on 13 January 2012
Jimi Hendrix: The West Coast Seattle Boy
West Coast Seattle Boy (WCSB) is the latest offering from Experience Hendrix, the family run business now in charge of Jimi's music. It is a career spanning 4 CD box set and claims to offer an abundance of unreleased stuff, together with a brand new DVD biography. So stepping beyond the hype, what did we get for our 35 quid?
Jimi's Place In Rock: A 40th Anniversary Reassessment
I've been a dedicated fan of Jimi Hendrix since 1966, so before getting into this latest release, perhaps 40 years after the great man's demise is a good time to reassess his contribution to the world of rock music. This is something the mainstream magazines - Mojo, Uncut, Q, - all spectacularly failed to do on September 18th, 2010. Lavish special issues were published for Lennon's 70th birthday, but nowt for the 40th anniversary our Jim's departure date. John was of course a massive artist, but no bigger or more important than Jimi. Such oversights were a big surprise since those magazines owe Jimi a huge debt and they were all disrespectful in the extreme by not marking his anniversary with a feature issue.
So how does one weigh up Jimi's contribution 40 years on? Many commentators, mostly non-musicians I'll guess, seem fixated with the headline that Jimi Hendrix was "the best guitarist ever", but these days they never delve much beyond that. So I would like to challenge the two implicate assumptions that seem to me to underpin their headlines. Firstly that he was the best ever guitar player, and secondly that there are no other dimensions to his contribution worthy of equal billing.
Jimi was for sure a brilliant and sensational player. A highly talented technician and a unique visionary of what the guitar could accomplish. Remember how the guitar had been mostly played before Jimi landed - Hank, Chet, BB, et al. Twang! Twang!, all a bit lame in comparison. But was Jimi the best ever? That is a hard question and any attempt to answer it will be flawed and is likely to stir up opposing opinions. Even amongst his contemporaries there were worthy challengers to that title: Clapton, Beck and others - (but never Mr Page, wrong league, sorry!) However, in the last 40 years so many others have developed the art form, and to such an extent that it is now hard to say if Jimi was indeed the best ever. For instance who can tell what 1971 and beyond held for Jimi: Demise as a leading light? Might he have wandered off the mainstream into some fringe or niche? Or would he have continued at the forefront, developing his technique and music just as fast and furiously as before, leveraging every advance in guitar technology and staying well ahead of the chasing pack? Who knows? But we do know that in the 40 years since many highly gifted guitarists have joined rock's premier division - Gary Moore, Rory Gallagher, Albert Lee, Stevie Ray... it's a long and impressive list, and gets longer every year. So even if Jimi had continued to develop the competition would have been fierce and right on his heels. Each generation of new guitar heroes continues to hold Jimi in awe, and rightly so, but such is the depth of latter day talent he would have been hard pressed to hold on to his number 1 status by technique alone. So what were the other virtues that made Jimi such a phenomena? Beyond playing the guitar fantastically well that is. Here's my top five:-
1. He had a wonderful understanding and knowledge of music, new and old, and each and every style, and he had a vision of what `rock' music could become. His technique allowed him to express that, and how!
2. He was no one trick pony like Clapton, Stones, Gilmore, AC/DC, etc. He played blues, rock, R&B, R'nR, ballads, jazz, psychedelia, space music, etc. etc. and all with equal understanding, deftness and application. The range of music on his first three albums is absolutely staggering.
3. He totally redefined the guitar's sound canvass. Whether fuzzface, wha wha, univibe, overdriven Marshall amps, feedback, cranked up Strats or Flying Vs, backward tapes, cross phasing, etc. etc. Jimi was the true master of his extraordinary sound, and he opened our ears to things we had never before imagined. Who can ever forget the opening struts of `Purple Haze'?
4. He was a great singer. Not a classic voice like Cocker, Jones or Mercury, but just perfect for the songs he wrote. Sometimes this isn't evident on live recording, but more often than not that was down to poor sound systems, especially stage monitors, causing Jimi to shout just to hear himself.
