-out, enervated live performer – from the witty stage banter alone, you can tell he’s in the zone (particularly on the up-tempo cuts such as Fire). The original vinyl has been largely out of print for decades, and the 2011 version adds three tracks and substitute takes of Little Wing and Voodoo Child (Slight Return).
Blues (1994, MCA)
Alan Douglas’ final major production for the Hendrix estate (see boxout), Blues is a career-spanning compilation that underlines the fact that Jimi would’ve been a legend had he only ever confined himself to electric blues. Beginning with the astonishing, 12-string improv of Hear My Train A Comin’ recorded at a photography studio in London in 1967 and taking Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign on a tour of the outer solar system, before channelling demonic fretboard sorcery on the likes of the fuzz-drenched Jam 292 and on into the remainder of the album, Blues’ 11 tracks transform into something truly chimerical.
First Rays Of The New Rising Sun (1997, MCA)
The first major Experience Hendrix release saw Eddie Kramer and Mitch Mitchell attempt to definitively realise Hendrix’s vision for his studio follow-up to Electric Ladyland. Taking tracks heard previously on The Cry Of Love, Rainbow Bridge and War Heroes, Kramer returned to the master tapes and, referring to Jimi’s own notes, pieced together 17 dream fragments into a frustratingly incoherent narrative. Still, it’s the best window we’ll ever have into an understanding of the artist’s next musical phase, and its mercurial mood flits between different styles with breathtaking ease: from the entertaining and goofy (Astro Man), to the ethereal (Drifiting), the darkly funky (Izabella) and much more besides.
South Saturn Delta (1997, Experience Hendrix, MCA)
The Hendrix family wasted no time in following up First Rays… with a selection of outtakes, demos and rarities spanning Hendrix’s career, with offerings from all of his band line-ups. Beyond that jarringly unrepresentative album cover, this odds-and-ends collection contains compelling artefacts – among them an alternate mix of All Along The Watchtower with its mind-bending bassline to the fore, a skeletal instrumental take of Angel (mistitled Little Wing) and an intimate solo run-through of Midnight Lightning.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience BBC Sessions (1998, MCA)
The nicely stoned Experience found themselves in the BBC’s bad books for their unscheduled version of Sunshine Of Your Love in tribute to Cream on Lulu’s TV show in 1969; but the austere corporation had plenty of their performances already in their radio archives, and they’re collected here. There’s a wealth of blues material in the running order, alongside excellent renditions of the early hits interspersed with a playful lampooning of the Radio 1 jingle. Stevie Wonder plays drums on Jammin’ and Jimi’s cover of his I Was Made To Love Her.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience Boxset (2000, MCA)
This lavish boxset has finally seen the light of day in the UK. Comprising 56 tracks of alternate and live takes from throughout Jimi’s Experience career, from the earliest known recordings in 1966 through to his final Electric Lady studio recording in 1970, there are insights into the atmosphere of the early sessions for fans to savour. There are many unreleased tracks and Eddie Kramer’s mixes are of the usual high quality: the box was only made possible when archive tapes that had been withheld by Chas Chandler were returned to Experience Hendrix.
Blue Wild Angel (2002, MCA)
That it was recorded three weeks before his death adds poignancy to this document of Jimi’s Isle Of Wight Festival set from 31 August 1970. Although he was performing to an estimated crowd of 600,000 people at the biggest concert of its time, and the stage was set for a triumphant performance, the guitarist seems at times jetlagged, as well as being bedevilled by technical issues. He does, however, start well – leading Mitchell and Cox through a haphazard rendition of God Save The Queen into a punchy take on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The sprawling, extended jams on both Machine Gun and Red House are the highlights of a historic, but somewhat frustrating, set.
Live At Monterey (2007, Geffen, UME)
1967’s Monterey Pop Festival – and the world – didn’t know what had hit it. Having been introduced/anointed by a serenely stoned Brian Jones, Hendrix repatriated himself to stunning effect on this blazing nine-song detonation of hyperactive blues, psychedelic feedback and shamanistic showmanship. Playing his guitar with his teeth, behind his head, and iconically sacrificing it to the flames in the finale, this narcotic frenzy of a performance spectacularly redefined the boundaries of rock spectacle.
West Coast Seattle Boy (2010, Experience Hendrix, Legacy)
This 8LP 180g vinyl box charts Hendrix’s career by presenting a kind of parallel commentary on it, which consists firstly of a series of recordings of Jimi playing unlikely but tidy sideman to The Isley Brothers, Little Richard and others. Next comes a series of Eddie Kramer remixes from the master tapes of Are You Experienced-era songs and vocal-free takes; then a handful of demos offering a peek into the mindset of Hendrix the creator on a series of fascinating hotel-room demos; before finishing on two discs of later studio takes, collaborations and live performances.
Valleys Of Neptune (2010, Legacy)
When released in 2010, Hendrix collectors were alerted to “12 previously unreleased studio recordings”, and though that was true, elements of many of the songs had been heard in one form or another, either as overdubs, or as excerpts in the case of the title track. However, the Kramer mixes are reliably great, and the title track, the instrumental Sunshine Of Your Love and the closing Crying Blue Rain (with its 1987 overdubs from Mitchell and Redding) are all energised and offer fresh insight into the last rays of the Experience.
Winterland (2011, Experience Hendrix, Legacy)
This boxset recorded at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in October 1968 is an amalgamation of six live shows. The Experience, road hardened and ensconced in one venue for a change, played two sets each day – one a collection of the hits, the other a more experimental affair. There’s repetition here (or an opportunity for several fascinating juxtapositions, depending on how deep your love of Jimi goes), but also some lesser-aired songs are given a thorough workout.
People, Hell And Angels (2013, Legacy)
Recorded mostly in 1968 and ’69 at New York’s Record Plant, this gathering of alternate takes and unreleased tracks is a must-hear for Hendrix collectors, featuring some genuine surprises, such as the Woodstock-era line-up’s recordings of Izabella and Easy Blues alongside the funky stylistic fish-out-of-water that is Let Me Move You with sax cohort Lonnie Youngblood. For the most part, these are energetic workouts featuring the Band Of Gypsys rhythm section in muscular form, particularly on the opener Earth Blues.
Machine Gun (2016, Legacy)
Jimi, Buddy and Billy played four shows on New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day 1970: Band Of Gypsys compiles a selection, whereas this is a complete, only slightly edited and otherwise unadulterated presentation of the first performance. Opening with Power Of Soul and closing with Burning Desire, this is their whole live debut, in order. Mixed from the original masters by Kramer, it’s a moment in Hendrix history preserved in amber, and a document of a band having a great time, too.
Both Sides Of The Sky (2018, Legacy)
Many of the tracks on this final 2LP studio-archive trawl were laid down with the stripped-down funk of the rhythm section of Billy Cox and Buddy Miles, Jimi’s Band Of Gypsys, behind him. Opener Mannish Boy is from their very first session, while there’s insane energy in a later stab at Hendrix original Lover Man, which cheekily incorporates the Batman theme tune and has solos that detonate in your speakers; it shows how far the trio had developed as they prepared for their Fillmore show. A range of cameo appearances make Both Sides Of The Sky a rounded exploration of the evolution of Hendrix’s later music and studio experimentation. Stephen Stills, Johnny Winter and others all join in the fun, before closer Cherokee Mist spins a psychedelic dreamscape, featuring countermelodies from Jimi on sitar over a wall of feedback.