The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ‘Electric Ladyland’ at 50: Under the Hood with Eddie Kramer and John McDermott (Anniversary Edition Out Now)

Jeff SlateCategories:Featured Articles

Rock Cellar Magazine

It’s hard to believe that Jimi Hendrix has gone from this world for nearly 50 years, given the remarkable string of releases — especially in recent years — drawn from the Hendrix vault since his passing. But his star burned so brightly, and his talent was so unique, that each release from Experience Hendrix — the family-run company set up by the late guitarist’s father in 1995 to oversee such matters — has only added to his legend.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the release of the Jimi Hendrix Experience masterpiece Electric Ladyland, a deluxe edition box set is out today. Available in either 3-CD/1-Blu-ray or 3 CD or 6-LP/1-Blu-Ray editions, both packages include the original double album, newly remastered by Bernie Grundman from the original analog tapes. Also included is Electric Ladyland: The Early Takes, which presents demos and studio outtakes from this period in Hendrix’s career, plus a new 5.1 surround sound mix of the entire original album by Hendrix’s original engineer Eddie Kramer.

 But perhaps the biggest treat is Jimi Hendrix Experience: Live At the Hollywood Bowl 9/14/68, part of Experience Hendrix’s Dagger Records official bootleg series, as yet another exclusive component. The never-before-released recording captures the Experience in the mounting excitement that took place in the run up to the release of Electric Ladyland. There’s also a Blu-ray included, featuring a newly expanded version of the documentary The Making of Electric Ladyland. Plus, there’s a full color 48-page book containing Jimi’s handwritten lyrics, poems and instructions to his record label on his vision for the album’s release, as well as never before published photos from the recording sessions, shot by Eddie Kramer himself.

The third album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, originally released on October 16, 1968, Electric Ladyland includes such legendary Hendrix tracks as “All Along The Watchtower,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” “Crosstown Traffic,” and “Burning of the Midnight Lamp.” It was ultimately the last Hendrix studio album released during the iconic guitarist’s lifetime.

The new cover art — a Linda McCartney photograph of the band and children at the statue of Alice In Wonderland in New York’s Central Park — was Hendrix’s own choice of imagery for the album’s cover image. The shot was relegated to the inside of the U.S. version on Reprise Records, printed in black and white.

Rock Cellar recently spoke to Kramer and John McDermott, who acted as co-producer with the legendary engineer on the project, and the pair reflected on Hendrix’s remarkable arc as an artist during his brief career, the challenge of revisiting such a beloved classic, and what Jimi might be up to, if he were still with us today.

Rock Cellar: Everything about this package is really first class, but using the original cover shot, by Linda McCartney, was a stroke of magic.

John McDermott: That was one of the alternate covers.

Eddie Kramer: It’s so beautiful. Where did that come from, John? I’ve never seen it before.

John McDermott: That was one of the alternates. When Jimi was happy with the new cover, that became one of the alternates.

Eddie Kramer: No way. Where did you find that?

John McDermott: With Jeff Gold. Jeff had the files.

Rock Cellar: Oh, Jeff. He has everything.

John McDermott: Yeah. He had these files.

Eddie Kramer: Jeez.

John McDermott: This is the alternate of Electric Ladyland, which Warner had come up with.

Rock Cellar: And the Hollywood Bowl show, recorded live on just two tracks, sounds just amazing.

John McDermott: Yes. Isn’t it insane? It’s a lot of fun.

Rock Cellar: And the artwork is pristine. Certainly the best I’ve ever seen it.

John McDermott: We don’t play, pal. It’s from the original film separations.

Rock Cellar: I have an original pressing that doesn’t even look like that.

John McDermott: They also have a nice coating on them.

Rock Cellar: Well, there are a lot of things about this box that are just such a great surprise — and certainly something different will jump out at everyone — but what jumped out at me, surprisingly, was the instrumental outtake of Noel Redding’s song “Little Miss Strange.” You know, I’ll be honest, that’s not a song I listen to a lot, even when I put on Electric Ladyland. But the outtake of that just blew me away. It’s not that I’ve overlooked that song, but a lot of times when a song is finished and mastered, it loses a bit of its energy, and that seems to be the case here, because the energy on this recording is off the charts.

John McDermott: You like it because there’s that energy, I think, of (Stephen) Stills and Buddy Miles, which is really cool. That’s the difference, I think. (To Eddie Kramer:) We were talking about it, because even before you heard it, you said to me, “You want to do that?” I said, “Oh, yeah, just listen to it!” And almost immediately you were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, this is cool.”

Rock Cellar: Are all of the outtakes fresh mixes?

John McDermott: Yes. Yes. Except for things that were mixed, like the hotel demos, obviously.

Rock Cellar: Which also sound fantastic.