5. He was a fabulous and gifted songwriter. From 1966 on songs just poured out of him; he could barely keep pace. Without any black-dot musical training he committed his thoughts to tape, rather than notebook, as did the likes of Bob Dylan and Hank Williams. He used whatever was to hand, either on his own two track Teac portable or any local studio with a gap in its schedule. Thank God he did.
Nobody before or since has had such a massive impact and on so many fronts simultaneously. When you add these talents to his superb technique one comes to a stark and obvious conclusion: Jimi Hendrix was, and still is, the single most important influence on Rock ever, and by a long chalk. An influence that is not, and never was, solely about his fret board technique, and any commentator who only cites guitar wizardry doesn't yet `get' what Jimi was all about. Without him Rock would likely have miscarried or been stillborn, and derivative forms such as Metal should have never even been conceived.
So overall, a fabulous guitar player with a multitude of other talents, and it is only when you sum up all his virtues that you can appreciate his overwhelming contribution these last 40 odd years. A contribution as relevant today as it was on the day Hey Joe premiered on an unsuspecting UK TV audience.
West Coast Seattle Boy
So with Jimi's place in the world freshly cemented anew, let's now take a deep dive into this release, but first a few covering remarks to set the scene.
1. To start with one has to have the right head on to evaluate this release, since it is a 40 year old odd ball. Its immediate predecessor, The Valleys Of Neptune (VON), almost succeeded in being a great release, but it had a few too many weak points to be truly great. Yet clearly some kids (rather than us older cronies) got off on it as an album. However, VON was pitched as a top 40 album and made that grade, whereas this box almost certainly has a very different purpose in mind. This one is strictly for serious fans with deeper pockets.
2. Overall this is very much a mixed bag, some magic moments, but too many that `stink' in your ears or leave you wondering 'Why did they bother?' But remember it's 40 years on from the demise of the great man, so what the hell do we really expect to be left in the can by now? No matter the hype on this or any future release, there are no miracles left to be dusted down and unveiled - we've had the lot! But that's not to say releases such as WCSB, and whatever is beyond, won't continue add to our knowledge of the man, his magic and his music, but the increments will become increasingly smaller.
3. The market positioning taken by Experience Hendrix on a significant number of the tracks on this release is at the very least misleading. They refer to unreleased mixes as unreleased recordings or unreleased alternate recordings, and they say tracks are unreleased when in fact they really mean withdrawn. Like it or not albums like War Heroes were official releases and the family do us loyal and patient fans a huge disservice by these inaccuracies.
4. And lastly, it is outrageous to produce this career spanning box and then leave off one track (12 Bar With Horns) to be the B side of a spin-off single. It just proves that the prime motivation here is money, not art. Jimi would have hated such blatant exploitation of his fans.
So let's get into the meat and veg of this box.
As is the vogue the `box' is actually a `book', but a very nice book. The packaging is of high quality, and for once the commentary is well written, in-depth, interesting and relevant, and the background colours and size of the printing means the text can actually be read by 60 year old fans with failing eyesight! The pre-experience pictures are really very special and most welcome.
Here we get a run through of a goodly number of the R&B recordings Jimi took part in during 1964-66. These are mostly very good and great examples of their type. It is good to get all of them in one place, and in fine quality, even if a few pieces from this era aren't included, e.g. the Jayne Mansfield tracks (which is of course truly dire.), and the Lonnie Youngblood stuff. However, on all these early tracks our boy's contribution isn't all that key - he was just a sideman, so just a lick, strum or short solo here and there - so they don't add much to what we know of him. For that reason I won't include a track by track run down of disk 1. It is enough to say that it is a good, if unremarkable collection of R&B solid tracks. All of which would have been left gathering dust in the vaults were it not for Jimi's involvement. So yes, essential tracks for the Hendrix completist, but otherwise of little value or interest.
