Hello there! Our song this week is Hey Joe, a dark and brutal blues song. We will review an early version by The Byrds. We will also discuss versions by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and by Ten Years Later.
The Byrds, Hey Joe:
The Byrds were one of the most influential bands in rock music. Although Bob Dylan essentially invented the field of folk-rock music, it was The Byrds who made it commercially successful. Following that, the group then spearheaded the psychedelic rock movement. Finally, members of the Byrds were also prominent in the development of country-rock, even at a time when their own commercial success was waning.
Roger McGuinn had previously played banjo and guitar with folk groups such as the Chad Mitchell Trio. In early 1964 McGuinn met up with Gene Clark, who had previously sung with the New Christy Minstrels. The two of them began to perform at LA’s The Troubador folk club, and they were soon joined by David Crosby.
Here is a photo of the Byrds circa 1965. Back row L to R: Gene Clark; Michael Clarke; Roger McGuinn; front row: Chris Hillman; David Crosby.
The trio began performing in West Coast coffeehouses and clubs, and were taken on by manager Jim Dickson. At this point, the group were inspired to combine Bob Dylan’s folk music stylings with the pop sounds originating from British Invasion music.
Their big break occurred when Dickson got hold of an acetate disc of Dylan’s unreleased Mr. Tambourine Man. He persuaded the group to work up a folk-rock arrangement of the song. Although they were not impressed with Dylan’s song (!), they did produce their own version.
The group then added drummer Michael Clarke and bassist Chris Hillman, changed their name to The Byrds (a deliberate misspelling, in the spirit of ‘The Beatles’), and in January 1965 they recorded the single Mr. Tambourine Man.
In Mr. Tambourine Man, The Byrds developed a winning formula. It started with The Byrds’ tight vocal harmonies, combined with the trademark ‘jangly’ sound produced by Roger McGuinn’s custom-tuned Rickenbacker 12-string guitar.
The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man was released in April 1965 and shot up to #1 on the Billboard pop charts. They followed that up with another smash hit, Turn! Turn! Turn! This was a cover of a folk song that Pete Seeger had adapted using quotes from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
In early 1966 the Byrds released the single Eight Miles High, which many people regard as the first psychedelic-rock song. It inspired an entire genre of psychedelic pop tunes.
The song Hey Joe has a fascinating provenance. There have been claims that it is a version of a traditional song; however, no one has been able to locate the original.
Hey Joe was most likely written in about 1962 by Billy Roberts, a West Coast folk singer and songwriter. It is possible that Roberts was influenced by a 1953 country music hit called Hey Joe, that was written by Boudleaux Bryant and performed by Carl Smith.
In any case, Hey Joe tells the story of a man who is carrying a gun, with the intention of shooting his unfaithful wife. He plans to run off to Mexico after the deed is done.
Hey Joe is dark and foreboding, in that Joe shows no remorse; in fact, after he has carried out his plan, he seems to exhibit some pride in the act. Here are some of the lyrics in Jimi Hendrix’s version of the song.
Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand
Hey Joe, I said where you goin’ with that gun in your hand
I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady
You know I caught her messin’ ’round with another man
Yeah, I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady
You know I caught her messin’ ’round with another man
Huh! and that ain’t cool
Hey hoe, I heard you shot your mama down
You shot her down now
Hey Joe, I heard you shot your lady down
You shot her down in the ground yeah!
Yes, I did, I shot her
You know I caught her messin’ round messin’ round town
Huh, yes I did I shot her
You know I caught my old lady messin’ ’round town
And I gave her the gun,
I shot her
David Crosby heard the song in the early 60s, and was taken by the tune. He taught it to his bandmates in The Byrds, and also introduced it to other West Coast musicians. The Byrds frequently performed it live; however, the other members of the band were not as impressed by the song as Crosby, so the group did not release it until their 1966 album Fifth Dimension.
One of the groups that saw the Byrds perform this song was a California garage band called The Leaves. Unlike The Byrds, The Leaves were enthusiastic about the tune, and they produced the first recorded version of Hey Joe. Their single was released late in 1965 and reached #31 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Here is a live performance of Hey Joe by The Leaves.
