Rock Albums that Changed the World: Are You Experienced

In 1938, Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman accidentally synthesized lysergic acid for the first time while trying to create a pharmaceutical blood stimulant. Later, it was found that a tiny oral dose of LSD equal in weight to a few grains of salt will create vivid hallucinations when Hoffman himself accidentally ingested a bit of his own creation.

During the cold war, the CIA conducted Project MK-Ultra, secret mind control experiments, dosing both volunteers and unwitting subjects with LSD. After a period volunteering as a subject for the CIA, Ken Kesey — author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and leader of the San Francisco 60s troupe of libertines and street theater artists, the Merry Pranksters — hosted a series of happenings in the where partygoers were offered then legal LSD. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters hired the Grateful Dead in 1965 as the house band and dubbed these parties “Acid Tests.”

In the spring of that year, at a dinner party for John and Cynthia Lennon, George Harrison, and his wife Pattie Boyd, their host, dentist John Riley spiked their after-dinner coffee with LSD-laced sugar cubes. Enraged and terrified, the two Beatles and their wives fled the party in George’s Mini Cooper, hit a London club, and ended up safely tripping out at George’s house. Not coincidentally, The Beatles next album was their most adventurous yet, and many would say their best, 1966’s Revolver.

Also in 1966, the “Acid King,” chemist Owsley becomes the financial backer for the Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane takes flight, and The Byrds release “Eight Miles High.” In England with the early-psychedelic Canterbury scene in full swing, its patriarchs The Soft Machine head down to London to share the bill with Syd Barrett’s yet-to-be-recorded Pink Floyd at London’s UFO Club, while back in the States, Bob Dylan’s lyrics take a decidedly psychedelic turn on his ambitious double album, Blonde on Blonde. The stage is set on both sides of the Atlantic for 1967’s legendary acid-fueled Summer of Love.

Meanwhile, in a studio in England, virtuoso guitarist Jimi Hendrix, drummer Mitch Mitchell, and bassist Noel Redding are laying the tracks for an album that will redefine the electric guitar and rock music itself, blowing minds on both sides of the Atlantic and across the globe, the audaciously psychedelic, explosive debut of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

By the time he landed in London in September 1966, brought there by soon-to-be manager Chas Chandler (ex-bassist of The Animals), Jimi Hendrix had already led a storied life.

An Army paratrooper discharged in 1962 before he was even 20 years old (an officer mercifully issued an honorable discharge to the disinterested soldier for “unsuitability”), Hendrix, once a quiet, dreamy kid of surpassing intelligence who was amiable but never quite fit in, found a creative outlet in the guitar as a young man that he would develop into an entirely new musical language, one that would forever change the direction, color, and emotional scope of the music of his generation and beyond. Having spent time on the army base honing his guitar skills, “Jimmy” hung around Nashville for a while, learning from Delta bluesmen who came up from the South (there weren’t too many of those in Hendrix’s native Seattle). Touring around the Southern states made him a better player — there were no more discerning audiences on earth — and soon Hendrix was spending hard years traveling the R&B “Chitlin’ Circuit” as the best guitarist around, both with his own band (with army buddy, Billy Cox of Hendrix’s future outfit, Band of Gypsys) and behind such well-loved artists as Wilson Pickett, Slim Harpo, Sam Cooke, Ike and Tina Turner, Jackie Wilson, and eventually The Isley Brothers and Little Richard, for whom the guitarist would make his first recordings. Ultimately bored with the repetition and tired of the thankless and underpaid grind as an R&B sideman, Hendrix struck out on his own and moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village in the summer of 1965 to join the exciting and diverse music scene there. He didn’t eat every day, but he held onto his guitar and amp and kept playing, pulling gigs here and there until he formed his own act (with Randy California, later of the band Spirit), Jimmy James and the Blue Flames in early ‘66.