The absence of all of the Curtis Knight and the Squires material is a real shame and makes the evolving story line incomplete. Though those albums and singles usually got a bad press, some of those tracks were great, especially How Would You Feel, a credible Dylaneque attempt, Hush Now and the other wha wha demos, and the Live at George's cuts, which occasionally have Jimi on vocals, and tracks like California Nights allude to what Jimi would do the following year in London. Christ, all that stuff was recorded 45 years ago, who the hell is holding out and for what? I guess something will happen when the copyright runs out in about 5 years time.
The tracks from Are You Experienced? (AYE) and Axis Bold As Love (ABAL) are pretty cool and interesting, but the reason to release instrumental versions of vocal songs escapes me. It's a bit like erasing Elvis from Heartbreak Hotel. It leaves you with an empty and purposeless karaoke carcass! It was because of antics like this that fans got cheesed off with Ed Chaplin (Curtis Knight's manager) and his habit of carving up of the catalogue to make `new' songs out of old ones! That said the instrumental take of Are You Experienced? itself presented here is a lot of fun, revealing for the first time extra guitar wizardry previously masked by vocals and other overdubs, or played down in the final mix.
However, many of the versions on this disk don't add much to what we know about the man or the song. Fire is a great take - but substantially the same as on AYE. We even get the same solo! The same is true of May This Be Love, Can You See Me and Love Or Confusion. Twiddling with the mixer knobs or allowing the intro or outro to run a few seconds longer is not sufficient meat to brand a track unreleased. The live Wind Cries Mary is really neat, even though us fools have had that forever of course, but this is more like it. Mr Bad Luck doesn't sound a patch on the version on VON - the sound quality is just so dull. Cat Talking To Me is nothing more than pointless noodling, going nowhere, which is where it ended up I guess and why. Nice bit of solo in the middle though. Similarly Castles Made Of Sand is mostly pointless. Just a few extra guitar effects and nothing else to commend it by. I can see no reason to release this type of work in progress crap, we learn nothing by it and mostly hear nothing new. Little One is nearly a standout track, shame it wasn't developed further. But Jimi on bass here, which leads me neatly into.......
The AYE and ABAL tracks showcased here underline something I've been feeling for a while - Noel Redding was a real weak link on bass. Contrast and compare Jack's Bruce's contribution to Cream - that was a real power trio. I guess you could argue Bruce's style would have been too `busy' for Jimi, and that is a fair comment, but Noel rarely makes any notable contribution, even when the opportunity is obvious. It's all just a bunch of low notes and nothing more. I know he was a frustrated guitarist, but he could have adopted something of the attitude of John Entwhistle to his adopted instrument. By the chance of lady luck Noel was gifted the opportunity to be at the heart of the late 60s rock music revolution and to play with no lesser man than Jimi Hendrix. He might have been a tad more grateful and applied himself a tad more diligently. By comparison the later tracks in this box with Billy Cox on bass are mostly a treat. Billy was so much more musical and so much more in tune with Jimi than Noel ever was. The same thing struck me when listening to Sunshine Of Your Love on VON. On that take Noel is thrown a bass solo and he entirely wastes it with pointless and tuneless drivel. I think all that hair clouded Jimi and Chas's choice of someone who first and foremost should have been a great bass player. Whereas Mitch Mitchell is in terrific form, as usual, on everything he does here.
Back to disk 2. Tears of Rage is a big disappointment after all the hype of the `newly discovered' tape. It just isn't a good Dylan song and I can't think why Jimi chose to tackle it. Indeed while he made terrific covers of All Along The Watchtower, which even Dylan cites as the definitive version, and Like A Rolling Stone, Jimi was apt to also try out lesser Dylan - e.g. Drifter's Escape, Please Crawl Out Your Window. Just imagine hearing him hammering out Rainy Day Women or This Wheel's On Fire instead of this tripe! Indeed this and all the other so called apartment jams included here seem out of place. I had recently really got into them on a free CD that came with a graphic novel years ago. It seemed perfect as a fringe (bootleg) release, especially 1983. But now as part of this mega set they all seem somewhat less. The extra take of My Friend is really welcomed though, similarly Hear My Train Acoming is neat, even if the harmonica player on both is no expert in his art. (The version of the latter on VON is absolutely awesome - the best track on that album by a country mile. Hear that one first.)
