Counterbalance No. 130a: The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ‘Axis: Bold as Love’

The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Axis: Bold as Love

Mendelsohn: Long ago, back when we first started this little experiment, I had given Jimi Hendrix a pass, carte blanche, on any and all material. He can do no wrong and I stand by that, Klinger. So please, don’t take what I’m about to say as a repudiation of that previous statement. What I’m about to say is for the sake of argument.

Out of the entire Hendrix oeuvre, I tend to simply ignore Axis: Bold as Love. I don’t find it nearly as compelling as Are You Experienced? or Electric Ladyland. Axis has some great material—I mean, c’mon, it is Hendrix—but the overall package is lackluster and held together by studio trickery. There is a great sense of exploration and experimentation that permeates Axis, as Hendrix and Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell look for solid, songwriting footing, but I think the push by the band to get this album out to fulfill its recording contract really hurt the finished product. I suppose it’s easy for me to say that type of thing with 25 years of hindsight. As a follow-up to Are You Experienced? the listeners in 1968 might have found the record much more compelling than I ever will.

Klinger: You’re not alone, there, Mendelsohn—Axis: Bold as Love has always been the forgotten Hendrix album among critics, who are more drawn to the shock-of-the-new blast of Are You Experienced? and the meandering musical spelunking of Electric Ladyland. But even though you’re not alone I can’t go so far as to say you’re right. Because even though I must once again recognize that I am an odd man out here, Axis: Bold as Love is pretty much my go-to Hendrix album.

On this album, Hendrix engages his soulful side to terrific effect, delivering some of his sweetest guitar work on record. When last we discussed Hendrix, one of the things I was struck by was how controlled Hendrix’s playing actually is, in contrast with the Wild Man of Rock persona that he was too often saddled with. I think that level of control is still very much on display here. Plus, it’s on Axis: Bold as Love that you really get the sense for Hendrix’s roots as a journeyman musician, one who cut his teeth backing up the blues and R&B giants of an earlier era. Even when his spaceman tendencies come to the fore, they’re usually always rooted in his past. And with songs like “Castles Made of Sand” and “Little Wing” you hear his songwriting—both music and lyrics—come into full bloom. So many songs on here demonstrate his R&B roots, which gives me the sense that this is his some of his most personal work. (Plus, the way he delivers that word “dragonfly” about 20 seconds into “Spanish Castle Magic” suggests that he basically invented Sign o’ the Times.)

Mendelsohn: Axis is your go-to Hendrix album? Really? On the strength of “Little Wing” and “Castles Made of Sand”? They are great songs, don’t get me wrong, Klinger, they are most definitely two of his best, but what else is there on this record? There is nothing that comes close to those cuts. The rest of the tracks sound like demo outtakes that could have used a lot more attention or at least another spin through the ringer. “Up From the Skies” is jazzy but uninteresting. “Ain’t No Telling” has all the promise of a great rock song, but at 1:51 it seems to die a premature death. And where “Ain’t No Telling” gets snuffed out too early, “If 6 Was 9” drags itself out for nearly six minutes on dead legs as Hendrix tries in vain to find a suitable groove.

The second half of the record is much of the same. And don’t even get me started on “She’s So Fine”. I can’t blame Hendrix for breaking up the Experience if for no other reason than Noel Redding’s insistence on recording insipid pop ditties.

After “Little Wing” and “Castles Made of Sand”, the only other song that stands out on its own is “Wait Until Tomorrow”—a perfect pop song with a delicious groove. Redding may have been a mediocre songwriter but he sure could play that bass.

Klinger: Yes, “Wait Until Tomorrow” is just one more example of the terrific songs on this album, and again it has a lot to with his soul-based, Mayfield-meets-Moonman approach to playing. Also his phrasing is just glorious—the way he sings “like some turned-out serenading fool” makes me smile every time I hear it. But I’d also suggest that are a few gems lurking on the second side of the LP/back half of the CD. “One Rainy Wish” is nearly as lovely as “Little Wing”, even if does get a little rougher as it makes it way to the chorus. And “Bold as Love” has a way of taking me by surprise just about every time it pops up. I might be willing to concede that Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell aren’t necessarily up to the challenge of “If 6 Was 9” (I amuse myself by imagining how much better the song would be if the rhythm section was Bill Ward and Geezer Butler. Picture it, man…), but again Hendrix carries the day, and that bit where he talks about when it’s his time to die is just plain chilling.

Again, I understand why this seems like a lesser entry in the Hendrix catalog, but its style just lines up with my sensibilities so well. Also, the fact that I’m hearing it in the digital age means that I don’t have to skip over the actually-quite-silly “EXP” every time. Maybe that’s been a factor for critics as well. I can only imagine having to find that spot on the vinyl (or, God forbid, fast forward through the cassette) to get right into “Up from the Skies” (which by the way is also a pretty good song).

Mendelsohn: I get the sense that Axis is on the list solely because it was one of the three studio albums Hendrix was able to release before his untimely death. Axis doesn’t have the white-hot focus of Are You Experienced? or the sprawling reach of Electric Ladyland. And while I know we shouldn’t be comparing an artist’s output against itself, I can’t help but think that it’s as if Axis is here merely as an afterthought—because not acknowledging all three of Hendrix’s albums would be a crime. But then, that’s just part of the Hendrix mythos. A star that burned so bright and so hot, anything he touched must be covered in stardust and therefore worthy of unending praise.

Honestly, though, I have no idea where I’m going with this. Are You Experienced? and Electric Ladyland were both in the Top 25 of the Great List. Axis sits at 130, which, for any other artist would be a great position, but for Hendrix I imagine it could be seen as a bit of a slight. In the grand scheme of things, this is probably the best place for Hendrix’s worst album.

Klinger: Wow, when you put it like that, man… I’d say that the worst thing you can say about Axis: Bold as Love is that it’s mainly just a continuation of the breakthroughs we heard on Are You Experienced? It seems to me that the Jimi Hendrix Experience was one of the last bands to enter into the music business in the era of the record/tour/record/tour treadmill, although by the time they got around to Electric Ladyland that time had more or less passed and artists were given more freedom. The group may well have been under some amount of pressure to get cracking on a follow-up (once they got done opening for the Monkees or whatever).

But look, I understand why this album gets short shrift. It stands between two titans—one of which announced the arrival of a bold new voice, and the other serves as a swan song (I know, Band of Gypsys, but come on…). Still, there’s something about Axis: Bold as Love that seems more like middle child of the Experience’s catalog. Maybe it’s a little unassuming, maybe it gets lost in the shuffle, but it’s always eager to please, and when it speaks up it has a pretty good reason for doing so.