For those who know me personally or know me through my career it will come as no surprise that from an early age I’ve been addicted to and musically dedicated to African American blues.
I’m 42 now and things haven’t changed, in fact I’m probably into it deeper than ever before. I can pinpoint the exact month when it all started – it was October 1992 when I was 14 years old and picked up a blues harmonica in Toledo in Spain on a school art trip.
To be into so heavily, what is now a somewhat marginalised and niche music, was back then not so unlikely. The early nineties saw a mainstream blues boom across the world due largely to meteoric career and early death (1990 in a helicopter crash) of guitar god Stevie Ray Vaughan. His career kick started an artistic renaissance and upswing of fortunes for such living legends as John Lee Hooker, BB King, Buddy Guy who started again releasing big hit records and UK guitar heroes were rediscovering their blues roots – such as Eric Clapton and Gary Moore selling massive blues-based albums. There were blues documentaries on the TV and also the much talked about Clapton unplugged on MTV had numerous blues numbers.
My fervent blues enthusiasm had one drawback. During my formative teenage years, it closed my ears to the traditional teenager rites of passage bands and artists that my friends were bonding over – Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Beatles, The Stones, Dinosaur Junior, Oasis, The Smiths. I just couldn’t get into anything other than blues It was, much to the annoyance of my friends and sometimes resulted in gentle good-natured mockery, bemusement and frustration.
Top of this list is Jimi Hendrix. However, a few months ago as I was binge watching BB King videos on YouTube a Jimi Hendrix version of Rock Me Baby (a blues standard made popular by BB King) performed at the Monterey Pop festival in June 1967 was suggested to me to watch next…
I had studiously tried to get into Hendrix in my teenage years and early twenties. All of my guitar playing friends worshipped him. I borrowed VHS videos from them of both this concert performance at Monterey and also at Woodstock. Whilst at college – I bought two of his major albums Are You Experienced? and Electric Ladyland from the Surbiton branch of Woolworths. As much as I tried, nothing – no real feeling towards it whatsoever.
Over twenty years later and in lockdown Jersey and perhaps having over indulged on traditional blues…. BAM! The genius of Hendrix hit me right between the eyes. Here it was, the complete and total reinvention of not only the electric guitar but the reinvention of music and the reinvention of the idea of the musician. Here on stage at this one performance was the blueprint for all guitar-based rock that would dominate the world for the next thirty or so years. From all the massive Classic Rock guitar bands of the seventies (especially Led Zeppelin) though to nineties grunge.
It was at once startling to me and incredibly unaged. The crunchy freshness of the distortion/fuzz of the guitar on his rhythmical playing mixed with the fluid tonal richness of the single note runs in the solos. The haunting sustained whines and moans of his note bending coupled with completely controlled use of feedback. The dislocated, distanced and thus totally hip vocals and the completely punk-like pushing of the beat.
Hendrix came largely from the Blues, a music which he loved and whose stars he idolised, but this beat pushing approach was against all that was holy about playing the Blues. Blues was all about sitting back behind the beat, using the groove as a rhythmical foundation. With Hendrix, the drums are trying to keep up with him. It’s perhaps this energy and rhythmical change of emphasis that you don’t really hear in the groups up to that time that is one of the most significantly revolutionary aspects of his art – one that would have lasting consequences throughout Rock music.
And here too was a new kind of artist who symbolised the complete societal break between the revolutionary swinging London sixties generation to which he immediately joined at the vanguard, and the more constrained previous generations of Jazz fans and Mods. Hendrix was messy, druggy, bohemian, self-depreciative, studiously chaotic, dressed colourfully and flamboyantly dressed (even sporting a feather boa in the first part of the concert). A fulcrum point between a new and old world – and watching him on stage from a 2020 standpoint – his attitude still seems modern – like someone you could run into today.
It sent me scurrying to Google to check the chronology of this concert in terms of his biography and listen to his album releases in relation to the other groups of the time just to try and figure out how stand-out his playing and performance were.
He was discovered in New York and brought to London September 24th1966, was introduced to the rock glitterati of the times within weeks and became an instant hero and press celebrity. During this time in London he met electrical engineer Roger Mayer, who introduced Hendrix to distortion providing effects pedals that Hendrix would describe as “the secret of my sound”.
His first single was released in December 1966, his monumental first album that introduced his earth shattering vision “Are You Experienced” was released in May 12th 1967 and the Monterey performance was on June 18th1967. A monumental world changing period of just under 9 months.
His use of distortion, the heaviness, the artistic sonic palette and, what we would now probably identify as, the aggressive “rock” attitude to the music really was without precedent in 1966– Listen to Cream’s Fresh Cream…
The Beatles – ‘Revolver’, The Rolling Stones – ‘Aftermath’. There is not much there to predict Hendrix – all these albums are very pop orientated, with vocal harmonies and rich commercial melodies.
Jimi Hendrix died September 18th1970 at 27 years of age. He arrived in London four years previously in September 1966 when he was just 23 Years old. Between that time he left just three studio albums – ‘Are You Experienced?‘, ‘Axis Bold As Love‘, and his most artistically and commercially successful release ‘Electric Ladyland‘
He was of the times, he conquered the times and changed the times all within a period of around four years. His performance at Monterey encapsulates all of his genius as it was introduced to the world and I’m incredibly glad that I caught on, and the genius of Jimi Hendrix didn’t pass me by.