There’s a small club in my hometown known locally as ‘The Pit’. That’s not its real name, but having served as the setting for countless fist-fights amongst red-faced farm labourers for decades now, it’s developed something of a reputation. The Pit, for as long as I can remember, has represented the sweaty underarm of cultural decline. But there was a time – or so the town’s old guard says – when this small provincial club hosted a little known musician called Jimi Hendrix.
Having been led to believe that this crumbling market town was the San Francisco of England’s bleak east coast, Hendrix agreed to play the show only to realise that he’d been duped. In an act of vengeance, he took a bottle of brandy from behind the bar, poured it into the bowels of an old standup piano, and set the whole thing on fire.
I imagine some elements of this story have been embellished over the years, including the moment when Hendrix was supposed to have delivered a face-melter on top of the burning piano, but it does reveal just how hard Hendrix had to work to establish his name in the UK. We often assume that Hendrix emerged fully formed, that he was an instant success, but that wasn’t the case. He spent years busking on street corners and playing in other artists’ backing bands before he was spotted by Chas Chandler in a New York Club in 1966.
Chandler promptly sent Hendrix to London, where, on arrival, he pulled out all the stops in an effort to establish himself in the incredibly competitive London rock scene. As Jeff Beck recalled, Hendrix’s showmanship and intense virtuosity sent a shiver through the spine of every British guitarist around. “When I saw Jimi we knew he was going to be trouble. And by ‘we’ I mean me and Eric [Clapton], because Jimmy [Page] wasn’t in the frame at that point,” Beck began.
Adding: “I saw him at one of his earliest performances in Britain, and it was quite devastating. He did all the dirty tricks – setting fire to his guitar, doing swoops up and down his neck, all the great showmanship to put the final nail in our coffin. I had the same temperament as Hendrix in terms of ‘I’ll kill you’, but he did in such a good package with beautiful song”.
Hendrix quickly gained a reputation as one of the most fearsome guitarists on the London scene and ended up achieving a level of success in the UK that he was yet to establish in his own country. This success allowed him to return to the US and cement his name, and, by the time he was 26 years old, he was headlining the Woodstock Festival.