Calling All The Devils Children's pinches a riff from Cream's I'm So Glad. Its okay'ish, but goes nowhere. The vocal collage at the end sounds like an under baked attempt at The Stars That Played With Laughing Sam's Dice ----- which by the way like Highway Chile, Gloria and 51st Anniversary are vital songs that are AWOL from this collection, and with no good cause that I can think off. The last track on disk 2 is called New Rising Sun, but whatever it is it ain't nothing like Hey Baby (New Rising Sun). Why mess with titles like that? I've no idea. It's an okay experimental piece with a few worthy themes that arise then fade, but it's all a bit endless and without any real point or structure that I can hear. Without major surgery Jimi would likely have come to a similar conclusion and this noodle would never have seen the light of day in any form. So another good bootleg track maybe, but unworthy of this release. Why we get this but no Villanova Junction Blues is beyond me.
The opener `Hear My Freedom Calling' is of little interest. It seems little more than a busk or jam, maybe a loosener before some main event. The next one, Room Full of Mirrors, is better. A slow and unusual reading of a familiar Jimi standard. But it has nothing like the energy or execution shown at the LA Forum, 1970 (one of my personal favourites - all 22mins of it), but nevertheless we do learn a little from this version. Shame, Shame, Shame is a work in progress that grew into something more significant, but this developmental piece is a good exposure of one the stages gone through to realise a masterpiece. The track called Messenger is an interesting collage, containing a few themes that Jimi played around with that more often than not became other things. Yet despite Jimi voicing his own excitement for the piece at the end, it doesn't amount to much, and the rare opportunity of hearing Jimi jamming with a pianist isn't as exciting as one would have hoped for. Next up is Hound Dog Blues. It is kinda interesting and alludes to Let The Good Times Roll at times, but it runs out of structure at times and by the time it fades out you're sort of glad it has. Untitled Track seemed to have promise, and it is a real shame that it has no vocals since it clearly isn't intended to be an instrumental. Noel's bass part is particularly unimaginative.
Throughout this entire release some tracks just seems to repeat what we know about songs without adding a bean of new evidence. A case in point is the live recording of Star Spangled Banner/Purple Haze from The LA Forum, 69. This tells us nothing we didn't already know from Woodstock, so why bother? And in any case we have been fed this particular concert a million times, no matter that this particular version is styled as `Unreleased Original Mix', so why couldn't they have found an unreleased concert to quote from? I'd rather have had tracks from the 1970 LA Forum concert, no matter its sound quality challenges.
While the Jimi/Young jam is quite good of its type (with Jimi in great form), I don't find the organ part interesting at all. Its all chords and no notes! Compare and contrast to the jams Stevie Winwood did with Jimi - not least the Voodoo Chile on Electric Ladyland (EE). A big gap in 'talent' and of reading the situation. Just as at Woodstock `Mastermind' remains a pretty awful song and even Jimi can't rescue it, nor does he try very hard to. The studio version of Message To Love is both rare and welcome, although I personally think the Crash Landing (CL) reading was superior, no matter what Alan Douglas added or deleted to `create' that. The three extra live Band Of Gypsies (BoG) tracks are all fine, but mostly underline that Jimi did pick the best cuts for the original BoG album. But of course us dedicated fans have had all these for 10 years or more on bootlegs. However, the quality here is superior, albeit limited significantly by distorted source material. I don't think Buddy Miles ever understood Fire or Foxy Lady - and on the live cuts included here his playing is very plain, very straight up and down stuff and pales further when compared to Mitch Mitchell's earlier readings. But in contrast he really gets hold of Stone Free and contributes an exciting solo - the whole track really cooks - all 15mins of it!! An official Dagger release of all four shows is well overdue. NB It is a shame not to put all three BoG tracks together on the same disk, rather than run across two disks.