The times were finally catching up to his talent. Epic and CBS records showed immediate interest in the band, but Hendrix didn’t feel they were ready. Working out material for their act (“Wild Thing,” “Hey Joe,” a lot of blues covers, and significantly, The Beatles’ psychedelic new single, “Rain”) and developing his own dramatic stage presence as a front man, it was late summer at the Cafe Wha? on MacDougal Street that Chandler made his discovery, and in the guitarist’s own words, “rescued him” — brought Hendrix to London, where “Jimi” could thrive in a more open society and a world free of the racial and societal hang-ups that were holding him back in America.

September 24th 1966, Jimi Hendrix and Chas Chandler landed at Heathrow Airport in London where the guitarist was issued a seven-day travel permit with the contingency that he would not seek employment. The non-work residence permit was later extended to December 28th, but Chandler and Hendrix had trouble convincing the authorities that Jimi held a unique talent not possessed by any working or idle Englishman — something the other musicians could see right off.

Hendrix had landed into polite London society and somewhat perfunctory invitations were extended to the guitarist to sit in around town, offers that Chandler and Hendrix greedily accepted. The previous year, 1965 had seen the rise of Eric Clapton as the first real guitar hero in the public imagination with the “Clapton is God” slogan being sprayed on walls and overpasses across London. But, on October 1st 1966, one week after his arrival, Hendrix’s London debut showcase sitting in with Eric and his new power trio Cream, Clapton himself saw the pages of history turning. Having only heard others’ impressions of Jimi’s playing, seeing him tear it up in person sent Clapton scurrying offstage and watching in semi-horror from the wings, knowing he couldn’t keep up with what he was hearing.

The first order of proper business that Chandler arranged for Jimi was assembling a band. Securing the bass player was easy because Hendrix knew what he wanted and Noel Redding, a guitarist that had never played bass before had the look and the right attitude — a willingness to take direction from Jimi and suggestions from Chandler (himself a bass player). Auditions were held for a drummer (who all thought they were auditioning for a new version of The Animals) and Mitch Mitchell was eventually chosen. In contrast to Noel Redding, Mitchell was brash and cocky, with a swaggering confidence in his abilities. He had played with the best R&B and rock groups in England and was a jazz enthusiast, with a healthy obsession with Elvin Jones. The bassist and drummer had the uncanny ability to stay with Jimi wherever he went. Mitchell’s frenetic energy created a balance with Hendrix’s prodigious talents and Redding on bass grounded the two forces. According to Hendrix, they auditioned an organ player for about 15 minutes but decided that keyboards made the group sound like everyone else, so it was settled that the band would be a trio for the most flexibility and for the opportunity to make their own sound and their own brand of music, and thus, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was born.

Jimi continued to upend the London music world with his incredible playing, sound sculpting, and stage antics, cresting with his new group’s historic invitation-only showcase at The Bag O’ Nails nightclub in late November with nearly everyone in British rock in attendance: all four Beatles, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Donovan, John Mayall, and Eric Clapton. Terry Reid tells the story of how Brian Jones joked that night at the bar about the flooding at the stage — of all of the guitarists’ tears. Hendrix brought Clapton and Townshend to such an existential crossroads that they would both find themselves musing publicly about packing it in as lead guitarists.

Within the three-month period granted by the U.K. Customs Office, the Jimi Hendrix Experience would be formed (within about a week), management contracts would be formalized, a record deal with newly formed Track Records (owned by the team behind The Who) would be signed, and the group’s first single, the phenomenal “Hey Joe” would be recorded, released and shoot to #6 on the UK singles chart (backed with their first original song, “Stone Free”). The B-side would not make the debut album and American audiences wouldn’t hear “Stone Free” until the release of the Smash Hits compilation, two years later, “51st Anniversary” being released in the US as the record’s B-side instead.

“Hey Joe” is a stunning debut single. An offhand murder ballad told with casual restraint, but with a building passion that only bears its teeth toward the end of the song, first with an bluesy fluid guitar solo that springs from the signature Hendrix bent-string unison high octave E lick that every guitarist since has learned (accomplished by simultaneously striking a d and an e note and bending the d up to the unison e), and finally with the climbing countermelody figure that Hendrix and Redding play in tandem. There’s a subtle slickness to the record which contrasts nicely with Mitch Mitchell’s constantly surging drums (the single is expertly produced by Chandler, it employs an outside group of background singers, The Breakaways). There’s not a whiff of psychedelia to the electrified folk song, but it’s a tremendous opening salvo, full of intention and a fine showcase for Hendrix’s badass personality, his lyrically forceful guitar, and his drummer’s relentless flow of ideas.

