When Jimi Hendrix came to London, he changed the sound of music for ever

Jimi Hendrix

Mick Eve, sax player for Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames, was mooching around the musical instrument shops in London’s Denmark Street as one did in 1966.

His friend Chas Chandler, whom Mick had known as bassist for the Animals but who had recently returned from a talent-fishing trip to America, ran out of a guitar store and said excitedly in broad Geordie: “Mick, Mick! You got to come and hear this bloke play; I found him in New York!”

“I don’t need to go into the shop, Chas,” replied Mick in droll Cockney, “I can hear ’im from ’ere”, which he certainly could – a restlessly remarkable, eerily savage sound emanating from within. This was the afternoon of 22 September, Jimi Hendrix’s first full day in England.

Eve’s is one of the many stories not included in the biopic Jimi: All is By My Side, narrating the life of unarguably the greatest guitarist and blues magician of all time, as he left New York for London.

Hendrix had arrived aboard a Pan Am flight, little known in his own country and a stranger to London. He had been born of Native and African-American blood in Seattle to a poor father who cared moderately for his son and a mother whom he adored but barely knew, and who died when Jimi was 15.

He had joined the 101st Airborne Division of the US army to avoid a jail sentence for car theft (under a judge’s ruling) but hated the army immediately. A regimental report read: “Individual is unable to conform to military rules and regulations.” It is important, says Paul Gilroy, a historian of black culture, to see Hendrix as an ex-paratrooper who gradually became an advocate of peace.

Reared on Muddy Waters and Albert King, music was Hendrix’s love and after teaming up with army colleague Billy Cox on bass, he played for Little Richard and the Isley Brothers before venturing out on his own.

Hendrix collected a small coterie of dazzled admirers in New York, among them John Cale of the Velvet Underground who, after playing a concert with Patti Smith in Paris last week, recalled going down into a dive bar in Sullivan Street to see Hendrix play during the mid-60s. “There was this fella heckling him all the way through, giving him gyp until Hendrix said, ‘I see we’ve got Polly Parrot in the house tonight’. He got no trouble after that.”

Hendrix also amazed Chandler at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village one night, enough to fly him to London where the hunger for blues was inexplicably greater than in America. “Black American music got nowhere near white AM radio,” says the man who met Hendrix at Heathrow, Tony Garland, who would manage Hendrix’s British company, Anim. “And Jimi was too white for black radio. Here, there were a lot of white guys listening to blues from America and wanting to sound like their heroes.”

One of them was Eric Clapton of Cream, who invited Hendrix to sit in on a performance of Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor at Regent Street Polytechnic, but who afterwards told Chandler irritably: “You never told me he was that fucking good.”

In London, Hendrix with his band Experience forged a new soundscape, stretching the blues to some outer limit of expression, ethereal but fearsome, lyrical but dangerous, sublime but ruthless. And yet, he wrote: “I don’t want anyone to stick a psychedelic label round my neck. Sooner Bach or Beethoven.”

This was not serendipitous, nor was it as effortlessly “natural”, as Hendrix himself often suggested, or even pure genius: Hendrix had found an alchemist with sound in the unlikely form of a sonic wave engineer in the service of the Ministry of Defence, Roger Mayer.

Mayer was an inventor of electronic musical devices, including the Octavia guitar effect which created a “doubling” echo. “I’d shown it to Jimmy Page,” Mayer recalls at his home in Surrey, “but he said it was too far out. Jimi said, the moment we met: ‘Yeah, I’d like to try that stuff’.”

Mayer left the Admiralty and thus began a partnership that changed the sound of sound. “And don’t forget,” says Tappy Wright, who had been a roadie but joined the management team, “these were no Fenders or Stratocasters. These were Hofners we bought for a few quid. Very basic but stretched to the fucking limit.”

Mayer is fascinating on the science of the sound: “When you listen to Hendrix, you are listening to music in its pure form … The input from the player projects forward the equivalent of electronic shadow dancing so that what happens derives from the original sound and modifies what is being played. But nothing can be predictive … if you throw a pebble into a lake, you have no way of predicting the ripples. It depends how you throw the stone, or the wind.”

Casting this magic around working men’s clubs in the north of England, and opening for the Walker Brothers and Engelbert Humperdinck, Hendrix forged his furrow with what Gilroy calls “transgressions of redundant musical and racial rules”.

“He would take from blues, jazz only Coltrane could play in that way,” says Keith Altham, a reporter for the New Musical Express, who became a kind of embedded Hendrix correspondent. “And Dylan was the greatest influence. But he’d listen to Mozart, he’d read sci-fi, and it would all go through his head and come out as Jimi Hendrix.”

Mozart, Handel, Bach, Mahler: influences which Hendrix listed in a collection of writings recently assembled by his friends Alan Douglas and Peter Neal to create the nearest we have to an autobiography. And appositely so, for Hendrix’s address in London, which he called “the only home I ever had”, with the only woman he ever really loved, was the same at which George Frederick Handel had resided in another era: 22 Brook St, London W1.

On the night he arrived in England, Hendrix met Kathy Etchingham, his match and lover. Her recollections are priceless: she remembers Hendrix buying music by Handel and jamming along with his guitar on the sofa. “People often saw Jimi on stage looking incredibly intense and serious,” she said over dinner in London a few years ago accompanied by her husband, an Australian GP. “And suddenly this smile would come across his face, almost a laugh, for no apparent reason.

“I remember very well [Jimi] sitting on the bed or the floor at home in Brook Street; sometimes he would play a riff for hours until he had it just right. Then he’d throw his head back and laugh. Those were the moments he’d got it right for himself, not for anyone else.”

Except perhaps Kathy too: Hendrix wrote The Wind Cries Mary, her middle name, when she had stormed out after an argument.

Hendrix returned to America to record Electric Ladyland, during the making of which producer Eddie Kramer remembers “his wonderful, swaying dance coming off the keyboards [played by Steve Winwood], in a waltz with the guitar”. Hendrix then gave the name Electric Ladyland to his grand studio project in New York. And any suggestion that he had some kind of “death wish” is given the lie by his own written intentions to record there “something else – like with Handel and Bach and Muddy Waters and flamenco”.

Patti Smith remembers the opening party in summer 1970, from which Hendrix himself took a break to join her on the steps outside. “He was so full of ideas,” Smith recalls, “the different sounds he was going to create in this studio – wider landscapes, experiments with musicians, new soundscapes. All he had to do was to get over to England, play the [Isle of Wight] festival, and get back to work.”

Hendrix never made it back to work. He died in the street on which I was born: Lansdowne Crescent, Notting Hill. I’d moved a block away by the time I picked up the Evening Standard on the way home from school on 18 September 1970, flabbergasted by the news. The front-page picture showed Hendrix playing at that Isle of Wight festival less than three weeks beforehand. I’d been there; his searing cry against war, Machine Gun, was still ringing in my ears.

Back home, I changed into all white and waited for cover of darkness to go round to 22 Lansdowne Crescent, where Hendrix had died in the basement, swallowing vomit after a night out with wine, amphetamines and a German girl called Monika.

There was no one there. I took a piece of chalk out of my pocket, scrawled “Kiss the sky, Jimi” on the pavement and crossed the road to ponder the gravity of the moment and place. A man emerged and washed away my scanty tribute with a mop.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ed Vulliamy, for The Observer on Sunday 26th October 2014 00.05 Europe/London

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