Happy 50th Anniversary to The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s third & final studio album Electric Ladyland, originally released October 16, 1968.
Electric Ladyland is the third studio album released by The Jimi Hendrix Experience in a 14-month span. Sadly, it was their last as well.
Time has been very kind to Electric Ladyland. It has consistently ranked high on many greatest albums of all time lists including Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time (it ranked 55th). Upon its release, music critics were confused by the Hendrix and engineer Eddie Kramer experimentation. Melody Maker called the album a muddled mess.
When I first heard Electric Ladyland, I must confess, I didn’t get it either. I’d skip to “All Along the Watchtower” and call it a day. When I eventually did a deep dive, I was mesmerized. Hendrix fused psychedelic rock together with some Delta blues and groundbreaking use of effect to create his best work.
What often goes overlooked when referring to Electric Ladyland is Hendrix’s intense work ethic in the studio. His dedication was akin to that of a gym rat who constantly works on his game on the basketball court. As you can imagine, life with Hendrix was nothing short of chaotic. The band had to record album tracks in between gigs because of their frenetic tour schedule that did not allow for any downtime. It was a surefire way to burn out a band. With Hendrix’s popularity skyrocketing, there was no shortage of people coming along for the ride, whether it be on the road or in the studio.
Recording for Electric Ladyland initially began in July of 1967 at several different studios. In April of 1968, the band finally settled in at Record Plant Studios in New York City with their manager (and former Animals bassist) Chas Chandler at the helm. The chaos spilled over into the recording sessions as Hendrix started to regularly invite friends to hang out and even sit in. Unlike the previous two albums, Are You Experienced (1967) and Axis: Bold as Love (1967), Chandler began to lose his firm grip on the band. The last straw for him was Hendrix’s constant demand for repeated takes.
Hendrix’s perfectionism along with his invited guests in the studio led to Chandler eventually ending their relationship. He wasn’t the only one with an eye towards the door. Bassist Noel Redding stated "There were tons of people in the studio; you couldn't move. It was a party, not a session." Redding formed his own band, Fat Mattress, so he became less available for the recording sessions. This prompted Hendrix to take over on bass for much of the album.
With Hendrix now in full command, he was able to see his vision come to life and on his terms. It was a preparation for the next phase of his career. During these sessions Hendrix became enamored with using echo, backwards masking and tape loops. One of the results of this experimentation is the lead track “…And the Gods Made Love.” Hendrix once explained why he chose this track to lead off the album. He said, “we knew people will jump on to criticize (this track), so I put it first to get it over with.” It serves as a nice intro to “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland),” which features Hendrix on guitar, bass and all vocals. The song is beautiful, trippy and mystical without ever being on the verge of sounding cliché. It also serves as preamble for what’s about to go down. Hendrix is about to take you on a trip.
“Oh, (I want to show you) the different emotions / (I want to run to) the sounds and motions / Electric woman waits for you and me / So it's time we take a ride, we can cast all of your hang-ups over the seaside.”
“Crosstown Traffic” is one of the few tracks on the album that features all three members of The Experience. It was the first time Hendrix played an instrument other than guitar on a record. In addition to playing piano, he also played a makeshift kazoo using paper and a comb. One of the many in-studio guests was Traffic’s Dave Mason, who wound up singing backing vocals on the track.
The song was a source of contention between Hendrix and Reprise Records. He never meant for it to be released as a single at all. Hendrix told Rolling Stone, “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 was no longer this guitar prodigy whose fate and musical direction was in the hands of his manager. He knew exactly what he wanted Electric Ladyland to sound like and in the process, drove everyone around him crazy with his need to get everything right. Case in point, and much to the consternation of drummer Mitch Mitchell, it took over fifty takes to record the track “Gypsy Eyes.” Much of the delays that plagued the album were due to Hendrix’s insecurity about his singing voice. He often recorded his vocals hidden behind a screen.
Inspired by a jam session with B.B. King, Al Kooper and Elvin Bishop, Hendrix’s 15-minute “Voodoo Chile” captures the mood and spirit of the album. While some have viewed this track as self-indulgent, the excellent musicianship by Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady and Traffic's Steve Winwood (organ) on the track cannot be disputed. This bluesy jam session combined elements of Hendrix’s days backing The Isley Brothers and Little Richard with psychedelic rock making you feel like you’re in a tiny little club after midnight watching this ensemble just play and jam.
Arguably, the two most popular tracks on Electric Ladyland are the previously mentioned “All Along the Watchtower” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” These songs have been staples on classic rock radio stations for decades. Hendrix’s take on Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” has been praised by Dylan and in some circles, remains the preferred version. It was the band’s one and only top 40 hit, peaking at number 20.
“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” is a fitting close to Electric Ladyland. It was developed from “Voodoo Chile” and recorded the day after with The Experience lineup instead of Winwood and Casady. While filming a segment in the studio for a short documentary, the band just started playing the song. Guitarist Joe Satriani remarked to MusicRadar, "It's just the greatest piece of electric guitar work ever recorded. In fact, the whole song could be considered the holy grail of guitar expression and technique. It is a beacon of humanity.”
Pulling together Electric Ladyland, amid all of the chaos surrounding him may be Hendrix’s greatest feat. From what appeared to be one long extended jam session and party came a meticulous, well-crafted collection of songs that bounced between psychedelic rock, funk and blues. Hendrix created a groundbreaking LP that allows the listener to expand their musical palate, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Electric Ladyland is his finest achievement.