Eddie Kramer: Well, Jimi was very good. I was so amazed. We put those tapes on for the first time, and I was listening to them, and I thought, “Damn, he did a lot with a little.” We have two mics — one on the guitar, one for his vocal — on two separate tracks. He kind of knew that bit. But it was how he was playing, really quietly in the hotel room. He didn’t want to disturb the neighbors. Did you hear the phone ring?

Rock Cellar: Yeah.

Eddie Kramer: Do you realize what that does? That gives him an inspiration. It’s part of a lyric in another song. “The telephone keeps on ringing.”

Rock Cellar: Yeah. So he’s an engineer, too, by this time.

Eddie Kramer: He’d learned a lot. He’s really doing some amazing things in his hotel room, which sets up the album. It’s all the demos for the album. Then when you get to the outtakes, it shows you the whole progression, which I really love. That window into Jimi’s creative process is just wonderful, I think.

Rock Cellar: The progression. I interviewed Giles Martin about the White Album, and The Beatles had learned all these lessons in the studio by that time. And he felt his dad always sort of screwed up his face when people said that the White Album was their favorite album, because the Beatles had taken over. They had become producers. That’s what I thought was interesting, when I was listening to this and when I saw the documentary, I was thinking about Jimi breaking away from Chaz, and the friction that caused. It was the same thing. He had an idea of what he wanted to do. And in those demos, which sound so great, you can tell. He’s thinking ahead to what he’s going to do on the album. Talk to me a little bit about him in the studio as a producer on this album, because this is the first time he was really in charge.

Eddie Kramer: Chaz set him up. If it was not for Chaz being so insistent that Jimi concentrate on writing songs, I don’t think Jimi would have been as good as he became. Great training from him.

John McDermott: Parameters. Parameters.

Eddie Kramer: Jimi was very good at discipline. Think about how he grew up. His dad was pretty tough with him, goes to the army. Goes on the Chitlin’ Circuit. I couldn’t imagine any more discipline. And here he is in the studio, he knows what needs to happen. How does it work? He knows the process. And would encourage us to push the boundaries. So as a producer, he knew precisely what he wanted. He had the sound in his head. He had the direction of the artwork. Everything was his concept.

This was Jimi’s album. He, rightly so, is the director and producer. It’s all him, and deservedly so by this point.

John McDermott: It’s funny. If you think about on the outtakes disc, one of the things we tried to do is, we used “1983,” because it’s kind of one of the signature songs of the album. You’ve got the demo. Then you got that version he cuts at Sound Center, and it’s interesting, but it’s like Noel and Buddy Miles don’t get it. They don’t get the feel. They’re great musicians, and it’s interesting, but then you hear Jimi and Mitch (Mitchell), and that’s take one, and Mitch totally gets it.

Eddie Kramer: Totally gets it.

John McDermott: It’s interesting to see the arc of the story.

Rock Cellar: But it’s interesting, too, because with all the friction between the Experience by that time — and not to jump around — but on the Hollywood Bowl recordings, they were an unbelievably tight unit by that time.

John McDermott: I think — and Eddie will speak to this too — it’s the philosophy towards recording. Noel appreciated Chaz’s taskmaster approach, which Mitch used to joke about it all the time. Chaz would say, “’House of the Rising Sun’ took one hour, cost ten pounds.” He was like, “You don’t need to spend all this time.” And for Noel, he didn’t have the interest in recording that Jimi did. Jimi used the studio to write and create. Noel would have been happier if they rehearsed it, got it down beforehand, came in, boom, boom, boom, and go. So I just think it was a philosophical thing.

Eddie Kramer: Jimi used the studio as a place to create.

Rock Cellar: Certainly by this time.

Eddie Kramer: He had the songs already in his head. By the time he walks into the studio, he has a song, “I know what I want to do. I’m going to experiment for a little while. It might take a day, it might take an evening,” and we’re there.

Rock Cellar: It reminded me when we were talking about him as a producer with a vision, there’s a story I think about the first album in John’s book, how when you turned the tape around to do something backwards, he knew exactly how to play the song.

Eddie Kramer: Why? Because he I gave him a quarter inch tape of the song, of that section. He would take it home, flip the tape around on his tape machine, and practice. He was prepared. He knew exactly what he wanted to do.

Rock Cellar: It was spontaneous, but it’s this sort of spontaneity with knowledge.

Eddie Kramer: His spontaneity is backed up with a lot of work and a lot of knowledge.

John McDermott: No inspiration without perspiration. Isn’t that the classic saying? I do think he looked at these as part of the process — when you hear the demos, they’re formed. Even in the quiet hotel environment, they’re formed. But if you look at “Long Hot Summer Night,” with Al Cooper, that’s when all of the sudden you see — like on that first take it’s just Jimi showing Al, “here’s what it is.” Then add Mitch in and all of the sudden it takes life. Because Al can hear what Jimi’s doing. And because he is a great musician, he’s able to fill in. I think Chaz, in my opinion, would have said, “Cut the track, have Al do that as an overdub. Do it, next track, move on.”

