55 Years Later: Revisiting Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Bold, Loud & Imaginative ‘Are You Experienced?’

With the (dis)advantages of fifty-five years of hindsight, Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced? (released 5/12/67) is all the more striking in its combination of image-making (mongering?) and musical innovation. To be sure, the outlandish persona introduced at Monterey Pop and with this first recording dogged the late contemporary blues-rock icon for the duration of his career, but even at this early stage, his imaginative utilization of the electric guitar and the recording studio itself far outran mere appearances, not to mention outstripping the otherwise inventive use of feedback and other tools utilized by Jeff Beck during his stint with the Yardbirds and Pete Townshend in his early work with The Who. The ‘West Coast Seattle boy’ was fully committed to continually broadening the sonic palette.

It boggles the mind to imagine how spending time in the military, leading his own groups on the chitlin circuit, and serving as a backup musician for the Isley Brothers led Jimi Hendrix to his futuristic musical vision. Be that as it may, he was no doubt amenable to Chas Chandler’s suggestion to establish a career in England in 1966. Yet despite ex-Animals bassist-turned-manager’s authoritative handling of everything from finding musicians to accompany Jimi (Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums) to securing Eddie Kramer’s open-minded engineering in the studio, the bane of Hendrix’ career hit early and often: a different cover shot than the photographer chose was used on the English release –Jimi would commission all-new artwork for its American counterpart–and over the course of time, a number of different track sequences have been released.

Purely in terms of dynamic flow, however, the British sequence is superior, if for no other reason than it contains the twelve-bar blues of “Red House” (which would not show up on a domestic US release til 1968’s Smash Hits). Otherwise, in its mix of archetypal psychedelia such as “Purple Haze,” alongside near-caricature in the form of “Fire” and “Foxy Lady,” the UK and international edition presents the two halves of the album as suites of songs; the improvement in pacing is as slight but utterly crucial as the superior sound quality, courtesy Eddie Kramer and George Marino’s remastering on the EH reissue in 2010, that provides more bottom and reveals how erstwhile guitarist/songwriter Redding had taken an imaginative approach to playing bass. 

Concerns about the pros and cons of the different sequences largely dissipate in short order when hearing the music. But the studio technique that furthers the innovations of the Beatles on 1966’s Revolver cannot wholly mitigate the egregious absence of the aforementioned straight blues from the Reprise Records American issue; rife with the wry humor intrinsic to the genre, its inclusion might’ve otherwise reaffirmed the R&B funk underpinnings of “Remember,” the penultimate cut of the eleven. The self-awareness implicit in “Love Or Confusion” may belie its title, but as with many tracks here, the most interesting portions of the recording arrive when the trio plays sans vocal: the solo seems like it could go on forever (just as may already have prior to being captured on this LP?!). A corresponding tale of identity crisis gives way to sensory overload in “May This Be Love,” where the gentle lilts of multiple guitars flutter between Mitchell’s hypnotic drumming: it’s little wonder the latter percussionist would remain with Hendrix for most of his career on the road and in the studio.

As feedback trails off to a brief silence before another sonic firestorm ensues in “I Don’t Live Today”(which Hendrix often dedicated to the Native American population of the United States), it’s fair to say Mitch is almost as fascinating to follow as the frontman. Jimi didn’t think much of his singing voice at this juncture–and even further into his career–but on “The Wind Cries Mary,” his half-spoken and half-sung phrasing and delivery are ideal in articulating the haunting atmosphere of the lyrics, then further evoked through the delicate electric guitar picking. 

The vocal is purposefully mixed down below the insinuating melodic theme of the sci-fi-influenced “Third Stone From The Sun.” The interstellar imagery of the words matches otherworldly audio effects that would astound audiences when Hendrix unleashed them live in concert: to be sure he worked with the open-minded Kramer to utilize the resources of the studio, but that was to accentuate his fundamental arsenal of sound, not substitute for it. Here is the most notable instance of the sonics actually seeming to undulate and pulse as if to represent the sense of physical and mental dislocation.

The pair of aforementioned lightweight tunes on the Are You Experienced? do serve their purpose. Both of those overtly salacious numbers function as a gateway into an aural landscape few artists had imagined, much less dared to create or venture very into prior to this monumental effort of Jimi Hendrix’. Nevertheless, while this deeply atmospheric title song supplies an emphatic and absorbing finale, there yet remains a distinct sense of much more to come… as was certainly the case over the first three years of the next fifty-five after this watershed was unveiled to the public.

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