Are You Experienced
Reprise Records, 1967
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/24/2001
Gather 'round, children, while I tell you a horror story. This one isn't for the squeamish. It's about a nice little album - and the nastiness that can occur when songs are overplayed.
Back in the '80s, when I really got into classic rock, I discovered Jimi Hendrix thanks to a video that was shot for "Are You Experienced". I'm sure I had heard his music before, but this was the first time I put things together and thought about Hendrix the musician. Not long afterwards, I ran out and bought a vinyl copy of Are You Experienced, Hendrix's 1967 debut. This is the format I'm reviewing from today; I'm well aware that MCA has re-released this album with bonus tracks. (Sometimes, I wonder why people can't leave things the way they were meant to be - it would be like tacking on a happy ending to Gone With The Wind.)
This album opened the door for Hendrix and his mixture of funk and rock, bridging the gap between the two (not to mention becoming one of the first black superstar rock musicians) and doing things with a guitar that no one ever dreamed about trying. Listen to the backwards-style playing on the title track, and try to imagine how he accomplished this kind of a sound. To this day, "Are You Experienced" is my favorite Hendrix song.
Now, I promised you a horror story, and I'm about to deliver. It has gotten to the point that if I hear "Purple Haze," "Hey Joe," "Fire" or "Foxey Lady" one more time on the radio, I'm going to be violently ill. Same goes for "All Along The Watchtower," but that's another album. Granted, Hendrix didn't release a lot of material while he was alive (the bulk of Hendrix's discography - and it gets pretty shady at times - was released after his death in 1970). But radio has latched onto these particular tracks and played them until the source material looks like so much vinyl pizza. Four words: give them a rest. How bad is the situation? Even hearing these songs in the context of Are You Experienced was occasionally tough to get through, just because I've heard them almost every day of my adult life.
The thing is that Are You Experienced is more than just these four particular songs - and, in the context of the album proper, one does tend to hear how they're supposed to fit in with the big picture. This album allowed a few different things to happen in the context of rock - even while the psychedelic age was, aah, "mushrooming". First, it gave jazz a chance to be heard in a more mainstream format and allowed rock fans to appreciate it. Listen to "Third Stone From The Sun" and understand what I mean. Second, it allowed Hendrix to develop his guitar chops while creating groundbreaking music. Granted, Hendrix was still coming into his own in regards to his playing, and his greatest achievements in six-string innovation still lay ahead. But tracks like "Manic Depression," "I Don't Live Today" and "Are You Experienced" all offered Hendrix the chance to show people there was more to the guitar than they had been led to believe at that point.
Yet Are You Experienced has suffered harm because of the overplay of the hits. From the original track lineup, we're talking about over a third of the disc that is spinning on some radio station in the United States at any given time. And while I hate to admit it, the stale feeling one gets of hearing "Fire" for the ten thousandth time does take its toll on the songs which make up the rest of the disc. Oh, don't get me wrong, it's still very enjoyable as an album, and remains one record I go to when I just need to blow out the pipes in my head and kick back for a while. But maybe if we hadn't been given the chance to over-experience some of these tracks, Are You Experienced would be near the top of the list of discs to worship. As it is now, it's a bit tired at times, but still well worth discovering, especially for someone approaching Hendrix at length for the first time.