Hendrix walks on stage. A morning crowd of around 200,000 hippies cheer for him as his new band mates join him. The next 2 hours will reverberate through rock history and leave a lasting impact on the music world.
Hendrix would end this infamous set with a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner that would embody the Woodstock experience, the 60s movement, and an entire generation.
What is so pivotal about that single performance? Why isn't the rest of the 2 hour long set referenced so commonly as this one solo piece at the end?
Is it the brutal distorted guitar in the hands of the greatest guitarist ever?
Or maybe there is something anti-American about a discharged army man playing the National Anthem?
Or maybe its even deeper...
The answer requires a little analysis.
To understand the genius of this performance, we first need a little context. Vietnam has been raging for over 14 years at this point. The counter culture is pushing back against a war it does not want to fight. Hendrix has served and been discharged from an Army he hated. He had something to say, and this was his moment.
We begin with the timbre, or unique sound of the full-tone and overdrive-rich guitar, Hendrix screams out the first 6 notes of the piece in a triumphant hail of pure tone, letting the feedback add to the noise. He ends the first phrase and starts the next, "Whose broad strips..." adding a lot of hammer-ons and letting the guitar ring out over the crowd. During the lyric 'ramparts we watched', Hendrix employs a slow bend down to the Dominant chord. So far, the piece cuts through as a bold and patriotic homage to our great country. The genius has yet to begin, however.
"Through the rockets red glare," is followed by an immediate bend out of the tonic key, followed by a distorted mess of feedback, seemingly random chord choices and sounds of Hendrix literally hitting his guitar. What is this sudden section!?! What is happening?! Well, think of the next lyric in the Star-Spangled Banner: "The bombs bursting in air." Hendrix is using sound to paint us an image, an image of the American flag flying triumphantly above explosions, distortion and random high squeals of pain. Many may listen to this section and misunderstand, but Hendrix is actually painting us a musical image, and it is not a pretty picture.
About 30 seconds into this "B" section of the piece we hear tritones (a typically dissonant interval), hammer-ons and a slow bend of the whammy bar to give us a melting sensation. Some speculate you can hear the sound of helicopters in his playing, while others believe you can hear the screams of the victims of the bombs. Either way, this is an obvious statement about America's involvement in Vietnam.
The bombs continue to explode in our ears for nearly 80 seconds before we hear a return to the melody. We hear a single line from the anthem before Hendrix begins playing Taps, known for being played at soldier's funerals. Here he slams the whammy bar back and forth to create a pulsing, in my opinion this is the first time we hear helicopters. As soldier's die they are buried and Taps is played, only to have helicopters bring more soldiers.
This performance is his statement of resistance, a statement of satire and a questioning of war. It is iconic to a whole generation and possibly Jimi's most famous performance.