Graded on a Curve: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland

Remembering Mitch Mitchell, born on this day in 1946.Ed.

Is it me? I repeat, is it me? Am I the only person on the planet who thinks the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland is grossly overrated? Well, almost. The famously eccentric rock critic Chuck Eddy agrees with me, I think. But otherwise? The two of us are all by our lonesome on this one. Let the critics, all 20 million of them, fawn and gush! Let one Peter Doggett proclaim Electric Ladyland the greatest rock album of all time! Me, I’ve always found the guitar legend’s 1968 double LP to be less a rewarding experience than an overlong and sometimes grueling, listen.

Maybe you had to hear it stoned. Maybe that’s it. I never heard it stoned. I never listened to any Jimi Hendrix LP stoned except 1969’s Smash Hits, which I liked because whomever it was that cherry-picked its tunes made certain they were both (1) catchy and (2) short. Smash Hits coheres, as does 1967’s Are You Experienced, which is more than can be said for the shambolic Electric Ladyland, which one critic called “the fullest realization of Jimi’s far-reaching ambitions,” but which I find both uneven and diffuse—in short, less a case of far-reaching than overreaching, and overreaching at its worst.

Only a fool would write off Electric Ladyland as a complete loss. There’s no denying that “Crosstown Traffic,” the haunting cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” are stone cold brilliant. “All Along the Watchtower” shows remarkable self-restraint; Hendrix plays only those notes that are necessary to frame and accompany the melody, which was rarely the case with the guy. As for “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” it’s musical napalm, and one of the most incendiary songs ever recorded. On it Hendrix renounces subtlety for a sound every bit as brutal as the Tet Offensive, which took place while Hendrix, his bandmates, and an all-star crew of extras were recording Electric Ladyland.

But hardly anything else on the LP excites me, and its two long blues numbers, “Voodoo Chile” and “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” both bore me tears. Admittedly I’m no big fan of the blues, but I find both of these extended and oft dragging forays insufferable. Nor do the LP’s more overtly pop numbers thrill me. “Little Miss Strange” is a lightweight curio that hasn’t aged well, and the same goes for the very psychedelic “Burning of the Midnight Lamp.”

As for “Gypsy Eyes,” it’s a more or less inferior take on “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” The lackadaisical “Rainy Day, Dream Away” does feature a nice little jam involving organ, tenor saxophone, and guitar, but the song sounds formless to my ears. And the same goes for “Rainy Day, Dream Away” as well as “House Burning Down.” They’re all decent tunes, but not great ones, and I don’t feel the overwhelming urge to ever hear any of them again, despite of all of Hendrix’s much-vaunted guitar pyrotechnics.

No, when it comes to The Jimi Hendrix Experience I’ll take 1967’s Are You Experienced or Smash Hits any day. Neither includes such filler as “… And the Gods Made Love” or “Moon, Turn the Tides… Gently, Gently Away,” to say nothing of such decent but basically minor tunes as the bluesy “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll),” on which Hendrix proves he could play more notes faster than anybody else but not much else, or the very short “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland),” on which he demonstrates that he might have given Sly Stone a run for his money but not much else.

There’s no arguing that Jimi Hendrix revolutionized rock guitar, and that he played with a fluidity and facility that may never be equaled. But I’m a primitivist at heart, and find his intimidating prowess on his instrument less enthralling than enervating. Sure, he could play 86 notes where a lesser guitarist might only be able to play only 5, but I’m not impressed.

Other guitarists may be but I’m not a guitarist, I’m just a guy who when all is said and done would sooner listen to Robbie Robertson, Greg Ginn, Neil Young, Sonny Sharrock, Mick Ronson, James “Blood” Ulmer, Robert Quine, Eddie Hazel, Tom Verlaine, Lou Reed, Jerry Garcia, Jimmy Page, J. Mascis, Pete Townshend, and plenty of others whose names escape me at the moment.

I’ll let others proclaim Jimi Hendrix the greatest guitarist who ever lived. Meanwhile, I’ll be listening to Flipper’s Ted Falconi drag his guitar through the muck and sludge. Like E.M. Cioran once wrote: “Better in the gutter than on a pedestal.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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  • Bill Zebub

    You are not alone. I LOVE Hendrix, and have who-knows-how-many of his albums. Electric Ladyland is by no means terrible, but how it acquired its reputation is a mystery to me.

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