November 13, 2008
With the death of Mitch Mitchell, the Jimi Hendrix Experience is over
With the death of Mitch Mitchell, one of the finest bands of all is no more. Our correspondent says goodbye to the Jimi Hendrix Experience
It’s no coincidence that Jimi Hendrix was a jobbing session man, hired and fired regularly, before he moved to London and broke through with the Experience in 1967. In the British drummer Mitch Mitchell, he found a soulmate, a kindred free spirit who could make Hendrix’s style intensify, catch fire and burn you.
Before the band’s debut single, Hey Joe, in late 1966, Mitchell’s career had been as spotty as Hendrix’s. As a session drummer for the producer Joe Meek, he had such an abstract style that Meek was rumoured to have put a gun to his head and told him to “play properly”. His approach was closer to jazz than the more straight-ahead rock drummers. It was after a spell with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, the house band of the Flamingo club, that he did an audition for a wild-haired guitarist brought from America by the former Animal Chas Chandler.
Noel Redding, the bassist, got the Experience job largely because Hendrix thought that he looked the part (he had never played bass before), but Mitchell was hired because he was a perfect foil for Hendrix’s showier tendencies.
On many of the best Jimi Hendrix Experience recordings, such as Fire and Manic Depression, Mitchell is as much a lead musician as the guitarist, fizzing, roaring, shifting the songs like a racing driver going through chicanes. Just as it is hard to believe that there is only one guitarist on some of their cuts, Mitch Mitchell did the work of two drummers.
A classic “power trio”, along with Cream and Blue Cheer, the Experience were the only ones to produce a run of super-tough three-minute pop singles: Hey Joe, Purple Haze, The Wind Cries Mary, Burning of the Midnight Lamp and All Along the Watchtower all made the UK Top 20 and stand as a faultless run of vicious, caution-free, amped-up and genuinely psychedelic 45s. When Hendrix tired of the trio and 7in formats, his music — no longer grounded by Redding and Mitchell — lost its flash, straying into flabby selfindulgence and bluesy boredom.
Those who doubt Mitchell’s standing among contemporaries, seeing him merely as Hendrix’s foot soldier, should note that he was chosen as the drummer of the Dirty Mac, the supergroup assembled for The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus TV special in 1968, for which they recorded a scything take of the White Album track Yer Blues. His temporary bandmates that night were John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.
Yet Hendrix was always the man Mitchell returned to, rejecting a job with the group that became Emerson, Lake & Palmer (and thus millionaire status) to play with Jimi once more on the 1970 Cry of Love tour. To the end he was celebrating the group’s legacy on the 2008 Experience Hendrix tour, travelling America coast to coast and playing to almost 50,000 fans.
The influence of the Experience is incalculable. It’s hard to imagine that the Beatles’ Helter Skelter would have been recorded without Hendrix’s band as a blueprint. Their reach can be felt most clearly in the pounding blues rock of Led Zeppelin, and more recently in My Bloody Valentine’s experimental, eardrum-testing noise and the sheer power of Kings of Leon.
The hardest and loudest group of the era, they now become the first to have all gone too soon. Mitch Mitchell was, along with Keith Moon, the most exciting and innovative of British drummers.
It is quite likely that without his empathy Jimi Hendrix would have remained a little-known session man.