Hendrix fans have a lot to be excited about these days. Experience Hendrix (the family-owned company run by Jimi's dad, Al, and half-sister Janie Hendrix-Wright) recently signed a deal with MCA to reissue Jimi's music on the new Experience Hendrix label. Collectors will be thrilled to hear that MCA has revived its audiophile 'Heavy Vinyl' series for the Hendrix titles. All four albums are available in limited edition, 180-gram virgin vinyl pressings. While this is the fourth time Hendrix's music has been reissued on CD (twice on Reprise, and now twice on MCA), this time it's being done right.

Surprising as it may seem, this is the first time that they used the actual master tapes in the production process. All the previous CDs, and all but the original vinyl pressings in the 60's, were mastered from EQ'd production copies. Jimi's original engineer and co-producer, Eddie Kramer, worked with George Marino (noted engineer at Sterling Sound) and EH/MCA to ensure that the quality and integrity of the music remain intact. "We went back to the original masters and started from scratch, and the difference is quite stunning," said Kramer. "It sounds like a cloth has been lifted from the speakers." Kramer's not exaggerating--these CDs/albums sound better than ever.

EH sent noted Hendrix historian, John McDermott, to find the flat un-EQ'd master tapes. After an extensive 14-month search, McDermott recovered over 200 tapes--including live material, original album masters, acoustic home demos, alternate multi-track versions of Hendrix classics, and a few songs never before heard. Some of the tapes include sessions with members of both the Experience and the Band of Gypsies. "People have been coming forward with tapes that Jimi gave them," said Janie Hendrix-Wright. "They've said, 'Here, Jimi gave me this to hold. Now that the family is in control, I want you to have it.'" Alan Douglas was responsible for Jimi's music before EH, and some fans were less than happy with the things he released.

Let's get into the individual albums now, and do some comparisons.

The year was 1967. The Jimi Hendrix Experience released their debut album, Are You Experienced?, on May 12, two weeks ahead of schedule. Hendrix once described the album this way, "It has a little rock 'n' roll, and then it has a blues and it has a few freak-out tunes. It's a collection of free feeling and imagination. Imagination is very important." Lucky for us, Hendrix had a very fertile imagination. Starting with the first notes of "Purple Haze," rock and roll, as we knew it, would never be the same.

The flat masters for Are You Experienced ended up in the hands of a collector, who later sold them to McDermott. It's great to hear all the nuances that were previously buried. You can hear Jimi turn the lyric sheet during "May This Be Love." The guitar on "Manic Depression" is back where it belongs in the mix on the EH CD. The previous MCA issue has better bass response on the song, but the guitar track was pushed back. The muddiness on the previous MCA version of "51st Anniversary" (the only Hendrix song without a guitar solo) has been corrected. On the new CD, the song is noticeably brighter, especially in the quiet parts.

One of the most improved tracks is "Highway Chile." Even though they used the mono version, it sounds better than ever. Each instrument is easily distinguishable from one another. It has noticeably better dynamic range also, as do "Love or Confusion" and "I Don't Live Today." "Foxey Lady" fades out a couple seconds early on the EH disc. The ending notes on "Hey Joe" that were cut from the previous MCA release have been restored though. Give and take, right? "Third Stone from the Sun" lacks the bass response of the last MCA disc, but the vocals are much clearer now, and overall, the sound quality is improved.

The original running order of the songs was restored for the new version of this landmark album, which many fans are happy to see. As far as packaging, the EH CD includes new liner notes and photos (some of which are omitted from the LP booklet), hand-written copies of lyrics in progress, recording session invoices, and complete lyrics to all the songs. Purely in terms of sound quality, the vinyl is noticeably better. Where it really shines is on the quieter tracks, like "The Wind Cries Mary" (written for his ex-girlfriend). You'll be blown away when you hear how much better they sound.

Hendrix started working on Axis: Bold as Love right after he finished Are You Experienced. Axis was a highly experimental album for its time. Mitch added elements of jazz with his slick brushwork on "Up From the Skies." Jimi overdubbed a glockenspiel on "Little Wing." Eddie Kramer contributed the harpsichord accompaniment on the title track. Sound quality was always a major concern. The EH CD has considerable tape hiss on several tracks, but the album has an increased sense of spaciousness to it now, and overall, markedly improved sound. You can hear the snare vibrating on the verse intros in "Wait Until Tomorrow" and the bass response is better than on any of the previous releases.