Finding time to record between European gigs, the group entered CBS Studios in London on December 13, 1966 to work on tracks for their debut album starting with “Foxy Lady.” Whereas Chandler won the battle with Hendrix over how loud he could set his amp on the A and B-side of the single, now Jimi had his twin Marshall stack roaring at a level that so confused engineer Mike Ross that he had to ask Hendrix where to place the mic. The two agreed that setting his guitar rig in a large space and miking from across the room would both protect the mic and capture the sound that Jimi was looking for. The screaming amp volume in the studio would allow Hendrix the ability to shape the tone and feedback of every note, just like on stage. Hendrix’s deeply personal connection and commitment to his sound would become his signature and would constitute a huge forward leap for rock music.

In a recent interview, Roger Daltrey reveals that yes, Pete Townshend was somewhat resentful and frustrated that Hendrix had “borrowed” his feedback technique, his sound and much of his act, but it would take The Who until 1971’s Who’s Next for the band’s onstage power to be captured in studio recordings (and in my opinion, no one would do it better). Hendrix was obsessed with getting that sound on tape from the very beginning and it was that obsession that drove the sound of his albums and all of rock music along with it.

It wouldn’t be until early 1967 that the sonic concept of the group would truly cohere with the addition of young upstart recording engineer Eddie Kramer to the production team. Where the older engineers Jimi had worked with up until then were resistant and doubtful, Kramer was “one of us,” young, adventurous and just as obsessive as Hendrix himself in not only capturing the power the group was getting onstage, but then pushing the limits of magnetic tape as well as any studio innovation they could get their hands on.

Kramer’s first move was to put a stop to the 4-track technique of recording Mitchell’s drums on one mono track, Redding’s bass on another track and leaving the remaining two tracks for Jimi’s guitars and vocals. Instead, Kramer set up to record the drums in a stereo image across two tracks, then devoted one track each to the bass and Jimi’s rhythm guitar, thereby capturing the sound of a live, dynamic full-band sound in performance. These tracks would be submixed and reduced down to a pair of tracks on a second machine, thus freeing up two more tracks for lead guitar and vocal overdubs. Kramer also introduced a mixture of close and distant miking techniques in order to get both a dimensional and detailed sound on all of the instruments, even daring to try fragile ribbon mics on loud rock sources (something that has become the de facto technique in modern recording). The glorious results reflect a fearlessness that a young upstart engineer like Eddie Kramer displayed with The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Geoff Emerick showed with The Beatles, and it’s not a coincidence that both groups were the sonic pioneers that pushed the boundaries of rock music so profoundly in the later 4-track era of 1966-67, a time where the limits of the format required both a dynamic, genuinely exciting live performance and an aggressive and experimental approach to capturing as much depth and sound color onto the tape itself.

There is a difficulty in talking about the impact of Are You Experienced because two different versions of the album were issued, one in the U.K., and a version released three months later in the U.S., distributed by Reprise Records only after Hendrix made such a deep impression on the American imagination after his legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival (only invited to perform at Paul McCartney’s insistence), the one where Jimi doused his Stratocaster in lighter fluid, a performance that would be made indelible when the film Monterey Pop was released in late 1968.

The difference between the two issues is significant. Since the U.S. version was released in late August of The Summer of Love, Reprise could include the three singles the group had released up until that point, “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze,” and “The Wind Cries Mary,” removing 3 songs to make room for these signature Hendrix tracks. Apart from the slicker, more radio-friendly “Hey Joe,” however, the songs fit perfectly into Are You Experienced, reason being that Kramer joined the production team with the group’s second single, “Purple Haze,” the song that Reprise chose as the opening track.

