How Science Fiction Formed Jimi Hendrix

“Through the entirety of his short life Jimi Hendrix was an avid fan of science fiction. As a young child Hendrix and his brother Leon would escape their troubled upbringing by dreaming up stories of far-off planets and flying saucers.” So begins the Polyphonic video above, an exploration of how sci-fi informed the apocalyptic images and spaced-out sounds in Hendrix’s songs. His love of science fiction “only intensified as an adult,” especially when Hendrix moved in with Chas Chandler, who would become his manager and producer, and who owned a large collection of sci-fi novels.

The books Hendrix read at the time provided him with the material he needed for a psychedelic revolution. He turned the “purplish haze” in Philip Jose Farmer’s Night of Light into “Purple Haze.” The song’s lyrics reference the disorienting state of mind characters in Farmer’s story experience from cosmic radiation, while they also allude, of course, to other kinds of altered states. Hendrix didn’t just weave sci-fi themes and references into his songs. He and Chandler composed space-rock epics that expanded the possibilities of the electric guitar and the recording studio.

Third Stone from the Sun” is written “from the perspective of an alien scout who is observing Earth from afar.” Though he deflects with humor and innuendo, the alien character in the song expresses complete disgust with humanity: “Your people I do not understand / So to you I shall put an end.” In “Up from the Skies,” Hendrix sings from “the perspective of one who lived on Earth long ago, and is dismayed at the state of the planet when he comes back to visit.” Calling the Earth a “people farm,” he says to the planet as a whole, “I heard some of you got your families / Living in cages.”

The video links Hendrix’s use of science fiction as social commentary to some of the best-known writers of the genre, including Aldous Huxley, Isaac Asimov, Stanislaw Lem, and Ursula K. LeGuin. These are worthy comparisons, to be sure, but there is another tradition in which to situate him, one that had been at work in popular music since Sun Ra first stepped onstage and claimed to be from outer space. Hendrix’s responses to the “apocalyptic” images of the Vietnam War and the mass protest, civil unrest, and racial strife in the U.S. draws on an Afrofuturist lexicon as much as from predominately white sci-fi.

Coined in 1995 by critic Mark Dery in conversation with science fiction giant Samuel R. Delany, critic Greg Tate, and Professor Tricia Rose, the term “Afrofuturism” describes a hybrid sci-fi aesthetic that ties together past, present, and future Black experiences. “From Sun-Ra to Janelle Monáe, the appropriation of other-worldly and alien iconography establishes Afro-futurists as outsiders,” writes Mawena Yehouessi. Afrofuturism is the creative expression of double consciousness: C. Brandon Ogbunu traces the genre back to W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1920 short story “The Comet” and argues that the ability of Black artists to view the culture as both insiders and outsiders can “help us to consider universes of better alternatives.”

Hendrix’s narrators describe apocalyptic visions, but they do so from the point-of-view of other, better worlds, or better times, or, in “A Merman I Should Turn to Be”—perhaps one of Hendrix’s most trenchant critiques—an undersea refuge.

Well it’s too bad that our friends, can’t be with us today
Well it’s too bad
‘The machine, that we built,
Would never save us’, that’s what they say
(That’s why they ain’t coming with us today)
And they also said it’s impossible for a man to live and breathe under
Water, forever,
Was their main complaint
And they also threw this in my face, they said:
Anyway, you know good and well it would be beyond the will of God,
And the grace of the King (grace of the King)
(Yeah, yeah)

The perspective seems to anticipate the pessimistic, post-apocalyptic visions of Octavia Butler. It’s a view Afrofuturist theorist Kodwo Eshun links to the experiences of people of the African diaspora generally, who “live the estrangement that science-fiction writers envision. Black experience and science fiction are one and the same.” Afrofuturism has “always looked forward,” Taylor Crumpton writes at Clever, providing a “blueprint for cultural growth.” In Hendrix’s songs, we feel the urgent tension between a world on fire and a desire to escape, resolving, Polyphonic concludes, with “hope in a new way of living.”