When you compare "Spanish Castle Magic" (written to commemorate a 1950's jazz club in Seattle) to the compressed version on the last MCA disc, the sound is more rich, and wide open. The Reprise disc had less tape hiss on "Little Wing," but the song is much clearer on the EH version and has better tone on the solo. Tape hiss is a distraction on "If 6 Was 9," but the top end is more spacious and opens on the EH disc. "You Got Me Floatin'" is a highlight (and one of Jimi's favorites from the album). They still haven't quite uncovered Noel's bass solo, but it's considerably more distinct than on any of the previous issues.

On "Castles Made of Sand," the subtle nuances stand out more now, but the hiss on the track is much worse. Noel's track, "She's So Fine" is clearer and has much more impact than any of the previous releases. This was the first song recorded for the album, but due to Jimi's lack of enthusiasm for the song, it wasn't finished until the very last session. As far as sound quality, "One Rainy Wish" is outstanding. The dynamic range on the end section of "Bold as Love" will astound you--it's that good. Bass response is much better on the LP, and makes the CD sound shallow by comparison. The vinyl inherently hides the tape hiss better than the CD also.

In terms of packaging and sound quality, the CD doesn't compare to the LP. All the photos from the CD booklet are included in the LP booklet, although some are in a different format (color vs. black & white), or cropped to fit, etc. The CD booklet is missing the lyrics to the last four songs. Complete lyrics are included on the inside of the LP's gatefold cover. In addition, the CD booklet is formatted in such a way that you can't see the complete outer cover art unless you either take your booklet apart, or buy two CDs. The only thing the CD has that isn't found in the LP booklet are the portions of Jimi's handwritten lyrics to "Bold as Love" and "Up from the Skies."

Electric Ladyland is considered by many to be Hendrix's best work. Many people consider it the best double album ever released -- by anyone. When you listen to the tracks spread over this 1968 double album, it's hard to disagree. The album contains some of his best work; inspired jamming throughout, and aural landscapes that seemingly come from another world. Unfortunately, the one thing it never had was good sound quality. Jimi publicly stated that he was not happy with the mix. "We went on tour right before we finished and actually cut it," he said. "We mixed it and produced it, and then when it was time for them to press it, they screwed it up because they didn't know what we wanted. There's 3D sound on there that you can't even appreciate now, because they didn't cut it properly. They thought it was out of phase."

During his tape search, John McDermott's journeys took him to Shaggy Dog Studios in Massachusetts. Alan Douglas had all the masters shipped there from Electric Lady Studios. Due to unpaid bills, several tapes ended up being abandoned -- including the flat masters for Electric Ladyland. Some of the reels were misfiled, but Kramer was able to identify his handwriting on the boxes. The sound on the new disc isn't on the same level as the first two albums, but it's considerably better than any of the previous CDs. The EH vinyl is better still. The soundstage is much wider, and all the instruments and vocal tracks are more defined. Most of the songs have better bass response, and overall, the vinyl has a much fuller sound to it.

Jimi's soulful vocals on "Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland)" now have an openness that is unmatched on any of the previous CDs. Always adventurous in the studio, Jimi used a comb and a piece of paper to get the kazoo sound on "Crosstown Traffic." He recorded "Voodoo Chile"--the crown jewel of his blues repertoire--live in the studio. There are a few songs in particular that sound better than the rest of the CD. Lucky for us, this is one of them. During the mastering process, Kramer was able to restore some of the 3D effects on "Gypsy Eyes." Eddie elaborates, "If you listen very closely on headphones, it will seem as though the kick drum is moving around your head."

Hendrix loved all types of music. The epic "1983" was his classical masterwork, clocking in (correctly now) at almost 14 minutes. Previous CD releases had the track misindexed (the next 'song' began in the wrong place), but EH fixed it for the new disc. The songs making up the third side of the album are musically and sonically outstanding. "Still Raining, Still Dreaming" picks up where "Rainy Day, Dream Away" left off. "Rainy Day" gets things warmed up, and then "Still Raining" comes along and just blows you away. The sound on this track is much more open & loose than before. This is another one of those tracks that sound better than the rest.

