Poor Polyphonic. He was just about to deliver another perfectly mixed treatise on a classic rock magnum opus when the YouTube algorithm and the Jimi Hendrix Estate stepped in to stop him before publishing. So while you can watch this real-time explication of Hendrix’s more-than-just-a-jam “Voodoo Chile” with just the the graphics and the narration, you should cue up the 15 minute track however you can (for example on Spotify), and then press play when when the video gives the signal. (This might be the first YouTube explainer video to ask for copyright-skirting help.)
And anyway, you should have a copy of Electric Ladyland, right? It’s the one where Hendrix and the Experience really push all the boundaries, taking rock, blues, jazz, psychedelia, sci-fi, everything…all out as far as possible in the studio. It’s the one that introduced future members of the Band of Gypsies. And it’s the one that hints of everything that might have been, if Hendrix hadn’t passed away soon after.
Now, classic rock radio usually plays the much shorter and less laid back “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” that closes the album. But this essay is about the longest track on Electric Ladyland, the one that ends side one. This is the track that Hendrix wanted to sound like a light night jam at New York club The Scene—and which he recorded after one particular night doing just that. He taped the audience effects soon after. Steve Winwood is on keyboards. Jack Casady from Jefferson Airplane plays bass. And Mitch Mitchell turns in one of his greatest performances and solos.
In the lyrics, Polyphonic notes, Hendrix connects the blues to his Cherokee heritage and to voodoo, to sex, and then beyond into science fiction landscapes. The song is a self-portrait, showing the past, the influence, the training, and then the potential that music, magic, and (let’s face it) LSD could bring. The band is vibing. Winwood drops riffs that are more British folk than Chicago blues. Hendrix strays far beyond the orbit of blues, swings past it one more time on his own slight return, and then explodes into stardust.
Polyphonic’s video also looks beautiful and perfectly intersperses his critique with the song’s main sections. It may have sounded like a jam, but Hendrix carefully designed it to flow the way it does. And Polyphonic follows suit. It is a highly enjoyable walk through a track (again find it on Spotify here) many already know, reawakening a sense of wonder about all its inherent, strange genius.
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.