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(Credit: Bent Rej)

Music

How Jimi Hendrix helped establish the aesthetics of psychedelia

There are few musicians more evocative of the heady days of the 1960s than Jimi Hendrix. In his short but explosive career, he established himself as one of the most important, authentic, and revolutionary guitarists on the planet; raising the humble guitar to near-mythical status with his intoxicating riffs and exploratory technological manipulation. But, as well as defining the sound of late ’60s American psychedelia, he also helped to curate the look, feel, and attitude of the psychedelic movement.

It would be beneficial to first define the parameters of psychedelia. For the benefit of this article, I’ll be referring to it not simply as a genre but as a drug-induced cultural phenomenon that affected music, art, and fashion in equal measure. Of course, the beauty of psychedelia is that it easily blended with pre-existing cultural influences, changing from place to place as a result. There are, however, some essential qualities that remained in place practically everywhere, the most important of which is the idea of transcendence. In The Doors Of Perception, Aldous Huxley wrote: “Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul”.

This idea of escaping normality, of rising above the monotony of everyday life is the beating heart of psychedelia, and music was one of the best ways of achieving that goal. For many at the time, the key difference between Clapton and Hendrix was that Hendrix treated the electric guitar not simply as an amplified version of a standard acoustic but as a creature with its own unique character, one that could be warped and wrangled. His manipulation of the guitar’s mechanistic elements, which saw him make heavy use of the whammy bar, feedback, and actual body of the instrument for textural effects, in retrospect, seems almost symbolic of the way the countercultural generation was wresting with the society they had been born into. Just as Hendrix wrestled with his guitar, creating new and otherworldly sounds, so too did these young people hope to forge a new kind of existence, away from the age of conformity.

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Having been born into a world in which there was very little variation between what people wore, the post-war generation came to regard clothes as a reflection of this same conformity. All those men walking along in identical suits, wanting only to blend in with the crowd — it’s easy to see how they came to such a conclusion. For this new generation, however, individuality was of the utmost importance, and one of the ways people chose to assert it was through clothing. When Hendrix started out he – like his bandmates in The Isley Brothers – chose to wear well-tailored suits and slick his hair back, leaving a neat parting in the middle. This was perhaps due to the oppressive racial climate in America at this time, which frequently forced Black performers to adopt very conventional styles.

On his relocation to London, however, Hendrix began using clothing to explore his identity. By the time he made his UK TV debut on Ready Steady Go! in 1966, he was flaunting loose-fitting open-collared shirts decorated with paisley prints reminiscent of the geometric posters of Wes Wilson, which themselves were evocative of art from the middle east and India. Indeed, Hendrix’s music saw him combine the classic blues style with the virtuosity of classic Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar. Likewise, the vibrant colours and patterns of his clothes also drew inspiration from Indian culture, a nation that was coming to be regarded as the spiritual breadbasket of the countercultural age. Hendrix also took inspiration from Victorian Britain, however. Many of the most famous photographs of the star show him decked out in that military jacket that, as he once commented, gave him the appearance of ‘Lord Kitchener’s Valet’. Hendrix picked up the iconic floral jacket at a small boutique store on the King’s Road called Granny Takes a Trip. The shop contained an extensive selection of vintage pieces, but also modified old garments with psychedelic fabrics salvaged from Savile Row.

Hendrix would make frequent visits to the shop, where he would collect the clothes that would define his late ’60s style and ignite a fashion trend that subsequently swept through the UK and America. As vintage stylist Holly Campbell notes: “What was empowering about that time was that young people had the means to go out and explore their individuality, unlike previously. In the ‘60s, there was a bubbling of change in the air through a series of cogs turning and twisting across the whole of society.” This increased social mobility allowed young people to go out and buy their own clothes for the first time, which, in turn, prompted new shops to spring up, which catered to the new and experimental tastes of the day.

So you see, Jimi Hendrix did more than just refine the sound of psychedelia, he actively influenced the all-encompassing lifestyle that went along with it; one that saw hippies experiment with mind-altering drugs, reject the black and white world of their parents, and chase a new existence far beyond the monotony of the previous decades.

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