The Story Behind ‘Purple Haze’
The Story Behind ‘Purple Haze’
NPR 100 Fact Sheet
Title: Purple Haze
Artist: Jimi Hendrix
Reporter: Jesse Wegman
Producer: Elizabeth Blair/Jesse Wegman
Editor: Elizabeth Blair
Interviewees: Eddie Kramer (DAT will be sent shortly)
John McDermott (DAT will be sent shortly)
Vernon Reid (DAT will be sent shortly)
Recordings Used: “Purple Haze,” Jimi Hendrix, Are You Experienced?
“Hey Joe,” Jimi Hendrix, AYE?
“Move Over and Let Me Dance,” The Isley Brothers
“Purple Haze,” Kronos Quartet
“Purple Haze,” Robert Dick
“Purple Haze,” Various Artists, Pickin’ on Hendrix
“Purple Haze,” Benjamin Verdery
“Purple Haze,” Jimi Hendrix, Live at Woodstock
Jimi Hendrix during his performance at the Isle of Wight Festival, August 1970. Evening Standard/Getty Images hide caption
Jimi Hendrix during his performance at the Isle of Wight Festival, August 1970.
Evening Standard/Getty Images
Thirty years ago today, Jimi Hendrix died of a drug overdose in London. He was 27 years old. Hendrix’s music and on-stage antics, loud, turbulent and sexual, came to symbolize the 1960s. But Hendrix was also a gifted musician and one of the most innovative and influential electric guitarists in history.
Jimi Hendrix once said, “When I die, I want people to just play my music, go wild and freak out, do anything they want to do.” OK. So how about “Purple Haze” for a string quartet. or flute. or for bluegrass. or even classical guitarist? They’ve all been done. But if you want to hear “Purple Haze” on the instrument it was written for, there’s really only one place to go: Hendrix’s original.
For more than three decades, this music has inspired and humbled guitar players everywhere. From the first time blues-rock guitarist Mike Bloomfield saw Hendrix play, he didn’t want to pick up his guitar for a year. For Vernon Reid, a guitarist and record producer who played with the rock band Living Color, Hendrix challenged him to think, “What’s next?”
“I’d say a lot of people take up the chance to do it in terms of trying to sound like him or trying to play like him, which is really daunting,” says Reid. “I think the big challenge with him is: ‘This is what I’ve done. OK. You’re up next. What are you going to do? What are you going to do with your life?'”
As a kid in Seattle, Jimi Hendrix taught himself to play by listening to blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He played in high school band and, later, after a stint in the Army, found work as a backup musician, touring with rock and rhythm and blues artists Little Richard, King Curtis and the Isley Brothers. But a sideman has to play exactly what he’s told. Hendrix quickly lost patience with this.
For Hendrix, this style of playing got old fast, so he quit and moved to New York, where he tried to survive by playing small clubs in Greenwich Village. It was there that he developed the foundations of his style, a loud fast mix of blues and R&B. But not many people were listening, until one night when Chas Chandler stopped by. Chandler had recently left the popular British band The Animals to try his hand at producing. In Jimi Hendrix, he saw his first potential client.
“It’s all about facilitating Hendrix’s talent,” says Hendrix biographer John McDermott. “I think what Chandler realized is that with some parameters, this man is a tremendous artist, and I think he was smart enough to recognize ‘I need to get this rhythm section around him, we need to be in a good studio,’ and it’ll all take care of itself.”
Chandler insisted Hendrix return with him to England, where they immediately held auditions for a backing band to be called The Jimi Hendrix Experience. At first, it had nothing to do with experience. Bassist Noel Redding had never actually played the bass before. He was a guitarist. And drummer Mitch Mitchell, whose background was jazz, was chosen by a coin toss. But the three men soon got comfortable, and their first single, a cover of the song “Hey, Joe,” was released that November and quickly became a hit in England.
In 1966, England was the perfect place for Hendrix. The Rolling Stones had already popularized American blues, and young people there were starting to see the possibilities of the electric guitar in the playing of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. But even the best guitarists of the day worked, for the most part, within a standard blues structure. Hendrix wanted to do something completely different. John McDermott says Chas Chandler spent hours listening to Hendrix experiment with riffs.
