I first heard the Jimi Hendrix Experience on the playing field of my secondary school in Sheffield. I was 12, the year I discovered music. An older guy I admired handed me one of the earphones of his portable cassette player and asked me what I thought
I listened to the first few chords of Hey Joe, followed by Mitch Mitchell’s introductory roll and the conversational croon of Jimi’s voice and was immediately hooked. Nodding my head in approval, he fast forwarded the tape to the opening riff of Purple Haze. For a shy kid raised on a diet of Van Morrison and Stevie Wonder, it can only be described as a moment of clarity.
I listened to every song Jimi, Mitch and Chas ever recorded over the next year of my life, slowly collating their albums and bootlegs with the money I earned through my paper round. I learnt every fill and role, every break, every unexpected double pluck or hammer on from Jimi’s guitar, every inflex of his vocals. They are as much childhood memories as rhythms and melodies.
It was around this time I bought my first and only drum-kit. Within a few weeks of earnest and futile attempts at replication, I came to the realisation that Mitch Mitchell’s ability to fill a transitional gap between phrases with a flurry of snare and cymbal is a skill I will never possess, as is his ability to solo for most of a tune in a ¾ signature, or occupy large sections of track completely unaccompanied
Although it was maddening to learn he was entirely self-taught, as I was determined to be, it also added to the myth, raising Mitchell’s pedestal as a unique and visionary percussionist in a unique and visionary band.
Now I know more about music, have listened to Mitchell’s influences, understand the heritage of blues, blues-rock and jazz, and have a grasp of what terms like ‘fusion’ and ‘triplets’ mean. I appreciate he wasn’t infallible, and was prone to over-complicate. But this has not altered the way I feel about his drumming, as Mitch Mitchell served as the origin for my insatiable thirst for new sounds, new beats, new ways of making music.
You can hear the serendipity in Hey Joe, the harmony of free spirits. It is a meeting process that is, for me, as personal as it flamboyant, as humble as it is ego-driven. Mitch Mitchell redefined drumming, and I will always be thankful for being introduced to his beats from such a young and tender age.