1966 – 1972

Jefferson Airplane

Track analysis for “We Can Be Together

Bill Thompson [the band’s manager] remembers the moment when he knew for sure that Jefferson Airplane really had the power to transform people. It happened not in San Francisco, but in Iowa, Grace Slick’s first show with the band away from California.

BILL THOMPSON: It was the Grinnell College homecoming dance. All of the girls wore these long, frilly dresses down to their ankles, and corsages, the guys had suits and ties and their parents with them, sitting in the bleachers watching. The band did three sets. We brought a light show with us. The first set, they’re looking at us like we’re Martians: “What the hell is this?” The band had pretty long hair at the time, even compared to the Beatles. The second set, they started to dance. Then the parents all went home, and by the third set, the kids went nuts.

PAUL KANTNER: All the kids came in prom gowns and tuxedos. Then we came back to Iowa a year later and they were having nude mud love-ins and everybody had their faces painted.

— Jeff Tamarkin
Got A Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane was, in many important ways, the ultimate rock band.

They were, first of all, a cohesive creative unit, a group that was truly more than the sum of its many talented parts. The band had a distinctive identity, and its band members worked together, both in the studio and during live performances, to create unique artistic works.

Their home was in San Francisco, and they were both influenced by and influenced the rock scene that formed there in the late sixties, making this city the epicenter of the rock movement during this period. Many other notable bands came from this place at this time, including the Grateful Dead, and this was also the home of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters (immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), the city that gave birth to Rolling Stone magazine, and the location of the famed Fillmore West, a concert venue operated by Bill Graham.

The Airplane was one of the first rock bands to include a woman and, in Grace Slick, they had a woman who was physically attractive, intelligent, assertive and outspoken, and a full artistic equal to the men. In other words, Slick was not there because she was a pretty face, or because she had a pretty voice, or because she was romantically involved with one of the male band members: she was truly a member of the band because of who she was, and because the Airplane could not have been the group that they were without her. At a time when many all-male bands were still very openly chauvinistic, this was a huge accomplishment, and one that enabled the Airplane to deliver a message of liberation from traditional gender-based roles for both men and women.

The group included multiple strong and distinctive songwriters, including Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and Jorma Kaukonen. Lyrically, they were more influenced by the folk tradition, than by blues or pop, which gave them the advantage of seeing their songs as having a broad range of thematic possibilities. They also had multiple vocalists, multiple lead vocalists, and beautiful trademark harmonies. Slick’s vocals, in particular, were distinctive, with a voice that was icy yet powerful, and an ability to improvise vocally, both on record and in live performances.

The group successfully produced Top 40 hits, most notably “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” and, while both tracks succeeded on AM radio’s own terms, they also stretched the envelope of what was acceptable to such a format, with the first song very overtly recommending the use of psychedelic drugs, and the second one being a sort of hard-hitting militant love song not about the sweetly saccharine joys of romantic love, but about the desperate urgency of the human need for love.

At the same time, the Airplane produced some of the most artistically successful rock albums, and many songs that became staples of the FM radio playlists that featured longer, more artistically adventurous tracks than those that fit the more restrictive format of AM radio.

The band also delivered some of the most powerful live performances in rock history, with singers and instrumentalists improvising adventurously, yet still preserving the essential and distinctive natures of the songs in their repertoire.

Bassist Jack Casady and lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen were two of the best and most distinctive instrumentalists of their generation on their respective axes, adding yet another powerful dimension to the group’s sound. Casady played a driving, dynamic, rumbling bass, while Kaukonen played a psychedelic, blues-influenced lead guitar that also managed to sound exotically nordic. (What does that sound like? Picture frozen banshees howling across arctic fjords.) And Spencer Dryden’s drumming was both propulsive and ornamental, driving the songs along when he needed to, supplying quiet color in the background when anything more would have been intrusive or heavy-handed.

The name of the band, in retrospect, reveals a great deal in terms of their core values. Jefferson, of course, whether one thinks of Blind Lemon or Thomas, is a particularly American name, and one that establishes a link with traditions of the past. Airplane, on the other hand, is a symbol of modern technological liberation, literally freeing humankind from the gravitational pull that has bound us to the surface of the earth for so many centuries. And the combination reveals the group’s love for unlikely combinations of words and ideas, sometimes revealing itself in playful whimsey, and sometimes in thought-provoking insights.

