Between 1967 and 1969, Jimi Hendrix and his band, then called the Jimi Hendrix Experience, were one of, if not the biggest rock groups on the planet. Jimi’s mastery of the blues along with his revolutionary use of guitar distortion and effects, such as the wah pedal, had expanded the sonic possibilities of the guitar more then any other musician had ever dared . Hendrix was also known for his stage performances, which usually included him playing his guitar behind his head or with his teeth, humping his amps while producing massive walls of feedback, and even sacrificing his guitar to the gods of rock by setting it ablaze both figuratively and literally.
By the end of 1969, Jimi had grown weary of his image as a guitar wielding psychedelic madman. He felt imprisoned by his image and by audience expectations. Crowds were so entranced by what he might do on stage, that they begin to lose focus on Jimi’s true passion, his remarkable music. Hendrix decided it was time to break up the Experience. He wanted to put the focus back on the music by taking it in a less psychedelic, more earthbound direction. It was the blues and r & b that first inspired Jimi to pick up the guitar, and it was to those forms he wanted to return.
Around this time Jimi owed an album to Capitol Records, which was not his current record label. Years before while still struggling to make it, Jimi haphazardly signed a contract and then forgot about it. To fulfill his obligation, he decided to record a live album at New York’s Fillmore East with a new band. The new group dubbed A Band of Gypsys, consisted of Hendrix on lead guitar and vocals; his old army buddy Billy Cox on bass; and former member of the Electric Flag, Buddy Miles on drums.
Recorded during four shows on New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day 1970, the music performed was more grounded and funky then anything Hendrix had previously recorded. The setlists were similar for each show, with one song being the undisputed highlight of each setlist. The song, called “Machine Gun,” was a new song that Jimi had been tinkering with, but had never gotten around to making a final recording of.
Several live versions of “Machine Gun” exist, but it is the performance from the third Band of Gypsys show on New Years Day 1970, that is widely regarded, not only as the best version of “Machine Gun,” but as one of Jimi’s best all around performances period.
After introducing the song, dedicating it to all of chaos happening on American streets in the late 60s, as well as to the soldiers fighting in Vietnam, Jimi starts into the riff. The riff isn’t anything incendiary but it sets an ominous mood that is nicely complimented by Buddy Miles’s machine gun beats. The darkness deepens, as Jimi begins singing, “Machine Gun tearing my body all apart,” and later “Evil man make me kill you, evil man make you kill me, evil man make me kill you even though we’re only families apart.” The lyrics are meant to communicate the insanity of war; the insanity of going and killing fellow human beings over some ideology or land dispute; the insanity of politicians and rulers unwilling to fight but prepared to send young people to kill and die for their own ends. The lyrics are serviceable but they lack the impact that Jimi has mind. It is in his guitar solo that the true weight and import of his message is felt. The solo begins around the four minute mark of the song with a single howling note that Jimi holds for a few seconds before repeating it and then launching into a barrage of beautiful harrowing sound. Jimi’s solo lasts for approximately four minutes. In it’s notes we hear the chaos of the battlefield; the sounds of guns firing and bombs exploding, the cries of parents whose children aren’t coming home, and of the howls of death from young soldiers forever gone. It is a powerful musical statement, and one I never grow tired of.
The lyrics pick back up after the solo, with Jimi singing and Billy and Buddy adding a mournful backing of “ooohs.” The song ends a few minutes later with Jimi experimenting with some dive bomb sounds and feedback all with his guitar. At the song’s conclusion he tells the audience, “That’s what we don’t want to hear no more,” meaning the sounds of war. Buddy Miles chimes in by saying, “no guns, no bombs.”
According to the 1999 documentary, this performance was so impressive to legendary musical genius and jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis, that Davis wanted to collaborate with Hendrix on some future musical project. Sadly that collaboration never came to be. Jimi died a mere eight and a half months later. Jimi’s career was short, but his legend is immortal, because of the passion he poured into songs like “Machine Gun.”