15 essential Paul Kantner songs (from Jefferson Airplane & more)
by Andrew Sacher
Last night the rock world suffered yet another tragic loss, the death of Paul Kantner, co-founder, guitarist, singer and songwriter of psychedelic rock pioneers Jefferson Airplane. Both the Airplane and their neighbors the Grateful Dead celebrated 50th anniversaries last year, and while the Dead gained a larger following over time, it was the Airplane who had the more fruitful career in the 1960s era of peace, love, and psychedelic rock. They’re best known for “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love,” two songs that Grace Slick brought with her to JA from her previous band The Great Society (the latter written by her brother-in-law Darby), but those songs are just a small sample of what this band achieved.
Paul Kantner became increasingly crucial to the band’s songwriting as they went on, and he continued to contribute his own lead vocals to some of the band’s best songs. Some of his greatest achievements came outside of Jefferson Airplane too. His 1970 sci-fi concept album Blows Against the Empire (credited to Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship, but recorded with a much different lineup than his band Jefferson Starship who formed four years later) is an overlooked classic of that era. The better-known concept albums of the time were mostly by British bands (The Who, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, The Pretty Things, etc), but BATE had a who’s who of the San Francisco scene giving those bands a run for their money. Before officially starting Jefferson Starship, he knocked out two more great albums with Grace Slick, 1971’s Sunfighter and 1973’s Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun, the latter of which was credited to Kantner, Slick and Quicksilver Messenger Service’s David Freiberg. He had some fine moments in early Jefferson Starship, but that band’s slicked-up production didn’t do him much justice. His strongest era was from 1967 to 1973.
To honor the passing of yet another rock visionary, here’s 15 essential Paul Kantner songs from that era…
“Today” (Surrealistic Pillow, 1967)
Paul wasn’t one of Jefferson Airplane’s lead vocalists yet on the classic Surrealistic Pillow, but he co-wrote one of its best songs with singer Marty Balin, “Today.” The band’s best known songs were all rock songs, but when you’re talking about the psychedelic folk of that era, it rarely gets better than “Today.” ’60s/’70s psych-folk has seen a major resurgence in modern-day indie rock, with obscure artists like Sibylle Baier, Linda Perhacs and Mark Fry finally getting their due. “Today” is right up that same alley.
“The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil” (After Bathing at Baxter’s, 1967)
“The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil” is the first song that feels like a Paul Kantner song, and it kicks off Jefferson Airplane’s third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s, the beginning of their trek into heavier psych rock. Paul and Grace are wailing together in the free-form style that eventually became their trademark, the song rocks, and it’s got a middle section with Jack Casady’s truly heavy bass playing taking the lead. If the jam band side of the San Francisco scene is what interests you, look no further than the 15-minute version of this that JA played at Woodstock.
“Martha” (After Bathing at Baxter’s, 1967)
Probably the folkiest song on After Bathing at Baxter’s but still with that album’s rawer edge, “Martha” is probably about as “classic Jefferson Airplane” as it gets. I’d argue it’s an even better representation of their sound than “White Rabbit” or “Somebody to Love.” Paul and Grace are again harmonizing on this one, and the flute (that also fleshed out Marty Balin’s great “Comin’ Back to Me”) gives it that extra-psychedelic touch. When you listen to Fleet Foxes’ “Your Protector,” it’s hard not to wonder if they were listening to this band.
“Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” (After Bathing at Baxter’s, 1967)
Up a similar alley to “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil,” “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” had the Airplane at their most psychedelic, heavy, and free-form. The harmonies are maybe even more uplifting on this one than the previous two from this album. You can quite literally see yourself outside on a San Francisco Saturday afternoon, much in the way you can vision the sun setting with The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.” “Yellow clouds rising in the noon / Acid incense and balloons,” they sing. When people describe music as “trippy,” this is what they mean.
“Crown of Creation” (Crown of Creation, 1968)
The title track off their 1968 album Crown of Creation is one of the band’s best, and another Kantner-penned tune where he and Grace Slick sound like they’re on the top of the world. This is the album the Airplane got the darkest, and this song is no exception. The chord progressions veer away from standard rock into more experimental territory, Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar solos against Jack’s wild bass are heady as ever, and the ’60s counter-culture is beyond prevalent in the lyrics: “In loyalty to their kind, they cannot tolerate our minds! In loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstructionnnnn!”
“In Time” (Crown of Creation, 1968)
“In Time” is one of the band’s moodier songs, too quiet to be one of the rockers but too hard to be one of their folk songs. Jack’s bass playing practically doubles as the rhythm guitar on this one, and with the band’s overlapping vocals and Jorma’s meandering solos, it’s got their jammy spirit confined to a structured pop song. Paul sings mostly on his own in the subdued verses, but when the harmonies are added in they sound majestic.