When looking back at the sixties, it is often difficult to find accurate and lasting musical testaments to the cultural unrest that was so much a part of these times. Many of the songs that retain some counter-cultural flavor now seem either terribly dated, terribly shallow, or terribly disposable.

Almost alone among their contemporaries, the Airplane produced a body of work whose thematic center was genuinely revolutionary — not in a narrow political sense, but in a way that was targeted squarely at producing an upheaval of sentiment and sensibilities — and yet also a body of work that still sounds fresh and relevant and powerful almost five decades later. Bruce Springsteen has said that Elvis Presley liberated our bodies, and Bob Dylan liberated our minds. Perhaps Jefferson Airplane’s greatest contribution was its unrivaled ability to advance human liberation on both these fronts and more, and in fact to accept nothing less than the liberation of human beings as integrated wholes whose bodies and minds, thoughts and feelings, loves and passions, individuality and community, could never be separated or devalued.

As with many rock bands that were generously endowed with talent, in time some of the members felt artistically constrained by the need to shoehorn their musical tastes into the sounds of a collective, and many of the band members went their separate ways. Kaukonen and Casady formed a band named Hot Tuna that focused more on blues and instrumental prowess, while the Jefferson Starship became a vehicle for Balin, Slick and Kantner.

Recommended CDs

Album Title: The Worst of Jefferson Airplane

Original Release Date: 1970

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This is an expanded version of the band’s greatest hits collection, originally released in 1970. With 17 tracks, this is a generous collection of most of the best music produced by the group when it still consisted primarily of Kantner, Slick, Balin, Kaukonen, Casady and Dryden.

 

Album Title: The Essential Jefferson Airplane

Original Release Date: 2005

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This two-disc set is probably the best choice for someone not interested in acquiring the Airplane’s entire catalog, since it includes a generous sampling of tracks that represents the full range of the group, including most of the must-have recordings.

 

Album Title: Jefferson Airplane Takes Off

Original Release Date: 1966

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

The band’s inaugural album featured female vocalist Signe Anderson rather than Grace Slick, and drummer Skip Spence rather than Spencer Dryden, so this was not yet the classic line-up that would be preserved over the next five albums. This album features “Let’s Get Together,” which would become a hit for the Youngbloods, and also includes “It’s No Secret,” by Marty Balin, and “Come Up the Years,” by Balin and Kantner. The rest of the album shows lots of promise, and displays many of the ingredients that would become trademarks for the band, but this is clearly a freshman effort.

 

Album Title: Surrealistic Pillow

Original Release Date: 1967

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This is the first album by what would become the classic Airplane line-up, now including Grace Slick and Spencer Dryden. Slick brought two songs with her to the group, one that she had written, “White Rabbit,” and one penned by her brother-in-law, Darby Slick, “Somebody to Love.” Both became top ten singles. The album contains tremendous variety, including some instrumental finger-picking by Jorma Kaukonen on “Embryonic Journey.” Despite being very intentionally experimental, eclectic and psychedelic, there is not a trace of self-indulgence, and the entire album holds up amazingly well, both as a collection of songs and as a unified work. Other tracks included — almost all of them notable — are “She Has Funny Cars,” “My Best Friend,” the achingly beautiful love songs “Today” and “Comin’ Back To Me,” “3/5 of a Mile in Ten Seconds,” “D. C. B. A. - 25,” “How Do You Feel,” and an amazingly prophetic rant about the electronic media, “Plastic Fantastic Lover.”

 

Album Title: After Bathing at Baxter's

Original Release Date: 1967

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

Whereas Surrealistic Pillow took a couple of weeks to record, After Bathing at Baxter’s took months. Where “White Rabbit” was a brilliantly focused and structured song about expanding your mind through the use of drugs, Baxter’s was a sprawling, diffuse, eclectic, sophisticated work that illustrated the results of such mind expansion. The group takes risks here in all directions at once, seemingly without the slightest fear of artistic or commercial failure, and, even though they seem foolhardy for working without a net, they never slip, and it somehow all seems to work. Musicians, music, words and vocalists all intertwine effortlessly and with superb effect. For a band with only one or two albums under its belt, and under great pressure from audience and industry to extend the commercial success enjoyed by Surrealistic Pillow and its hit singles, Baxter’s is a singularly brave and admirable effort.

