Monday, May 29, 2017

Two watershed sounds of a watershed year

IT’S STARTING to happen, little by little, our remembering of the events of the watershed year, 1967. Between now and the end of the year, we’ll make that even-numbered anniversary journey, revisiting the March on the Pentagon, the race riots in Detroit, the riots in Newark, the Biafra civil war, the riots in Cairo, Ill., and Durham, N.C.; the appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice; the dawn of the Haight-Ashbury scene; Hair’s premiere on Broadway, the release of In the Heat of the Night … and the riots in Cambridge and Memphis and Milwaukee.

“Jim Marshall 1967,” a retrospective of cultural events of the year through the eyes of the renowned rock photographer, just closed at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. But like the next wave coming in off the ocean, two more revisitations are happening now, one of them a full-on sonic reimagining of everything we heard before.

Are You Experienced? (released May 12, 1967) by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (released in the UK May 26, ’67, in the US June 1) by the Beatles both put the world on notice that the dovetailing of culture, innovation, technology and opportunity that made the decade what it was fast becoming had reached some wild zenith, a high point of creativity. They stand as signposts, benchmarks of the era, the two serial musical events that presaged the future, and announced to a still wary, curious general public the era that was, even then, very nearly over.

These two cultural upstarts — the Liverpool band that bottled the zeitgeist only three years earlier, and the Seattle guitarist who transformed the palette of his instrument and the sound of rock music like no one before or since — brought out records back to back … and changed everything.

All the innovation in the world won’t help you if no one’s listening. Neither record would have mattered — maybe neither record would have happened — if there wasn’t a public ready to receive it. By 1967 rock as art form had been confirmed in the mind of the public; the latitude and permissions of society had evolved enough in other spheres of the social life to make open minds at least possible. The public was ready for the distillation of rock’s best practices, the music in its highest and best use.

Hendrix and the Beatles rose to the occasion. And 50 years later, we still hear the broadsides they fired on our expectations.

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From that tree-ring distance, certain things about Are You Experienced? become clearer than ever: its embrace of violence and danger, depression and sexuality, dreams and the flights of the imagination — all of it in a sonic context no one could have imagined. Hendrix had able fellow travelers in Noel Redding, a fluid, nimble bass player, and Mitch Mitchell, a drummer whose machine-gun precision helped give their sound a fearsome energy. But the Jimi Hendrix Experience was Jimi’s vision, start to finish, and never more purely executed than at the beginning.

“Purple Haze,” of course, set the table, and the terms of engagement. The first track on the album established the scape of Hendrix’s daring, and revealed the comfort and confidence he already had in his style of playing, and the vision underneath. This first single from the album, heavy with the virtuosity of Hendrix’s guitar at full throttle, was just right for radio, with the brevity and punch to be heard and remembered above the radio menagerie of Animals, Byrds, Monkees, Hermits and Stones.

On “Third Stone From the Sun,” a spirited psychedelic sprint across Jimi’s universe, Jimi is your guide as an extraterrestrial visits earth (“May I land my thinking machine?”), ultimately deciding that it’s not worth saving (“to you I shall put an end, and you will never hear surf music again.”). In one nearly seven-minute track, Hendrix already points the way to the fusion of rock and jazz, marking roads for Miles Davis, John McLaughlin and others to pave in the years to come. The song brilliantly morphs rock with jazz, hummable melody with dissonant invention. It’s in this early manifestation of greatness that Hendrix seems to have exploded fully formed as a creative entity. ...

Read the full essay at The Omnibus at Medium

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