“Are You Experienced?” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience (1967)
In the summer of 1966, Jimi Hendrix was going by the stage name of Jimmy James and playing in New York City bars with a band called the Blue Flame.
Less than a year later, his Jimi Hendrix Experience had three hit singles to its credit in his new base of the United Kingdom, and the band was about to release its first album to an eagerly anticipating audience.
“Are You Experienced?” hit the British shelves on May 12, 1967, a few weeks before the Beatles’ latest long-player, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Both represented how far rock music had come in the dozen or so years it had been in existence, and particularly in the short time even since the Blue Flame days.
It took another three months, though, for “Are You Experienced?” to be released in Hendrix’s native United States. The Experience had made its American live debut with its stunning appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June, a set that filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker caught for posterity. The Monkees subsequently invited the Experience to open for their summer concerts, but that experiment didn’t last too long.
So Hendrix still was relatively unknown in the United States when “Are You Experienced?” came out, but that didn’t stop it from selling strongly, reaching No. 5 and establishing Jimi as … well, Jimi Hendrix.
The U.K. and U.S. releases of “Are You Experienced?” are substantially different. The British version does not include any of the hit singles – “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary” – which, of course, represented some of the strongest tracks on the American issue. On the other hand, “Can You See Me,” “Remember” and “Red House” were removed from the U.S. version, the latter against Hendrix’s wishes.
In 1993, MCA rectified the situation on compact disc, including all the songs from both releases, plus the B-sides of the British singles: “Stone Free,” “51st Anniversary” and “Highway Chile.”
For the sake of this discussion, let’s go with the American version. It’s difficult to think about “Are You Experienced?” without hearing the opening notes of “Purple Haze” blasting out from the grooves of the first song on Side One!
Few, if any, chord progressions and guitar leads are more recognizable than the start of “Purple Haze,” and calling the song a musical landmark almost seems like an understatement. At once we have the full bloom of psychedelia and nascent hard rock – it even might represent the birth of what became heavy metal – into a sound that still seems to be on the cutting edge 46 years later, and perhaps always will.
The lyrics have been a source of discussion for four and a half decades, especially the line “‘Scuse me, while I kiss the sky,” which often are misinterpreted, usually for comedic purposes. Jimi claimed the finished product was boiled down from a much longer science-fiction epic. He also disavowed the seemingly obvious drug references.
“I dream a lot and I put a lot of my dreams down as songs,” Hendrix said in a 1969 interview with the New Musical Express. “I wrote one called ‘First Around the Corner’ and another called ‘The Purple Haze’, which was all about a dream I had that I was walking under the sea.”
Whatever it is, that song serves as a defining moment in the history of popular music. It scored the Experience another bit hit in Britain, hitting No. 3, and also was the band’s first charting single in the United States, peaking at No. 65.
The theme of “Manic Depression,” the second track on the American version of “Are You Experienced?”, is summarized on Hendrix’s introduction to the song during a performance at San Francisco’s Winterland in October 1968: “a story about a cat wishing he could make love to music, instead of the same old everyday woman.” The composition is in a 3/4 time signature, somewhat unusual for rock music at the time.
One of the most-covered rock songs of the ’60s remains “Hey Joe,” which was written by – or at least, it was copyrighted by – a South Carolina-born musician named William Moses Roberts Jr. In 1965, the Los Angeles band the Leaves had a regional hit with the song, and they re-recorded it the following year, putting it on the national charts. Other artists to cut versions around the same time include the Standells, the Surfaris, Love, the Music Machine and the Byrds.
Hendrix’s version represents his first recording as a bandleader, at the urging of manager Chas Chandler, who actually had been looking for an artist to record the song. Folk singer Tim Rose had performed “Hey Joe” at a slowed-down tempo, and Hendrix’s arrangement appears to have been based on that. Adding backing vocals are a vocal trio called the Breakaways, three ladies named Jean Hawker, Margot Newman and Vicki Brown (in case it ever comes up in a trivia contest).
“Hey Joe” was released in the U.K. on Dec. 16, 1966, quickly vaulting up to No. 6 on the charts and establishing the Jimi Hendrix Experience as one of the hottest acts in a nation that had an unparalleled abundance of quality rock groups at the time. The band’s live debut of the song was at Monterey, and Jimi closed his set – and the entire Woodstock Music and Arts Festival – with “Hey Joe” on the morning of Aug. 18, 1969.
“Love or Confusion” is one of the more sonically affected songs on “Are You Experienced?”, its musical overtones enhancing the uncertainty expressed in Hendrix’s heartfelt lyrics:
My head is poundin’, poundin’
Goin’ ’round and ’round and ’round and ’round
Must there always be these colours?
Without names, without sounds
My heart burns with feeling, but,
My mind, it’s cold and reeling
Is this love baby,
Or is it just confusion?
You tell me baby, is this
Love or confusion?
“May This Be Love” is a true gem of psychedelia, as Hendrix takes the listener on a journey to a world where all is well, all is ideal: “Some people say day-dreaming’s for the lazy minded fools with nothing else to do/So let them laugh, so just as long as I have you to see me through.”
Featuring one of Hendrix’s many eminently memorable guitar riffs, “I Don’t Live Today” examines the mundane side of life, perhaps with Jimi ruminating about his days as a struggling musician and the tremendous disappointment therein. The key line: “It’s such a shame to waste your time away like this, existing.” The song evolves into a jam featuring a prototypical example of Hendrix’s guitar awash in studio effects, panning back and forth between channels and giving listeners at the time a taste of something they’d never heard before, from anyone.
In the U.K., Track Records issued “The Wind Cries Mary” as the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s third single, and it became another No. 6 hit. The languidly paced love song is one of Hendrix’s enduring classics, and deservedly so. The Curtis Mayfield-derived riff evokes the melancholy of the subject, a lament for lost love put forth in an eloquent manner that establishes Jimi’s genius as a lyricist:
A broom is drearily sweeping
Up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life
Somewhere a queen is weeping
Somewhere a king has no wife
And the wind, it cries Mary
The Experience often opened its shows with “Fire,” a tremendous showcase for Hendrix’s riffing that, as with many of his earliest songs, still sounds fresh and invigorating today. According to an article in Record Collector, the song’s genesis is from when Jimi asked bass player Noel Redding’s mother if he could stand next to her fireplace to warm himself. She agreed, but her great dane was in the way: “Aw, move over, Rover, and let Jimi take over.”
In an album full of tracks that built the foundation of Classic Rock, “Third Stone from the Sun” stands out for its influence what would become jazz-rock fusion. The signature melody has been dropped into many a guitar solo over the years, with the teenage Ted Nugent quoting it during his flashy run on the Amboy Dukes’ “Baby Please Don’t Go” later in 1967, and the Allman Brothers often including it in “Mountain Jam.”
Thematically, the song draws from jazz great Sun Ra’s vision of worlds beyond ours, with Hendrix employing dialogue at varying speeds to portray an extraterrestrial being’s description of the earth to his control center (pre-Major Tom). In 2000, Experience Hendrix released “The Jimi Hendrix Experience” boxed set, which includes the uncut dialogue between Jimi and producer Chas Chandler. Much of it goes somewhat like this:
Starfleet to scoutship, please give your position, over.
I’m in orbit around the third planet from the star called the sun. Over.
You mean it’s the earth? Over.
Positive. It is known to have some form of intelligent species. Over. I think we should take a look.
Strange beautiful grass of green, with your majestic silver seas, your mysterious mountains.
I wish to see closer. May I land my kinky machine?
Although your world wonders me, with your majestic and superior cackling hen, your people I do not understand.
So to you I shall put an end. And you’ll never hear surf music again.
The “surf music” line has been a source of conjecture for decades. Guitarist Dick Dale wrote in his autobiography that the comment was Hendrix’s reaction upon hearing that Dale was battling a possibly terminal case of colon cancer. Dale recovered, and he later covered “Third Stone.” And Frank Zappa often quoted the line in concert to introduce the suf music-inspired “Theme from Lumpy Gravy.”
The British “Are You Experienced?” opened with the faded-in burst of guitar feedback that erupts into “Foxy Lady,” another song that certainly has stood the test of time with its distinctive octave-leap riff and sexually charged lyrics. The liner notes of the 1992 CD reissue quote Jimi as saying he was relatively shy and never would approach women in the way the song suggests. Nonetheless, from every available report, Mr. Hendrix did quite well with the ladies, indeed.
Both versions of “Are You Experienced?” close with the title track, a monumental piece of audio experimentation that serves as a grand summation of everything Hendrix brought to the table on his debut album. Much of the instrumentation is recorded backwards, extending the possibilities of what the Beatles had introduced in such psychedelic staples as “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Rain.” Jimi’s lyrics explore a theme he’d revisit often, of entering a brave, new world, so to speak:
I know, I know you probably scream and cry
That your little world won’t let you go
But who in your measly little world
Are you trying to prove that
You’re made out of gold and, eh, can’t be sold
So, are you experienced?
Have you ever been experienced?
Well, I have
So has anyone who appreciates the “Are You Experienced?” album for what it is: a true cornerstone of Classic Rock, this by a man who had been playing to audiences of a perhaps a dozen just nine months before its release.