Jimi Hendrix's 'Are You Experienced' Turns 50: How His Electric Church Changed the World

David Redfern/Redferns
Jimi Hendrix

In the religion of music, few albums closely unite the many sects and spin-offs of fandom. Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced -- released 50 years ago today (on May 12, 1967) -- is one of those albums. It's not just one of the greatest debut albums ever, it’s one of the greatest albums, ever. It’s one of the classics of classic rock. Your usual opinions or personal musical tastes need not apply -- it’s above that. It’s sacred. It's divine. It just is.

In terms of rock iconography and cultural significance, it surpasses the Abbey Road photo-op on your next trip to London. It surpasses Kurt Cobain’s green-and-yellow sweater from the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video shoot. It surpasses the Grateful Dead’s dancing bears, Jim Morrison’s writhing, naked torso and Bob Marley’s legendary dreadlocks. Experienced is part of the fundamental foundation of a modern musical knowledge. Without it, one’s essential understanding of music is just off. Hell, the college campus poster sales of the iconic cover art is a long-thriving cottage industry unto itself. 

Experienced is so ingrained in the pop lexicon that its tracks conjure other cultural markers just based on association. Its opening track, “Purple Haze,” has a strain of dank marijuana named for it. And, of course, there’s the fuzz-toned guitar riffs of “Foxy Lady” and Dana Carvey’s Wayne’s World nerd Garth vamping to his dream babe, bunny ears up. That riff, man. That riff!

Musically, it’s an unmistakably American album, an explosive convergence of blues, rock, and R&B that could only come to life in England’s mid-‘60s psychedelic rock scene.

By 1965, Hendrix, a Seattle native, was a high school drop-out, former Army paratrooper and now a veteran of the chitlin tour scene, having worked as a guitarist for acts like Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. Lore says Hendrix clashed with Richard, who, in an act of prophecy, accused Hendrix of upstaging him. But by 1966, the 24-year-old guitarist was struggling to make it as a solo act in New York City. On the suggestion of Keith Richards’ then girlfriend, Hendrix met with the Stones’ flamboyant manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who wasn’t convinced of his chops or selling power. Next Hendrix auditioned for Ex-Animals member Chas Chandler, who was taken with Hendrix’s skill and style, and suggested a trip to swinging London. In the autumn of ’66, Hendrix stepped off the plane into Technicolor military jackets, pink feather boas, ruffled satin shirts and scarves galore. The man born James Marshall Hendrix was reborn as Jimi Hendrix, American guitar wizard.

With Chandler’s help, in just weeks Hendrix had formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience band with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell -- both selected specifically because their tasteful playing highlighted Hendrix’s guitar aerobatics. By winter the band were recording in various studios across London, and playing gigs in mainland Europe during breaks in sessions.

Musically, Experienced is pure innovation, full of fluid guitar explosions and his signature talk-howling -- his voice, both via his vocal and his guitar chords, is unmistakable. The first track recorded, a cover of Billy Roberts’ slow-rockin’ murder tale “Hey Joe,” was a mission statement -- Marshall stack amps cranked to the point of rattling everything in the studio, combined with free-form drumming, R&B bass licks and Hendrix’s virtuosic guitar wailing. From there, Hendrix turned inward on tracks including “Manic Depression,” a beautiful musical panic attack recorded in an uptempo triple metre, which let Mitchell’s jazz chops shine, as Hendrix shot off distorted R&B scales and flaming riffs.

“The Wind Cries Mary” is a tender ballad about an argument with a lover, and, as it’s written back in NYC in the summer of ’66, provides a view into Hendrix’s supernatural mind’s eye -- even before his first encounter with LSD later in London. “Purple Haze” wasn’t, as popular myth claims, about an acid trip, but, as Hendrix once put it, "about a dream I had that I was walking under the sea.” With watery guitar and crashing drums, “May This Be Love” is a wistful reverie about a lover who protects himself with her beauty: “Nothing can harm me at all / My worries seem so very small / With my waterfall.”

The mesmerizing title track, like most the album’s 11 tunes, used the latest studio technology to its benefit, adding ambient background sounds by playing tapes through a set of headphones held near a microphone; overdubbing up to five guitar tracks; using an octave-doubling effect pedal, the Octavia; utilizing numerous amps, all cranked to max volume; backwards-playing tracks; and placing multiple microphones at various distances from the amps and instruments.

Are You Experienced is groundbreaking on multiple levels -- technically, musically, culturally and beyond. The world responded in kind: The LP spent 33 weeks on the U.K. charts, peaking at No. 2. And when it dropped stateside in August 1967, it reached No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and remained on the chart for 106 weeks (76 of those in the top 40). Fittingly, it’s now in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in recognition of its cultural significance to America and the world.

Are You Experienced was the world’s introduction to Hendrix, who had a fruitful career that was tragically cut short in 1970. But his years in the music scene were packed with highlights -- and in the weeks following his debut album’s release, he’d cover the Beatles’ "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in front of Paul McCartney and George Harrison, and set his guitar on fire to close his victorious set at Monterey Pop Fest. Two legendary chapters in the History of Rock Music.

Are You Experienced will be remembered for its blazing psychedelia, a sound and musical movement that Hendrix -- increasingly under the influence of LSD in the late-‘60s -- would later refer to as his religion, his Electric Church, making his debut release, Are You Experienced, his Book of Genesis.

“If there is a God and He made you, then if you believe in yourself, you’re also believing in Him,” he wrote in a concert program for gigs at Royal Albert Hall in 1969. “So everybody should believe in himself…. [It] means that what you are and what you do is your religion… When I get up on stage—well, that’s my whole life. That’s my religion. My music is electric church music… I am electric religion.”

Amen.