“Jimi was playing a small club date in London and was backstage toying with the riff of ‘Purple Haze,’ and Chas, you know, being there, heard it immediately and said, ‘Write the rest of that. That’s the next single.’ Because I think he had heard enough of Jimi, even in the two or three months that they were together, to know that that is something very special, work on that.”
Hendrix did. Soon, he had 10 pages of lyrics. In a late 1960s interview, Hendrix remembered an early draft of the song.
“Oh, ooh, you should hear the real ‘Purple Haze,'” Hendrix said in a vintage interview. “It has about 10 verses. But it goes into different changes. You know, it isn’t just ‘Purple haze, all in my’ –you know, blah, blah, blah.”
He explained later that the idea for the words to “Purple Haze” came to him in a dream after he had read a science fiction novel. Fans and critics have spent years trying to decipher the song’s meaning. Hendrix himself pointed to the one line at the end of the second verse: “Never happy or in misery / Whatever it is, that girl
put a spell on me.”
With Chandler’s help, Hendrix edited the song down to three minutes and the Experience cut a demo. Then with money from the sales of “Hey, Joe,” Chandler moved the band to Olympic, a new studio across town, where they were matched up with an adventurous young engineer named Eddie Kramer.
“The studio manager said to me one day, ‘You know, Eddie, there’s this American chappie with big hair called Jimi Hendrix,'” Kramer remembers. “You do all that weird stuff so why don’t you do this, you know?’ It was very English and very proper, and we hit it off. I mean, it was just a good feeling. He was very shy. When he stepped out on the studio floor and, you know, plugged in — oh, my God, it was just a revelation for me. You know, I’d never heard anything quite like it.”
Hendrix immediately liked Kramer and his willingness to experiment, and both quickly learned Chandler’s one rule in the studio: There were no rules. For example, who says you’re always supposed to record at normal speed? There’s a high-pitch guitar at the end of “Purple Haze” that sounds almost like a mandolin. Kramer explains that to get it, he set the tape recorder to half-speed: “If you played a fairly rapid figure at half-speed, it would be really silly fast at high speed, and that’s what it was.”
Hendrix had such a deep understanding of the guitar that he knew his own solos backwards and forwards. And since he didn’t have a day of formal musical training to his credit, Hendrix came up with his own method of teaching his songs to his band mates.
“A sort of large legal pad with copious notes of first of all,” Kramer says. “You know, the lyric content possibly, and then he would describe in detail where certain things would be happening in the song, ‘OK, drum hits here, bass drum pattern here’ and there would be a map of the song.”
And even though the technology was primitive, Hendrix experimented endlessly with sound, working with effects boxes that were built especially for him. During his live shows, he turned up his amplifiers and got sounds out of his guitar that no one had ever heard before.
One more thing: Hendrix was left-handed, so he restrung his guitar and turned it upside down. But as comfortable as Hendrix was with a guitar in his hand, Eddie Kramer remembers that he dreaded stepping in front of a microphone.
“He hated the way he sounded,” says Kramer. “He thought he had the worst voice in the world. He was embarrassed about his vocal performance; so much so that I had to build a series of screens — three sides — facing away from the control room windows so nobody could see what he was doing. We had to turn all the lights off in the studio, except for a little light where he had his lyrics, and he would do the take and we would stop and he would poke his head around the side of the screen and say, ‘Hey, how was that? Was that all right? Are you sure it’s OK?’ And I’d say, ‘Jimi, it was great, it was great. Yeah. Come on, let’s go. Keep doing it.’ ‘Oh, all right. OK. Well, we’ll do one more then.'”
In March of 1967, “Purple Haze,” the single, was released in England and shot up the charts. Three months later, the Experience gave its first U.S. performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. It was at this show that Hendrix doused his guitar with lighter fluid and set it on fire. The moment was captured on film and Jimi Hendrix became a star in America.