Two singers on The Leaves share lead vocals on this tune. One person provides the voice of “Joe,” while the other takes the lines of the person questioning him.
The Leaves recorded a fast-paced version of the song. As you will see, The Leaves were strongly influenced by David Crosby. The instrumental backing is strongly reminiscent of The Byrds’ folk-rock style, from the jingling guitar to the insistent bass line and the group’s harmonies.
By the way, Robby Krieger, the guitarist for The Doors, claims that the melody for the Doors’ signature song Light My Fire was inspired by Hey Joe by The Leaves. I have listened to both songs, and I must admit I don’t see the connection. Do you?
Next, here are The Byrds showing off their live version of Hey Joe.
This performance takes place at the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Note that David Crosby announces that Jimi Hendrix will appear later in the festival.
I find this a fascinating video clip. First of all, David Crosby’s enthusiasm for the song is apparent. It is easy to see why many artists were inspired to perform it after hearing Crosby and the Byrds play it. Roger McGuinn chips in some of his classic folk-rock guitar licks accompanying Crosby.
Overall, this is not a very successful Byrds tune, and one can see why their recording of Hey Joe was never released as a single. One of the trademark features of The Byrds was their beautiful close harmonies. These are completely lacking in this song, which is a solo effort by David Crosby.
Like all superstar ensembles, there were significant tensions within The Byrds. As they transitioned from folk-rock to psychedelic rock to country-rock, serious differences of opinion arose regarding the appropriate musical direction for the band.
The first to leave the Byrds was Gene Clark, in February 1966. Of the many reasons leading to Clark’s departure, the most serious was his crippling fear of flying. After Clark had a panic attack and had to disembark from a plane before it took off, he was basically given an ultimatum that
“If you can’t fly, you can’t be a Byrd.”
Clark then left the Byrds and began a solo career.
David Crosby and Michael Clarke left the group in fall 1967. During the Byrds’ performance at the Monterey Pop Festival that summer, Crosby’s rambling, disjointed rants to the crowd had ticked off his bandmates. One final straw was that during Monterey Pop, Crosby sat in with Byrds rivals Buffalo Springfield.
So Crosby was fired from the Byrds in October 1967, for being a pain in the ass and being impossible to work with. However, Crosby arguably had the last laugh, as he turned around and formed a supergroup with two other disaffected folk-rockers, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash.
During the period 1968-73, the Byrds added guitarist and pianist Gram Parsons to their group. Under considerable pressure from Parsons, the group transitioned from psychedelic rock to country and western. The group moved to Nashville to begin recording their first country-rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
However, there soon developed significant friction between McGuinn and Parsons. Apparently the final straw for Parsons was that on three of the songs in that album, McGuinn deleted Parsons’ originally recorded lead vocals, substituting his own instead.
Parsons then departed for a solo career, but died in Sept. 1973 at age 26 from an overdose of morphine and alcohol. Two of the other original Byrds members have also passed away. Gene Clark died from a bleeding ulcer in 1991 at age 46; and Michael Clarke died in 1993 at age 47 from liver failure.
But The Byrds really left their mark on rock music. They blazed a trail as innovators in the fields of folk-rock, psychedelic pop and country-rock. Quite a legacy!
Jimi Hendrix Experience, Hey Joe:
Jimi Hendrix is generally considered the greatest rock guitarist of all time. He had a meteoric career – Jimi appeared almost out of nowhere; took the field of rock music by storm; and died less than five years after the start of his solo career.
James Marshall Hendrix was born in Seattle, and was a shy, introverted youth who spent considerable time in foster care, as his parents were both alcoholics who became violent when intoxicated.
Jimi Hendrix’s first musical instrument was a ukulele with just one string. In 1958, he got his first guitar and taught himself to play by learning the guitar parts to famous rock ‘n roll songs.
Below is a photo of Jimi Hendrix performing at Royal Albert Hall, in Feb. 1969.
After being discharged from the Army, Jimi moved to Nashville, where he performed at a number of black venues on what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. He also worked as a session musician for artists such as Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.