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Behold Moebius’ Many Psychedelic Illustrations of Jimi Hendrix

Watch a 5-Part Animated Primer on Afrofuturism, the Black Sci-Fi Phenomenon Inspired by Sun Ra

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Great Illustration That Accompanied Eddie Van Halen’s Application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (1987)

Throughout the past week, we’ve read many tributes to Eddie Van Halen and his endless capacity for innovation. Stylistically, EVH changed the sound of rock with tapping, a technique that let him play rapid arpeggios with two hands on the guitar’s fretboard. (Exhibit A is here.) Technically, he created a unique sound by fashioning his own guitar, the Frankenstrat, which melded the sounds of Gibson and Fender guitars. And what’s more, he patented three inventions, one of which came with the dazzling illustration above. Edward L. Van Halen’s 1987 patent for a “musical instrument support” was described as follows:

A supporting device for stringed musical instruments, for example, guitars, banjos, mandolins and the like… The supporting device is constructed and arranged for supporting the musical instrument on the player to permit total freedom of the player’s hands to play the instrument in a completely new way, thus allowing the player to create new techniques and sounds previously unknown to any player. The device, when in its operational position, has a plate which rests upon the player’s leg leaving both hands free to explore the musical instrument as never before. Because the musical instrument is arranged perpendicular to the player’s body, the player has maximum visibility of the instrument’s entire playing surface.

What would this device look like? The graphic above visualizes it all. Find the illustration in the patent application here.

Back in 2015, Van Halen wrote a piece in Popular Mechanics discussing his patents and other technical work on guitars and amps. For those who want to delve deeper into his tinkering, read the article here.

via Bradford Peterson & Boing Boing

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Related Content:

Watch Some of Eddie Van Halen’s (RIP) Greatest Performances: “Shredding Was Eddie’s Very Essence”

15-Year-Old French Guitar Prodigy Flawlessly Rips Through Solos by Eddie Van Halen, David Gilmour, Yngwie Malmsteen & Steve Vai

Musical Comedian Reggie Watts Reinvents Van Halen’s Classic, “Panama”

The Story of the SynthAxe, the Astonishing 1980s Guitar Synthesizer: Only 100 Were Ever Made

What is the musical instrument most thoroughly of the 1980s? Many would say the “keytar,” a class of synthesizer keyboards shaped and worn like a guitar. Their relatively light weights and affordable prices, even when first brought to market, put keytars within the reach of musicians who wanted to possess both the wide sonic palette of digital synthesis and the inherent cool of the guitarist. This arrangement wasn’t without its compromises: few keytar players enjoyed the full range of that sonic palette, to say nothing of that cool. But in 1985, a new hope appeared for the synthesizer-envying guitarist and guitar-envying synthesist alike: the SynthAxe.

Created by English inventors Bill Aitken, Mike Dixon, and Tony Sedivy (and funded in part by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group), the SynthAxe made a quantum leap in the development of synthesizer-guitars, or guitar-synthesizers. Unlike a keytar, it used actual strings — not just one but two independent sets of them — that when played could control any synthesizer compatible with the recently introduced Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) standard.

As Guitarist magazine editor Neville Marten demonstrates in the contemporary promotional video at the top of the post, this granted anyone who could play the guitar command of all the sounds cutting-edge synthesizers could make.

Not that mastery of the guitar translated immediately into mastery of the SynthAxe: even the most proficient guitarist had to get used to the unusually sharp angle of its neck, its evenly spaced frets, and the set of keys embedded in its body. (“That is the point, it’s not a guitar,” as Aitken took pains to explain.) You can see Lee Ritenour make use of both the SynthAxe’s strings and keys in the 1985 concert clip above. Nicknamed “Captain Fingers” due to his sheer dexterity, Ritenour had been in search of ways to expand his sound, experimenting with guitar-synthesizer hybrid systems even in the 70s. When the SynthAxe came along, not only did he record a whole album with it, that album’s cover is a painting of him with the striking new instrument in hand.

