This is another piece that originally appeared on my previous website, and was essentially written for no other reason than personal amusement. Following on tangentially from Richard Herring’s comments on Rodney Bewes’ odd story about Jimi Hendrix playing on a sitcom theme recorded after he had joined the 27 Club, I’d started wondering about the truth behind another well-known story about Hendrix that didn’t quite add up, and as it involved two of my major cultural obsessions – and, as it would turn out, a third – I just thought it would be fun to indulge in a spot of meaningless number crunching and see if I could work out exactly what went on when The Wind Cries Mary was being written and recorded. It’s always the ones like that which take you by surprise when they briefly go ‘viral’, as this certainly did. It was also directly responsible for landing me one of my regular writing gigs so I guess I’ve actually got something to be grateful to ‘Girl’ and ‘Clown’ for.
You can find an expanded version of this with much more on my childhood fear of Test Card F and sulky teenage Hendrix-listening evenings – as well as a huge feature on Camberwick Green – in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Are you standing outside the room with the television in, waiting nervously for confirmation that ‘The Clown’ isn’t on? Well, come on in. It’s definitely not, and we’re about to find out why…
Those of you who’ve been following my writing for a while might just have noticed that I have a slight tendency to occasionally tie in musings and theorising on sociocultural phenomena with BBC Test Card F, the bastard creepy photo of a sinisterly-smiling girl locked in an interminably paused game of chalkboard noughts and crosses with a nightmarish multicoloured clown in the middle of a mish-mash of hazardous-looking tuning grids. Some of you may also be aware that I’m something of an admirer of sixties pop trailblazer Jimi Hendrix, at least in his Experience era, and indeed once became drawn into a discussion with Richard Herring about which Rodney Bewes sitcom themes Hendrix might realistically have added some guitar work to.
As such, if you’re at all clued up about either subject, you’re probably now expecting this article to be a detailed examination of the well-known story that Hendrix wrote The Wind Cries Mary while waiting, in front of the television with guitar in hand, for his then-girlfriend (and journalist, which rarely gets mentioned) Kathy Etchingham to come home following an argument, drawing unlikely inspiration for the opening line “and the clowns have all gone to bed” as Carole Hersee and her garish combatant stared menacingly out towards him to the sound of tuneless big band babble at the end of an evening’s viewing. Well, yes, it’s a great story, and one that I’ll freely admit – on account of having heard Kathy recount it herself in person – that I’ve repeated as fact before now. But there’s also a bit of a problem with it.
As far as anyone can properly ascertain (and no, this is not a green light for ident obsessives to harangue me with demands to rewrite the piece to their own speficiations), Test Card F was first transmitted by BBC2 on 2nd July 1967, while The Wind Cries Mary had been released as a single on 5th May 1967. And, more problematically still, had been recorded on at De Lane Lea studios on 11th January 1967, famously put together on the spot after Hendrix turned up with a new song when The Experience had nominally convened to put Purple Haze down on tape. Even allowing for all for all that slowed-down spaceman-voiced blabbering about bending the rules of space and time on Third Stone From The Sun, could Jimi Hendrix really have foreseen the future of broadcast continuity with such uncanny accuracy? Well no, he couldn’t. But my contention here is that the story is more or less true, only slightly distorted by the passage of time, the vagaries of popular culture, and, well, Love Or Confusion, and that Kathy Etchingham was simply getting her TV Clowns wrong.
Let’s consider a few suitably hazy, if not purply, variables here – putting it as delicately as possible, it doesn’t exactly sound like this was the only row the couple had, and it’s easy for emotionally-charged details to become conflated and confused; there’s nothing – especially given the sheer amount of times that the Test Card in whatever alphabetical incarnation would have been seen in a single twenty four hour stretch back in the days of daytime and overnight closedowns – to suggest what time of day the storming out, the waiting and the songwriting took place. All we know for definite is that Hendrix turned up to the studio with the song completed, and while it’s tempting from a narrative point of view to suggest that he’d written it the night before, in all likelihood it probably took a couple of days to compose; and noughts-wielder Bubbles was far from the only clown hovering silently around the nation’s television sets around that time. Yes, in case you hadn’t worked it out already, it’s my suggestion that Jimi Hendrix had actually been watching Camberwick Green.
Not convinced? Or simply rolling your eyes in exasperated amusement at my shoehorning in of yet another of my popular cultural obsessions? Well, let’s crunch a few numbers. Peter The Postman, the first episode of Camberwick Green (which you can read a lot more about in Can’t Help Thinking About Me), was repeated by BBC1 – its fourth showing in twelve months – at 1.30pm on 6th January 1967. The full opening lyric of The Wind Cries Mary is of course “after all the jacks are in their boxes, and the clowns have all gone to bed”, and as Camberwick Green infamously ended with the episode’s central character rotating away into a Music Box, followed by a terrifying glowering clown operating a roller caption with the show’s end credits on them (and, perhaps not coincidentally, all of it accompanied by some natty and inadvertently psych-friendly guitar work from Freddie Phillips), it doesn’t take much in the way of imagination-stretching to see that this is a much better fit than Test Card F would have been even if it was a chronological possibility.
It’s also worth noting that Tuesday 10th January saw the first showing of Miss Lovelace And The Mayor’s Hat, the second episode of Camberwick Green‘s near-neighbouring follow-on companion show Trumpton, which depicted lugubrious Park-Keeper Mr. Craddock and his broom indulging in what can only be described as a spot of “drearily sweeping”, though he was noticeably less concerned with the broken pieces of yesterday’s life than he was with silver paper, toffee paper, dirty bit of cardboard, chair ticket, bus ticket, button from a dress, chocolate wrapper, envelope, another bit of cardboard, and the vexing question of why ‘they’ can’t use litter bins and not make such a mess. Though, that said, he does immediately go into a rant about a broken bench (which ultimately leads to the Mayor’s hat being propelled into a tree, but that’s another story). It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the only-recently-arrived-in-the-UK guitarist might have been sufficiently intrigued by his new TV Puppet Pals to follow their exploits regularly, and that this might also have worked its tenuous way into his new set of lyrics. Though admittedly any attempt to claim that the solo from The Wind Cries Mary was in any way inspired by the ‘Joe So Sad’ music from Monday 10th’s instalment of the racy urban Hammond-scorch-soundtracked escapades of juvenile petrolhead upstart Joe would most likely be a theoretical leap too far.
So, much like my suggestion to Richard Herring that Rodney Bewes’ confused anecdote about singing with Hendrix might have actually related to the theme from Dear Mother Love Albert, there you have it. The Wind Cries Mary probably was inspired by a stray bit of emotional ennui-driven television-watching after all, just not in the way that everyone thought it was. And conspiracy theorists may like to take note that this is the third song, after Happy Time by Tim Buckley and The Gnome by Pink Floyd, that I’ve directly attributed to the influence of the closing sequence of Camberwick Green. Can I possibly extend this seemingly ridiculous notion any further? Pass me that copy of AMMmusic1966…
Can’t Help Thinking About Me – which also includes features on Camberwick Green and the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s notorious appearance on Happening For Lulu – is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.