Friday, June 1, 2012
Jimi Hendrix at the Saville Theatre
The Saville Theatre, photographed here on a gloomy December afternoon, is a cinema now. Forty-five years ago this weekend, on a bright June evening it hosted ten minutes of Rock And Roll History.
Even in the Swinging London of 1967 puritan shadows still flickered around Sundays. During the week The Saville Theatre was a comedy theatre. That summer Spike Milligan was in a one man show there, but on Sundays the Saville was dark, like every Theatre along London's Shaftesbury Avenue.
Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager had taken out a lease on The Saville, as one of his many interests, and used the empty Sunday nights for pop concerts. On Sunday June 4th the auditorium was flooded with famous faces: all four Beatles were there, Eric Clapton and Lulu among many others. Everyone who was anyone had come to hear The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Jimi Hendrix had only arrived in London the previous September, The Experience was barely six months old, and still earning their living (just) by blasting out one night stands across provincial Britain in student bars and miners' clubs. Faced with Rock And Royal Royalty Jimi an The Experience opened with Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The now classic album had been released just days before, and now Jimi was plundering its opening track, and putting it to the axe, right in front of The Beatles.
The decison to open with the number was entirely spontaneous. Jimi had arrived backstage with the album tucked under his arm and played the title track through a couple of time to Noel Redding and Mtich Mitchell and then they went on stage.
"With Jimi it was:' Let's do it. Whatever it takes let's do it, " Roger Mayer, Jimi's sound engineer and friend told me when I met him. " 'Let's be on the edge'. That was the premise behind it. Let's blow some minds here. So Jimi would get up at the Saville Theatre and The Beatles are there, so 'Let's play Sgt. Pepper for them. What do you think about that?'"
Sadly after such a thunderous beginning about halfway through the set, one of the fragil valves in Jimi's amp burst. The show ended early and the crowd dispersed through the late summer twilight, having had only a taste of glory before the cup was dashed away. So many of Jimi's early performances ended that way. To the audience it often seemed a miracle that the building itself could withstand the sound of The Experience, and as often as not the technical equipment of the mid 1960s could not withstand it.
It seems to have been Jimi's fate to always leave us wanting more.
You can read more about Jimi Hendrix and the London of the 1960s in my book Jimi Hendrix London