The Story Behind the Song: Jimi Hendrix’s one-night stand ‘Crosstown Traffic’
There are few songs which can evoke a series of “ooh, what’s that smell?” faces across the party then when a mere sample of this song comes. So ubiquitous is the filthy nature of Hendrix’s lick on ‘Crosstown Traffic’ that the choral refrain is almost missed. It’s one of the few moments in the dazzling career of Hendrix that the duality of his soulful turmoil came to fruition. This track, embroiled in the sexual explosion of the sixties, quickly became an underbelly anthem.
It’s no joke either, the song is simply drenched in sexual references and is largely centred on Hendrix trying to get through to his lover from the previous evening with a simple message of “get lost”. Not the most enlightening piece of lyricism, we’ll admit, but the song’s technical majesty largely comes from Hendrix’s mercurial guitar playing and the foresight of Chas Chandler and the rest of The Experience. For that reason alone, the song deserves top billing.
In fact, Chandler, formerly of The Animals, can be largely credited with Hendrix’s entire career. When Chandler came across Hendrix while on tour in America he was instantly captivated and understood the impact he could have in London. The capital was a bubbling scene of R&B and blues guitarists all vying for position among the glitterati of the time. Naturally, Hendrix arrived and blew them all away, quickly become the poster boy for the counter-culture movement and racking up an impressive debut LP along the way with Are You Experienced?. The follow-up album, Electric Ladyland, would need to be just as impressive.
“You have the whole planned-out LP, and all of a sudden they’ll make ‘Crosstown Traffic,’ for instance, a single, and that’s coming out of a whole other set,” Hendrix complained of the decision to use ‘Crosstown Traffic’ as a single. Unusually for the songs on Electric Ladyland, it features all the members of the band and even has Hendrix using a kazoo-like instrument he constructed with some tissue paper and a comb. But, in honesty, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was never destined to be a great album band.
Speaking as part of a ‘Behind The Scenes’ video on the group’s output, Chas Chandler remembers: “We didn’t actually start out to do an album at any time. We’d just kept on rolling and as soon as we had enough songs for an album — bop! We’d put one out.” The song ‘Crosstown Traffic’ is one of the final moment of Chandler’s extensive professional relationship with Hendrix. Producer Eddie Kramer said of the single: “It was one of the last tracks that Chas had a tight hand on.” Eventually, Hendrix would break away from the shield of Chandler and venture out on his own.
Remembering the sessions at London’s Olympic Studios in 1967, he recalled: “It’s a hell of a song. An extremely powerful right in your face vocal from Jimi and we have a guest to help out with the backing vocals, Dave Mason. A friend of Jimi’s who played with Traffic as a rhythm guitar player. A very good musician he came quite tight with Jimi and they were just hanging around the studio one day and Jimi said ‘Hey, wanna help us with some backing vocals?'” He stood up and delivered the now iconic refrain for “crosstown traffic”.
Not many songs of Jimi Hendrix’s rely on the lyrics to deliver the emotion of the piece and ‘Crosstown Traffic’ is just the same but it does come with some witty lines nevertheless. In the sixties, without the ability to be explicit about their content, artists had to get creative with how they spoke about drugs and sex and metaphor was the only way to go. For Hendrix, he uses the metaphor of being unable to get through to heavy traffic to tell the story of his unwanted lover.
It goes further than though and even sees Hendrix delicately play with the ideals of sexual liberation, “I’m not the only soul, who’s accused of hit and run, tire tracks all across your back, I can see you’ve had your fun.” It’s one of the few times Hendrix is so playful with his tone, acting as the perfect balance to the powerful and demanding guitar that wreaks havoc throughout the song’s short run time.
While it may not be the ultimate Hendrix tune, often being overlooked as one of his best, the track should be regarded as one of the moments Hendrix began to break out on his own. Away from Chandler, Hendrix was beginning to find his feet and, with a brand new decade looming, the need to evolve was clearly weighing on his mind. ‘Crosstown Traffic’ for that matter is the perfect bridge between the Hendrix of old and the Hendrix of the future we were never so formally introduced to.