Money for old rock

Image of Peter Aspden

On November 12 1968, I wrote a letter to the BBC. It was a letter of complaint, responding to the latest television appearance of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. “I was disgusted,” I fulminated. “They looked like they had just come out of a pool of strawberry jam. And why do they pretend to be women?”

I never sent the letter. It was an exercise in our class on how to write formal missives. But believe me, I was a mighty troubled 10-year-old.

The BBC continued to disturb my psychic well-being. I clearly remember Hendrix’s live appearance, a year later, on the Lulu show. (I am not sure I can spell out, for the benefit of younger readers, a contemporary equivalent of this epochal event. It was magnificently sui generis.) The chipper, moon-faced hostess of the show gushed with excitement. “That was really nice!” she said after Hendrix’s first number, the bombastic “Voodoo Chile”.

The guitarist then launched into his latest single “Hey Joe”. In mid-number, he threw in the riff from “I Feel Fine”, a catch-it-if-you-can tribute to the Beatles, whom he adored. And then he stopped dead, told the audience he was going to stop playing this “rubbish”, and commenced another act of homage, “Sunshine of Your Love”, this time in honour of Eric Clapton and Cream. The BBC faded him out. Would they ever have had him on again? We will never know, for he was dead a year later at the age of 27. Announcing his demise, the newscaster on the US’s ABC television shared a little joke with us: “The Jimi Hendrix Experience is over.”

Only it’s not. This month, Hendrix is once more topping the charts and the must-have lists of discerning critics with a new album, Valleys of Neptune. Its dozen tracks are unreleased (though much bootlegged) and show us what the man was up to in the couple of years before his death, when he was not vexing BBC bosses and primary school children. They are, unlike many posthumous projects, a perfectly respectable testament to Hendrix’s considerable talents.

The release is part of “Experience Hendrix”, an association established by Hendrix’s family to supervise the musician’s legacy. There are, still, hours of unreleased recordings languishing in the vaults. Such was Hendrix’s intuitive genius that even the loosest of his improvisations possess merit. And thanks to digital technology, these can be remastered so that die-hard fans will feel they are listening to something fresh, while new generations hear something that does not sound dated.

As in so many things, the Beatles were pioneers in the development of rock archaeology. When their Anthology project was unveiled in the mid-1990s, their reputation was at its lowest. But it soared following the release of the three double CDs, which illustrated more clearly than ever before the hard work and craft that went into their songs (for the uninitiated: listen to the first take of “Tomorrow Never Knows” on Anthology 2).

The compilations of out-takes were lovingly compiled; but they also made profound business sense. Apple Records, the company that had, in the 1960s, become synonymous with naivety and profligacy, had turned its act around and become a money-making machine. Rock archaeology was not like proper archaeology: an unreleased demo of “Strawberry Fields Forever” turned out to be worth a lot more than a vase found in downtown Knossos.

Rock archaeology is not an infinite science: there are only so many great performers from the golden age of popular music, and only so many out-takes. But record companies have learned to husband their resources. They control the timing and scope of their releases with millimetric precision. Yes, rarities and out-takes are widely bootlegged and more easily distributed than ever, but the imprimatur of the officially released CD still – just – has the authority to make serious impact on the market.

In the coming weeks comes one of the most eagerly-awaited “finds”, the unreleased out-takes and some new songs from the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St sessions, mostly recorded in the south of France in 1971 while the group was in tax exile, and widely considered to represent its finest hour.

Producer Don Was, under the ever-watchful eye of Mick Jagger, has sorted through hundreds of hours of disorganised tapes (was there ever a more shambolic set of sessions?) to produce a definitive edition of the album. Exile is the Stones at their rawest and bluesiest, but nothing will be more polished and refined than the planning of the re-release of their masterpiece.

We may not be living in a golden age of rock, but we are in a remarkable period of rock archaeology. Like all those inferior cultures that sifted through the debris of the great archaic civilisations, we must get used to gorging on past glories. And we all love to unearth forgotten gems, like the time last year when I opened my copy of Electric Ladyland, and out popped a letter from a 10-year-old boy.
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