I mentioned last time that heavy metal was slow to get going: after the Kinks’ You Really Got Me, fifteen months elapsed before the Who’s My Generation provided a real advance in the state of the art. Astonishingly, another year and four months would pass before the next step forward. But, oh, what a step.
Although he’d been playing as a session guitarist in various backing bands for a few years, Hendrix seemed to appear suddenly, fully formed, like Athena from the mind of Zeus. Playing in an eponymous trio with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding, Hendrix provided the guitar pyrotechnics, vocals and songwriting. Not content with completely reinventing lead guitar, he would frequently play rhythm and lead simultaneously, so that the potentially sparse guitar-bass-and-drum instrumentation sounded anything but.
Purple Haze was the second song released by The Jimi Hendrix experience, and the first original. (It was preceded by a cover of Hey Joe which works well and was very popular, but hardly expressed what the band was about.)
Everything about Purple Haze is a declaration of intent. It starts with the strutting guitar introduction: two root-and-diminished-fifth power chords, themselves a diminished fifth apart, working the Devil’s interval for all it’s worth. Then the guitar sings out the main riff over the bluntest possible drum-and-bass metronome before erupting into the classic Hendrix chord sequence of E7#9, G5, A5. That first chord, previously known only in jazz contexts, was to become a Hendrix signature, driving Foxy Lady among other songs. In his hands, it became a brutal thing, a whole blues scale in a single moment.
In comes the vocal, and it’s classic psychedelia: “Purple haze all in my brain / lately things don’t seem the same / Acting funny but I don’t know why / ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky”. The third verse ends on a vaguely apocalyptic note (“is it tomorrow or just the end of time?”), foreshadowing lyrical preoccupations that would become increasingly prevalent in heavy metal.
The guitar solo, when it comes, is curiously muted, at least by Hendrix’s own standards. Whereas Foxy Lady‘s solo would swoop and soar, the one in Purple Haze is content to torture a single note to breaking point. It’s not a song to establish his reputation as a great guitar technician, but a manifesto for Hendrix as a songwriter and arranger, and a template for much of the hard rock music of the next decade.
As with You Really Got Me, arguably the most extraordinary thing about Purple Haze is its historic context. Released only three months after Buffalo Springfield and three months before Sergeant Pepper, it seems to have come from nowhere. Hendrix is one of the very few popular music legends to fully rate his legendary status; and the classic example of a tragically young death (he was 27) denying the world what should have been a lifetime of glorious music.