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Looking back at The Jimi Hendrix Experience's chaotic masterpiece 'Electric Ladyland'

@SamWKemp

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s third and final studio album is regarded by pretty much everyone with a shred of dignity as one of the greatest rock albums of all time. The sprawling 16-track LP includes some of the most recognisable songs from Hendrix’s catalogue, including his epoch-defining cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’ and ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’. For this reason, it’s probably the best record to give to a member of the uninitiated.

Trust me, just press play and watch their eyes widen in disbelief. Indeed, ‘Electric Ladyland has been melting minds for over 50 years but, these days, it’s rarely listened to in the way Hendrix intended — in full. So, how does the notoriously chaotic album stand up in the age of streaming? Let’s take a closer look.

Much of the album’s chaos is down to the fractured way Hendrix recorded the record. Despite taking the name of Hendrix’s own Electric Lady Studios in New York, the LP was recorded in several studios in the US and the UK between 1968 and 1969. After a bumpy start, Hendrix and the band rooted themselves to Record Plant Studios in New York City with their manager, the former Animals bassist Chas Chandler, leading them into the fray. But, despite having guided the band through two LPs in the past, this time, he struggled to control Hendrix’s obsessive and destructive qualities. The frontman didn’t make things easy for himself. He required absolute perfection, spending days hidden behind studio screens recording his vocal takes. But at the same time, he felt it necessary to invite friends into the studio while he was supposed to be working, heightening the already chaotic and crowded atmosphere. As Noel Redding, The Experience’s bassist, recalled: “There were tons of people in the studio; you couldn’t move. It was a party, not a session.”

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Chandler became increasingly frustrated with Hendrix’s perfectionism and eventually decided to confront him. The two came to blows, at which point Chandler terminated their relationship, leaving Hendrix in charge of production. With his previous two albums, Hendrix had relied on the expertise of his producers, but now he found himself in complete control. And although this was never intended, I think it made the album the masterpiece that it is. Electric Ladyland is 100 per cent proof Jimi; neat Jimi; Jimi undiluted. The opening track ‘…And The Gods Made Love’ says it all.

Crafted from a combination of tape loops, pitch-shifted vocals, echo, and backwards masking, the song betrays Hendrix’s experimental ambitions for Electric Ladyland. From here on out, Hendrix doesn’t back down, not once. Despite being immensely memorable and – dare I say – catchy, tracks like ‘Have You Ever Been To (Electric Ladyland)’ ‘Crosstown Traffic’ have an undeniably trippy quality that belies Hendrix’s interest in spirituality. The textures he weaves throughout the LP are designed to massage the auditory cortex and bring the listener closer to the “awakening” that he believed music had the power to provoke.

But, on release, Hendrix’s left-leaning approach left many listeners bewildered and unable to make head or tail of the jumble of textures and melodies entangled within Electric Ladyland. Many argued that the album lacked structure, that it was too dense to be commercially successful. And yet, at the same time, it steadily rose to the top of the charts in both the UK and the US, making it Hendrix’s most successful album to date. Those who could access the weird world of Electric Ladyland understood that it was constructed in much the same way it was dreamt up.

Take the tracks ‘Voodoo Chile’ and ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’, for example. The latter developed from ‘Voodoo Chile’ while a film crew were shooting a segment in the studio for a short documentary. Hendrix and his band suddenly started playing ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ during an impromptu jam session, taking fragments of the riff from ‘Voodoo Chile’ and expanding on them. To any other band, it might have seemed a better idea to ditch ‘Voodoo Chile’ altogether and replace it. Still, Hendrix decided that he wanted to show the listener the gradual way these songs had informed one another, connecting them with a web of spontaneously spun audio silk.

But because of the way we listen to music today, it’s much less common for somebody to approach Electric Ladyland in the way Hendrix most likely intended. As a result, the album has been spliced and into its constituent parts, with listeners returning to its big hitters time and time again, ignoring all the numbers that tie these tracks together. The album has trance-like power, with each song seeming to contain remnants of the one that preceded it. It’s like we’re listening to Hendrix during a writing session and, although the album’s chaotic energy in this way might be a little off-putting to new listeners, it makes Electric Ladyland and enriching listening experience.

Today, the album has proven to be immensely influential. It introduced a new form of psychedelia to listeners, one rooted in blues and audio experimentation. As a result, it has come to be regarded as one of the defining works of the late ’60s psychedelic movement and, all these decades later, it is still inspiring musicians around the world.

Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland