In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1968: The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced
On a recent podcast discussion, music critic Chris Molanphy talked about how if modern production technologies like AutoTune and sampling were available in the ‘60s then the Beatles would have absolutely utilized it especially during their later experimental period. That’s also true of Jimi Hendrix.
From the beginning, Hendrix was an artist willing to push sonic and technological boundaries with his guitar playing and music. He became a master at utilizing feedback, wah pedals, whammy bars, and different playing techniques to help enhance his sound creating sounds that no other guitarist to that point had ever been able to pull off. There’s a great video explaining his many contributions. In a music career that only lasted three years before his tragic death, Hendrix managed to fundamentally change the idea of the rock guitarist. With his debut album, 1968’s best-seller Are You Experienced, he already showed what he was capable of and everyone at the time knew it.
Johnny Allen Hendrix grew up in Seattle with his parents later renaming him James Marshall Hendrix after his father and his father’s brother. Hendrix developed an ear for music growing up starting out playing on a one-string ukulele before getting his first guitar at 15. Hendrix developed his style from listening to various artists and genres from rock and roll to blues to jazz. Pretty soon, Hendrix began playing in local bands where he was fired from one for showing off too much.
At 18, Hendrix got into trouble with the police a few times for joyriding. To avoid going to prison Hendrix chose to join the Army. Even in the Army, Hendrix was still dedicated to his guitar playing which led to teasing from his Army mates and not paying much attention to his duties. He soon formed a bond with another Army musician Billy Cox performing together. It all came to an end when Hendrix was discharged from the Army a year later when his sergeant realized he had no interest in the Army though Hendrix said it was due to breaking his ankle during a parachute exercise.
Once out of the Army, Hendrix went back to playing settling in Nashville and performing throughout the South. He soon became a sideman backing up many big-name acts of the time including Sam Cooke, Ike & Tina Turner, Jackie Wilson, and Wilson Pickett. He soon settled in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood where he made his recording debut on the Isley Brothers’ 1964 track “Testify” which didn’t go anywhere but led to Hendrix playing for the band for a little while before leaving to play in Little Richard’s band.
Feeling creatively stifled with being a sideman, Hendrix went off on his own settling in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood which at the time was home to a vibrant music scene playing in more bands. It was during this time when Hendrix got his break when Linda Keith, the then-girlfriend of Keith Richards, saw Hendrix perform and was instantly mesmerized by his playing. She brought Hendrix to the Rolling Stones’ management team but didn’t see much star potential so they rejected him. Soon after, Keith referred Hendrix to Chas Chandler, the bassist for the Animals who was leaving the group to go into management. After seeing Hendrix perform a cover of “Hey Joe,” Chandler was impressed by Hendrix’s talents encouraging him to go with him to London to start his career.
Once in London, Hendrix signed to Chandler’s management immediately going to work on his music recruiting two local musicians, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, to form a band which became known as the Jimi Hendrix Experience. (That might just be the coolest and most accurate band name in history.) Together, they hit the UK music scene performing for crowds that included many of Britain’s rock royalty like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, the Who, and Jeff Beck. Many in the audience were stunned by the band especially Hendrix. To get more attention, the band would mimic British acts like The Who in their performing antics destroying their set and Hendrix doing all sorts of crazy moves with his guitar. The band would release three singles beginning in December 1966 with “Hey Joe” and following it with “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary” which all cemented the band’s growing fame peaking in the Top 10 of the UK Singles Chart.
Released in May 1967, Are You Experienced was a hit in the UK thanks to the singles peaking at #2 on the UK Albums Chart only behind The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Hendrix and his band covered the Sgt. Pepper’s title track at a show a few days after the album’s release to an audience that included George Harrison and Paul McCartney. While Hendrix and the band were firmly established in the UK, they were unknown in America. The singles weren’t hitting in the US as they had hit in the UK. They would get their big breakthrough soon enough.
McCartney recommended Hendrix to the organizers of the Monterey Pop Festival in California lauding his talents on the guitar saying the festival wouldn’t be complete without him. He got his wish and in June 1967, Hendrix and the band gave a rousing set that included their hits as well as covers. At the end of the set, Hendrix set his guitar on fire before smashing it to pieces creating one of the most famous images in all of rock music.
The Monterey performance helped to break Hendrix and the band into America. The band would play more shows in America including being the opening act for our last Best-Sellers subject the Monkees which is funny to think about. Are You Experienced would get its US release in August 1967 peaking at #5 on Billboard’s album charts and staying on the charts for over 2 years. That’s a pretty low peak for a best-selling album of the year but from its long chart run, I guess that’s how it was #1 for 1968. The charts have always had its weird moments but considering how slow things moved over 50 years ago this is especially weird.
The success and legacy of Hendrix is an interesting thing to look at. He was a black man in a genre that in the late ‘60s was quickly moving away from its black roots to the white-dominated platform it is known as today. Yet despite that context, Hendrix was widely accepted by his white rock peers and nowadays is one of the few black stars many people accept in rock music as going by a radio survey showing the top classic rock songs with only 2 percent being from black artists with most of those songs coming from Hendrix.
People don’t even seem to think about race when discussing Hendrix’s legacy despite being a black person growing up in a segregated America and being influenced by the same black rock and blues artists that his white peers revered. People see him as if he’s something different. Of course, many black artists have enjoyed the same white crossover success that Hendrix enjoyed but I can’t think of anyone who has had this type of appreciation and afterlife.
Are You Experienced is a pretty amazing album for a debut considering that Hendrix and his bandmates hadn’t even known each other for very long before recording. The album was also recorded with a small budget within five months. It sounds like the work of experienced musicians rather than a new band trying to figure itself out. While Hendrix is the star, Redding and Mitchell also play a big part in keeping the songs going with their rhythm section. They’re a nice compliment to Hendrix’s singing and playing especially Mitchell’s jazz-inspired drumming keeping the songs busy. 1968 was a big year for heavy acid-fueled psychedelia as big-selling albums by Cream, Vanilla Fudge, the Beatles, and the Doors showed but none were as experimental pushing than Hendrix was.
What’s great about Are You Experienced is that it showcases all the talents Hendrix brought to his music. While you have your wild and heavy psychedelic classics that you often associate Hendrix with like “Purple Haze” and “Foxey Lady,” you also have more soulful cuts like “The Wind Cries Mary” and “May This Be Love” as well as blues-based tracks like “Hey Joe” and “Red House” and experimental cuts “Third Rock From The Sun” and the title track. All tracks also showcase the various musical advancements Hendrix brought most notably the Octavia pedal which functions as an octave fuzz pedal which no major artist was using at the time. The title track also utilizes the most radical effects with cool backward tracking and what sounds like a precursor to DJ scratching.
On his part, Hendrix never thought of himself as a great singer and modeled his singing on Bob Dylan in realizing that you didn’t have to have a polished voice to sing. It works to his benefit. Much of psychedelic rock didn’t rely so much on technically perfect singers. It was all about the power in the voice to convey the emotions of the songs. Plus, vocals and lyrics weren’t as much of a priority as the music was. It all works for Hendrix who had the range to sing in different styles while also showcasing more of his guitar playing. His playing manages to make the music speak louder than lyrics ever could.
The album exists as a major representation of the ‘60s. The US album cover with the band members seen in a fish lens wearing the latest fashion surrounded by a yellow backdrop with the band name and album title spelled out in psychedelic font is one of the big images that instantly sticks out when you’re thinking of the decade. The music in its expansive psychedelic rock and lyrics will certainly make you feel like you’re under the influence of LSD or some other kind of mind-alternating drug.
For me as someone who’s grown up listening to rock, Hendrix and Are You Experienced have been facts of life. Everyone knows how great Hendrix was and this album is no different. It’s hard to imagine how rock music or any music for that matter would be without Hendrix’s vision. It’s definitely an album worth listening to if you’re into rock or any music. It’ll make you question: have you ever been experienced?
Are You Experienced was only the beginning of a short but legendary career for Hendrix. The Experience would put out two more albums in 1968 to greater success. Axis: Bold As Love peaked at #3 on the album chart while the follow-up Electric Ladyland did better peaking at #1. Electric Ladyland also gave Hendrix his only Top 40 hit with his superior reimagining of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” peaking on the Billboard Hot 100 at #20.
Soon after, the Jimi Hendrix Experience would brake up over deteriorating relations between the members. Hendrix formed the Band of Gypsies as his new backing band just in time for another big music festival: Woodstock. Just like Monterey, Hendrix provided another legendary performance playing Woodstock on the last morning when much of the crowd had left. Hendrix ended his set with an unforgettable instrumental rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” fusing the tune with the sound effects of bombs and sirens emblematic of the Vietnam War and race riots occurring at the time.
For the next year, Hendrix kept performing but wouldn’t release another studio album though there were rumors of an album with jazz great Miles Davis who Hendrix had befriended. He was also busy with the creation and opening of his new recording studio Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village. After project delays and going over budget, Electric Lady Studios opened in August 1970. Soon after, he went off to England. He would never return.
Hendrix played England’s Isle of Wight Festival and embarked on more shows through Europe though many noted his more subdued appearance. While in London on September 17, 1970, Hendrix was discovered unconscious by his girlfriend and was later declared dead at the age of 27. The coroner ruled that Hendrix died by asphyxiation while intoxicated with barbiturates. Hendrix made a great impact in a few years and he should still be making music today.
Next time: We continue our psychedelic trip with In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the Iron Butterfly album that’s mainly known for its epic title track providing an early basis for heavy metal.