In 1964, Hendrix moved to New York and began frequenting clubs in Harlem. He was hired as a guitarist with the Isley Brothers backup band, and later worked with Little Richard’s backup group The Upsetters.
Hendrix had trouble with both bands, as he persisted in showing off his flashy guitar technique, when he was supposed to be toiling in the background for the star vocalists. So Jimi assembled his own band and began performing in Greenwich Village.
There, Hendrix caught the eye of Chas Chandler. Chandler had been the bass player for the British Invasion group The Animals. Upon leaving The Animals, Chandler was looking for groups to produce.
Chandler brought Hendrix to London, and hooked him up with guitarist Noel Redding, who agreed to play bass with the group, and drummer Mitch Mitchell. They formed a power trio called The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
After rehearsing for a couple of weeks in fall, 1966, the band was ready to go. Their first performances must have been phenomenal, because in November 1966, when the Jimi Hendrix Experience appeared at London’s Bag O’Nails Club, the audience included
Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Kevin Ayers.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience released three hit singles in the U.K. – Hey Joe, Purple Haze, and The Wind Cries Mary – before they ever issued an album. At left we show the cover of an Italian album called Hey Joe that was released in 1968.
Hey Joe was the first single released by the Jimi Hendrix Experience in Dec., 1966. It was a significant hit in the U.K.; it reached #6 on the U.K. pop charts, and attracted much attention to the group. Interestingly, a single released a few months later in the U.S. failed to chart.
Here is the Jimi Hendrix Experience in a live performance of Hey Joe from 1967.
Although the audio and video quality are limited, you can instantly see why Hendrix was such a bombshell. He throws in several tricks including playing the guitar behind his head, and playing the guitar with his mouth.
In contrast to the bouncy, fairly upbeat versions by The Leaves and The Byrds, Jimi’s version is much slower, and frankly more chilling. The beginning of each verse is introduced by a slow, deliberate run on guitar and bass.
Then Jimi throws in a series of runs and trills on his Fender Stratocaster. There is a reasonable amount of feedback and distortion on this song, but nothing like the distortion in his songs like Machine Gun, or the version of the Star-Spangled Banner that he unleashed at Woodstock.
Since Jimi was left-handed, he simply took a Fender Stratocaster and turned it upside-down. Note that this reverses the ‘normal’ positions of the high and low strings on the guitar.
I find Hendrix’ version of Hey Joe quite disturbing. His protagonist seems rather proud that he has offed his unfaithful woman. He appears confident that he will make it to Mexico, where no one will ever bring him to justice. Note that the lyrics in Hendrix’ rendition of Hey Joe are significantly different from those in the Byrds’ version.
I have to admit, in 1967 I was not ready for Jimi Hendrix. Although the technical elements were astounding – how could all this sound emanate from just a trio? – I found the feedback and distortion disconcerting.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience lasted for three mind-blowing albums. The first album was titled Are You Experienced? His other two albums were Axis: Bold As Love, and Electric Ladyland. After that, the trio broke up at the end of June, 1969 due to personal and musical differences.
In the U.S., Jimi Hendrix’ big break-through occurred at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was included at the festival largely through the urging of Paul McCartney. Hendrix gave an unforgettable performance at Monterey, capped off when he set his guitar on fire at the end of his set.
Hendrix followed this up with a sensational performance at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969, at a time when he was the highest-paid rock musician in the world. The highlight of his set at Woodstock was Jimi’s explosive performance of the Star-Spangled Banner, which featured
copious amounts of amplifier feedback, distortion, and sustain to replicate the sounds made by rockets and bombs.
Jimi Hendrix performed with various groups of musicians. In 1970 he assembled a new trio, replacing Noel Redding from the original Jimi Hendrix Experience with Billy Cox. In mid-1970 this group commenced the City of Love tour.
In September the City of Love tour had reached Europe. Hendrix spent the night of Sept. 17 with girlfriend Monika Dannemann. Dannemann testified that they had a bottle of wine, visited some friends, and returned to her apartment.
