I will never pretend to be an expert on the song “Hey Joe”…not as long as this guy is around…but I’ve gone through one of my periodic obsessional phases in recent days and have been listening to as many versions of the song as I can find, with help from lala.com. I posted a list of my seven favorite versions on my Facebook page, and here I’m going to revise and expand that list with some external links to try to impress my old Carleton friend Mike Feinstein.
“Hey Joe” comes in two different flavors: the fast version, popularized by the first widely-played version of the song by The Leaves, and the slow version, which became the standard after it was the first hit (in the U.K.) for The Jimi Hendrix Experience. I have some of each on my list of favorites, and my top choice might be characterized as a hybrid of the two styles.
Before we go any further, register (free) at lala.com. Once registered, you can listen to any song they have licensed, all the way through, once. After that you just get a 30-second excerpt (some songs they have licensed for excerpts only). To hear songs permanently, you have to buy them, either as an MP3 that you can download OR stored on their site and accessible to you on the web any time. Those songs are just 10 cents apiece, and when you sign up you get credits for 25 free songs. (By the way, if you have a better source for free/inexpensive music on demand, let me know. Lala is what Rhino uses for its “Damn Fine Day” music blog.)
So once you’re on lala.com, do a search for “Hey Joe” and notice they have more than 750 versions listed. They only have full recordings available for fewer than 250, and some of those are duplicates, say, from an artist’s original album and a greatest-hits album, or studio versions and live versions by the same artist (or in the case of Hendrix, multiple live versions). Feel free to browse and graze. I think I have now listened to all of them, except I’ve missed some of the live Hendrix cuts.
(By the way, you’ll also find an unusual number of different songs with the title “Hey Joe,” which seems odd given the popularity of the one we’re discussing here. Of course, one of those songs predates this one, that being “Hey Joe”–sometimes including an exclamation point–by Boudleaux Bryant that became a country standard after being a hit for Carl Smith in 1953.)
So now…The Top Ten Versions Of “Hey Joe”…
- Ant Trip Ceremony. Okay, I’m just picking this to be unusual, right? I mean, this is a band that pressed 300 copies of the only album it ever recorded. I’m sure more rational minds will disagree with me, but damn, I love their version, incuding an unusually processed vocal. I do have the entire album from its 1999 CD release, it’s worth tracking down if you’re any kind of garage/psych fan.
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The original version that appears on the debut album “Are You Experienced” remains the standard, but I’m also partial to the version on Disc 1 of “BBC Sessions.”
- Buckwheat Zydeco. His version, which appears on his largely forgettable “On Track” album, is not available in its full form on lala.com, but if you want to hear eight minutes of smoldering bluesy accordion, track it down.
- Guitar Shorty. Never heard of him until my friend Joe Brown mentioned this version to me. His studio version, from his album “Roll Over, Baby,” features my favorite guitar playing of any “Hey Joe.”
- The Leaves. Give ’em credit for being the first to have a hit with it, with the opening guitar lick cribbed from “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” and it still sets the standard for the earlier, faster versions of the song. They did several versions of the song, and while the single version was okay, the album version (which also appears on Rhino’s “Nuggets” box set) is the one I’m referring to with that freaky guitar.
- The Music Machine. Sean Bonniwell slowed it down even more than Hendrix did, with some creep Farfisa organ behind him. Lala.com doesn’t have this one licensed, but you can hear a clip in the allmusic.com review of the album it’s on. No smoking instrumental work in this one, but the mood is interesting.
- Jerry Douglas. A different kind of up-tempo treatment from an outstanding bluegrass band led by the genre’s premier dobro player. Tim O’Brien does the vocals.
- Shadows of Knight. From the guys who had the American hit with Van Morrison’s “Gloria.” They put this on their second album, and while it starts with the familiar up-tempo arrangement, it later goes into this sort of electric raga thing reminiscent of Roger McGuinn’s solo in “Eight Miles High.”
- Love. Another up-tempo take, very much like The Leaves’ version, from Love’s debut album.
- Oh god, I said ten, didn’t I…well, how about The Vibrators with a version that just came out. Which is no doubt unfair to a lot of performers, but as we all know, life is unfair.
If you listen to dozens of “Hey Joe”s, you’ll hear a lot of superb playing, enough to make it seem like it’s a song you can’t possibly screw up. Can’t possibly screw up, that is, unless you’re Robert Plant. And I like the album he did with Alison Krauss.