“The House At Pooneil Corners” (Crown of Creation, 1968)
Bringing back “Pooneil” from the last album, “The House At Pooneil Corners” is another Kantner/Balin collaboration. This is nothing like “Today” though. I said Crown of Creation is their darkest record, and this one is arguably proto-metal. It’s unquestionably the heaviest song the band ever wrote, and a real gem in their catalog. Up the distortion just a bit, and this wouldn’t have been out of place on an early Sabbath album. San Francisco psych may be most associated with flowers and peace signs, but it had doom too.
“We Can Be Together” (Volunteers, 1969)
After ending their previous record with the darkest song they ever wrote, they kicked off their next one with a bright, happy-sounding song that repeats “we should be together.” It’s a jovial singalong, but it’s not innocent. “We are obscene lawless hideous dangerous dirty violent and young, but we should be together,” is what they’re saying when you listen past the main hook. “Up against the wall, motherfucker! Tear down the walls!” It’s a total product of the ’60s, but you can kind of hear that the ’60s are about to end, too.
“Wooden Ships” (Volunteers, 1969)
Paul Kantner wrote this with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, and the better-known version is on the Crosby, Stills & Nash album, but the Airplane’s version is very worthy too. (To revisit the jam band thing, they played this one for over 20 minutes at Woodstock.) The CSN version is of course fantastic, but there’s an effect from hearing Paul’s voice against Grace’s with Jorma’s untouchable noodling in the background that other bands just didn’t quite give you.
“A Child Is Coming” (Blows Against the Empire, 1970)
One of the highlights of Paul’s 1970 sci-fi concept album Blows Against the Empire is “A Child Is Coming,” the prog/psych epic that he penned with Grace Slick and David Crosby. I mentioned in the intro that this album is a who’s who of the San Francisco scene — in addition to Kantner, Slick and Crosby, there’s Jerry Garcia and other members of the Dead, Graham Nash, Quicksilver Messenger Service’s David Freiberg, other Airplane members, and still more. Who didn’t play on this album? This song actually starts out sounding like something off Tommy (it doesn’t seem unlikely that that album was an influence), but it fizzles off into something that’s even more downright trippy than the Airplane tended to be. It’s a masterpiece.
“Mau Mau (Amerikon)” (Blows Against the Empire, 1970)
“A Child Is Coming” is the album’s centerpiece and best moment, but opener “Mau Mau (Amerikon)” sets the tone for what this album is going to achieve. Jefferson Airplane’s best songs usually had something to do with the harmonies or the solos or the general free spirit, but they didn’t usually go for ambitious songwriting like this. “Mau Mau (Amerikon)” is practically a mini song cycle itself, kicking off a record that often plays like one. And the spirit of that era is once again alive in the lyrics here: “I am alive! I am human! I will be alive again! So drop your fuckin’ bombs! Burn your demon babies! I will be again!”
“Have You Seen The Stars Tonite” (Blows Against the Empire, 1970)
Another one that Paul co-wrote with Crosby, and another trippy, proggy saga. While “Saturday Afternoon” sounded quite literally like a Saturday afternoon, this is absolutely a night song. There’s no better way to hear this one than through outdoor speakers in spring after dark, but even for the times that isn’t possible, it transports you there. Driven by little more than an acoustic guitar, piano, and some creepy atmospheres, it’s the kind of song you can lightly drift away to.
“When I Was A Boy I Watched The Wolves” (Sunfighter, 1971)
The best song on Paul Kantner and Grace Slick’s Sunfighter is probably opener “Silver Spoon,” but that’s really Grace’s song, so here we are at the second best. The album’s all-star cast is similar to Blows Against the Empire, and it’s musically up a similar alley. It’s not as conceptual, but it’s got that mix of ’60s psych bleeding into ’70s prog. This song comes a little close to hard rock with its triumphant chorus and the thickly-distorted guitars, too. Sunfighter came out only two months after the latest Jefferson Airplane album, Bark, but this is the one where Paul sounds most inspired.
“When the Earth Moves Again” (Bark, 1971)
Though I did just suggest Sunfighter is superior to Bark, the latter does open with another great Paul Kantner cut. “When the Earth Moves Again” is possibly the best Airplane song of the ’70s, and it does very much sound like a ’70s song. Unlike Sunfighter, which retains some of the psychedelic era, this one feels like it’s leaving that sound behind, like a lot of early ’70s albums did. Bark is JA’s first album to feature Papa John Creach as a member, and his screaming violin lines on this one are a very welcome addition. And most importantly, it’s got one of those classic Kantner/Slick choruses that doesn’t take more than the song’s title to get stuck in your head.
Paul Kantner with Jefferson Airplane at Monterey Pop Festival, 1967
“White Boy” (Baron von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun, 1973)
Credited to Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, and David Freiberg, this was released right after Jefferson Airplane broke up and right before Jefferson Starship formed, and it features a similar lineup to Sunfighter and Blows Against the Empire. “White Boy” starts out as mostly an acoustic song, but sound effects and eventually a full band enter, with Jack Casady’s unmistakable bass playing shining in the climax. This album is quite possibly the last time Paul offers up the kind of visionary psych rock he helped create in the ’60s, and “White Boy” is the best example of that.
And here’s a Spotify playlist of the whole thing: