Purple haze in Free School Lane of the Swinging Sixties

Was there ever such a line-up at Chatham Central Hall? Pink Floyd. The Move. The Nice. Amen Corner. Outer Limits. Eire Apparent. Oh yes … and Jimi Hendrix.

Those were the golden days of the former Methodist hall now known as the Central Theatre; the hippie days when teenagers really thought they were going to take over the world with flowers, long hair and good vibes.

Here is the story of Jimi’s visit to Chatham. And intriguingly, there is an odd to link to my alma mater, Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School, Rochester. Jimi Hendrix came to Chatham on 1 December, 1967. The summer of love was drawing to a close, but the Age of Aquarius was still hardly begun.

That day was significant for all Jimi fans, not just those who crowded into the Central Hall, It was the day his second album, Axis: Bold As Love was released. The first album — Are You Experienced — took the public by storm. From the first trembling vibrato of the first track, Foxy Lady, it shook pop fans, put a shiver down music-lovers spines … and scared British guitarists out of their wits.

Jimi — christened Johnny Allen by his feckless mother, renamed James Marshall by his father — had come over to England in late 1966. That July, Chas Chandler of The Animals had seen him the 23-year-old guitarist playing in Greenwich Village, New York. Chas, a bluff Geordie, stood and watched, thinking: “There must be a catch here … why has nobody signed him up yet?”

Chas asked him to come to England, where he could have his own band. In those few minutes, Chas has worked out what out a future for Jimi. Hendrix, however, wasn’t sure, so he asked Chas about the musicians he knew.

What about Eric Clapton? Sure, said Chas. I know him … and I’ll introduce you. That clinched it. Chas kept his promise and introduced him at a gig by Cream — with whom Clapton was then playing — in London.

Come on stage, said Eric, after making a deal with drummer Ginger Baker, who was not at all keen on the idea. They launched into the Howlin’ Wolf number, Killing Floor. “I’ll never forget Eric’s face,” Chas recalled. “He just walked off the stage and stood and watched.” What Clapton witnessed frightened and worried him — as it would every other guitarist.

Hendrix’s rise was instant. His first single Hey Joe got to number six in the charts and the follow-up, Purple Haze, made number three. The Are You Experienced album reached number two, kept off the top only by the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

He broke back into America at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 and then set off on a tour supporting, bizarrely, The Monkees. The Monkees loved him. Teenybop Monkees fans didn’t really know what to make of his raunchy stage act. Monkee fans’ parents knew exactly what to make of him — and didn’t like it one bit. Hendrix, however, wanted to get a bit more involved in the music side of the business Hence the tour that brought him to Chatham.

Now for the Hendrix-Math connection. A rumour that was rife at the time has resurfaced on the web. Jimi and the rest of the Experience — bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell — had been told that the Chatham Central Hall was on the main road from London and was more accustomed to classical music concerts than electric rock. Quite true.

Passing through Rochester High Street, they heard orchestral sounds coming from a building in Free School Lane — the old Math (school song: All Hail to the Colours and Dark and Light Blue) — and wandered in, presuming they were at their venue.

The response of the Math boys — or indeed the fearsome headmaster LT Waddams — is not recorded.

Unless, of course, you know any more …? Please comment below.

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