I’ve been looking for a vinyl copy of Electric Ladyland for awhile now. Occasionally I would find one while cratedigging, but discs themselves would always turn out to be in really rough shape. I think I’ve said before that I don’t care that much about the covers. As long as they’re in reasonably good shape, I’ll pick up the album if the vinyl is relatively clean. I’m not really a collector. I just want the music. I finally found the great Hendrix album last weekend at my favorite vinyl haunt, Hold Fast in Asbury Park. The cover was in pretty bad shape, but the vinyl wasn’t bad, and the price was right.
There are some albums that just sound like they were recorded in the middle of the night in a dimly lit studio. Electric Ladyland is a classic example of that. This is music of the night, dark, almost frightening at times. It’s the third and final album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, although the participation of bassist Noel Redding is minimal. Redding, along with manager Chas Chandler, was unhappy with the amount of time the band was spending in the studio. Hendrix not only invited friends to the sessions, he insisted on multiple takes of songs. So he ended up playing a lot of the bass parts (on a right-handed bass), while Redding sat it out in the pub.
The recording of actually began at Electric Ladyland began at Olympic Studios in London, but the sessions got down to serious business when recording moved to the newly opened Record Plant in New York City. Hendix was well known as a perfectionist. He insisted on 43 takes of “Gypsy Eyes,” and still wasn’t happy with the finished recording. He made Traffic’s Dave Mason (uncredited on the album) play the acoustic guitar part for “All Along the Watchtower” 20 times before he was satisfied. You know what? It was worth it, wasn’t it? There were other guest musicians along for the ride as well. Listen to Steve Winwood’s fantastic organ playing on the chilling “Voodoo Chile.” A third member of Traffic, Chris Wood, played on the album, as did future Band of Gypsys drummer Buddy Miles, renowned keyboard player Al Kooper, and Jefferson Airplane bass player Jack Casady (credited as Jack Cassidy). The album was recorded by Gary Kellgren and Eddie Kramer.
Has there ever been a better cover version than Hendrix’ take on Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”? Not if you ask me. Has one song ever been featured on more film soundtracks? It doesn’t seem possible. But “All Along the Watchtower” is just one song on the final side of the album’s two discs, and in fact it really doesn’t sound that much like the rest of the album, mostly having to do with the presence of Mason’s big acoustic guitar sound. Hendrix’ playing on the song is some of the best, and most creative of his career. It’s nothing less than a total re-imagining of Dylan’s source material. It’s followed by the album’s final cut, “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” which is as heavy as anything the rock gods ever concocted and as soulful as anything to ever come out of the south side of Chicago.
Elsewhere you’ll find a rollicking take on Earl King’s “Come On (Part 1).” Hendrix responds to the urban unrest that was prevalent that year with “House Burning Down.” There’s the intense “Crosstown Traffic,” and the dreamy “Rainy Day, Dream Away,” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming.”
Though the recording of the album had cost Hendrix his band, and his manager, when Reprise Records released it in September, 1968, it became a huge hit. It was the only number one album of Hendrix’ career. To this day, more than 40 years later, no one has even approached the sonic and technical brilliance that he displays here. This music pointed the way forward, not just for Hendrix, but for music in general. Have I mentioned that this may be the greatest headphone album of all time? If you’ve never even been near a drug of any kind, put on a pair of headphones and listen as Hendrix’ guitar swoops and dives from one side to the other. You’ll get some idea of what it means to be high.
Jimi Hendrix died just two years after the release of Electric Ladyland.