The opening eight notes of “Purple Haze” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience are enormously crucial. For those eight or so seconds, a guitar chops through the surrounding darkness before diving into the boisterous body of the song like a cold, crystalline lake. Following that brief prologue of steady simplicity, Are You Experienced may adjust pace, but the album never drops its frenetic juggling act. As a debut, it’s an audacious, busy piece of psychedelic rock that finds a lot of breathing room in its loose structure, its constant sense of locomotion keeping it from becoming stagnant. Not only is Are You Experienced an Earth-shattering debut, it’s a high bar that no psych rock band has equaled in the 50 years since the album’s release.
All that is made of Jimi Hendrix’s talent as a guitarist — that the left-handed Hendrix played restrung right-handed guitars upside down is always a fun piece of trivia — it’s his arrangements that grant him that instrumental flexibility. One fundamental ambition of psychedelic rock as a genre is mimicry of the effects of LSD, and here, Hendrix twists the electric guitar into Daliesque forms. It’s jagged as broken glass on “I Don’t Live Today,” drones hazily over “Love or Confusion,” and clicks along (both backwards and forwards) in “Are You Experienced?” It’s no secret that Hendrix greatly broadened the rock lexicon with his additional use of distortion and feedback, his virtuoso playing matched only by his expansive imagination.
Less appreciated is the drumming of Mitch Mitchell, who, on Are You Experienced, finds restraint and ferocity in equal measure. As percussionist, Mitchell often serves as the backbone for the momentum of the album’s tracks, so his versatility gives the album an asymmetrical and unpredictable ebb and flow. His soft percussive temperament on “The Wind Cries Mary” registers dramatically distant from the furibund jazz polyrhythms of “Fire.” Mitchell dabbles in polyrhythmic improvisation more than once on Are You Experienced, arousing from the multi-phase “Third Stone from the Sun” a nostalgia for the anarchic-yet-focused percussion style of jazz drummers like Elvin Jones.
Mitchell and Hendrix are both more than willing to break from rock conventions here, in pursuit of broader influences and less rigidity. It’s a kaleidoscope of avant-garde jazz, electric blues, R&B and psychedelia, though all immediately accessible. Hendrix understood the allure of a captivating song hook, but also recognized that that allure need not come at the expense of musical intricacy — the propulsive “Manic Depression,” for example, features parallel guitar and bass lines as well as an uncommon time signature. Hendrix and company fill every frame of every song with lush detail without diluting their melodies; there’s a driving progression to these songs that molds what could simply be erratic noise into something purposeful.
Lyrically, Hendrix cogitates the subject of love, or, sometimes, the absence of it. “Manic Depression” is concurrently about both, the peace that music brings him juxtaposed with the vacuum it leaves in absentia. Are You Experienced also contains a cover of “Hey Joe,” a ‘60s rock standard about a man who shoots his adulterous wife before fleeing to Mexico, as well as “May This Be Love,” its rapturous opposite in nearly every way. However, it is the elegiac “The Wind Cries Mary” that stands out as the album’s poetic crest. The song renders one of the lower points of Hendrix’s relationship with Kathy Etchingham in the mid-1960s, an interesting contrast to something like “Fire,” which is about the same exact woman but is borne from an entirely divergent mentality. “The Wind Cries Mary” features feudal imagery congruent to that of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (which came out the same year and was covered by Hendrix one year later). Think of Dylan’s joker and thief in comparison to Hendrix’s king and queen; where “All Along the Watchtower” analogizes broad cultural shifts, Hendrix approaches change from a much more personal level.
Though the performances on the album are all uniformly excellent (including the as-yet-unmentioned bassist Noel Redding), this album truly is Hendrix’s show, not just as a guitarist, but as an arranger, a vocalist, a poet and an outright visionary. It’s why those eight seconds at the beginning of “Purple Haze” are so important: supplemented with clarity from the surrounding silence, Hendrix makes his presence known, each note part of a march to take the stage and begin the experience.