Right off, we are in a world of Jimi Hendrix’s creation. A distorted intro of two alternating guitar notes, a siren sounding the alarm, then into the song’s opening angular blues riffs over the quarter-note pulsing bass and drums, and finally the band is released into the main riff of the song, Jimi grinding on the signature dissonant riff that every guitarist knows, Redding funking out the bassline and Mitchell’s relentless, churning drums. This is it, the pinnacle in jamming, the prototype, the psychedelic power trio, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hendrix maintained that “Purple Haze” is merely a love song, but the lyrics clearly veer into acid trip territory. As a single, the song rocketed to #3 in the U.K., a clear precursor to the coming Summer of Love. For the U.S. version of the album., there could be no better opening track (the U.K. album opens with its psychic twin, “Foxey Lady”).

Next up is another psychedelic blues, “Manic Depression,” a fast triple-time workout about romantic frustration that features the constantly surging drums of Mitch Mitchell with Hendrix’s guitar tightly doubled by Redding’s bass. Hendrix solos without the aid of rhythm guitar — here we have a true working prototype for the rock power trio. Many will claim that for Cream’s debut album, Fresh Cream, but it’s not until Clapton gets a load of Hendrix’s band that Cream turns up their amps, dirties up their sound, and turns the corner from a British Invasion jazzy blues-pop outfit into a psychedelic power trio, as evidenced on their 2nd album, Disraeli Gears. “Manic Depression” is hard rock set in a galloping triple meter. It’s forward-looking, slightly menacing, and is emblematic of a new style that points the way to Led Zeppelin and other heavy music to come.

The U.S. version of the album excludes the 12-bar blues “Red House,” as well as “Can You See Me,” a rocked-up pop song (both available on “Smash Hits”) and gives us the majestic “Hey Joe” next, then drifts into psychedelia, first via the droney, subtly layered acid-tinged “Love or Confusion” (clearly influenced by The Beatles’ Revolver and specifically, “Rain”):

Staying in the trippy vein, next is the lovely psychedelic love ballad to a waterfall, “May This Be Love” featuring sheets of cascading, echoing guitars and Mitchell’s close-miked hippie drums. The lilting verses contrast nicely with the driving bridge that dismisses the skeptics that want to bring him down and accuse him of wasting time. The introduction of a little darkness and angst into such an idyllic setting is emblematic of Hendrix’s songwriting; he was a product of his his environment and his times which by 1967 had included daily violence in Vietnam, racism, and generational divide to go along with flower power and hippie optimism. Jimi Hendrix was not only a genius guitar player, but a songwriter with a probing mind and a desire to reflect back what he saw and felt around him and it wasn’t purely positive, as evidenced by the side’s final track.

Side A finishes with another heavy music power trio feature, the gothic 1-chord blues, “I Don’t Live Today.” Jimi’s soloing is slow and searching, with layers of fuzz and a manually-controlled studio knob wah-wah effect that predates the arrival of the pedal. The song’s coda dissolves into a doom cloud of drum fills, effects, and multi-tracked noise guitars, fading out, then back in again before a final nosedive into oblivion, a fitting end for Side A.

I’m focusing on the U.S. version of the debut album because it’s so well sequenced and has the benefit of the group’s three powerhouse singles. Side B kicks off with their third single, “The Wind Cries Mary,” a poetic song that owes a debt to Dylan’s use of imagery and language. Hendrix professed a devotion to the Dylan influence all through his career, an obsession that will culminate in what some people maintain is the greatest Hendrix recording of all, his cover of “All Along the Watchtower” on his third and final studio album, Electric Ladyland. Here, Jimi sings an existential lament against a gentle, well-constructed soulful backing. The solo dips deep into Hendrix’s emotional well and draws on his Curtis Mayfield-influenced side of melodic blues playing. Its power to draw the listener in and then land an emotional wallop is that much more impressive given that, according to Chandler, the whole record took about twenty minutes to complete including the few layers of overdubs.