The following morning, Dannemann found Hendrix unconscious and unresponsive. He was taken to a hospital, but pronounced dead early that afternoon. A post-mortem autopsy revealed that Hendrix had died of asphyxia while intoxicated with barbiturates.
In addition to his amazing guitar skills, Hendrix was constantly discovering creative ways to harness technology with his guitar. In order to maximize the feedback and distortion, he would turn up every knob on his Marshall amplifiers to the highest level; this became known as the “Hendrix setting.”
He pioneered the use of pedals to create special effects, such as the wah-wah, Fuzz Face and Octavia pedals. Jimi also employed a Uni Vibe phase shifter, in order to simulate the modulating effects of a rotating Leslie speaker.
Jimi Hendrix’ tragic death was a major loss for rock music. Although he only performed as a solo artist for about five years, his output was truly mind-blowing. He was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Rolling Stone magazine voted Hendrix #1 on their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, and also Guitar World ranks him as the top guitarist of all time.
Ten Years Later, Hey Joe:
Ten Years After was a British blues-rock quartet. They reminded me a lot of power-rock groups like Cream.
The group was formed in 1966 from the remnants of earlier bands. Below is a photo of the band in concert. From L: Leo Lyons, bass; Alvin Lee, lead guitar; Ric Lee, drums; Chick Churchill, keyboards.
The name of the group came from the fact that they were formed a decade after Elvis Presley first appeared, and Elvis was a major inspiration for Alvin Lee.
Ten Years After had some success in the UK; however, until 1969 they were relatively unknown in the US. In July, 1969 they had performed at the Newport Jazz Festival; this was the first year that Newport invited rock bands to participate.
However, Ten Years After exploded on the scene when they appeared at Woodstock in August 1969. The band performed a searing set of hard-rock blues songs, capped off by their signature tune I’m Going Home.
I’m Going Home by Ten Years After was also one of the highlights of the Woodstock concert film. Alvin Lee’s break-neck guitar runs and lightning-fast fingering were a revelation in the Woodstock movie. This resulted in major publicity for the group, and labeled Alvin Lee as a ‘guitar hero.’
Attempting to capitalize on their exposure from Woodstock, Ten Years After became headliners at a number of major concerts, including the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. The group also charted twelve albums in the U.K. pop charts. Somewhat surprisingly, the group’s fame never translated into commercial success in the U.S.
The only single that Ten Years After ever charted in the Billboard Hot 100 was the 1971 release I’d Like To Change The World, which hit #40. And even this was not a positive experience. On the basis of that tune, their record company put pressure on them to concentrate more on straightforward pop songs.
However, Alvin Lee much preferred hard-rock blues songs to commercial pop. So in 1974, Ten Years After disbanded, and their members went their separate ways.
After 1974, Alvin Lee led a few other blues bands. In 1978, he formed the group Ten Years Later, which included Tom Compton on drums and Mick Hawksworth on bass.
So here is the power trio Ten Years Later in a live performance of Hey Joe from 1979.
Mick Hawksworth chips in on bass – let’s face it, you can never have too much double-neck bass! And Tom Compton provides some impressive drumming. But clearly Alvin Lee is the dominant force in the group, as both lead singer and guitarist.
The Ten Years Later version of Hey Joe is clearly based on Jimi Hendrix’ version of the song. Like Hendrix, Alvin Lee performs it at a slow and stately pace. The song is a terrific showcase for Alvin Lee’s pyrotechnics on his Gibson “Big Red” ES-335 guitar.
Lee throws in some blistering licks, and in particular shows off the exquisite fretwork that he demonstrated at Woodstock.
In 1983, the members of Ten Years After re-united and played at the Reading Festival. The group subsequently re-united a couple more times, and produced a couple more albums. However, once again their records were commercial disappointments.
In 2003, Ten Years After replaced Alvin Lee with Joe Gooch. Lee continued on as a solo performer. In 2013, Alvin Lee died while undergoing what was described as a “routine medical procedure.”
Watching Alvin Lee play guitar, we see just how exceptional a musician can be, and still end up with relatively little commercial success. Lee was in considerable demand as a live performer, and his records sold well in the U.K., but he never broke through to superstar status like so many of his British blues compatriots.