Some of the better known tracks on this album are “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil,” “Young Girl Sunday Blues,” “Martha,” “Wild Tyme,” “Rejoyce,” “Watch Her Ride” and “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon.”

 

Album Title: Crown of Creation

Original Release Date: 1968

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

Where Baxter’s seemed to be a sort of audio collage reflecting the band’s interests, activities and lifestyle — a postcard from planet Airplane, ending “Wish you were here” — many of the individual tracks on Crown of Creation are both more distinct and more focused works, each its own particular world, rather than just different rooms in the sprawling mansion of Surrealistic Pillow. At this point, too, the band seems capable of commenting cogently on the society they are rebelling against, rather than just thumbing their nose at it.

“Lather,” written and sung by Grace Slick, is a fable about a child-man turning 30, and being told that he is no longer young. The song is a small masterpiece, a pure distillation of the culture and counter-culture unfolding at the time. What makes the song so effective, and so singular, is its emotional distance from its subject, its ability to evoke emotions through words, sounds and story rather than the tone of the singer, and its willingness for the subject to ultimately be a tragic figure, rather than a heroic one, such as The Who’s “Happy Jack” or The Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill.”

“Triad,” also sung by Slick, is an entirely serious look at the possibility of a romantic threesome. Like “Lather,” the tone of the singer is thoughtful and reflective, rather than emotional and forceful. The song was written by David Crosby, then of The Byrds, and his bandmates had already refused to feature the song on one of their albums before Crosby offered it to the Airplane. While Crosby’s song as sung by a man already crossed society’s norms, Slick’s reading stretches the bounds of social propriety even further. This recording is a beautiful, and entirely unique, love song.

The title track, by Paul Kantner, is a powerful exploration of the conflict felt by youth in the late sixties. Music and words sketch a conflict between an older generation that prizes stability, and a younger generation that wants to rock the boat. The song structure is non-traditional, more like a spare, modern poem set to music than anything like a traditional repeated verse-chorus structure.

 

Album Title: Bless Its Pointed Little Head

Original Release Date: 1969

Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)

This is a live album, notable for inclusion of several of the group’s best songs, as well as bearing witness to the group’s style and power on stage. The album features consistently great performances by the entire group and shows the full range of the band’s concert repertoire, including such gems as “Fat Angel,” by Donovan, the traditional blues “Rock Me Baby,” “The Other Side of This Life,” by folk singer Fred Neil and “Bear Melt,” an exercise in group improvisation that stretches out for over eleven minutes. Also included are “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds,” “Somebody to Love,” “It’s No Secret” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover.” The latest CD reissue also includes live versions of “Today,” “Watch Her Ride,” and “Won’t You Try.”

 

Album Title: Volunteers

Original Release Date: 1969

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This was the last great album by the classic lineup, augmented on this recording by keyboardist Nicky Hopkins (who around this time was managing to show up on every other rock album released by better groups on either side of the Atlantic) as well as Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar. This is a beautifully balanced and sequenced album, starting and ending with the thematic bookends of “We Can Be Together” and “Volunteers,” but also containing:

  • the Airplane’s version of “Wooden Ships,” co-written by Paul Kantner, David Crosby and Stephen Stills, and also recorded by Crosby, Stills & Nash;
  • “A Song for all Seasons,” Spencer Dryden’s country-tinged song about the internal problems being experienced by the band;
  • “The Farm,” the Airplane’s song about the bliss of rural retreat, which was becoming de rigueur for rock bands about this time, featuring the immortal lines “Here comes my next door neighbor, coming down the road, he always looks so regal, riding on his toad”;
  • “Good Shepherd,” a reworking of a traditional blues song, sung by Jorma, with a wonderful treatment by the entire band;
  • “Hey Frederick,” a Grace Slick number fusing modern poetry with psychedelic rock;
  • “Turn My Life Down,” a beautiful, bittersweet, thoughtful song by Jorma, with lead vocals by Marty, and backing vocals by the rest of the band, and beautiful lead guitar by Jorma.

This is a wonderful, timeless album, and a fitting testament to the soul of this great group of musicians.

 

Next: We Can Be Together