Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Fremont's Group—
The Best Of Jimi Hendrix


Released 1971 on Musidisc
The Seth Man, January 2005ce
In the wake of Jimi Hendrix’s death in September of 1970 there was an outpouring of shock, grief and sadness expressed by Rock fans worldwide joined by the far seedier reaction of posthumous releases that could not mask their blatantly obvious exploitation. Even in death there would be no peace for the legacy of James Marshall Hendrix as a jumble of recordings that pre-dated his rise to stardom, studio outtakes and live performances were consequently thrown together into a string of piecemeal compilations that were dished up to serve as tribute to the man and his music. The worst of which that come to mind are the “Midnight Lightning” and “Crash Landing” albums that featured various Bob Ezrin sidemen providing a backfill for studio outtakes that would’ve been better off untouched and unreleased. And the “Voodoo Soup” re-issue featured the drummer from The Knack (I ask you: WHY) in the early nineties click-tracking along to “Steppin’ Stone” because (get this) its equalisation didn’t match up to the other tracks. And they only came up with said lame excuse only after they were called to the mat with this bit of unnecessary Frankensteinian rehash. So the version on “Voodoo Soup” has drums but the only problem is that they’re not played by either Mitch Mitchell or Buddy Miles -- despite the fact versions of “Steppin’ Stone” with both those drummers on it not only exist, but had seen release since the time of yet another hastily ill-conceived album called “War Heroes.”

With that said, these albums for all their slobbery greed and artlessness are a tribute of sorts: not to Jimi Hendrix but to his ever expanding audience who have (and will time and time again) plonk down cold cash for anything with Hendrix’s name on it. And since his reputation had been preceding him ever since he first burst feet first into the pop scene of late 1966, people trust in the name of Jimi Hendrix as being the real deal, a sure thing as well as one of the more undeniable and extraordinary artists to emerge during the rock’n’roll scene of the sixties and perhaps: of all time. And since it’s a talent that probably won’t be repeated or surpassed any time soon, any new Hendrix product is ensured to sell in large quantities. Which it does over and over so much that after purchasing my fourth successive copy of “Are You Experienced?” on CD, I drew the line in the sand and said no more (Especially after one listening sesh where I compared it to the British mono LP. The original won hands down because it was sonically far rougher and in your face than the CD, whose flatlanded EQ made it sound like every crease had been steam pressed and every crevice vacuumed of all dirt.)

Then there’s the more embarrassing side of tributes, a place where guitarists throw in their lot to be as Jimi as possible and oftentimes basing their entire sensibility around the late and great southpaw guitarist. Having Hendrix as an influence shouldn’t be a problem, but oftentimes seems to wind up being just that. It consequently holds back many an artist’s own voice and creativity and things get quickly... confused. Key danger signs: when said artist start affecting his sense of dress to mirror Jimi’s own, copping one riff too many throughout entire albums, marrying one of Jimi’s old girlfriends and so on. I don’t know why this happens, but perhaps when it amounts to cashing in one’s true voice of expression for what (ostensibly) was Hendrix’s own. More often than not it’s just THEIR version of what they think Jimi’s was -- and it’s usually a sad caricature at that.

There was a French band by the name of The Fremont’s Group who managed to circumvent all of the above pitfalls by recording what very well may be the finest and first Hendrix tribute album, ever. Released in 1971 long before entire sections were devoted to these sort of albums and the only Hendrix covers extant were usually accorded to just one or two per album, The Fremont’s Group’s sole album was deceptively entitled “The Best Of Jimi Hendrix” while the band’s name was resigned rather unassumingly on the back cover. Comprised exclusively of Hendrix material, it was released on a low budget label that was in all certainty the French equivalent to Crown Records as it boasted releases plucked from the twilight zone of grey-area licensing like Bill Haley, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee as well as two separate albums of music from the film “West Side Story.” And through the renditions of the twelve Hendrix cuts are about as crude as the pop-art portraits of Hendrix that adorn the front cover, this album uses Hendrix’s music as a springboard into a different dimension altogether.

In many ways, “The Best Of Jimi Hendrix” is a roaring success because the manner in which the songs are covered puts forth a sound that comes close to matching the way Hendrix’s music first sounded when you first heard it -- long before each and every riff and arrangement became so familiar and firmly stayed embedded that way. But here, the familiarities only comes, goes and sometimes disappears altogether for none of the tracks herein are performed strictly verbatim by any means. And when they veer off into solos far longer than the original is where this album totally burns down so crazily.

Side one kicks off with Jimi’s first big hit, “Hey Joe” and immediately you start to notice that the vocalist isn’t keeping strictly to the lyrics, but this only serves to makes this album a disorienting experience. “Fire” follows, and is probably what The Jimi Hendrix Experience would’ve sounded like if they were in the audience at Monterey watching Blue Cheer and not the other way other. The Fremont’s Gang are so respectful of Big Jimi they even drop the “Move over Rover” middle bridge and just keep on pummeling it out in a manner befitting of Messrs Whaley, Stephens and Peterson. Following is “The Wind Cries Mary” and the vocal phrasing is all over the map as the other Fremonts adhere as close to the original as they ever will for the duration of the album, as if waiting for the more bombastic tracks to go over the top. Which they do soon enough all over “Can You See Me” which is once again refracted through the sights of Owsley’s Blue Cheer, and is a thump-a-thon akin to the paces of Cheer’s “Doctor Please” only minus the feedback and with far less compressed production as the vocalist makes a train wreck out of the lyrics and even goofs up big time on “Freight train comin’ from a thousand miles.” They then proceed onwards to carve up “Purple Haze” with inspired accidents raining down along with the tortured riffola the guitarist is laying down. The side then ends with a version of “Red House” that once more deviates little from the original, barring the errant Damo-inflected blues whispers.

The second side is at least two songs stronger, because there are no ballads to ease things up for except “Up From The Skies” but even there they manhandle it into something far weirder. Opening with a track Chico Magnetic Band would later record for their sole album, “Crosstown Traffic” almost matches it in its erratic power as well as following a set of lyrics whose configuration deviates wildly from the original, letting them loose in accordance with his own groove. “Up From The Skies” is dominated by unyielding and highly elastic wah-wah guitar that swamp the whole deal while the vocals are eerily Damo-like as he wispily daydreams the lyrics to make them weaves and bob in disdain against the rhythm of the track. “Highway Child” (sic) blows in through the door with well-executed riffs and solos that are non-Jimi but way soulful. Following is a bash-out, flat out fucked version of “Foxy Lady” and oddly: sounds more like “Purple Haze” than the original. Again, another unique guitar solo is unleashed as the piece is carried beyond the fixed boundaries of the original. Extending even further beyond the parameters of Hendrix is the highlight of this whole mess: the version of “Voodoo Child” (although it’s really the “Chile” version, misspelled on the sleeve with a ‘d.’) Ha, it don’t matter a lorry load of iotas one bit, because it barely sounds like neither. After the introductory wah-wah, there’s just enough information afoot to qualify it as “Voodoo Chile.” It sounds great whatever it is, but the lyrics so wrong they’re all right (except for the erratic “I’m a voodoo chile!” intonations) while the guitarist is wringing his neck for all it’s worth by extending the solo throughout the entire song. There is no middle bridge because the whole song has become swallowed by the middle bridge into a propulsive and compulsive solo way beyond the fade out. The final cut is a tremendous take on “Stone Free” complete with a cowbell resounding like submarine sonar over the band letting loose into a freefall that is the definition of ‘stone free’: loosened from the bonds of the original and all that entails and just going for it.