’Tis the season for inflated, bonus-laden editions of incredibly familiar albums! (And tedious reviews of them, too—see here, here, here, here, and here.) With several formative works in the classic-rock canon reaching the half-century mark, record labels are squeezing the last drops out of physical media before it disappears completely, and while that's generally good news for music collectors, it’s tough to know which ones are worth the expense. The Jimi Hendrix estate and Sony’s Legacy Recordings have entered the fray with a 50th-anniversary mega-deluxe edition of 1968’s Electric Ladyland, the double album from the Jimi Hendrix Experience that marked the high point of the Seattle-born guitarist’s studio work.
It also marked Hendrix’s full-time return to America after first blowing up the London scene with the Experience’s early singles. Following two groundbreaking albums in 1967 and a (literally) fiery set at the Monterey Pop festival, Hendrix and the Experience handily broke America, too, becoming one of the most in-demand live bands at that time. It was during the recording of Electric Ladyland that Hendrix relocated to New York City, recording the bulk of the album at the brand-new Record Plant studio, whose capabilities boasted previously unheard-of 12-track recording. The sessions were long, meandering, and patience-testing; producer/manager Chas Chandler and Experience bassist Noel Redding both checked out of the proceedings before Electric Ladyland reached completion.
In hindsight, it was well worth the time and frustration. For this listener, Electric Ladyland towers above Hendrix’s other work, its four sides finding enough room for his best, most concise statements [“Crosstown Traffic,” “All Along the Watchtower”] and his most mind-warping, epic-length jams [“1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” and the extended version of “Voodoo Chile”]. With his liquid-magma guitar-playing firmly establishing his role as acid-rock trailblazer, Hendrix continued in that vein while newly incorporating and acknowledging the foundational elements of his sound: blues, gospel, R&B, British Invasion pop, soul-jazz, and folk rock.
The album took months and months for Hendrix to finish, and needed to be topped off with an older non-album single [“Burning of the Midnight Lamp”], multiple versions of the same song [“Voodoo Chile”/“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and “Rainy Day, Dream Away”/ “Still Raining, Still Dreaming”], a last-minute run-through of an old R&B number Hendrix had been playing for years [Earl King’s “Come On (Part 1)], and even a chirpy pop song written and sung by Redding. But Electric Ladyland hangs together beautifully, because of these elements and not in spite of them. “1983…” is still, for my money, Hendrix’s crowning achievement, a subaquatically celestial voyage to the ocean floor that’s one of the most stunningly beautiful recordings ever made. On this particular revisit, the track that surprised me most was “House Burning Down,” a song about the Watts riots that’s still tragically relevant today and shows Hendrix at his angriest and most mournful.
The deluxe edition comes in two formats: three CDs with a Blu-ray disc, or six vinyl albums with a Blu-ray disc, both sets containing the same music. That music? Well, there’s a copy of the Electric Ladyland that you know and love, of course, and it’s joined by a compilation of demos and early versions, and a shambolic 1968 live gig recorded a few weeks before the album’s release. The Blu-ray contains a new 5.1 surround mix of the album and a making-of documentary that was first released in a shorter version as an episode of Classic Albums. I’ve checked out the vinyl version, and I’m very pleased by the decision to include the Blu-ray in both editions; it’s rare to have vinyl (my preferred format) and the multi-channel mix, which I’m usually curious to check out but is almost always only available with the CD format—see the recent reissue of the Beatles’ White Album, for instance.
This new 5.1 mix, done by the album’s original engineer, Eddie Kramer, is a pretty fun listen. Hendrix was very interested in three-dimensional sound, and even the stereo version of Electric Ladyland gets close to surrounding the listener, with its crazy stereo panning, in-and-out-of-phase guitars, and all manner of studio trickery. Hendrix would have almost certainly embraced 1970s quadrophonic sound and today’s multichannel technology, had he lived so long, and Electric Ladyland is a terrific candidate for taking advantage of the format. It’s not better than the original mix—that’s not the point—but it’s very fun to listen to, allowing the listener to discover little pockets and flourishes that were on the tape but maybe not heard on the original album.
As for the album itself, some listeners have complained about the CD version being “brickwalled” and “too loud,” meaning, roughly, that the dynamic range has been squashed to accommodate for earbud and laptop listening. Thankfully, that’s not the case with the vinyl: Mastering engineer Bernie Grundman has done a transfer of the original analog tapes to create this new pressing, meaning it wasn’t converted to high-resolution digital before it made its way onto disc—that might sound like a little thing, but it’s increasingly rare in this day and age. Assuming the source tapes are in good condition, an all-analog version like this is, to my thinking, the purest and best way of hearing an older album. The results of an all-analog mastering are noticeable, with vibrancy and holographic imaging that often gets lost if there’s a digital intermediary.
