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Behind the Album: Jimi Hendrix's debut masterclass, 'Are You Experienced?'

The impact and influence of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s 1967 debut, Are You Experienced, is irrefutable. It was an instant hit, garnering widespread commercial and critical success. Regarded as one of the best debuts albums of all time, it featured Hendrix’s innovative songwriting and guitar playing front and centre. Consequently, it marked a shift in the tectonic plates of music. 

Hendrix was a blast of ice-cool fresh air. Live and on record, his energy was so palpable that his new way of doing things — mashing psychedelic and hard rock, garnished with jazz influences — opened countless musicians’ minds to what was possible within the music. After releasing this highly significant long-player, Hendrix became synonymous with creativity, free thought and the countercultural movement.

Upon the album’s release, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was still a new project. After all, Hendrix had only moved to London in September 1966, after a chance meeting with Chas Chandler after a show at Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. At this point, Hendrix had struggled to make a living as a backing guitarist on the rhythm and blues circuit. However, the guitarist’s luck changed massively when the meeting with Chandler would change his life.

Chandler had just left the legendary British invasion group the Animals and was trying to pursue a career in managing and producing artists. Soon after their initial meeting, Hendrix was convinced by Chandler to join him on a trip to London. He had also been snapped up on a management and production contract by Chandler and ex-Animals manager Michael Jeffery. Soon after touching down in the UK, Chandler set about recruiting members for the new band, which was designed to put Hendrix front and centre, showing off his virtuosity. The band was quickly formed as a trio. The original line up was Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell.

Later that year, at the back end of October ’66, the newfangled Experience signed with Tracka new label formed by the Who’s managers Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert. The band then quickly set about recording their debut album. Are You Experienced, and its three preceding singles were recorded over a five-month period from late October to early April 1967. The preceding singles were included on the US version of the record but omitted from the UK’S. They were the gargantuan: ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary‘.

Are You Experienced was completed in 16 recording sessions at three different London studios. They were De Lane Lea Studios, CBS Studios and Olympic Studios. The long period of recording sessions was marked by Chas Chandler’s overbearing dominance of the band, Hendrix being equally as dominant and finding his feet as a musician, and Redding and Mitchell feeling increasingly sidelined.

Chandler had booked many sessions at Olympic studios because he deemed the facility to be acoustically superior, as it was equipped with a wide variety of the latest technologies. Ironically, it was still using four-track recorders whereas the American studios had moved onto eight-track.

Additionally, the recording sessions were dominated by Chandler’s limited budget. To combat this, Chandler and Hendrix completed the majority of the album’s pre-production at their shared West London establishment. From the outset, Chandler did not hide his intention of minimising Redding and Mitchell’s input. He would later say: “I wasn’t concerned that Mitch or Noel might feel that they weren’t having enough—or any—say … I had been touring and recording in a band for years, and I’d seen everything end as a compromise. Nobody ended up doing what they really wanted to do. I was not going to let that happen with Jimi.”

Showing that Chandler had placed Hendrix on such a high pedestal, clearly seeing his name in lights and dollar signs in his eyes, Hendrix would write most of the album. He would come to the rehearsal sessions with the chords sequences and the appropriate tempos for Mitchell. Adding to what seems like a massive creative kick in the teeth, Chandler would direct Redding’s parts.

‘Hey Joe’ was recorded at De Lane Lea Studios. This time, Chandler found himself in the producer’s chair, with Dave Siddle on engineering duties. The hit also featured backing vocals by Britain’s premier backing vocalists, The Breakaways.

In recording the band’s iconic second single, a fight nearly erupted. Chandler, being the pervasive character he was, asked Hendrix to turn his amp down, to which the legendary axeman flew off the handle. Chandler recalled: “Jimi threw a tantrum because I wouldn’t let him play guitar loud enough… He was playing a Marshall twin stack, and it was so loud in the studio that we were picking up various rattles and noises.” Showing that “rock gods”, and particularly guitarists are often prone to being primadonna’s, Hendrix threatened to leave England: “If I can’t play as loud as I want, I might as well go back to New York.” 

Jimi Hendrix

Chandler took Hendrix’s immigration papers and passport from his pocket in a strange display of power and placed them on the mixing console, and told the frontman to “piss off.” Backed into a hole of his own making, allegedly Hendrix laughed: “All right, you called my bluff”.

Again, dissatisfied with the sound quality of the takes at De Lane Lea, on the advice of label head Kit Lambert, Chandler booked the trio into CBS Studios. On December 13th, 1966, after a five-week tour of Europe, the band reconvened at CBS. This time, they were joined by engineer Mike Ross. This session is noted for being particularly productive. The instruments and vocals for ‘Foxy Lady’ were finished, as were the ghost tracks for ‘Love or Confusion’, ‘Can You See Me’ and ‘Third Stone from the Sun’. Coming back to the sonic impact of Hendrix’s Marshall stacks, we can understand why Chandler had asked him to turn it down. Ross recalled: “It was so loud you couldn’t stand in the studio … I’d never heard anything like it in my life.”