So is the cover of Atavachron, the first album Allan Holdsworth recorded after meeting the SynthAxe’s creators at a trade show. No guitarist would take up the SynthAxe with the same fervor: Holdsworth, seen playing it with a breath controller (!) in the clip above, would continue to use it on his recordings up until his death in 2017. “People used to write notes on my amp, asking me to stop playing the SynthAxe and play the guitar instead,” he told Guitar World in his final interview that year. “But now people often ask me, ‘We’d love to hear you play the SynthAxe — did you bring it?’ I rarely play it onstage anymore because it’s too costly to take on the road and it requires a lot of equipment.”

The amount of associated gear no doubt put many an aspiring synthesizer-guitarist off the SynthAxe. (“It’s about as portable as a drum kit isn’t,” writes early adopter John Hollis.) So must the price tag, a cool £10,000 back in 1985. This didn’t put off guitarist Alec Stansfield, whose enthusiasm for the SynthAxe as was such that he joined the company, having “knocked long and hard on their door until they gave me a job as a production engineer.” Alas, he writes, “the instrument was never a commercial success and eventually the company ceased trading. Fewer than 100 instruments had been produced in total. In the final months I was paid with a SynthAxe system since cash was tight” — a system he shows off in the video above

Stansfield sold off his SynthAxe in 2013, but what has become of the others? One of Ritenour’s SynthAxes eventually found its way into the possession of Roy Wilfred Wooten, better known as Future Man of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. “Over a period of time, he began modifying it into an almost entirely new instrument: the SynthAxe Drumitar,” writes Computer History Museum curator Chris Garcia. “This system, which replaced the strings as the primary triggering mechanism, allowed Wooten to play the ‘drums’ using the guitar-like device.” In the concert clip just above, you can behold Future Man playing and explaining this “SynthAxeDrumitar,” sounds like a drum kit but looks like a guitar — though rather vaguely, at this point. Call it SynthAxe-meets-Mad Max.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

A Live Studio Cover of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Played from Start to Finish

Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is such a work of art that to split it up into nine tracks–like classic rock radio has done for years–always sounds nonsensical. How can you just end “Breathe” on that final chord and not follow it with the analog drones of “On the Run”? How can you play “Brain Damage” and not end with “Eclipse”? And how dare you fade the long coda of “Money” and segue into a car commercial?

You can’t, morally speaking, I’m telling you.

So that’s why I like the cut of the jib of the Martin Miller Session Band, who commit to covering the entirety of Dark Side of the Moon in this one long studio performance. According to Miller’s Patreon page, this is the only full album they’ve covered so far, and they pull through admirably.

And the thing that is refreshing here is that the band covers the album up to a point, but not slavishly. It’s not the Flaming Lips’ deconstruction or the surprisingly still listenable 8-Bit version, but neither is it the kind of tribute band like Brit Floyd (below). When Miller solos, he’s not aping David Gilmour. The keyboardist Marius Leicht has his own knobs to twiddle, so to speak. And drummer Felix Lehrmann will never ever be confused for Nick Mason. (In fact, he gets a lot of grief in the comments for being too flash, but when you watch Miller’s other videos and see him giving Stewart Copeland a run for his money on their Police medley, you see where he’s coming from.)

Knowing what you’re in for, questions arise: are they going to include the various spoken samples sprinkled throughout (“I don’t know I was really drunk at the time,” “There is no dark side of the moon really…”). Answer: yes indeed, and funny they are too. Does a saxophonist turn up for “Money” and “Us and Them”? Answer: Yes, and it’s Michal Skulski. Who can possibly match Clare Torry’s pipes on “The Great Gig in the Sky”? Jenny Marsala does, thank you very much.

So I would settle in and try to unlearn your memory of every note and beat on the 1973 classic. By doing so, you’ll hear the album anew.

And after that, if you’re still hankering for that “even better than the real thing” vibe, enjoy this full concert, circular projection screen and all, by the aforementioned Brit Floyd, playing Liverpool in 2011.

via metafilter

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

Learn the Stories Behind Iconic Songs: The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” REM’s “Losing My Religion,” Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” & More

There was a time when pop lyrics did not exactly spark curiosity, doo-lang doo-lang doo-lang.

They may have tapped into some universal teenage feelings, but rarely inspired further thought along the lines of “Hmm, I wonder what—or who—inspired that.”

