We pick apart hundreds of lost Hendrix recordings for 10 of his best rare cuts.
Words: Nick Soulsby
Jimi Hendrix’s habits in the recording studio have furnished fans with a strong legacy, a world away from the usual fuzzy home tapes, school band demos and clutter that often inhabit posthumous release schedules. Hendrix chose to invest the wealth achieved from the success of his first albums with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell — the Jimi Hendrix Experience — in constructing his very own professional studio.
Again, many artists want their own studios, but Hendrix’s vision incorporated the need for that studio to be state-of-the-art, capable of fulfilling the recording needs of paying clients and not just his own whims. From 1969 through 1970, while seeking his new direction in the aftermath of his most famous band’s demise, Hendrix retreated to the studio and played tirelessly, filling tapes several days a week either solo, or in the company of various friends and fellow musicians.
This has left literally hundreds of takes, numerous jams, plentiful cover songs and range of discarded or unfinished songs for aficionados to pick over. Here we pick ten standouts that leave one wondering what Hendrix might have done with more time, more life.
‘Catfish Blues’ from Blues
The Blues compilation was intended to showcase Hendrix’s respect for, and skill with, one particular musical heritage. Again, like his later funk and jazz influenced efforts, it re-emphasized his connection to the continuum of African-American music culture, at a time when his credibility within white rock music had rather obscured this lineage.
‘Catfish Blues’ is a scorching take recorded live in a Dutch TV studio. Mitch Mitchell breaks the song with a minute long drum solo showcasing his ability to create a sense of momentum and leftfield creativity even when his spotlight-catching colleague goes silent. Noel Redding’s slinky bass part lollops like a fish marooned on dry land supporting the slow pacing of the early parts of this song. Hendrix keeps his guitar tightly leashed barring a brief charge through the scales around the two-and-a-half minute mark, until, in the last section of the song, the band suddenly kick into double-time and hurtles toward conclusion with plenty of opportunity for Hendrix to rip electricity from his instrument.
‘Pali Gap’ from South Saturn Delta
A shimmering descent across the strings hustles in this striking guitar piece in which Hendrix’s guitar playing is very much to the forefront with a combination of quick-fingered virtuosity and sudden surges of revved up distortion pushing the jam along. The idea that this is merely a casual practice is belied by the fact that Hendrix overdubbed a second guitar to aid the even-tempered, midnight lounge vibe. The title was given posthumously by Hendrix’s manager Michael Jeffery in an effort to help the Hendrix film Rainbow Bridge and its accompanying soundtrack.
This kind of activity impacted Hendrix’s catalogue for years with songs changing name at whim, different takes and edits floating about with little oversight or accompanying detail, new music added by session musicians and the contributions of Hendrix’s colleagues sliced out to make way. There’s a lot to be grateful for in the Experience Hendrix organisation’s efforts to properly document and reissue Hendrix’s music in its original forms; in this case, ‘Pali Gap’ emerges as a solid rocker with Hendrix skirting the boundaries of politeness but always wrestling it back with the muscularity of his sound.
‘Auld Lang Syne’/’Who Knows’ from Live at the Fillmore East
Hendrix spent the tail-end of 1969 in chaos. He had lost longtime producer Chas Chandler; broken up the ‘Experience’ due to arguments with Redding; legal issues were stalling a planned live concert film; he owed his label a new album in order to settle a contractual dispute; and it was December 10 before he was acquitted of drug charges. Stood on stage at the Fillmore East on December 31, with a crowd chanting down the clock to midnight, perhaps no one in the room more sincerely wished for a new start than Hendrix — “Happy New Year, goodbye ’69!” he hollers amid this two-part jam.
The first half is Hendrix showing his ability to pick up and play any melody, then to own it with his array of eye-catching guitar tricks. He lets the basic melody of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ lurch and stagger until his new drummer and new bassist, Buddy Miles and Billy Cox respectively, take up the mantle allowing Hendrix to loose bleats of feedback and pirouetting sound effects. ‘Who Knows’ picks right up with a moody RnB bass and guitar strut as the trio find their desired direction.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
‘The Star Spangled Banner’ from The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Very different to the raw and rugged version that achieved ever-lasting fame at the Woodstock Festival, this highly stylised studio rendition features multiple tracks of guitars. The guitar tone evokes the tone of early synthesizers, there’s a crackle and spark to everything which makes this piece sound almost electronic. The breakdown across the final minute is no less stellar than the live version with a throb of overdriven guitar underpinning the spikes and shards of at least two further guitars cracking up.
It’s the most baroque invention Hendrix ever came up with — and didn’t match the tone of any of the material released in his lifetime. If this had been a product of the mid-Seventies prog rock era, no one would have been surprised. To hear Hendrix create something so formal, so structured, is a surprise — another indication of how forward thinking he was when it came to the guitar, as well as how open minded he was willing to be.
‘Scorpio Woman’ from Morning Symphony Ideas
(Dagger Records, 2000)
The Experience Hendrix organisation has set up a sub-label called Dagger Records in order to issue live recordings and demos only available in less professional quality than their main releases. Their schedule has been loaded with surprises and highlights including this lengthy jam that runs well over the 20 minute mark.
