Are You Experienced was released 53 years ago today, the debut studio album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. As one of the greatest debuts in the history of rock ‘n roll, the album changed the course of rock and established the psychedelic and hard rock sound that the Experience would become famous for.
The group was in existence for just three years, but in that time altered the course for rock music by redefining the limits of the genre. All three of their albums, Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland were in the Top 100 of Rolling Stone’s the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
The Experience had only been together a few weeks before recording for their first album. In Spring of ‘66, Hendrix had been playing back-up guitar for R&B acts like the Isley Brothers, Don Covay, Little Richard’s group the Upsetters, and Curtis Knight.
Limited by his back-up role, Hendrix moved to New York City's Greenwich Village to immerse himself in the lively music scene there. He was noticed at the famous Cheetah Club by Linda Keith, the girlfriend of Keith Richards. Hendrix then began his residency at the Cafe Wha? along with his band at the time, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.
Meanwhile, Chas Chandler, of the Animals, was looking for artists to manage and produce, and he was referred to Hendrix. Instantly impressed, Chandler began recruiting for a band to accompany Hendrix to record a cover of Billy Roberts “Hey Joe.” In October of '66, Hendrix, Noel Redding, and Mitch Mitchell came together for the first time to record the cover at London’s De Lane Lea studios.
Noel Redding had been working in several English groups with little success. Mitchell was a session drummer with the Pretty Things, Bill Knight & The Sceptres, the Riot Squad, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, and the Who. His jazz-influenced style made the Experience so exciting, likened to the exceptional guitar skills of Hendrix. They are regarded as the pioneers of the power trio format for rock bands, featuring just guitar, bass, and drums.
Because of their tight budget and busy schedules, the debut album was recorded in bits and pieces over a 5-month period. Chandler booked sessions for the Experience to record during brief breaks between live shows. Most of the album's pre-production was done in the shared apartment of Hendrix and Chandler.
"Are You Experienced" spent over one hundred weeks on the Billboard 200 and sold over 5 million copies in the United States alone. Featuring a medley of musical genres, including R&B, soul, blues, pop, psychedelia, folk, heavy rock, and jazz, Are You Experienced included revolutionary tracks, “Foxy Lady,” “Fire,” “Love or Confusion,” “Manic Depression,” “Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe,” and “The Wind Cries Mary.”
The image of the Experience became as significant as the music they made. They became style icons for psychedelic clothing and hairstyles, namely tie dye and the Afro. Many musicians came to their early performances and were blown away, including the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend.
Their 70s psychedelic aesthetic is exemplified by the album's cover, designed by Karl Ferris. Hendrix requested him after seeing his work on the Hollies’ “Evolution.” When Ferris first listened to the album he was overcome by their transcendental sound. Using a fisheye lens and ultra-enhanced heat saturation, his otherworldly design shows the group travelling through space in a biosphere. The fisheye lens was a popular tool in Mod subculture at the time, and Ferris took it to the next level with the Experience.
After their success in the U.K, the group found fame in the U.S. after their performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, one of the first ever major rock music festivals. Their set was ended by Hendrix infamously setting his signature Fender Stratocaster aflame.
By 1969 Hendrix was the world’s highest paid rock musician. As a headliner of Woodstock '69, he closed out the historic festival Monday morning at 8:00 am in one of the most iconic performances of rock 'n roll. Redding had left the group earlier that year, after his relations were deteriorating with his bandmates, and Hendrix and Mitchell performed with Billy Cox under the name Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. Their rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" been recognized as the top moment of the festival and a compelling protest of the Vietnam War.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame calls Jimi Hendrix the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music. In a genre of exclusively white musicians, Hendrix expanded the range, vocabulary, and audience of rock 'n roll.
It has been 50 years since Jimi's death, and each year annual album sales exceed that of any year during his lifetime. He’s influenced musicians like Prince, Jerry Cantrell, Mike McCready, George Clinton, and countless others. His contribution was bigger than his music, it was everything he embodied.