Experience: The Making of Peter Neal’s 1967 Film
Peter Neal made the first-ever film about Jimi Hendrix, called Experience. Also known as Hear My Music Talking, it was the only one released during Jimi’s lifetime, and is arguably best known for that memorable footage of him playing a 12-string guitar — a scene that has lost none of its magic over the years. Peter was then twenty-five, and in the process of researching a film about British folk music for Derrick Knight & Partners. He interviewed many of the genre’s leading lights, although the focus would be on the Watersons in the resulting film Travelling For A Living.
“I was in the cutting-room a few days later and this guy came storming in and introduced himself as John Marshall. He said he was Shirley Collins’ husband, who I’d interviewed a week or so earlier, and that he’d written an article in the Observer about this American guitarist called Jimi Hendrix. He said we had to film him and insisted I come with him to the Royal Albert Hall where Jimi was due to perform that evening. This was in the afternoon and I can’t remember who else was there. It could have been Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck but the cream of British guitarists was sat there, watching Jimi do his sound-check.
“At that point I was into folk and acoustic guitar. I was stuck with this idea that if you electrified the guitar then you’d lose all of its character but I remember standing there and having my world completely turned upside-down. All my prejudices were suddenly overturned and I saw the electric guitar as this amazing instrument… I was absolutely knocked out by him.”
The date was November 14th 1967. Jimi was headlining a package tour that will have played theatres in most major UK cities before closing three weeks later, on December 5th. Pink Floyd (with Syd Barrett), Amen Corner, the Move and Eire Apparent were the support acts but it was the Jimi Hendrix Experience, riding a wave of euphoria that had began with Hey Joe just fourteen months earlier, that was pulling in the crowds.
Whilst Peter didn’t attend the show at London’s Royal Albert Hall that night, he readily agreed to direct the film if John Marshall could provide the necessary funding. A week or so later John announced that he’d managed to raise £1,000 and plans were made to film Jimi in concert at the Blackpool Opera House, on November 25th.
“At that point I started phoning around, asking colleagues for favours as there wasn’t enough money to pay people — only to buy a bit of film stock and hire equipment,” Peter explains. “I had friends who were cameramen, and some of them agreed to come and work for virtually nothing so we all piled in this van and drove up to Blackpool. We had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for. Also, I’d never worked on a concert film before.
“When we arrived at the Opera House it was absolute chaos because every group on this package tour had brought their own roadies and their own equipment. It was a virtual war scene as they argued over who was going to move what where, and quite understandably they were in no mood to accommodate us. The only places we could put a camera was in the orchestra pit and up on the lowest balcony. There was no room on stage, which was tiny, but we met Jimi backstage and he was absolutely charming. He was a lovely guy. He told us what his set was going to be but then said, ‘of course I can’t promise anything.’ He was booked to play half an hour, but the other groups only had ten minutes each. They all did two performances that evening and it was madness.
“In my wisdom I’d decided to hire Auricon 16mm cameras, which were incredibly clumsy and had this habit of misting up as soon as you put your eye to the viewer… Also we only had six rolls of film which meant we could only film two numbers so we decided to concentrate on Purple Haze, which was his biggest hit, and Wild Thing because Jimi had recently come back from Monterey and everybody was saying how good it was.”
Ian McMillan settled himself in the orchestra pit with one Auricon, whilst his assistant was stationed in the balcony with another. Meanwhile Peter Jessop waited backstage with an unblimped Arriflex, just in case of problems.
“None of us had seen Jimi perform at this point,” admits Peter. “None of us had even filmed a pop group before and we had no idea of what went on. We also had to sort out all these technical problems, like when Ian announced there wasn’t enough light to film anything. We asked the lighting people to help out but they weren’t having it so we decided to open up everything wide and just hope for the best. We didn’t know how it would turn out because we were using Ektachrome reversal stock — film that had an incredibly slow reaction to light, but was very rich in colour.
“That was a huge problem but then Alan Kane who was the sound recordist said he couldn’t record any audio. This was in the days when everyone put their amplifiers on stage and turned them up full blast, and there was no sound mixer. How bands played together I really don’t know, because no one could hear anyone else… Alan finally suggested that since he had a four-channel mixer and all these tiny mics, he would go and tape them on to the vocal mic and in front of the amplifiers and then try and mix the sound as it was happening. It was all a bit hairy.”
John Marshall later confirmed how “it was the first time anybody had tried to film really loud rock music on stage in Britain. The terrified sound recordist, crouching in the orchestra pit of the Blackpool Opera House must have thought he’d been caught in a barrage of heavy artillery. The techniques just didn’t exist to get a reasonable sound from a group like the Jimi Hendrix Experience in full cry.”
The music was so loud and the crowd so animated, it made communication all but impossible yet Peter had to let the cameramen know when to start filming. Since there were no mobile phones and they hadn’t got radios, he had to rush between the balcony and orchestra pit with instructions, or frantically signal when the songs they’d chosen were about to start.
“It was a very critical operation,” he says. “We managed to get the cameras rolling on Purple Haze and so that was alright but then during Wild Thing, I got this frantic signal from Brian on the balcony that he was running out of film. I hadn’t used Peter Jessop as yet and so I found him backstage with his Arriflex and said he had to go on stage and film Jimi from there. He was dressed like a perfect gentleman in a white shirt and cavalry twill trousers, and when I pushed him on stage this huge boo went up from the crowd! Luckily he ignored them and started filming so we managed to get the end of Wild Thing, which was a relief.
“The whole thing was very experimental. It was fun but really exhausting, and our ears were ringing for days afterwards… When we sent the film to the lab they could only boost it by two stops. That was the maximum they recommended but I was amazed when it all came out so well. It had this grainy quality which I was delighted with.”
That’s quite an understatement given the power and immediacy of Jimi’s brief, yet explosive performances. There he is, the epitome of space delta cool in all his peacock finery, wearing a black hat with feather trailing behind and playing a brand of super-charged, psychedelic blues that young British audiences had never experienced before. He plays guitar with his teeth, his sleeve and between his legs, and then throws that signature white Stratocaster across the stage at the end of Wild Thing. Yet we’re given a glimpse of Jimi’s sly humour too, like when he threatens to put a curse on the audience, so that “all your children will be born naked…”
The film about Jimi was Peter’s first freelance venture. Derrick Knight had given the project his blessing and invited Peter to use the company’s cutting room, which is where Jimi’s performance was edited on an upright Movieola.
“Normally when you’re editing a music film, you get so sick of hearing the same thing over and over,” notes Peter. “This time it was different, because I found myself becoming engrossed in his music more and more. It enabled me to get a real sense of Jimi as a performer after watching that footage a hundred times or more.” Jimi would call in and see Peter whilst he was editing the concert footage. One of those visits took place on December 19th, and coincided with a photo session at Bruce Fleming’s studio in nearby Covent Garden.
“Jimi came over to the cutting room, we showed him the footage and then we walked with him to Bruce Fleming’s studio. That was quite an experience walking through central London with Jimi, because he really stood out. There weren’t all that many people who looked like him at the time, as you can imagine.”
Peter had arranged to film Jimi at Fleming’s session and reverse the usual interview format by asking him what questions he hated being asked most. It would be a spoof interview conducted by band members Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding who ask Jimi why he plays guitar with his teeth: whether he smokes (“No,” he says, blowing a cloud of smoke at the camera) and why he wears his hair so long. “Tell me something,” says Mitch, “did you put a spell on those white boys?” Then comes the coup de grace, courtesy of Noel. “How much do you rely on gimmicks?” he asks.
“Gimmicks. Here we go again. Man, I’m tired of people saying that we rely on gimmicks,” replies Jimi. “The world is nothing but a big gimmick isn’t it? Wars, napalm bombs and all that. People get burnt up on TV and it’s nothing but a gimmick. Gimmicks. Yes, we do…”
“I suppose what I was instinctively doing was trying to get inside Jimi’s world and convey the questioning as being oppressive, almost like an interrogation,” says Peter, who had one more surprise in store.
“Just before we left we asked Jimi if he would mind playing some acoustic blues. We’d decided to ask him to do that beforehand and since I had this 12-string guitar, I took it along thinking it would be more interesting for him than an ordinary 6 string. I’d restrung it so it was ready to be played left-handed, and then left it leaning against the wall in the corner of the room. I noticed how Jimi kept looking at it and then he asked me if he could play it. I said that I’d hoped he would, so he picked it up and launched into that number. We didn’t have much film left at that point, and so I told him that he’d have to do it in one take but it was just one of those magic moments that happen sometimes.”
Jimi is filmed sat on a high stool against a white backdrop, playing Hear My Train A Comin’ which he hadn’t yet recorded at that stage. After settling into it, he requests that Peter stops filming for a second as he’s “scared to death.” After the restart his playing and singing is flawless. It’s one of the most iconic film performances of Hendrix’s career, and the only one to show him playing acoustic guitar. Peter says it was filmed in one roaming take, and the cameraman did an instinctively brilliant job of moving around Jimi as he sang and played. That clip showed Jimi in a different light, but then Peter wanted the film to be a portrait of him, rather than take a more predictable route.