Hendrix toys with a number of parts, accompanies them with lyrics that — though generic by his standards — already have clear melodies, a sense of how they connect to the music. The biggest surprise comes around the 18 and a ½ minute mark as Hendrix pulls out a jaunty figure with a folksy-feel, like he’s suddenly channeling an amped-up Irish jig — for the next minute he hops back and forth over repeating spirals and brief runs across the frets, before the track returns to a heavily strummed rhythm. Once or twice a phone rings in the background — until Jimi finally picks up “Hey, what’s happening?”
‘Drone Blues’ from Hear My Music
(Dagger records, 2004)
Recorded in April 1969 with Noel Redding no longer taking part in sessions and Mitch Mitchell otherwise engaged, the result here gives genuine hope for the future at a time when Hendrix’s direction seemed a little unclear. The combination of both a drummer and a percussionist resulted in a skittering, itchy undercurrent with Hendrix cottoning onto the busy sound and pursuing it.
His guitar work is hectic, full of short phrases repeated at lightning speed, no pausing for breath, each snatched idea instantly giving way to the next thought. The sustained notes and bends that often populate his jamming are relatively absence — there’s no space for them. While his guitar is high in the mix, Hendrix resists the temptation to grandstand; he seems happy to let his contributions simmer within the overall sound — much to the benefit of this piece. The rhythm is relatively static, the other players having little experience of working with Hendrix and of how to push him. The anxious energy at work, however, keeps the piece moving until suddenly Hendrix does something remarkable (for him) by relinquishing control and letting the guitar feedback, creating the drones that give the piece its title.
Starting with tuning up and gently aimless noodling, what’s remarkable about this piece is how rapidly the disjointed strumming and drum shuffle builds into something vital. After barely a minute the trio locks into a solid rhythm and from there on in the pyrotechnics barely relent for the next ten minutes. A recurring riff returns a number of times forming an instrumental chorus in amid some frantic guitar clatter and soaring high notes, there’s no let up for five minutes when Hendrix eases back on the brute force, the drums and bass assume centre stage and Hendrix steps steadily through a number of different, almost unrelated guitar figures, some of them broken off too early, others seeming to indicate sudden inspirations that prove unsustainable. There are pauses and gaps as ideas are snapped to one side to allow fresh impulses to come to the fore. The final minute segues into a more clear fleshed out song before fading.
‘Suddenly November Morning’ from West Coast Seattle Boy
In a discography loaded with lost gems, the ‘Black Gold’ tape is unique. It consists of solo renditions of 16 songs, recorded at home on an acoustic guitar in 1970. So far, only this one song has been released — and only on disc four of a 2010 box-set thus targeting it only at the committed aficionados of Hendrix’s work. It was 1992 before anyone realised the original tape still existed — stashed at Mitch Mitchell’s house — then a further 18 years until this one song emerged.
At the very least, however, its release indicated that the recordings are now safeguarded, that they sound bright and vibrant despite their lo-fi origins and long disappearance, and that the potential exists for an official release. Given Hendrix’s tendency to bring every idea into the studio to be kicked around and worked up, it’s hard to tell if the current belief — that 9 of the songs haven’t been released in another form — holds up. What exists here is a warm example of Hendrix’s acoustic abilities; a gentle four minute journey across a relatively well worked out and coherent song and a definite step up from the improvised sketches that abound.
‘Valleys of Neptune’ from Valleys of Neptune
Over a year in development, by the time this May 1970 take took place Hendrix had worked out the song solo on guitar, solo on piano, then in several group sessions… Without ever creating a final master he was happy with. ‘Valleys of Neptune’ finds Hendrix’s optimistic desire for freedom walking hand-in-hand with his love of mystical science-fiction in lyrics focused on how “We know there were three continents so much older and they shall rise and tell us much more the truth of man.”
The practice that had gone into this song is visible in the way the entire band switches at moment’s notice into a swirling bridge, then rises out of it in unison to reprise the solid motifs that form the core of the piece. The song fades out, but rather than being an indication that no one knew how to finish, the song has already devolved into a moody tranquility that suggests the fade is a deliberate choice and a good fit for the overall vibe.
‘Easy Blues’ from People, Hell and Angels
(Experience Hendrix, 2013)
The last compilation of Hendrix studio outtakes worked well as a coherent album; the absence of studio effects or intricate layering left a starker ‘back to basics’ aura inhabiting its twelve tracks. Rumours of Hendrix’s affection for jazz never quite translate into definitive jazziness on tape — the opening minute of this instrumental with its walking bass part and ringing guitar are about the nearest he comes.
After that the track becomes an energetic and lively strut, there’s a bounce and a cheerfulness to the piece. Hendrix defaults to a shrill solo around the three minute mark while the presence of a rhythm guitar player in the studio doesn’t seem to add anything that Hendrix wouldn’t have coloured in himself or to nudge him anywhere he wouldn’t usually go. By contrast to the studio albums released in his lifetime, ‘Easy Blues’ hints at a path heavy on technique and sheer skill, less reliant on studio trickery or the latest tools of the trade.