Not everyone was impressed. Hendrix’s on-stage behavior, which, in addition to pyrotechnics, included unmistakably sexual gestures involving his guitar, led one well-known rock critic to dub him “a psychedelic Uncle Tom.” In an interview from a 1973 documentary, Hendrix explained he had no time for that kind of criticism.
“I don’t care, man,” Hendrix said in the interview. “I don’t care anymore what they say anymore. It’s up to them then if they want to mess up the evening by looking at one thing. You know, because all that is included, man. When I feel like playing with my teeth, I do it, because I feel like it, you know? All that is complete when I’m on stage, I’m a complete natural, more so than, you know, talking to a group of people or something.”
While Hendrix rarely expressed himself in racial terms, Vernon Reid says he totally changed the parameters of what black art could be.
“He was unabashedly sexual,” says Reid. “He didn’t apologize to black people for being wild, and he didn’t apologize — he certainly didn’t ask for permission from white people. He laid down a gauntlet, you know, he said, ‘Are you prepared to be free?'”
Eddie Kramer remembers feeling something similar as he watched Hendrix in the studio.
“The brain to the heart to the hands to the feet, it was one fluid motion,” Kramer says. “There was never any question, never any doubt as to where he would put his hands on the guitar, what sound would come out. And I don’t think there is any musician that I’ve worked with in the last 30-odd years that has ever come close to that.”
Nor have there been many musicians who accomplished so much in such a short time.
“You know, here was a guy who, in essentially four years, changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll, re-interpreted the role of the electric guitar in that music. And it’s four years, you know?” says McDermott. “So I think that had he been able to have a lengthy career, it’s impossible to think about, you know, what he would have done. I mean, you know, people live their lives to figure that out.”
In August of 1970, a month before his death, Hendrix told an interviewer, “I’m back where I started. I’ve given this music everything but I still sound the same.” He went on to say, “Something new has to come, and Jimi Hendrix will be there.” You might say he never left.
The iconic rocker was written during a 1966 gig at a London club, with lyrics based on a dream he had after reading a science fiction novel.
|Album (track #)|| United States: Are You Experienced (<<
|Released|| United Kingdom: March 17th, 1967
United States: June 19th, 1967
|Publisher(s)|| United Kingdom: Track
United States: Reprise
|B-side(s)|| United Kingdom: “51st Anniversary”
United States: “The Wind Cries Mary”
|Charts|| United Kingdom: #3
United States: #65
|Jimi Hendrix Wiki rating|
“Purple Haze” is a song by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, from their 1967 debut album Are You Experienced. The song only appeared on the North American version of the LP, and was the opening track. “Purple Haze” was written by Jimi Hendrix and recorded at De Lane Lea Studios in London, England, on January 11th, 1967.
“Purple Haze” was released as a single on March 17th, 1967 in the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan, and on June 19th, 1967 in North America. The former contained the B-side “51st Anniversary”, while the latter was backed with “The Wind Cries Mary”.
Jimi Hendrix wrote and first played the main riff to “Purple Haze” on December 16th, 1966 at his flat. The band’s manager, Chas Chandler, was with Jimi at the time and told him to keep working on what he was playing, claiming it “would be the next single” (after “Hey Joe”, which had been released in November). Hendrix began playing the riff again on the afternoon of December 26th, 1966 backstage at the Upper Cut Club where The Experience were due to play that evening. Chandler told Jimi to “write the rest of that”, and so it grew into a full song. Hendrix reportedly wrote a lot more lyrics and music than what is heard on the final version, but Chas felt it best to cut it down.
“Purple Haze” was first played live on January 8th, 1967 at the Mojo Club, Sheffield, just three days before it saw recording for the LP, Are You Experienced. On the 11th, three other songs were recorded along with “Purple Haze”, namely “Fire”, “The Wind Cries Mary” and “51st Anniversary”, of which the latter two were used as the RUX master takes.
The song was released as the band’s second worldwide single on March 17th, 1967 in the United Kingdom and June 19th, 1967 in the United States. It reached #3 in the UK, making it Hendrix’s highest-charting single ever, and while it only reached #65 in the US, this was still an improvement on “Hey Joe” which failed to chart in the country.
