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Song Of The Month November 2011: “Machine Gun” by Jimi Hendrix

November 27, 2011

He was born on 27th November 1942 as merely another human being but since his death aged just 27, he has become an icon to many and has been eulogised increasingly as those who knew the man himself slowly leave the land of the living. The deluge of material that has been released for public consumption in the 41 years since his demise has been expansive, if perhaps on occasions unnecessary. However what has been released to date highlights not just the strength of his musical pedigree and the immense talent he possessed but the fact that the public still want more of him. With music appearing to be in a state where inspiration for innovation is at its lowest, it’s only natural that there is a yearning for more ground-breaking days and the 1960s was to many the tipping point when the subculture became the dominant culture, where ground was broken in many aspects of living. Perhaps the best manifestations of this cultural change were those through the medium of sound. Or at least it appears that way to musical romanticists.

Approaching the dawn of a new decade, Jimi Hendrix wanted to reinvent the context in which he had fallen into. Backed by bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, the Jimi Hendrix Experience had entered a stage where people requested certain elements on a constant basis and Hendrix’s showmanship began to become staged as opposed to a natural inclination at a given time. This evidently grated at Hendrix but the departure of Redding presented Hendrix with an opportunity to experiment and it was this road that would lead to the formation of Band Of Gypsys and what could be called their seminal musical moment, “Machine Gun”.

Hendrix called upon a friend from his past, Billy Cox, to fill in the role of bassist. It was not just a simple matter of filling the vacancy as Cox also served as a symbol of a return to simpler times for Hendrix and it was hoped Cox would have a positive effect, one of grounding, on Hendrix who had become riddled with the effects of fame and fortune.

The first real public mention of Band Of Gypsys would come at Woodstock: a moment forever to be included in the Hendrix legend. Playing as part of an expanded group named Gypsy Sun & Rainbows “…or call us Band of Gypsys, anything you want to”, it appeared a useful moment as to the direction Hendrix wanted to take for the future. Inadequate recording practices have meant that a few elements of the group’s performance on that day have been lost to memories of those fortunate enough to have been present at the time. A public appearance on the Dick Cavett Show would follow soon after and the group had reduced in number with it being Hendrix, Mitchell, Cox and percussionist Juma Sultan. It was clear by material played on the show, “Izabella” in particular, that Hendrix’s sound was becoming a little funkier, more blues-based or as those who believe in the MOBOs would say, more “black”.

Mitch Mitchell returned to England for a while and Hendrix continued to find any musicians he could to jam with and come up with new ideas, constantly looking to improve and redefine the sound he wished to create. Enter Buddy Miles and the line-up that would be the Band of Gypsys.

Scheduled to play at the Fillmore East in New York on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 1970, the trio of Hendrix, Miles and Billy Cox would billed as “Jimi Hendrix: A Band Of Gypsys”. Hendrix had gone from the days of the Experience and being flanked by two white Brits to now being flanked by two black Americans. Buddy Miles called Band Of Gypsys “a strong statement from three brothers”. The image was clear and while some painted it as Hendrix wanting to appeal to a black audience more, it was also a clear case of Hendrix wanting to try something different. Hendrix did not want a bigger black audience, to say such a thing is derisory, he just wanted to play and appeal to the biggest audience he possibly could.

The shows at Fillmore East presented the audience with a fusion of ideas rather than an imposition from Hendrix. While most of the material was arguably his, the sound appeared more encompassing and illustrated well the abilities of the three musicians. It is important to not forget the role that Billy Cox played in the group. He had no inkling whatsoever to assert a given style and appeared more than happy to provide an earthy base to allow Hendrix and Miles to take the upper registers. This was a key difference to the Jimi Hendrix Experience as Noel Redding wanted to impose himself more in the group. After all, Redding was not a bass player; he was a guitarist who happened to play bass in order to fit into the requirements of the group upon their formation.

Their roots as musicians were evident throughout the shows. A strong rhythm and blues influence was apparent and both Billy Cox and Buddy Miles have stated since that the time they had individually spent on what was known as the Chitlin Circuit was a huge influence on the basis for the music they wanted to create.

It seemed to all mesh together in one song more than any other. “Machine Gun” has a great gravity of emotion and reflects issues of war, suffering, pain and killing. Much has been made of Hendrix’s past in the 101st Airborne Division but it is not a simple musical rendition that preaches from a high on such matters. The drums and the scratchy wah-wah create the sound of a machine-gun but it is not generic sound creation. Lyrical content is kept to a minimum with the imagery coming from the sounds, tones and instrumentation. The improvisation creates such raw emotion to such a level that it’s like what you can hear is the depth of a soul, a soul unattached to an instrument. Or as Lenny Kravitz would say, “it’s heavy”.

“Machine Gun” opened up a possibility that has many music fans salivating at what might’ve been. It was “Machine Gun” that made jazz pioneer Miles Davis take note of Hendrix. It astounded Davis who couldn’t believe that someone untrained like Hendrix could have such a talent in creating such rich soundscapes. It came naturally to Hendrix and this only endeared him further to Davis. The idea of Hendrix dealing in jazz circles and possibly going as far to collaborate with jazz musicians would’ve caused dismay from Hendrix’s management. Jazz music is not exactly a lucrative market, especially when compared to rock’n’roll.

The performances were recorded and an album cut from it to form the album, “Band Of Gypsys”. This album would serve the purpose of fulfilling the agreement with Ed Chalpin and Capitol Records made prior to his meteoric rise to fame. With this long-standing problem laid to rest, things were looking positive for Hendrix and 1970 appeared to be a key year for Hendrix as a musician if nothing else. It would turn to have far more significance than anyone thought. He died in the September, a death shrouded in mysteries and inaccuracies. Had depression got the best of him? Was it just an unfortunate accident or was there something far more sinister at work? It’s something that will never be solved. That in itself adds to the legend of Jimi Hendrix. It’s a legend that will only get stronger as time goes on.

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