Electric Ladyland was recorded at the very peak of Jimi Hendrix’s recording and playing powers, in a series of marathon, late-night, drug and alcohol fueled sessions, with guests including Steve Winwood, Dave Mason, Jack Casady coming in, and a steady escalation of conflict between long-time Experience bass player Noel Redding and Hendrix himself. This volatile climate of hedonism, interpersonal conflict and obsessive perfectionism—Dave Mason is said to have done 20 tracks of the acoustic guitar part on “All Along the Watchtower” before Hendrix let him go—produced one of the landmark albums in guitar rock.
The album is, of course, studded with staples of classic rock radio, songs like “All Along the Watchtower”, “Crosstown Traffic” and “Gypsy Eyes”, that have become part of the DNA of every kind of hard and psychedelic rock. Yet listening it end-to-end again, after all these years, you may be struck by how odd and multi-faceted this record is. It begins in a burst of trippy psychedelia—the backwards-voices and echo of “And the Gods Made Love”, the falsetto’d daydream of “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)”—then slips into the hard-guitar riffery of “Crosstown Traffic”. “Little Miss Strange”, sung by Redding and Mitchell, is pretty close to conventional folk rock and strikingly dull, compared to the rest of the album. If you want an inkling of what Redding and Hendrix were fighting about, just listen to this Moby Grape-ish bit of 1960s-ism next to the revelatory, free-form “1983 (Mermaid I Should Turn to Be)”. “Little Miss Strange” is tightly contained within a country rock idiom, while “1983”, almost never played on dad rock stations, is gorgeously untethered to almost any convention.
It is also, naturally, a study in the extended possibilities of the guitar. In 1968, Hendrix, along with Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton and others, was fairly inventing the sound of the electric guitar, up to that point mostly used as a louder version of the acoustic. Although his playing style was based in traditional blues, he was among the first to augment his capabilities with distortion and effects. “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”, recorded with Steve Winwood on organ, closes out the album with one of the 1960s great wah wah guitar solos. Joe Satriani, himself no slouch at the solo, called it, “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.”
Throughout the recording, Hendrix was moving away from his all-white, hits oriented trio of Redding and Mitchell towards the freer, more authentic blues and jazz influenced style of his last years. Hendrix brought in Buddy Miles, who would be his Band of Gypsies drummer, for “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Raining Still Dreaming”. He himself played bass for “All Along the Watchtower”. Redding, frustrated with the slow recording process, had slipped out for a beer.
The pleasure of listening to Electric Ladyland lies in rediscovering its deeper, weirder tracks and in re-hearing its more familiar cuts in their original context. Most people, at this point, have heard “All Along the Watchtower” hundreds of times, on the radio, in films and documentaries, just about any time anyone wants to signify the 1960s. Yet the Dylan cover retains its force here, sandwiched between the incandescent “House Burning Down” and the twitchy, talking guitar glories of “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”. The song itself, with its crashing guitar chords and soaring, electric solo, remains a tense and hallucinogenic monument, one of those rare covers that eclipses the original.
Even Dylan himself has recognized the power of Hendrix’s cover. “It overwhelmed me, really,” he said in a 1995 interview with the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel. “He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”
Electric Ladyland was the last Hendrix studio album to be released during his lifetime and his most successful one, reaching #1 in the US and #5 in the UK in 1968. Later materials, recorded with the Cry of Love band and the Band of Gypsies, were released after his death in 1970, but to many, this remains his definitive achievement and one of the best guitar rock albums of all time.
Jimi Hendrix - All Along The Watchtower (Live! Isle Of Wight)