Days after Hendrix‘s death, Eddie Kramer, head engineer at Electric Ladyland Studios, was quoted as saying that there were two albums worth of studio cuts and a live Albert Hall gig that would be released soon. However, “associates” were quoted as saying that there were lots more Hendrix tapes that nobody would hear – “It wouldn’t be fair to his memory to release them” was the way the rap went.
Nevertheless, this is the fourth posthumous album to be released by Hendrix’s label (not to mention the increasing number of “early jam” tapes spewing forth), the third studio album, and whatever did happen to the Albert Hall tapes?
War Heroes consists of several instrumental sketches, alternate versions of English and American singles and in-studio goofs that get you closer to the man, but add little to his musical legacy. The fact that tracks come from various points in time adds to the scattered feeling of ghoulash. On three of the tracks, Noel Redding from the original Experience weighs in on bass, and that puts them back a ways – Eddie Kramer says that some date from 1968.
Of the ten titles, there are four realized songs; “Bleeding Heart” is another Hendrix space blues, with one of his more familiar bass riffs underlaying wah-wahed guitar. “Highway Chile” was one of Jimi’s earliest English single releases; it’s a regularly structured rock ballad of a 17-year-old rambler – “You’d probably call him a tramp, but it goes a little deeper than that . . . he’s a highway chile” – the riff is compelling, if a bit simpler than what was to come later.
“Stepping Stone” and “Izabella” were released here as a single in April 1970; those versions have minor differences – the break on “Izabella” here is done without wah-wah. “Stone” is taken at a slower pace, but isn’t as tight – still, it’s one of Hendrix’s better single songs, with lines like “You’re a woman, at least you taste like you are/But you can’t get off in bed, with my guitar” – Jimi was hip to the bounds of his myths and realities, it seems. “Izabella” is a soldier song – and the only connection with the album title I can draw, but it’s really nothing special.
“Tax Free,” “Midnight,” and “Beginning” are instrumental doodles; my guess is that with the exception of “Tax,” they were just tracks that Jimi put down the way other people fill up notepads while talking on the phone. Not to say that his genius isn’t in evidence (“Midnight” has a pervasive, heavily ominous mood), just that it’s a bit wandering and random. Usually Jimi zeroed in on a riff like a spaced .30/’30, here it’s more like a bemused shotgun. “Beginning” especially sounds like an experiment, or maybe just thinking out loud; tempo and focuses shift and change like icebergs debating on which ocean liner to use for an olive.
The “goof” songs include “Peter Gunn” – remember the crew-cut TV detective with jazz backing? Jimi runs through a few choruses of the theme then goes into a goof takeoff on “Jealousy” – here it becomes “Catastrophe” – but even with Jimi camping outrageously on the vocal, there is an incandescent guitar run after the singing that just makes your eyes pop. (It’s easy to take his technique and ability for granted – but just little flashes like this stand out and grab you all over again.)
“Three Little Bears” could just as well be a children’s song, it has a really infectious guitar duet riff with a kind of lopsided tango rhythm. The words (which Hendrix wrote) keep cracking him up – “this is so silly man,” he interjects, “I can’t go through with this.” But he does and at least it’s a picture from life’s weirder side.
In other words, a potpourri of out-takes and alternate takes, bits and pieces, which I guess are nice to have as they add depth to the image of Jimi that will endure – but I just hope that this wouldn’t be the first album somebody would buy to find out about him in years to come. It’s hardly essential . . . and what was that about being fair to his memory?