But here it was more like, “Sit with me, I want to show you this.”

Eddie Kramer: This is an organic process.

Rock Cellar: You’d gone from cutting stuff in a few hours to having more unlimited time.

Eddie Kramer: Spending months.

Rock Cellar: He had developed this sensibility as a producer, and you certainly knew that sensibility better than anyone. When you were approaching the 5.1, talk to me about how he whispered in your ear to make choices, because it’s a lot of years and a lot of material, but you also know this material and I’m sure you feel he would have loved 5.1.

Eddie Kramer: We just dove into it. John said, “Should we try it?” I’ve always wanted to do a 5.1.

Rock Cellar: I’ve always wanted you to.

John McDermott: And Eddie said, “Oh, yeah, we’ve got to do this!”

Eddie Kramer: When it came time for this, John said, “Let’s just experiment, let’s try.” And I put the tapes and we do the transfer. I did one song.

John McDermott: “Voodoo Child/Slight Return.” He had said, years ago, “You know, we were able to get the sound to come behind us and around us.” And that was a real moment on the record, and for them, I the studio. So that’s why we said, let’s make “Voodoo Child/Slight Return” the first song again, because if you feel excited like you did then, then we’ll know that we’re onto something.

Eddie Kramer: And it was a journey that I will never forget. You put the tape on and you go (gasps). I hadn’t heard this shit in fifty years. I’ve got this twelve-track one-inch tape. And I’m listening to it and I went … ‘Damn!’ It’s coming through the speakers and it sort of overwhelms you. But once we’d done that song we’d gotten the process down. It took us a while to figure out how to, actually, number one, create the phasing, and, number two, all the delays. I had the original two-track always on a button, so I could always A/B. As I’m synced up, perfectly in sync, I can go back and forth.

So my inspiration is the original stereo mix, with all the mistakes and everything, all the crazy shit that’s going on. And some of it I’m trying to figure out, “What the fuck was I doing in those takes?” Anyway, you get to that point where all of the sudden, this mistake occurs, which was in the original, where we’re experimenting with phasing, and the sound all of the sudden goes “Whoop!” right behind your head. And it’s like, “Whoa, what the hell?” And that’s when Jimi said, I remember, “Nah man, leave it in.” So that was the inspiration, and the fact that if Jimi had been with us at Capitol Studios, and had found this joystick, which was a brilliant piece of gear, that allowed me to digitally track the guitar around the room, he would have loved it. So once I had that in place, I could then mix all the other layers, because they had to be done incrementally. I did one mix, then the second mix, then the third, and fourth, to build it all up, and get this mammoth thing that creates this amazing surround.

Rock Cellar: So part of it was a learning process, because you’re developing it as you go along …

Eddie Kramer: This was a technique that no one had never done before.

John McDermott: You’ve got to tip your hat. This was a labor of love, for Eddie. He really, really was so meticulous getting this done, because in the past, a lot of times, we’d listen to things and he’d say, “I can make this sound a little bit better, I can do a little bit more here.” Because what was always on the tape was really good. But what Eddie’s saying is that takes a lot of time, and real care, and studying the original. Because you don’t want to get too far afield to the point that it kind of sounds novelty-like, if you know what I mean. What he did here was make it truly immersive. The record I love, now in 5.1, where you get in the middle of that when “1983” and you literally feel like you’re inside the sound.

It’s a tremendous feeling.

Rock Cellar: I have this argument with folks all the time who think these anniversary projects are cash-grabs or thrown together. And I’ll tell you, having worked on some, everyone involved takes them very seriously.

John McDermott: Yeah. Beatles 1 sells far more than the White Album set is ever going to sell. I always say that. It’s not about that. We do it because we love it, and care, and want the project to be great, but most of all because it warrants it.

Rock Cellar: This album, in particular, is a very high bar. This is the favorite Hendrix album for many fans. 

John McDermott: It’s a record that I think technology allows him to do. Because I think one of the things that was a particular part of the genius that guys like Eddie, Glyn Johns, all these guys, Geoff Emerick, they were pre-mixing four-tracks. Eddie always had a vision of the stereo image already. ‘Put this here, put this here, put this here.’ Because you had to bounce down, four to four to four. So now you’re three generations down. Here what he was able to was take the 12 tracks of “1983,” and look at it strategically and we don’t have to worry about those reductions. Once you take that change, that reduction away, it isn’t like what Eddie’s doing by matching the phasing. You get some magic to make that sound good in that image. So that’s why I was always a little worried. Particularly with our experience with that album, because some of it was done in wacky studios, and didn’t have the mojo this had. That’s just my take.