What happened next was to be critical for the album and the band’s success. Ross asked Hendrix where he would like the microphone placed. An in what seems like an absent, throwaway comment, Hendrix replied: “Oh, man, just put a mic about twelve feet away on the other side of the studio. It’ll sound great.” Acquiescing to Hendrix’s request, Ross placed the Neumann U87 tube mic where he’d requested it. In tandem, this session was recorded in a large room, and together these became “absolutely vital to the uniquely powerful Experience sound.” Ross has also noted the musical castration of Mitchell and Redding. He remembers Chandler being “the one in charge” of the sessions.

Come the turn of the year and Redding and Mitchell began to complain about their level of input. Chandler used the financial implications to alleviate himself of the blame: “(They) were sort of fighting the fact that they had no say during recording sessions… they were starting to come up with suggestions, but… We didn’t need to be arguing with Noel for ten minutes and Mitch for five. We just couldn’t afford the time.”

By January 1967, Chandler has become infuriated by the quality of the recent recordings and the large volume of noise complaints from the public who lived and worked near De Lane Lea. He recalled: “There was a bank above the studio… and it was at the time when computers were just coming in… we would play so loud that it would foul up the computers upstairs.”

However, all was not lost. Contemporaries Brian Jones and Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones encouraged the former Animals man to book time in Olympic Studios, hailed as London’s top independent studio. In conjunction with this annoyance, Chandler was still blighted by monetary issues. The trio’s first offering, ‘Purple Haze’, had been a massive hit, but this had not quelled Chandler’s problems. Before booking the sessions, Olympic Studios had requested an advance. However, Track‘s parent label Polydor had not released any funds for them. In the face of the project stopping dead in its tracks, Chandler went directly to Polydor and asked for relief. Luckily, for everyone’s careers and popular culture, Polydor guaranteed him a line of credit for the Olympic sessions.

The sessions for Are You Experienced also revealed Hendrix to be a human, not from a mythical realm such as Asgard or Olympus, as many had suggested. He struggled with confidence when singing, much the opposite to his guitar playing. His disdain for his own vocal ability was so much that he asked the engineers at Olympic to construct a privacy barrier between him and the control room so that they could not see him.

This created a whole host of issues. When the lights were low and as the engineers couldn’t see him, his visual cues and prompts were impossible to communicate. Furthermore, Hendrix’s addiction to using stacks of super loud amplifiers again drew criticism from the locals. Studio tape operator George Chkiantz remembers: “Sometimes, it got so loud we’d turn the (control booth) monitors off and there was really very little difference.”

Chkiantz also offers a more balanced take on Hendrix‘s music: “I seem to recall a lot of musicians, a lot of people, saying, ‘I can’t see what all the fuss is about myself’, or ‘I don’t know how you listen to all that noise; I’d be scared to work with him’ … Chas was convinced that he was on to something. Not everyone was convinced that Chas was right.”

Credit: Hendrix

Another issue marked this long, drawn-out recording process. As was the case with many heavy-hitters of the day, encapsulated in the manic “Beatlemania”, a large number of female fans would turn up at the studios hoping to watch the Experience in action. This stemmed from Hendrix carelessly revealing what the band’s location would be on any given date. This relentless following got so ridiculous that Olympic employees were tasked with keeping the Hendrix fans at bay so they would not interrupt the recording process.

Chkiantz elucidated the significance regarding these exceptional circumstances: “It was extraordinary. I worked with the Stones. I worked with the Beatles. I worked with Led Zeppelin. I was not as jumpy; it was not as difficult as with Hendrix. It was something of an open house. Hendrix was not difficult at all, but I personally would have preferred not to have loads of girls lurking in the woodwork.”

After what seemed like an age, Are You Experienced was released in the UK on May 12th, 1967. It spent a mammoth thirty-three weeks on the charts and peaked at number two. It was kept off the top spot by none other than the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — the other album from the era that one could posit was more influential than Hendrix and co.’s.

The following month, on June 4th, Hendrix opened a historic show at the Saville Theatre in London with his cover of Sgt. Pepper’s title track, which had been released only three days prior. Typical of the time, marked by musical convergences, manager of the Beatles, Brian Epstein was the proprietor of the Saville at the time. In a testament to the sonic statement Are You Experienced? made, both George Harrison and Paul McCartney were in attendance at the Saville show. McCartney described it: “The curtains flew back and he came walking forward playing ‘Sgt. Pepper’. It’s a pretty major compliment in anyone’s book. I put that down as one of the great honours of my career.”

Are You Experienced changed the musical landscape forever. Adjacent to its contemporary Sgt. Pepper’s, it dragged music and culture out of a dormant state and propelled them into the future. Evidently, the long, drawn-out sessions would culminate in a classic debut album, but they were not without their issues. Redding and Mitchell would leave the trio before too long after feeling much-maligned, and this is understandable. Moreover, Hendrix’s brief career would be cut short by his tragic barbiturate overdose in 1970.

These variables do not diminish the album’s iconic stature; sonically, it is still as magnetic as it was back then.