After Stone Free we get Burning Desire, a lesser known BoG track, but a fine one to boot, and this take is a good a studio rendition as we have yet heard. Buddy is again on great form here. Afterwards we get Lonely Avenue, a delight as it stands, but another that would have developed so much further had Jimi gotten the opportunity. Everlasting First features Jimi as guest sideman on a track recorded by Arthur Lee's band love. Jimi makes a great contribution to an otherwise poor, insignificant and lacklustre song. Next up is Freedom, one of my favourite of Jimi's latter day songs. There does seem to be some new content here, but since no vocals are present it is less than a wholesome offering. Overall nothing like the impact of the original release or the live rendition at Isle Of Wight.
The Peter Gunn/Catastrophe medley was of course released years before on War Heroes. It is a long time since I played that, and memory plays many tricks, but I thought it sounded much better on the earlier release than here. Even so, it was then, and remains, total pants. In From The Storm is a great track and its interesting to have a second studio reading of it, even if it adds little to the original release. All God's Children must be some sort of antidote to Calling All The Devil's Children. It is an inoffensive meandering piece, of little interest and equally has little reason for being included here. Just a bit of mostly aimless noodling. I'm sure Jimi meant no harm by it, but equally I'm sure he should be horrified by it getting an official release.
The obligatory Red House follows. As always fine playing by Jimi and Billy's bass lines are more imaginative than Noel ever mustered for this great blues song. But we have dozens of takes of this and this version doesn't stand out the way the rendition on VON did. I just can't think of a reason to do it all over again and again. After all Alan Douglas once gave us a whole album's worth of just this one song! Whatever `Play That Riff' is it follows - all 35 seconds of it. Mercifully it is soon gone and we are into Bolero, which at least lives up to its title. It sounds as though Jimi listened attentively to The Nice when he toured with them in 1967/68 since this jam sometimes has of the quality of Emerson's tour de force - Rondo A La Turk about it. However, it mostly lacks direction and structure, so it ends up as yet another workout and we can but wonder where Jimi might have taken it, if anywhere. It segways into Hey Baby (New Rising Sun), which is familiar country and is as ever a very great song. However, not much, if anything, is new here.
Finally we arrive at Suddenly November Morning. Given all that has gone before to hype up Jimi's autobiographical song cycle Black Gold, I suppose it was likely to ultimately disappoint somewhat. In fact it is a neat piece, given the frail recording conditions it was created in. Some commentators claim it is a little confused at this developmental stage with what would become Drifting. Personally I don't hear that, save for the one obvious quote right at the end. All I hear is a nice original song that should no doubt have turned into a gem, given time in Jimi's care. Overall its not a disappointment at all, just an interesting teaser for the entire Black Gold release, should the `mafia' ever feel we can be trusted with that whizzing around inside our headphones! Maybe one day!
This is actually very neat and well produced, even though we have of course seen most of the actual live footage of Jimi many, many times before. For me it is very nearly the highlight of the entire box, even if the sound alike Jimi commentary is way off the mark. I wouldn't have thought it would be impossible to find an actor who could imitate better than this. But that is a small gripe since this is a fine movie. One qualm, I continue to be really frustrated that the TV performance of Mockingbird with Dusty Springfield on the It Must Be Dusty show keeps getting overlooked by projects such as this. I know only minimal video evidence has yet come to light, but an interesting archive collage could be sequenced to add to the audio, which is just about of sufficient quality, and that would have made for a really great moment. I would have appreciated that ahead of yet another outing for Sunshine Of Your Love from Happening For Lulu.
So yes, a vital piece of wax for us dedicated followers, even if a substantial proportion of that presented here is a tad underwhelming. We will each find different things to marvel at and complain about, and we will likely do both significantly and often. Overall it is more interesting than entertaining and, save for the first disk, one can't imagine to put any of these CDs on player and expect them to sound like a properly formed album, so no dinner party background vibes to be had here. Of course it's not a release to attract new fans and if you're under 50 you should start elsewhere, namely with the four albums Jimi put out during his lifetime. If you get through those unscathed there are a dozen or so posthumous releases to educate yourself with before worrying about this box of `noodles'. But whichever you are.... Enjoy.
PS. And yes, for the sake of the technological dinosaurs among us, it does come on LPs as well as CDs!