Jul 22 2022
By Dave Thompson.
Woburn Abbey, in the English county of Bedfordshire, is one of the most beautiful buildings in Britain. It was originally built as a Cistercian Abbey in the early 12th century, but the bulk of the modem Abbey dates from considerably later than that-to the 18th century and the efforts of architect Henry Flitcroft.
It was he who installed indoor plumbing and central heating-revolutionary concepts in the 1700s; it was he who oversaw the remodeling of the Abbey’s vast grounds; and it was he who ultimately transformed a serviceable mansion house into a sprawling ducal palace, fit for kings and queens, politicians and generals, and anybody else the incumbent Duke of Bedford saw fit to invite around.
Through the early 19th century, well into the reign of Queen Victoria, Woburn Abbey was the epitome of aristocratic hospitality. But Oh! What a difference a century makes. In one single year in the 1860s, close to 12,000 visitors were entertained at Woburn Abbey, all of them the Duke’s personal guests (and their servants); all of them ranked amongst the most important people in British society. In one single weekend in 1968, twice that number descended upon the Abbey for much the same reason—and it’s unlikely whether the Duke knew any of them!
But the Woburn Music Festival, over the weekend of July 6 and 7, 1968, would have been a regal occasion wherever it was set. Sponsored by the music weekly Melody Maker and booked by the John and Rik Gunnell promotion team, four separate sets of music were planned.
Opening the festival on Saturday afternoon, the cream of the British folk scene was on parade: Pentangle, Alexis Korner, Al Stewart, Roy Harper, and the archaic duo of Shirley and Dolly Collins. Sunday afternoon, too, was a gentle affair, given over in its entirety to Donovan, while that evening showcased the Blues—John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Champion Jack Dupree, Tim Rose, Duster Bennett, and the Irish power trio Taste (Fleetwood Mac were scheduled to appear, but pulled out due to American tour commitments).
But it was Saturday night’s rock extravaganza that attracted the most attention, with sets from local acts New Formula and Little Woman, American soulman Geno Washington, Tyrannosaurus Rex, and finally, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, playing their first British concert since December’s Christmas On Earth festival.
“I’m American, I want people there to see me. I also wanted to see whether we could make it back in the States. I dig Britain, but I haven’t got a home anywhere.”~ Jimi Hendrix
Flying in from the US just two days before the show, and scheduled to fly out again the following weekend, Hendrix was unapologetic about having made his British fans wait so long for a gig. “I’m American, I want people there to see me,” he told Melody Maker journalist Alan Walsh. “I also wanted to see whether we could make it back in the States. I dig Britain, but I haven’t got a home anywhere.”
As far as he was concerned, Woburn was just another gig in a year full of gigs, and it didn’t matter to him whether it was Woburn, England, or Woburn, Massachusetts.
Neither did Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding appear to regard the show as anything especially spectacular, at least if their own published memoirs are anything to go by. As Hendrix told Walsh, they too simply wanted ” … people to hear us, what we’re doing now, and try to appreciate what we’re at.” The fact that The Experience’s live workload had been so heavy that they were still trying to complete their third album, of course, only exacerbated their weariness.
But Melody Maker wasn’t going to let a little thing like the headliners’ apparent apathy spoil a beautiful day out. From the moment the show was confirmed, the paper seethed with news of who the fans could expect to be seeing for the price of their tickets—10 shillings for the Saturday afternoon show, 15 for Sunday evening, and one pound for The Experience. And the festival would not disappoint anybody.
Movie director Joe Pasternak’s son Michael was recruited to emcee the festival. Better known to pop fans as disc jockey Emperor Rosko, he was a fast-talking, flamboyant American whose near-decade spent on French and English radio had done nothing to soften his maniacal platter chatter. Indeed, his first ever BBC broadcast passed into radio history when, mid-way through the characteristic chaos, the clipped tones of the station announcer broke in with the words, “And now the news … in English.”
Rosko’s Saturday lunchtime show, “Midday Spin,” was one of the most listened-to programs on BBC Radio 1, an hour-long diet of West Coast rock, Memphis soul, and Stax R&B, which certainly had its own impact on the bill, with the recruitment of American soulman Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band to the festival.
An American ex-serviceman who had remained in Britain after his military duties were discharged, Washington served up one of the most popular-and certainly the most exciting live acts on the club circuit, a steamy soul revue that hit on all the greatest hits of the era “Respect,” “In The Midnight Hour,” and “Land Of 1,000 Dances,” of course, but also very stylized versions of some quite unexpected material, “Que Sera Sera” and “Hi Hi Hazel” included. Maybe an open stage beneath the cloudy summer skies was a long way away from the kind of dark, sweaty nightclubs where Washington normally strutted his stuff, but still his act was guaranteed to whip any audience into a frenzy-a frenzy that Family would be greedily taking to a whole new level when they performed.
Family has been described amongst the most innovative bands ever to walk the boards, a Midlands group who arrived in London in 1967, then took the local scene by the throat. Working the same London circuit as Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention, and Arthur Brown, but espousing few of the love, peace and lost-in-space ideals of their counterparts, Family confirmed their status as manic outsiders from the start. At a time when Ian Anderson’s one-legged goblin was considered weird, and Joe Cocker’s distressed spastic tasteless, vocalist Roger Chapman topped them both with his full-blooded assault on the tambourine, a wild-haired madman whose onstage persona was essentially akin to that of a crazed hooligan.
