Counterbalance 22: Jimi Hendrix - 'Electric Ladyland'
“Have you ever been to Electric Ladyland?" Counterbalance's Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn have, and they file this report.
16 October 1968
Klinger: I've said in the past that artists' big statements tend to garner the most attention. And here we are, Mendelsohn, covering our fifth double LP. By my math, just under one quarter of the albums we've examined have required two slabs of vinyl and a gatefold cover suitable for separating seeds and stems. And every one of them, at one point or another, has been described by some critic somewhere as "sprawling".
But there's the rock 'n' roll rub—boring, generic suburbs are also described as sprawling. So are winos. The backlash against these albums is practically built right in. And so with the 22nd album on the Big List, we're once again asking the question: is Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland a bridge too far? The tight, structured feel of Are You Experienced? has been replaced with 16-minute jam sessions ("Voodoo Chile") and sound effects widdley-woo ("...And the Gods Made Love"). Does this retooling of the Hendrix sound still work?
Mendelsohn: In a word: no. I'm usually the first one to go to the word sprawling. But for me, "sprawling" indicates a monotony of sameness. Electric Ladyland is a mish-mashed cluster fuck of 1960s rock music. An ADD-riddled trip down memory lane. A hit-and-miss package of shoddy production values and even shoddier songwriting by a tiny, British, bass-playing imp who had the gall to ask the Jimi Hendrix to play lead on some sub-par Britpop drivel.
I mean, it's Hendrix, so he's got a pass from me, carte blanche, but this record is utterly devoid of rhyme or reason. Except for the 16-minute "Voodoo Chile", which is just awesome. He should have just stuck with that. You want a big statement? How about an album where all of the songs clock in around a quarter of an hour and feature two five-minute guitar solos apiece.
Klinger: Er, as tempting as that is, I'm inclined to think that one 16-minute jam is probably sufficient. Because wouldn't you rather have a mélange of styles, nonsensical as they may seem, than 60-plus minutes of sameness? I mean, once you get past the silliness of Hendrix making airplane noises, you feel the air pressure drop immediately with the beginning of "Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)", which at its core is a soul ballad worthy of Curtis Mayfield. Then you're smacked right into "Crosstown Traffic", a punchy little burst that sets you up nicely for the "Voodoo Chile". It's strength to strength for the whole of the first LP.
And for the record, I think "Little Miss Strange" is an excellent song. Furthermore, I don't see what impishness has to do with it. Imps have significantly contributed to our rock 'n' roll heritage, and I, for one, will not tolerate impist comments from you.
Mendelsohn: I rescind my impist comment and apologize.
Klinger: Good. We don't need any problems with the imps, especially since we finally got the lousy sprites off our backs.
Mendelsohn: But I stand behind my full-on dislike of that run-of-the-mill song, which sticks out like a sore thumb.
And yes, I would love an album of nothing but "Voodoo Chiles", because, as I stated before, it is incredible.
After this refresher run through Electric Ladyland, I feel like I'm suffering from whiplash. This album speeds up and slows down, takes a leisurely jog to the left, falls asleep at its desk, and then breaks out into a dead sprint. There's a definite lack of cohesion. Sure, the opening suite is tremendous, and Hendrix succeeds at writing possibly his best pop song in "Crosstown Traffic", but the middle section of the record is a production quagmire. We get a hot streak with "Long Summer Night", "Come On", and "Gypsy Eyes", but I have a hard time even categorizing the run between "Burning of the Midnight Lamp" and "House Burning Down". There are six songs in there that I have no affinity for whatsoever. You can't tell me part of this album doesn't come off half-assed in places.
So what's the deal? Is this another example of critics lining up at the Big Statements trough?
Klinger: Well, if Hendrix gets carte blanche with you, it's no surprise that Electric Ladyland is so widely hailed. Sheer virtuosity alone could have placed this high in the rankings, and Jimi is always good for melting a face or two.
But when we look at the double (or, heaven help us, triple) album as a phenomenon, I think that there are two distinct categories: the Grand Artistic Statement and the Pile. The former suggests that the artist has a singular vision, a story so vast that to contain it to 45 minutes would cheapen the entire endeavor, insulting the fans and setting the rock 'n' roll cause back ten years. The latter indicates that the artist's fertile brain was simply creating so much content that the artist couldn't even begin to edit it down to a cohesive, succinct piece of work. "Here's what we've been doing, fans", they say, "You figure it out—I'm off to pack my nose". There are, I suspect, far more examples of the Pile than the bona fide Grand Artistic Statement.
And that's certainly not to suggest that one is preferable to another. I'd say that the "White Album" is a pile, and I love it like I love Fresca. The Wall is a Grand Artistic Statement, and I'll be unloading on that one in about two and a half years.
Electric Ladyland is probably more of a Pile, but that's mainly because it's such a transitional album—or at least it would have been. The occasionally jarring shifts between full-on psychedelia and rootsier, jammier blues sounds suggest the work of someone who's clearing his throat for a different kind of a new way of expressing himself.
Mendelsohn: I guess I'm not surprised that this pile of a record managed to make the top 25. I'd listen to Hendrix farting on a snare drum as long as he brought his guitar along and played some blues. I suppose the real question is: if the CIA hadn't had him killed, would we be having this conversation now, as opposed to, say, maybe a little while from now, as Hendrix's piles started to pile up, lessening the force of his original pile? While Hendrix may have been clearing his throat, I still get the feeling that he would have been unable to concentrate long enough on one thing to put together a succinct album.
Klinger: I'm not so sure about that. Most artists tend to shift back to single-album mode once they've stretched sufficiently or cleared the odds and sods off their desks. Hendrix's Band of Gypsys project, released in the U.S. three months before his death, gave an indication of where he was heading. Regardless of whether he would have been able to sustain the quality of this initial three-album burst, I'm sure he would have been able to focus himself. Also record labels have a way of convincing you that it's time to buckle down and create a more market-friendly unit-shifter.
Mendelsohn: Band of Gypsys was a stopgap used to fulfill contractual obligations. Dropping a halfway cohesive blues bomb as they did is something Hendrix could have done in a semi-conscious acid fog. I don't think it speaks to the things that might have come out of his head had to be able to settle into his studio and noodle. Hendrix may eventually have kowtowed to the labels to shift some units. Still, it probably would have been slapped together, generic and easily digestible before he climbed back into his head to mine the depths of musical possibilities. But then, this is just rampant speculation, ascribing near-supernatural abilities to some guy who just played the guitar real nice.
Klinger: But Mendelsohn, without rampant speculation, what would we rock geeks do all day? Productive work? Meaningful conversations with our loved ones? That'll be the day.
But of course, this speculation might enable us to notice things about these albums that others might not, like the general sense of sweetness that I get from a lot of these songs. On Electric Ladyland, Jimi displays many of the characteristics that can occasionally make hippies tolerable: his slightly bemused detachment from the world, his eagerness to just be free to do his own thing, his fascination with sounds moving back and forth between his speakers. And if that means that at times he'll make a questionable decision, like fading "Rainy Day, Dream Away" out seemingly at random, then I'll allow it.
Mendelsohn: I prefer to see Hendrix, the bluesman, his soul burning through the vinyl with every lick. But that's the great thing about a Pile—you never know what you'll get until you stick your hand into it. It could be a sweet song, it could be an extended blues jam, or it could be a raccoon with rabies. You never know what's hiding in there.
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This article was originally published on 25 February 2020.
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