For a look deep inside the soul of Axis: Bold As Love, Jimi Hendrix’s second album, which turns 50 years old today (Dec. 1), play the seven-minute-long instrumental version of its title track, one of over 27 takes of the tune recorded at London’s Olympic Studios in early October 1967.
At the 3:15 mark, something genuinely magical happens, perhaps unfelt elsewhere in his catalog (if not in the canon of rock music in general): Hendrix’s Fender Stratocaster guitar defies gravity. In those fleeting moments, time has no meaning; an intergalactic chord is plucked deep within the listener. It’s a stream of consciousness from Hendrix — the man becomes one with his instrument, flitting the psychedelic colors swirling in his mind straight into sound, electrified and fuzzed out. It’s the sound of Hendrix’s interpretation of the one thing that binds all living creatures together: love. And damn if it ain’t bold as ever.
This live, vocal-less rendition of “Bold As Love” would be released years later, packed in an odds-and-ends collection of live, b-sides and rarities recordings. But it provides perhaps the most telling insight into the musical experimentation and sheer virtuosity happening for Hendrix and his band, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding, in the fall of ’67. This solid-gold live version was ultimately considered a toss-off—the master recording of “Bold As Love,” as featured as the closing track on Axis: Bold As Love, would be a combination of takes 21 and 27. It’d be just four-minutes long, not seven-plus, and it received producer Eddie Kramer’s increasingly deft touch on the mixing board (i.e. lots of phasing). Hendrix’s lyrics would attempt to explain what he thought his guitar could not—a battle between “Anger” and “Queen Jealousy,” who is “Towering in shiny, metallic purple armor” as “her fiery green gown sheers at the grassy gown”; “Blue are the life-giving waters taken for granted”; “The once happy turquoise armies lay opposite ready”; “My red is so confident”; “Orange is young, full of daring” and “My yellow, in this case, is not so mellow.” His poetic epithets of color all close with that chorus: “But they’re bold as love / Yeah, they’re all bold as love.”
The released version of “Bold As Love” remains the album’s tour-de-force, and one of the best songs in Hendrix’s esteemed catalog. But compared to the instrumental, you have to wonder if it’s like a professor explaining the emotional impact of a Monet painting. Maybe it doesn’t need words. Such was Hendrix’s power. He was musically telepathic.
Seattle native Hendrix got his start performing with groups like the Isley Brothers and Little Richard (after his honorable discharge from the 101st Airborne Paratroopers). After a failed attempt at a solo music career in NYC, he was recruited by his new manager and former Animals bassist, Chas Chandler, and headed for swinging London. There, he recruited Redding and Mitchell and released their debut, Are You Experienced, in spring 1967. It was full of flowing, gorgeously psychedelic songs, like “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Hey Joe,” and riff-tastic rockers like “Foxey Lady” and “Purple Haze.” He scored three hits immediately. His combo of R&B and psych-rock was evolving. He was on to something.
But over the summer and into the autumn, the new trio played and played and played, coalescing the influences in their sound into one all their own. Instead of writing songs with pieces of R&B, psych, hard rock and more, Hendrix had begun to communicate moods, an electric painter stroking riffs of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.
Axis: Bold As Love, released stateside later in ’68 to avoid conflicting sales with Experienced, opens with sped-up, then slowed-down tape warps with Hendrix, aka Mr. Paul Caruso, discussing the existence of aliens. And on the album, it sounds like he’s trying to speak a universal language even they’d understand: colors, moods, love. “Little Wing,” one of his most beloved tunes, combines the emotional firepower of “Hey Joe” and “The Wind Cries Mary” into a fairytale world of “butterflies and zebras,” where you can ride the wind and a magical woman fixes all sadness.
“Castles Made of Sand,” another of Hendrix’s classic songs, leverages the best of his tender songwriting, experimental playing and abstract portraiture. Alongside “Bold As Love,” it’s the album’s high-water mark. It’s a personal song about the finite nature of life, the “Castles made of sand melting into the sea” a reminder to embrace all that you love before it’s gone. Because time will get us all in the end.
There are more explosive moments, too. “Spanish Castle Magic” finds Hendrix squeezing off rapid-fire guitar chugs, painting yet another picture of castles high in the cotton candy skies, accessible only by dragonfly. “But it’s all in your mind,” he sings. And on “If 6 Was 9,” an assured Hendrix plays a riff to mimic his vocal until—bang—the band ignites and Hendrix conjures another Picasso-like image: “If the sun refused to shine, I don’t mind / If the mountains fell into the sea / Let it be.”
He then compares the hippies to the white-collared conservatives, caring for neither, saying he’s “going to wave my freak flag high” anyways because “I got my own world to look through / And I’m not going to copy you.”
Which is perhaps the lesson with Axis: Bold As Love. Experienced was Hendrix discovering and wrestling with his genius, trying to understand and wield it. On Axis: Bold As Love, he’s mastered it. And before the drugs and the fame and all its trappings could stand in the way, Axis: Bold As Love finds both Hendrix’s powers and explorative mind at their height, working in unison, creating something truly original and transcendent, in a language all his own. One of wonder, of abstract and otherworldly images and the sort of emotional epiphanies discovered at the bottom of a psychedelic trip — all spoken in color, love and sparkling guitar riffs.