Dutch station NPO Radio 2’s interview series Top 2000 a gogo lifts the veil.

Each entry reveals the origin story of a well known song.

The late Bill Withers, above, intimated that every woman he’d even been involved with thought “Ain’t No Sunshine” was about her, when really, the inspiration was the miserable alcoholic couple played by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in the 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses.

Dancing in the Moonlight,” the enduring, incredibly catchy hit for King Harvest, paints an endearing picture of carefree, cavorting youth, but as recounted by songwriter Sherman Kelly, the event that led to its creation is deserving of a trigger warning. Rather than leaning in to the darkness, he conjured a lighthearted scene far different from the one he had endured, a switcheroo that the universe saw fit to reward.

One need not be the songwriter to be at the center of a song’s hidden history. Gloria Jones, preacher’s daughter and eventual soulmate to T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, was a teenager when she recorded Ed Cobb’s “Tainted Love,” a song she disliked owing to the implications of “tainted.” The song became a hit in England, thanks to a series of misadventures involving a sailor swapping a .45 for ciggies—a development that could have had an impact on Jones’ career, had anyone bothered to inform her. All this to say, Soft Cell’s 1981 cover helped put MTV on the map, but it couldn’t have happened without the teenager who held her nose and recorded the original.

Top 2000 is unsurprisingly full of deep and touching revelations, but Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood’s refusal to take things seriously is also welcome. Talk to Mick Jagger if you want confirmation that “Miss You” concerns the frustrations of stardom. According to class clown Wood, and his straight man drummer Charlie Watts, the song was a solid attempt to go with the disco flow. The frustration arose from being caged in a Paris recording studio, barely able to duck out for escargot before task master Keith Richards cracked the whip to summon them back.

Bittersweet is not the adjective we’d choose to describe this historical moment, but it gave us all the feels to see Alan Merrill, whose “I Love Rock n Roll” was a response to the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll,” as well as a breakthrough hit for Joan Jett. Merrill died of complications from COVID-19 at the end of March.

Explore more songs—over 200—on Top 2000 a gogo’s YouTube channel.

Multi-linguists! Contribute translations to help make the videos available worldwide.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Here latest project is a series of free downloadable posters, encouraging citizens to wear masks in public and wear them properly. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Some of Eddie Van Halen’s (RIP) Greatest Performances: “Shredding Was Eddie’s Very Essence”

Growing up around metalheads gave me an appreciation for the guitar heroics of bands like Metallica, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, etc. But one band everyone loved, I didn’t get. David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar (let’s not speak of the Cherone era)… it didn’t matter to me. Van Halen seemed to be having way too much sleazy fun to fit my narrow ideas of metal. No spikes, no skulls, no black masses. “Runnin’ with the Devil” sounds like a campfire song, I said….

Sit down, they said, shut up, and listen to “Eruption.” So I did. And I said, Oh. Then I listened carefully to all the rest. I didn’t become a fan of Van Halen, the band. But it was obvious that Eddie Van Halen himself, who passed away yesterday from cancer at the age of 65, deserves the reputation as the most innovative guitarist since Hendrix. His endless creativity powered the band through its tumultuous lineup changes; his playing completely changed the design of metal guitars, not to mention the metal solo; his DIY guitar designs turned him into a builder of his own line of guitars and amplifiers.

There didn’t seem to be anything he couldn’t do with the instrument, but unlike many a guitar virtuoso, Van Halen was entirely self-taught. “Ninety percent of the things that I do on guitar, if I had taken lessons and learned to play by the book,” he once said, “I would not play at all the way I do… Crossing a Gibson with a Fender was out of necessity, because there was no guitar on the market that did what I wanted.” He’s referring to the “Frankenstein” guitar—a heavily modified Fender Strat—one of many such guitars he built, rewired, and painted to suit his needs.

Van Halen first showed off his pioneering two-hand tapping and vibrato dive bombs on the first of many “Frankenstrats” in “Eruption,” recorded as a short instrumental interlude between “Runnin’ with the Devil” and “Jamie’s Cryin’” on the 1978 debut Van Halen. He had innumerable moments of brilliance, in the studio and onstage, in decades afterward, including his unforgettable guitar work on “Thriller” and “Beat It,” classic solos that “will never be matched,” as Quincy Jones tweeted in tribute yesterday. (See “Beat It” live in a very low-quality video above.)