“Purple Haze” remained a live favourite throught Hendrix’s career, due to its popularity and relatively low difficulty to perform, and usually featured as the final or penultimate song, often before “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”. In 1969 and 1970, “The Star Spangled Banner” often ended by driving straight into “Purple Haze”, much to the crowd’s pleasure. In total, the song was played x times between 1966 and 1970, and it last appeared in the set list of Hendrix’s final gig, on September 6th, 1970 at the Isle of Fehmarn, Germany. It was the penultimate song, succeeding “Room Full of Mirrors” and preceding “Voodoo Child”.
Purple haze was originally written by Peter, Paul and Mary to be sung along with Puff The Magic Dragon during the 1960s cartoon. The notorious dragon was an avid user of the purple LSD tablets, manufactured by Owsley Stanley circa 1965 (Owsley refuted his ever naming an LSD product Purple Haze, as his products only clarified things, never producing a haze). “Anyone who claims I named my product Purple Haze was clearly high.”
The term was then used in the 1970s to refer to a specific, vividly purple strain of cannabis, though this could not have influenced the song as it was written in 1966. Despite these apparently relevant meanings, Hendrix insists that “Purple Haze” was in fact not about drugs, but a reference to a dream he once had. However, he had the dream while experiencing an out of body encouter where Hendrix alleges he saw himself take the shape of Mama Cass. The dream was said to be inspired by Philip José Farmer’s science-fiction novel Night of Light: Day of Dreams, in which the phrase “purplish haze” is used. Aforementioned dream supposedly featured Hendrix becoming surrounded by a purple haze, getting lost, and subsequently being saved by his faith in Jesus Christ. Hendrix also once said that the song was about love, and that the line “Whatever it is, that girl put a spell on me” was the key to the song.
The main genre of “Purple Haze” is that of classic hard rock. The distinctive tritone interval is featured in the intro which acts as a consistent, marching start to the song. The main guitar riff is played in Bb, while the bass plays in E. The song speeds up towards the end and the guitar solo and dubbed guitars in the outro are played through an octavia.
When played live, “Purple Haze” was not often modified a lot, unlike many other Hendrix songs. The main riff was occassionally played differently or extended, but not often enough to warrant it as a ‘variation’. Sometimes through the verses, typical Hendrix licks and breaks were played, just to add live variation to the sound. The solo was sometimes extended when played on-stage, simply a trait of Hendrix’s as a guitarist, and naturally, as the studio version features overdubbed guitars, Jimi would sometimes improvise the end and usually finished the song with the main riff.
As one of the Experience’s most popular hits, “Purple Haze” was often played near the end, or last, on live set lists. However, the song was sometimes moved around in the running order, but usually remained near the end. “Purple Haze” was often preceded by “The Star Spangled Banner”, and when not played last was sometimes followed by “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”.
At Woodstock, “The Star Spangled Banner” came before “Purple Haze”, which was then followed by the “Woodstock Improvisation” and “Villanova Junction”, before the last song of the day, “Hey Joe” was played. At Berkeley, the song came in between “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Voodoo Child”, as stated as the norm before.
Purple haze all in my brain,
Lately things just don’t seem the same.
Actin’ funny but I don’t know why,
‘scuse me while I kiss the sky.
Purple haze all around,
Don’t know if I’m comin’ up or down.
Am I happy or in misery?
Whatever it is, that girl put a spell on me.
Oh no, no!
Purple haze all in my eyes,
Don’t know if it’s day or night,
You got me blowin’, blowin’ my mind,
Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time?
Ahh, yeah, purple haze, yeah!
Oh no, no,
Oh, help me,
Tell me, baby, tell me,
I can’t go on like this,
You’re makin’ me blow my mind, mama,
Oh no, no,
No, it’s painful baby.
"Purple Haze" is a song by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, from their 1967 debut album Are You Experienced. The song only appeared on the North American version of the LP, and was the opening track. "Purple Haze" was written by Jimi Hendrix and recorded at De Lane Lea Studios in London, England, on…