On this day in 1967, the Jimi Hendrix Experience released its debut album, Are You Experienced, in Great Britain. Three months later, the American version was released and rock music hasn’t been the same since. The title itself posed a provocative question at a time when Britain and the United States, not to mention much of western society, was experiencing consequential change in attitudes about sex, drugs, and one’s purpose in life.
The album cover released in the United States with art work by Karl Ferris featured a Day-Glo yellow background and a fisheye lens photo of the band members. Their colorful, flamboyant clothing inferred the personality traits of each band member. The purple, psychedelic lettering boldy announced the name of the band and the album. Playful and yet slightly ominous, the cover presented an Alice in Wonderland riddle that even before a note was played, compelled one to consider the question, Are You Experienced?
The band was a racially integrated trio of musicians: American, Jimi Hendrix, on guitar alongside British musicians Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. Hendrix was “discovered” by Chas Chandler, the ex-bass player of the rock group The Animals. At the time, Hendrix was scratching out a living playing clubs in Greenwich Village in New York City. Prior to this, Hendrix had honed his craft playing back up musician with the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, and Curtis Knight. In 1966, he performed under the name Jimmy James in the group Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.
The music of the Jimi Hendrix Experience synthesized elements of rock, soul, blues, pop, and psychedelic rock. Their sound was from another planet. The songs featured a cacophony of overdubbing, backward tape tracks, tape loops, and sound layering. While Redding and Mitchell ground out driving rhythms, Hendrix explored a sonic terrain of wah-wah and chorus pedals, fuzz and feedback distortion all wrapped up in virtuoso guitar work.
What makes Are You Experienced so special is the concoction of different genres of music and cutting-edge sound engineering created primarily by Hendrix and translated by legendary recording producer Eddie Kramer. The result is an Odyssey-like excursion through poetic odes, psychedelic episodes, dazzling blues renditions, and chaotic instrumental jams. Songs like “Purple Haze”, “Fire”, “Foxy Lady” and “Can You See Me” (on the British version) took on a classic hard rock feel before rock had any classics to speak of. Each song contains a frenzy of guitar pyrotechnics and driving rhythms. The tunes lend themselves to AM as well as FM radio formats and were familiar songs in live concerts.
Are You Experienced also features some blues renditions with “Hey Joe”, “The Wind Cries Mary”, and “Red House.” Legend has it that Chas Chandler heard Jimi playing “Hey Joe” at Café Wha?, a Greenwich Village night club, and was so impressed that he invited Hendrix to travel with him to London to produce his music and manage his career. The sorrowful “The Wind Cries Mary” was an apology to his then-girlfriend, Kathy Mary Etchingham, after an argument. “Red House” takes a satirical look at physical love as Hendrix laments over a woman that won’t love him anymore and has moved on. But then he realizes that if his baby won’t love him, he knows his sister will. Other love songs on the album are “Love or Confusion”, “May this be Love” and “Remember” (British version) that explore the security and insecurity of love.
Two songs that explore the disaffection of the ‘60s generation are “Manic Depression” and “I Don’t Live Today.” It would be untrue to say these songs were self-biographical (Hendrix was known to be a pretty upbeat guy) and he implies this in both songs with an almost tongue-in-cheek attitude. “Manic Depression” is written in a fast ¾ waltz that has a slapstick feel to it. “I Don’t Live Today” is also an upbeat number that belies the song’s message. The opening lyrics repeat the title, Hendrix describes himself in a very dark place in life. However, his vocals are not in anguish, but almost nonchalant with claims of “Maybe tomorrow, I just can’t say…” As the song progresses, swirling on a chorus of wailing guitar and beating drums, Hendrix reveals that the depression he speaks of is about not living life to its fullest and only existing in it.
Though nearly every song on the album is brimming with fuel-injected psychedelic sound, “Third Stone from the Sun” and the title track “Are You Experienced” take the listener on a cosmic journey through sonic space and time. “Third Stone from the Sun” is primarily an instrumental with slowed down voice tracks depicting a conversation between a “star fleet” command center and a scout ship where the latter describes a third planet from the sun, Planet Earth. Hendrix mixes jazz and psychedelic rock in the piece, along with some fiery guitar licks depicting space travel and destruction.
The final track on the album, “Are You Experienced” has been considered a major anthem of rock and roll by many music critics. The song opens with a precursor of Hip-Hop record scratch rhythm that is repeated frequently throughout. Guitar, drums and bass are played backward in the chorus sections and solos. The song’s coy question has often been equated with experiencing drugs or sex. Hendrix makes vague references to both with lines such as “Not necessarily stoned…” but it could be. When he sings lustily of “We’ll hold hands” and “Let me prove it to you” the sexual implications are apparent.
However, many musicologists and fans alike believe the song calls to a greater experience. Unlike many of the other songs on the album that describe love or love lost, Hendrix seems to be speaking directly to the listener in “Are You Experienced.” The song’s placement as the last track on the album seems to say, “now that you’ve heard who I am and what I can do, are you willing to go along?” The song challenges the listener to examine their own life:
I know, I know, you'll probably scream and cry
that your little world won't let you go
But who in your measly little world, (-uh)
are you tryin' to prove to that you're
made out of gold and-uh, can't be sold
Then Hendrix sends reassurances that all will be fine:”
Trumpets and violins I can-uh, hear in the distance
I think they're callin' our name
Maybe now you can't hear them,
but you will, ha-ha, if you just
take hold of my hand
Are You Experienced deserves all the accolades it has received over the past 50 years. Its unprecedented musical arrangements and blending of different musical genres make it one of the most celebrated and revered musical albums of the rock and roll era and gave Jimi Hendrix the reputation of being one of the most innovative and magnificent musicians of all time.