But guitarists still turn to “Eruption”, again and again, as “the peak of guitar performance,” Esquire’s culture editor Matt Miller writes. “It’s true,” Miller concedes, “there were no shortages of self-indulgent guitar solos in the ‘70s, but this one changed the game of how they would sound and what they would mean, heading in to the ‘80s. Every solo that followed would try to emulate the sound of Eddie’s mind-melting ‘Eruption.’” Van Halen insisted the solo wasn’t as complicated as fans made it out to be. There remains an “entire YouTube subculture dedicated to kids trying to play” the solo, to master the tone and technique of the man who may have been the most metal guitarist of them all.

We’ve barely touched on Van Halen’s legacy as a soloist and inventor of weird guitars, sounds and effects, and not at all on his equally important roles as a showman, songwriter, keyboard player, and rhythm guitarist. No matter how ridiculously fast and technical metal becomes, or how many extra strings players add to Eddie’s six, no one has ever matched his level of style and invention. It is no less the case in 2020 as it was in the late 70s that one can point to his solos and say, “with no hyperbole,” writes Miller, “this is shredding.” Truly, shredding was Eddie Van Halen’s very essence.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Only Time Prince & Miles Davis Jammed Together Onstage: Watch the New Year’s Eve, 1987 Concert

A too-precious genre of internet meme has departed public figures who did not know each other in life meeting in heaven with hugs, high-fives, and wincingly earnest exchanges. These sentimental vignettes are almost too easy to parody, a kitschy version of the “what if” game, as in: what if two creative geniuses could collaborate in ways they never did before they died?

What if John Lennon had formed a band with Eric Clapton—as Lennon himself had once proposed? Or what if a Jimi Hendrix/Miles Davis collaboration had come off, as Hendrix envisioned the year before his death? More than just fantasy baseball, the exercise lets us speculate about how musicians who influenced each other might evolve if given the chance to jam indefinitely.

When it comes to Miles, there are few who haven’t been influenced by the jazz great, whether they know it or not. Prince Rogers Nelson knew it well. The son of a jazz pianist, Prince grew up with Miles’ music. Although he “gravitated to the worlds of rock, pop, and R&B,” writes pianist Ron Drotos, Prince “seems to have seen jazz as a way to express himself in a broader way than he could through more commercial styles alone.”

Prince was so interested in exploring jazz—and Davis’ particular form of jazz—in the 80s that he formed a band anonymously, called Madhouse (actually just him and horn player Eric Leeds), and released two albums of fusion instrumentals. The influence went both ways. “Miles considered Prince to have the potential to become another Duke Ellington and even modeled his own 1980’s music partly on Prince’s style,” with 1986’s Tutu standing out as an example. What if the two musicians had worked together? Can you imagine it?

They did not—to our knowledge, although Prince’s vault is vast—collaborate on an album, but they did create one studio track together, “Can I Play With U?” And the two virtuoso composers and musicians jammed together onstage, once, at Paisley Park, on New Year’s Eve, 1987. The concert was a benefit for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless and the last time Prince performed the Sign O’ the Times stage show. At the tail end of the concert, Davis steps onstage for “an ice-cold appearance,” Okayplayer notes. “As a companion to the release of a deluxe edition” of the album, “the late icon’s estate has relinquished the full two-hour-plus set.”

Watch the concert at the top (trust me, don’t just skip ahead to see Davis at 1:43:50). Just above, you can see an hourlong “pre-show” taped with Maya Rudolph, “lifelong Prince devotee,” Emmy-winning comedian, and daughter of Minnie Ripperton. Other guests include Prince’s longtime sideman and collaborator on his jazz project, Eric Leeds. “If you’re here, then you’re cool, like me,” Rudolph jokes, “and you know a lot about Prince.” Or maybe you don’t. Let Rudolph and her guests fill you in, and imagine Prince and Davis making celestial jazz-funk forever, between high-fives, in the Great Beyond.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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