Exploring Jimi Hendrix

Gareth Liddiard (Tropical Fuck Storm) talks a heinous Hendrix cover, and their own rendition of him on Submersive Behaviour.

I’m going to be speaking in fairly general terms here, so bear with me. Once upon a time, the music world was split mainly into two parts: One part was made up of the people who wrote music, like songs, symphonies, operas, or whatever; the other part was made up of the people who played the music. Writers like Kurl Weill, George Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, Dimitri Shostakovich, and Irving Berlin got paid to make shit up. (Very good shit. There was no multitasking diluting their results.) Then musicians they didn’t necessarily know would play what they wrote. 

In the 20th century, people started recording it. Artists like Edith Piaf, Ella Fitzgerald, Dame Nellie Melba, and Frank Sinatra. There were exceptions, like Louis Armstrong and Jacques Brel, who did a bit of both — but they all did cover versions, because they mostly interpreted other people’s songs.

Then one day, all that started to change. Jagger and Richards, Simon and Garfunkel — and of course Lennon and McCartney — made it cool to write, and then play your own music. They almost made it essential. The results were pretty good, but that didn’t exactly suit everybody.  Imagine being a great race car driver, then all of a sudden, you’re required to build the cars you drive. Not only do you need to be the best driver, but now you have to actually build the best car too. It’s not easy building anything, let alone the best of anything. And it’s not easy being the best of anything, like a singer, if you can’t sing. It’s a bit much to expect of a mere mortal. 

Again, there were always exceptions. Dionne Warwick mainly did covers and was great and had hits. Beyonce and Rihanna do a bit of both, collaborating with producers, and taking care of the lyrics if they’re not coming up with the songs from scratch or doing straight covers. Bob Dylan writes and plays his own stuff. But as good as he is at singing — and he is a very skillful vocalist — he’s not as easy on the ear as Dionne or Beyonce. Same with Lou Reed. On the other hand, there are musicians like Joy Division, Thelonius Monk, Deerhoof, Wu Tang Clan, Tirzah, and Suicide who just have to do their own thing. Nobody is going to give them the material they need to make the noises they make.  

But I like to sit on the fence. I like playing, and therefore I need something to play. If I never had to write a song again, I don’t think it would bother me. But that’s never gonna happen, so I do a bit of both. I mainly write my own material, but I love playing other people’s tunes — you can grab a great song and get down to business without any of the boohoo haha I’m having such important thoughts bullshit.  

Playing music for me is exploring, as is writing it. Whenever I was given a toy as a child, I would pull it to bits to see how it worked. Later, when I was given radios, battery-powered cars, or Casio keyboards, I would do the same. I would crudely rewire them and make them different to what they were in the box. Then I would blow them up with improvised explosives. Explosives made with shit I nicked out of sheds or the gunpowder from my Grandma’s .32 revolver rounds.  I’ve always owned tools and dogs, because both are fun to explore with. Later, I owned guitars and Jimi Hendrix cassettes. Same thing.  

Even today, 30 years down the track, when I’m listening to Hendrix I’m listening to him explore — and he did it with an infectious joie de vivre. I’m not listening to him for the latest sound or idea, ‘cause that shit is 50 years old. I’m listening to his mind. I’m listening to a free spirit with a wandering imagination, blues guitar or not. There were plenty of other great guitarists in his time, like Roy Buchanan or John McLaughlin, but they weren’t great artists like Hendrix. They were just phenomenal guitarists.

Tropical Fuck Storm have a new EP or LP, or whatever it is, coming out. It’s a covers record called Submersive Behaviour. It’s all versions of songs other musicians have written. It’s also versions of songs made up by other musicians we made up. But the main tune on the record is titled “1983 (A Merman I Shall Turn To Be),” by Jimi Hendrix. We recorded it during the pandemic while we were hanging out with our friends Dan Kelly and Aaron Cupples — both great musicians and old musical collaborators. We did it to test our interpretation chops. We knew we were biting off more than we could chew, but that’s what made it fun. If you know that song, you’ll know that covering it is a stupid idea, because it’s a masterpiece made by a master. But it turned out OK. Then the pandemic wound down, and we all got busy with various things, and it sat in a hard drive for a while. 

But then something a bit odd happened. The Hendrix Estate released a track to “celebrate” Jimi’s 80th birthday: A cover of his posthumously-released song “Angel,” sung by Zayn. It’s a version of a song he’d written about his dead mother. A woman who’s background and circumstances led to poverty, addiction, and a sad, early demise while he was very young. It had a tremendous effect on him. I don’t want to be judgemental or cranky sounding, but I think a line was crossed because of the nature of this “cover” — what the estate did was to take Jimi’s very famous (and lovely) recording, erase Jimi’s vocal, and then get some middle-of-the-road American Idol-style boy-band mega star to re-record it. It’s essentially a very expensive karaoke song packaged as a “tribute.” 

It just seems really cynical to me. It’s not a tribute. It’s not even a cover. If you really like the song, learn to play it. Or pay someone who can play it to accompany you while you sing it. Singers do that all the time. You can play whatever song you want, but no one has the right to just alter an artist’s actual work without their express permission. This isn’t a hip-hop style sample situation, where some small portion of a song is recycled and turned into something new. It’s commerce vandalizing an existing artwork for profit. Hendrix couldn’t give his consent for this because he happens to be dead; something like this should be his choice alone. He may have hated the idea, he may have even liked it. But he wasn’t there in the boardroom when the decision was made, and I don’t think that is right or fair.  It may also be setting a bad precedent. Karaoke is great fun — my version of Barbra Streisand’s “Woman In Love” would break your heart. But you shouldn’t be allowed to do what the Hendrix estate did. Like you shouldn’t be (and you’re not) allowed to take your paint brushes into the Louvre. 

It’s oxymoronic. With covers, you’re supposed to be free, because you’re not burdened by having written the tune in the first place. With karaoke, you’re meant to be drunk. And that’s where it should stop.  

So there you go. That’s why we decided to release our version of “1983 (A Merman I Shall Turn To Be)”. Because it was a joy to explore. And as corny as it sounds, because we love Jimi Hendrix. He was the duck’s nuts.  

Tropical Fuck Storm is Gareth Liddiard, Fiona Kitschin, Erica Dunn, and Lauren Hammel. Their third album Deep States is out now via Joyful Noise Recordings.

(Photo Credit: Jamie Wdziekonski)