Why do we write about music? After all, mere words can not express the pleasure we get from listening to our favourite songs. How do you communicate the excitement when you hear something for the first time and your inner music critic says “Wow, that’s amazing!”? How do you explain what makes this song special?
We can, of course, use similes and metaphors: as sweet as honey, a sledgehammer of a song, etc. We can search for adjectives: mellow, gritty; stunning, awesome. We can compare this track with others that share some of its characteristics: pop, rock, folk, jazz; happy, sad; acoustic, electric. Do that well and we begin to sketch a phonic picture in the reader’s mind using a palette of rhythms, tones and melodies. But even then it is a ghostly apology for a picture, a figure without shape or substance, the merest hint of the sounds we are trying to convey.
Sometimes this flimsy sketch is enough to pique the reader’s interest and insinuate another note into their mental list of things to explore. If we write about a typical track by a well-known artist we may succeed in siphoning a little of its essence from our minds to theirs. But that’s the easy part of the blogger’s art. It is much harder for a writer to get across the thrill that comes from the exceptional or the utterly extraordinary.
That’s why writing about Jimi Hendrix is so daunting. Jimi was truly extraordinary. He is widely regarded as the greatest rock guitarist there has ever been. When drawing up a list of great rock guitarists for an article in Rolling Stone David Fricke put it this way:
Jimi Hendrix was Number One in every way; the other 99 were all Number Two.
So, how can I write about Jimi Hendrix? What can I say that hasn’t already been said? And, if I do write something, how can I compete with the eloquence of professional journalists? Well, of course, I can’t. What I can do is give you my take on the man and his music.
Looking down Fricke’s list there aren’t many I would have in my own shortlist. Most of them I’d reject as “not rock”¹ or “not in the same league” or even “not heard the name”². Steve Howe and Robert Fripp deserve consideration but they both belong in the ‘prog rock’ sub-category which is not really comparable. Peter Green is a genuine contender but even he didn’t achieve the symbiosis between man and instrument that Hendrix so effortlessly demonstrated. In Jimi’s hands the electric guitar could squeal and whine and thunder, but it could also sing with the voice of an angel. That, for me, is the mark of his genius.
The art of Hendrix reached its peak in the 1968 album, Electric Ladyland. When I think of Electric Ladyland I remember the electronic effects first. I think that’s partly because the album opens with a psychedelic wash of sounds that seem to be from another world or another time, the perfect introduction to the mystical land of lovely android women. It seems to say, this is what heaven must be like – soft, warm, your every need catered for.
If there is a theme to the album it is one of benign Science Fiction. The old Earth is dead but technology provides an escape from the devastation, a bolt hole under the sea, where what’s left of humanity can live in peace and harmony. Hendrix is known for his flamboyance and turning up the amps to maximum but much of Electric Ladyland is a laid back, gently rocking groove. It is powerful without being abrasive – the perfect antidote to the crash and thrash of later metal bands.
Electric Ladyland is very much a studio album. Guest musicians make an important contribution, changing the character of individual tracks, adding variety without destroying the integrity of the album as a whole. The 15 minute Voodoo Chile would be a different track without Steve Winwood’s organ, there’s tenor sax on Rainy Day, Dream Away and, if you pay attention, you’ll hear piano, congas, flute and girl backing singers. It’s a vibrant and faultless production.
Above all, Electric Ladyland is a showcase for Jimi Hendrix’ mastery of the electric guitar. It is an essential part of every rock enthusiast’s record collection, a disc for the desert island and one of the best reasons for writing about music that I know.
- Bert Jansch and Joni Mitchell, for example, were/are folk guitarists.
- In most cases that just illustrates my own ignorance; it’s not meant to imply any judgement of their talent.