The packaging on the Electric Ladyland LP is beautiful. There are eight pages of Jimi's handwritten notes to the label, explaining how he wants the cover to look, etc., plus all the photos from the original album. The CD booklet, on the other hand, is awful. Several pictures from the LP booklet are missing, and the ones that do appear look like they've been photocopied three or four times. Neither booklet includes lyrics to the songs.

In early 1969, Hendrix arrived in London to announce plans for his next album. Unfortunately, the public and critical impression of Jimi had changed. People were calling him washed up, and past his prime. They weren't interested in the music anymore; they wanted a show. Jimi had grown tired of all the theatrics on stage. To him, the music is what mattered most. The breakup of the Experience left him even more vulnerable. It seemed like nothing he could do would be able to top the first three albums. First Rays of the New Rising Sun doesn't top his work with the Experience, but it clearly shows that Jimi was in the midst of a creative rejuvenation.

All the songs on First Rays have been previously released on posthumous albums. However, this is the first time they have all appeared together the way Jimi intended them (his handwritten notes were used as a reference). Alan Douglas put Voodoo Soup together with the same idea in mind--creating what was supposed to be Jimi's "last" album. To the dismay of the fans, what he ended up with was little more than a remixing nightmare. Nine of the tracks from Voodoo Soup appear on First Rays, but there are some major differences between the two. Not just in sound quality, but also in the running times. Five of the songs are longer on First Rays, mainly due to longer intros. All the tracks appearing on both CDs have better sound on the new CD.

Voodoo Soup had Jimi's lead guitar channel switched on "Freedom." The new version has the lead back where it should be (although there is a bit of distortion on the first high note), and the drums are much clearer now. "Night Bird Flying" (written for the late WNEW disk jockey, Alison Steele, a.k.a. The Night Bird) is one of only four songs that Jimi had completed for the album. On Voodoo Soup, this track was compressed beyond belief. On First Rays, the soundstage is wide open and you can hear all the instruments clearly. "Room Full of Mirrors" was a muddy mess on Voodoo Soup. The mix on First Rays is much less cluttered. You can hear all the intricate drum fills that used to be buried, plus now the song is 12 seconds longer.

"Ezy Rider" is the most problematic track on the CD. The first few seconds are missing--on the CD and the vinyl. Overall, the song has a warmer sound than it did on Voodoo Soup, but Jimi's vocals are still too far back in the mix. "Drifting" is missing the last few seconds of the song (faded early to hide tape hiss). However, the sound is warm, and the bass response is excellent. The First Rays version of "In From the Storm" has the pre-song studio chatter that was previously omitted. Also, the panning effect on the guitar is much more noticeable now. First Rays comes to a close with Jimi's last studio recording, "Belly Button Window." The song has slightly more high end than before, but aside from that, it isn't much different.

In general, the sound quality on First Rays is better than Voodoo Soup. At high volumes, it seems a bit harsh though. The vinyl pressing is a bit warmer than the CD, but it's still not what it should be (compared to the other albums). There's no real difference between the CD and LP booklets for First Rays, aside from the size. Even though the sound quality is not as good, Voodoo Soup has a few songs that are sorely missing from First Rays. "Pali Gap" comes to mind, as does "The New Rising Sun," and "Peace in Mississippi." On the other hand, First Rays has "Straight Ahead" and "Hey Baby" (which sounds better than ever). Like I said, give and take.

When all is said and done, the new Hendrix albums and CDs are better than anything that's previously been available. The CDs have a higher output level than the previous versions, as well as a new sense of openness and clarity. The albums are even better. You get to experience the feeling of holding a new album in your hands, the smell of the vinyl. You can fully appreciate the artwork that way, also. Whether it's a gatefold cover or a booklet that comes with it - sometimes the CD format just doesn't cut it.

The next few years should prove very fruitful for Hendrix fans. According to McDermott, there will be an album of BBC material, and a sequel to the Band of Gypsies album. There are plans for a concert disc of the legendary 1969 performances at London's Royal Albert Hall, as well as a possible 3-tape home video release taken from these shows. EH is working with the same team that did The Beatles Anthology on this project. As each succeeding rock generation discovers Jimi's music, his legacy will live on forever.

© 1997 Steve Marshall