What’s slightly strange is that this is touted as a “flat” transfer, presumably meaning no EQ choices were made—what’s on the finished record is a fully accurate representation of what’s on the master tape. This means, however, it sounds very subtly different than your granddad’s original pressing of Electric Ladyland, for three reasons: One, that the older versions very likely had some EQ choices made that weren’t carried over here (my early-1970s Reprise Records pressing, for example, has a thicker and rounder bass presence); two, the master tape will have shed some audio information during the past 50 years (this may be negligible, and I don’t notice any dropouts or anything in this particular case); and three, the equipment used today is quite different from the equipment used back then—not better or worse, just different. The clarity of this new pressing is redoubtably good, so much so that I can hear tape edits and miscues that I don’t hear on my older version. It’s terrific for scholarly study, but for a good-time listen, I might choose the woolly, thicker-sounding version of my original copy. It must be said, however, that Grundman and company have made the 100-percent correct choice with this flat transfer; toying with the EQ would have only opened a can of worms and would likely never have matched what’s on vintage pressings.
Sorry to get bogged down the technical minutia—but hey, that’s part of the whole fun of exploring these deluxe reissues, although it’s definitely not fun for everybody. What is fun for everybody is the presence of unreleased stuff, and there’s quite a bit of it here. The second double-LP in the set is called At Last… The Beginning: The Making of Electric Ladyland: The Early Takes. Half of it is taken up with simple guitar-and-voice demo recordings Hendrix did in his room at the Drake Hotel in March 1968. These are pleasant and casual; you can hear the phone ring in the background of “Gypsy Eyes,” for example. I don’t know if you’d pull them out to listen to them very often, but it’s nice to have them. The other half of At Last… The Beginning consists of studio takes and rough drafts, a lot of them instrumental. What’s here is nice, but it feels like something’s missing—for instance, the numerous early studio versions of “Gypsy Eyes” and other outtakes that didn’t make the album, such as the horn-laden “South Saturn Delta.” According to seasoned Hendrix experts, there are hours and hours of Electric Ladyland outtakes; this little bit barely scratches the surface. Perhaps one of the problems is that so much of Hendrix’s stuff has been released posthumously over the years on all manner of odds-’n’-sods collections, that the archives remain relatively bare in terms of stuff no one’s heard yet. I’d argue that a supposedly “definitive” commemorative edition of an album should include all the quality stuff that pertains to the making of said album. Maybe Hendrix nuts who’ve bought everything ever released (and then some) feel differently, but it feels like an opportunity missed to a more casual listener like me.
Instead of a more comprehensive delve into the Ladyland sessions to round out the set, we get a tape of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s concert at the Hollywood Bowl on September 14, 1968. Frankly, it’s lousy. The source, a bootleg recording taken from the soundboard, is heavily distorted and incomplete, with the vocals and drums sounding particularly unpleasant. In other words, it’s not up to par and doesn’t belong on this type of set—it should have been marketed as a stand-alone for truly obsessive fans only. While the liner notes acknowledge the tape’s pretty dreadful sound, it comes inseparable from the rest of a high-end set, and its presence here only cheapens what should’ve been an officious document of an important work of art. I don’t know if even a good tape could’ve saved this gig; Hendrix’s guitar keeps going out of tune (there’s endless minutes of him tuning), and members of the crowd were diving and splashing in the reflecting pool at the lip of the Hollywood Bowl’s stage, meaning the band were more focused on keeping their equipment dry than on playing. It might have been wild fun to be there—although maybe not, as Hendrix has to repeatedly tell the crowd to chill out—but as a musical experience, it’s not much fun at all.
That leaves us with a really neat 5.1 mix, a decent making-of documentary video, the lovely Drake Hotel demos, a skimpy collection of studio outtakes, and a more-than-adequate, all-analog vinyl version of the album. Oh, and the booklet is colorful and big, if not especially thick, and some of the liner notes are duplicated on the album jackets. It’s certainly worth picking up for Hendrix die-hards, especially those interested in the 5.1 mix and the At Last… The Beginning tracks. As for those who just want a nice version of Electric Ladyland, keep in mind that there’s a very good analog pressing from 2010 that’s already available (I haven’t heard it myself, but it’s gotten high marks online). The good news—as is always the good news with re-releases like this—is that the original isn’t going anywhere. And Electric Ladyland still sounds positively futuristic to me, 50 years later.
That future wouldn’t include Hendrix—Electric Ladyland remains his last finished studio work. Perhaps Ladyland’s protracted, tinker-heavy creation was indicative of something unsettled within Hendrix; the recordings that followed were incomplete, and he could never quite manage to assemble them into an actual album. Even the countless retroactive releases that ostensibly replicate Hendrix’s intentions (grains of salt may be necessary) feel unsatisfying. The Experience broke up, then reformed without Redding, and Hendrix had dalliances with other musicians including the Band of Gypsies. But I think something evaporated from him once he sent his magnum opus out into the world. Less than two years after Electric Ladyland marked the maturation of a major American artist, Jimi Hendrix was dead. This imperfect edition of the perfect Electric Ladyland album feels, in some ways, like part of that same trajectory. There was supposed to be more, but what's here will do.