“We wanted to focus on the man — who he was and why he was, rather than doing the usual pop star kind of thing,” he explains. “Jimi had gained this image and reputation by then that seemed so out of place. The press had called him ‘the Wild Man of Borneo’ and it seemed like we should do something around his publicity and how he was being marketed because having met him, I knew he was anything but wild. In fact he was one of the politest people you could ever meet so we went out on Oxford Street and asked a few passers-by what they thought of him. Jimi was quite big by then. People knew who he was and so we thought it would be funny to get these rude comments about him. We didn’t want people saying he was adorable and that kind of thing. That’s how we got that woman saying, ‘I wouldn’t go out with a bloke who’s got longer hair than me,’ because long hair really wasn’t all that accepted at the time. We wanted to back up people’s impression of him as a wild man I guess, but there was something quite deliberate about all that. Chas wanted to get him noticed and it was a very well considered plan.”
The only other time Peter filmed Jimi was in the Grand Hall at Kensington Olympia on December 22nd. The occasion was Christmas On Earth Continued — a show billed as “an all night Christmas dream party,” and which lasted until dawn. Jimi again headlined, but the line-up also featured Traffic, Pink Floyd, the Who, Move, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Soft Machine, the Graham Bond Organisation and Tomorrow. Jimi included the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper in his set and even strapped on a Gibson Flying V at one point, but Peter was hampered by lack of equipment and so couldn’t record any audio. “We went to the show and hung out with him in his dressing-room, which is where we got the groupie shots but we didn’t have any money left by then and I couldn’t borrow a decent camera or proper film stock. We just did some shots of Jimi on stage and then back in the dressing room, because I was desperate to get more footage at that point. I’d already filmed the Foxy Lady sequence by then which John Marshall had wanted to do, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by it in all honesty. That was shot on the South Bank and Hampstead Heath, among other places. The only way I could redeem that section of the film was to have a mirror image of her at the end and then smash it and have Jimi saying, ‘No, no, that’s not the right image at all.” That was my let-out clause!
“We’d also done an interview with Jimi talking about his Native American heritage and love of space, which I found really interesting. It was a voice-only interview, so we had that and then Stanley Foreman, who was the only distributor of Communist films in Britain, let us use his shots of space and skydiving; also that wonderfully naïve cowboy and Indians book footage. I tried it over Jimi’s voice and thought it worked beautifully. The film was almost complete by this point. It had been scrimped together for almost nothing, and with a lot of help from kind and generous people because soon after that we decided to speak with Alexis Korner and ask him to be the narrator. We didn’t want a commentary as such and so there was no script. We just recorded whatever he wanted to say because he was incredibly enthusiastic about Jimi, and knew exactly what to say. Alexis was king of the blues in London at that time and everyone revered him as such.”
Korner was mentor to a generation of young British blues musicians, including members of the Rolling Stones. He also hosted a popular BBC radio programme called Rhythm And Blues which had featured Jimi just two months earlier, playing covers of Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan songs. Recruiting Korner as narrator was an inspired choice, and lent the film undeniable authority.
Such decisions were usually shared between Peter Neal and John Marshall. There was surprisingly little input from Jimi’s management during the making of Experience, despite regular visits to see how the film was progressing.
“They would all come into the cutting-room from time to time,” recalls Peter. “Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert showed up once or twice, and Chas Chandler would pop in every so often to see what was happening and just say, ‘that’s great, carry on.’ It was very relaxed, but I never did understand the arrangement that John Marshall had made with them because there was no contract or anything in writing. They seemed to be very pleased that we were doing a film about Jimi but it was our project. We’d raised the money and done the work and they respected that.
“John and I never got paid a penny of course. We did all that work for nothing but never really thought about it at the time. We were just happy to see it finished. At one stage I’d hoped it might get on television but at the same time I knew it probably wouldn’t, as it was maybe a bit too outrageous. It was shown at the Electric Cinema a few times and also on Dutch television. The ICA showed it every day for three months once, along with my Incredible String Band film. It was also shown at the National Film Theatre three or four times but it was hardly what you’d call a success.”
Within months of Peter completing the film, John Marshall contacted him to say that the backers wanted their money back. Peter contributed £500, and Joe Boyd and John Marshall £250 each. You can therefore imagine his reaction when Warner Brothers contacted him to say they were going to use extracts from it in their 1973 film Jimi Hendrix, and that Peter could forget about receiving any remuneration. Ten years later, Alan Douglas bought Experience for the Hendrix Estate and made it available on VHS. It’s subsequently been transferred to DVD, and remains a seminal part of the Jimi Hendrix story.
Buy the Book
Starting at Zero
available now from all
good retailers & online