Their newly released debut album, Music From A Doll’s House, was as astonishing a record as Family was a band. According to legend, manager John Gilbert had insisted the group make a record that could be used as a soundtrack to Disney’s Fantasia, so every night as the band began work, the studio would be darkened while the movie played to Family’s recordings. “I don’t know if it was the drugs,” Chapman later remarked, “but John thought our music fit perfectly.” Woburn, even without the benefits of a cinema screen, would ultimately agree: when the music was over, and the reviews were in, Family was widely applauded as one of the stars of the weekend.
So was Tyrannosaurus Rex, a captivating duo featuring the unique talents of a young man, Marc Bolan, who had already shared a bill with Hendrix, two years before—at a time, as Bolan himself later laughed, when, “He was almost as unknown as I was!” In December 1966, with “Hey Joe” fresh on the new release sheets, The Experience made their British television debut, on the now legendary Ready Steady Go. Bolan, then a solo singer/songwriter who modeled himself after Donovan, was performing on the same show.
Immediately entranced, Bolan would make a point of seeing Hendrix play every opportunity he got. As he and his latest musical partner, Steve Peregrin Took, prepared to travel down to the Woburn Music Festival, however, they learned something about Hendrix that absolutely astonished them: Based upon advance orders, Tyrannosaurus Rex’s newly released debut album was looking to become a bigger seller than The Experience’s latest album-and so it did, briefly at least. As the compilation Smash Hits slid down the charts from its springtime peak of No. 4, the wordily titled My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair … But Now They’re Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows was climbing towards a very healthy No. 15, paving the way for Bolan’s eventual emergence as the first true star of the next decade.
He never forgot his love for Hendrix, though, as John’s Children vocalist Andy Ellison discovered when he went to see Bolan in concert in October 1970. “It was pandemonium,” Ellison recalled a decade later, “and Marc was milking it for everything. He came out on stage, held his guitar in the air, and said, ‘I am Jimi Hendrix, and I have taken over.’ And though such a remark might seem boastful today, at the time, less than a month after Hendrix’s death, it was also a truly heartfelt tribute.
Bolan had never previously experienced this level of hysteria himself, but he had seen it in action two years before, watching from the wings as The Experience took the Woburn stage, and the entire festival erupted in welcome.
“We went down a bomb,” Noel Redding wrote in his diary, and back then, Bolan had wondered how such a reception must feel. Now he knew.
As the evening temperature grew decidedly chilly, and 14,000 or so concert-goers lit fires around the festival site, Rosko introduced The Experience: “You’re about to witness a little experience …” then added, as the trio plunged straight into a bout of tuning-up, “This is quite a normal experience, tuning up beforehand, especially when your material’s been in the hands of the Spanish Customs Department!” In fact, neither The Experience nor their equipment had been anywhere near Spain since April, but the explanation seemed to satisfy both the audience and the band. Later, with equipment problems dogging the show with ever-increasing tenacity, Redding continued, “All the amplifiers have just come back from Spain or something, you see, and you know what Spanish people are like, don’t ya?”
Hendrix, too, surrendered himself to the caprice of the band’s gear. Early on in the set, he laughingly admitted, “We’re having slight difficulty with our amps ’cause this is the first time we’ve used them this year.” A reference, of course, to the seven months that had passed since The Experience’s last British show. Later, however, he was forced to apologize for “… these hang-ups, but we have to have about two more minutes, you know, to set this other amplifier up because it’s all screwed up and we’re trying to get it together.”
The Experience’s set that night did not really deviate from that which had been trailing them around America all year: “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” notwithstanding, previews of the next album’s material were still a rarity in their repertoire, so it was old favorites almost all the way. Opening with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Fire,” The Experience then slammed into two truly epic performances; ten-minute versions of Bo Hansson and Janne Karlsson’s “Tax Free” and a truly showstopping “Red House.”
Indeed, Hendrix’s solo in the latter was so memorable that six years later, one festival goer—Henry Cow guitarist Fred Frith—was still raving about it, in the New Musical Express’ Book Of Rock Guitar, a series of weekly articles building up into an encyclopedia of playing, and appreciating, the instrument. Alongside such tips as 10cc bassist Graham Gouldman recommending that aspiring guitarists play their 45s at 33, so as to pick up the nuances of favorite riffs, Frith included the Woburn “Red House” within the Top 100 guitar solos of all time!
“We’re very sorry that we have to play through broken amplifiers. Like I said before, it’s really a hang up. It’s very hard to get our own sound across so we would like to end it and say thank you very much for showing up. We would like to do this last song “Purple Haze.”~ Jimi Hendrix
“Foxy Lady” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” pushed things inexorably on towards their peak, but by now the gremlins in the band’s gear were simply becoming too much to bear. “We’re very sorry that we had to play through broken amplifiers,” Hendrix mourned; “Like I said before, it’s really a hang-up. And it’s very hard to get our own sound across. So we’d like to end it and say thank you very much for showing up and we’d like to do this last song, ‘Purple Haze.'”
Eight minutes later, and 55 minutes old, the show was over.
Talking to Melody Maker a couple of days later, Hendrix was still apologizing for the set. Almost six weeks had elapsed since The Experience’s last live performance, with the result that Woburn “was really only a jam, we hadn’t played for so long.” But there wasn’t much he could do to make amends. Though they would soon be back on the road in America and elsewhere, The Experience would not play Britain again all year, not until February 1969, when they touched down again for the fabled Royal Albert Hall shows.
But still they left a lot of people with a lot of great musical memories-and another fabulous chapter unfolded in the history of Woburn Abbey.
THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE: LIVE AT WOBURN
Originally debuting on July 24, 2009, The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Live At Woburn marked the eleventh release in the Dagger Records authorized ‘bootleg’ recording series and featured a 100% previously unreleased concert recording capturing The Jimi Hendrix Experience in concert at the Woburn Music Festival on July 6, 1968.
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