Rock Cellar: Anybody who cut their teeth on four tracks knows that planning is essential. When you move up to more tracks, you shouldn’t lose that discipline. And I think a lot of us have. Plenty of us are guilty of accumulating 100 tracks on Pro Tools. Talk a little bit about that as a training ground and how you utilized those lessons. This record sounds phenomenal. It’s not just the room and it’s not just the players. There’s an engineer behind that too.

Eddie Kramer: I’m not quite sure how to answer that. You’re trying to dig back into the past of how I was trained and how I thought. I mean, I was lucky.

Rock Cellar: You can be immodest.

Eddie Kramer: I had great mentors. That’s what I always say to people who ask me these questions. I started as mono. I went to stereo. And once stereo hit, that was a revelation for me. Olympic (Studios in London) was the best training ground of all. I had, once again, another great mentor who allowed me to do whatever the hell I wanted. In addition to which, Chaz Chandler said this wonderful phrase, “The rule is there are no rules.” It just kicked open the doors. We just said, “Okay. We’re going to experiment and be as wild as we can.” It didn’t matter if we went completely stupid. When it came time to phasing and how to use multiple tape machines, we had very few items that we had at our disposal to make the sounds — we had reverb, we had compression, EQ, and basically that’s it, plus good mixing techniques — and when we put a song together, it had to sound right from the beginning, because in your next generation, if you screwed up, you were going to have to go back and redo it. You learn, that’s the way the song is going to sound. And I know if I do this, then that will happen. And then that will happen.

Rock Cellar: You’re predicting the result. This period — a lot of it is lessons learned, like you said. But this period, 1968, was hugely tumultuous for Jimi, and the country in general. Everything is going on. Chaz and Noel and Jimi are fighting, Michael Jeffries is pushing him to work more and more. All sorts of shit was flying at him all the time. When he’s in the studio, there’s certainly hangers-on and whatever was going on at the time, but these are all-star sessions. And the Experience, when they play music, are as great as they ever were. When he’s in the studio, did all that drama fall aside? When he strapped a guitar on, was he like, “Okay, let’s do this?” Or do you feel like it affected him as a creative person?

Eddie Kramer: I think it may have affected him, but only at a songwriting point of view. You feel that anger and the angst coming out in the material. On “Long Hot Summer Night,” et cetera, et cetera. But you’re correct. You put the guitar on, you get Mitch in there or Buddy Miles, or whoever.

John McDermott: Mike Frennigan. Brilliant.

Eddie Kramer: The joy just pops out at him. Everything else melts away.

Rock Cellar: And in the outtakes, especially, this does not sound like a guy at his wit’s end, as has sometimes been written about this period.

Eddie Kramer: Jimi was the funniest guy in the studio. Always cracking jokes. Because he didn’t like it to get tense. And if it did, he would play some kind of, like, the Batman theme, or whatever it was. When he’d get pissed off, he’d get pissed off at himself for not having got the take he had in his head. Of course. Everybody does that. But the sessions were a lot of fun. We laughed more than anything else.

Rock Cellar: As you should. Was the tension within the band, though, with Noel and this other stuff, was that apparent? Noel isn’t always there, he and Mitch are certainly tighter than ever at this point. Did that spill over into …?

Eddie Kramer: No, not really. Jimi was so much in control of himself. And what he wanted to do. He was perfectly capable of playing the bass. And Noel, of course, was jealous of that. This was Jimi’s music. And I’m going to play bass on “All Along the Watchtower,” because I’ve got this thing in my head. These lovely, loping moving parts; just genius. So I never really saw it. Occasionally you would see him grumbling a bit. And then it would be pushed under the rug, or out of the room, at least.

Rock Cellar: Back to the 5.1. He certainly would’ve loved 5.1. It’s hard to put yourself in those shoes fifty years later, but what would he have made of us listening to and loving this music fifty years later, and poring over it, and wanting to hear it in 5.1; thinking of Electric Lady Studios as a place for a pilgrimage?

Eddie Kramer: Part of him would say, “Come on.” But another part will say, “Well, that’s nice. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.”

John McDermott: Right. I think, too, he was a forward-thinking guy. Four track, eight track, twelve track. Then Electric Lady Studios. Cutting-edge sixteen, with the capacity to be 24. He just wanted the best. Willing to pay for it too. And a lot of guys didn’t have that mindset. That was the record company’s thing.

Rock Cellar: He would have wanted to do 7.1, is what you’re telling me.

John McDermott: Per all accounts, I think he would’ve been down for that sort of thing.

Eddie Kramer: He’d have his own film company, his own TV company, publishing company, record company. He’d be the king of it all. Much like Kendrick Lamar, or anyone of the guys who’s got this massive empire around him. He would’ve been it.

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