Speaking of good album sequencing, the U.S. version segues from one of rock’s great contemplative songs to one of its best uptempo rockers, “Fire.” Lean, succinct, ecstatic, and chock full of hooks, The Experience is at the height of their powers as a trio here. Redding’s chorus bassline alone is enough to carry the song, but everything else about it is positively indelible, the intro hook, the background vocals chanting the chorus, the “melodic” drumming throughout, the way the song passes through different keys, and Jimi’s simple but unforgettable guitar melodies in the solo sections. There is a lot of darkness, confusion, and general angst in the themes and subject matter on Are You Experienced but “Fire” is a pure joy, as is the next song in the sequence.

“Third Stone from the Sun,” a trippy instrumental jazz outing with snippets of dialog is far from a departure from the body of the album and in many ways is its true focus. For one, it’s a pure excursion into sound. Where most guitar jazz of the 50s and 60s centers on single-note melodic bebop excursions against a complex rhythm section, Jimi’s vision is based on drone textures, guitar delay, distortion and feedback effects against Mitch Mitchell’s jazz swing drumming (a la his hero, Elvin Jones) and Noel Redding’s hypnotic repeated-pattern basslines. Here, we have the most illustrative example of Redding’s bass grounding the two sources of churning energy in the trio and it gives Hendrix and Mitchell just enough gravity to allow them to explore sound and rhythm without the song falling apart or the group moving outside of their original rock mission. The shift from amorphous jazz into the funky R&B rock beat and Venture’s-like surf guitar melody in the center of the form is a euphoric moment and it’s reprise over the extended swing section is just as gratifying. The artistic centerpiece of Are You Experienced, it’s here that Hendrix and company go to the farthest reaches of the album’s psychedelic spacewalking, and by the time we are asked “have you ever been experienced?” in the album’s final song, Jimi knows that we have.

The U.S. version next gives us “Foxey Lady” (which bookends the album nicely with “Purple Haze”) before ending on the psychedelic anthem title track, “Are You Experienced?” which features the constant “thwup-thwup” of backwards drums, a madness-inducing droning piano figure, and a tripped-out extended backwards guitar solo. We are completely immersed in a world of pure sound, cut off from anything familiar. Hendrix slyly qualifies his question — “not necessarily stoned…” but probably, right? The song fades out abruptly and returns for a brief backwards guitar chord and the album is finished.

The debut of the Jimi Hendrix Experience is a giant milestone in rock. It’s a game changer simply on the basis of it being an introduction to the ungodly talents of Jimi Hendrix, but also in truly establishing the power trio and  — in combining the audacious virtuosity of Hendrix’s guitar and Mitchell’s drumming, the sound shaping of each guitar note, and the manipulation of every aspect of recording — delivering big on the mind-blowing potential of psychedelic music. In hindsight, given the paucity of studio recordings left behind by Hendrix, each one of these songs feels too brief; their conceptions are almost all epic but their creations in the era of the 3-minute pop song seem slight.

It won’t be until the group’s third and final release, the double album Electric Ladyland that features a tangle of extended jams and longform studio creations, thematic connections and  reprises, as well as powerful shorter form songs like “Crosstown Traffic” and “All Along the Watchtower,” that The Experience will settle into a formal construction that matches its scale. But even then, there is no container that can effectively house Jimi Hendrix. He was a man far ahead of his time, a true progressive that landed in the pop era that was the tail end of the British Invasion, who pretty much single-handedly dragged rock to its next station, one of pure expression, imagination, and longform conception, all while keeping his feet firmly planted in the blues. A true rock god. The debut album of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced, is not only an important breakthrough moment in rock, it’s a fantastic album, especially the U.S. version, that is endlessly entertaining, thrilling, and transporting. Hendrix left so few studio albums behind, it’s profound that the musicians and producers put so much of their creativity and focus into this, the introduction of the world to the prodigious and consummate artist that was Jimi Hendrix.

For further exploration:

History of LSD:

Beatles, LSD, and Revolver:

Jimmy James and the Blue Flames:

Jimi Hendrix and Jazz: