Beyond “White Rabbit”: Why Jefferson Airplane were one of psychedelic rock’s greatest bands
If Jefferson Airplane come up in the context of today's musical discourse, which doesn't happen often, they're usually seen as baby boomer relics with a couple enduring radio hits ("White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love"). They've never achieved the same classic rock superstardom as collaborators like Crosby Stills & Nash and Santana, the massive cult following of their close pals the Grateful Dead, or the critical reverence of peers The Velvet Underground. In the public eye, they're a blip, which is unfortunate because they left a far bigger impact than they tend to credit for, and there's still much to be gained from their rich catalog today.
It didn't always seem like Jefferson Airplane's legacy would get this overlooked. Back in 1967, when the hippie movement was at its peak with the Summer of Love in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and the Monterey Pop Festival, one of its leading, pioneering bands was Jefferson Airplane. At that point, Jefferson Airplane were even more at the forefront of the San Francisco scene than the Grateful Dead. The early portion of 1967 saw the release of their breakthrough record (and first with Grace Slick), Surrealistic Pillow, the album that's home to "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love." Today, it overshadows everything else they've done, but it's only the tip of the Jefferson Airplane iceberg. Later that year, they took their sound in a harder, less commercial direction, and on stage they helped sow the seeds for the jam band scene as we now know it. The Dead of course took jamming to much greater lengths after the Airplane broke up, but some of the finest jam band recordings in existence came from concerts that the Airplane played in the late '60s. As the Airplane's career went on, they continued to experiment in the studio as well, with Paul Kantner especially becoming interested in studio pop wizardry that rivaled what The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and The Who were getting into.
In the 1960s, if there was a counter-cultural milestone happening, the Airplane were there for it. They performed at the Human Be-In, an early precursor to pop music festivals, they were a major highlight of Monterey Pop Fest, they put on a fiery set at Woodstock, and they performed at Altamont and the first Isle of Wight. As the '60s ended, Jefferson Airplane began to splinter and form side projects that would outlast this band. Still, they (sort of) held it together for two more studio albums before quietly breaking up after a run at Bill Graham's Winterland Ballroom in September of 1972 (immortalized on the Thirty Seconds Over Winterland live album). In total, they lasted for eight years and seven studio albums and their creative and artistic progression rivaled just about any major rock band of the psychedelic era. At their peak, they had four capable singers and songwriters, and some of the best players on the West Coast. From humble roots to the thrilling creative differences that ultimately split up the band, there's a whole lot to like on either side of "White Rabbit," and you can spend a lifetime diving into their music and still discover something new every time.
Having simultaneously helped pioneer psychedelic rock and psychedelic folk, Jefferson Airplane's influence can either directly or indirectly be heard today on anyone from Tame Impala to Fleet Foxes to Angel Olsen, and the Airplane remain one of the greatest bands of all time within both genres. They were true originals, they covered so much musical ground, and no one's ever really been able to replicate their formula. If you still haven't hopped aboard the Jefferson Airplane, there's no time like the present, and I've put together a guide to their discography that might help. The guide includes the seven studio albums and the one live album they released before breaking up, but I left off compilations and post-breakup live albums. (As with the Grateful Dead, many of those live recordings are stunning, but I wanted to stick to albums the band released in real time.) I also left off their self-titled 1989 reunion album, because the less said about that one the better.
In conjunction with the guide, we stocked some Jefferson Airplane records in our store, including a few classic studio albums and the Woodstock compilations that they appear on.
Read on for the guide, in chronological order...
Takes Off (1966)
In the early 1960s, San Francisco had a small folk music scene and one of its hubs was the San Francisco bar Drinking Gourd. It was there that two folk singers, the Ohio-born Marty Balin (who was in a group called the Town Criers) and the San Francisco-born Paul Kantner, met for the first time in 1965. The two decided to form a band and began recruiting other members, including Signe Toly Anderson, who they'd also seen sing at the Drinking Gourd, and a blues guitarist who moved to San Francisco from DC named Jorma Kaukonen, who previously played with a then-little-known local singer named Janis Joplin. They later found drummer Jerry Peloquin and bassist Bob Harvey, and Jefferson Airplane was born. Neither Jerry nor Bob lasted in the band for more than a few weeks, and they were replaced by singer/songwriter Skip Spence on drums (who would go on to co-found Moby Grape and release a cult-classic solo album) and bassist Jack Casady, who previously played in the R&B band The Triumphs with Jorma. With their lineup solidified, they hit the studio in 1966 to record their debut single "It's No Secret" (backed by "Runnin' Round This World"), a Marty Balin-penned song that really captured what Jefferson Airplane was all about. They were founded by members of the folk music circuit, they brought in two blues players, and they were getting into the pop music of the era too. That all came through on "It's No Secret," a song that fused elements of all three of those genres to come out with a sound Jefferson Airplane could call their own.
With "It's No Secret" under their belts, they returned to the studio to work on their debut album, Takes Off, which featured "It's No Secret" and ten other songs. They paid tribute to their influences with a cover of the blues song "Chauffeur Blues" and the folk songs "Tobacco Road" and "Let's Get Together," both of which became live staples for the band. With its refrain of "Come on people now/Smile on your brother/Everybody get together/Try to love one another right now," the latter (originally written for folk group The Kingston Trio by Dino Valente, who later became a member of Jefferson Airplane's close pals Quicksilver Messenger Service) was recorded by several artists at the time, and it became one of the core anthems of the hippie era; The Youngbloods' version became the most popular, but Jefferson Airplane's more jangly version came out a few months earlier and it's one of the best. (Many people may also recognize the refrain from when Krist Novoselic sneered it in the intro to Nirvana's "Territorial Pissings.")
Outside of the covers, Takes Off found Jefferson Airplane honing their songwriting skills too. No song was as iconic or as enduring as "It's No Secret," but opener "Blues from an Airplane" hinted at the darker psychedelic rock direction they'd take later on, "Come Up the Years" is one of the band's first great Marty Balin-sung ballads, and "Bringing Me Down" perfected their knack for multi-part harmonies. It's an overall modest album compared to what came next, but it's a fine record and it left an immediate impact. It was the first real proper album to come out of San Francisco's fledgling psychedelic rock scene -- soon to be followed by debuts by the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Janis Joplin's band Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish, It's A Beautiful Day, Blue Cheer, and Santana -- and you can bet all of those bands were taking notes from Takes Off.
Pick up a vinyl copy of 'Takes Off.'
Surrealistic Pillow (1967)
Signe Anderson had a soaring, vibrato-ing voice and it's a shame she left music behind so early. After Takes Off came out, she gave birth to her first child, at which point she chose to leave Jefferson Airplane and retire her music career. The Airplane were left with big shoes to fill, but luckily they knew just who to ask.
The Great Society were another local San Francisco psych-rock band who had frequently opened for the Airplane. They were formed in 1965 by brothers Darby and Jerry Slick, and Jerry's then-wife, an extraordinarily talented woman named Grace Slick. When Jefferson Airplane approached Grace and asked her to leave The Great Society and join the Airplane, Grace considered it a no-brainer. Jefferson Airplane now not only had someone who would go on to become one of the greatest singers in rock history, Grace also brought two songs with her from her previous band: the Darby Slick-penned "Someone To Love" (released by The Great Society as a single in 1966) and one she had written for The Great Society but not yet released, "White Rabbit."
Signe wasn't the only Jefferson Airplane member to leave in 1966; Skip Spence also parted ways and quickly went on to form Moby Grape, and he was replaced by NYC-born jazz drummer Spencer Dryden. Armed with a new member from yet another different musical background, as well as their new vocal powerhouse, the Airplane hit the studio to work on their second album, Surrealistic Pillow.
Not only had the band's lineup changed, they'd also been progressing as songwriters, musicians, and collaborators, and that's immediately evident from Surrealistic Pillow's first song alone, "She Has Funny Cars." The production is louder and sharper than Takes Off, the band sounds much tighter than they had just one year earlier, and Spencer Dryden gave them a much stronger backbone than Skip Spence had. He kicks this song off with a pounding Bo Diddley beat, the fiery guitar riff comes in, followed by Marty's pristine voice, and then the song does an about-face, changing its vibe from thunderous to mysterious, with Marty and Grace trading off dual vocals in a way Jefferson Airplane had never done before. It's the perfect way to open the album; it showed off all of their new powers at once, and it remains one of the band's most hypnotic songs today. It wasn't one of their big hits, but with the right push, it certainly could have been.
As for the hits, both of the album's singles were the songs Grace had brought over from The Great Society. Jefferson Airplane didn't just re-record them or anything though; they entirely reworked them. As good as The Great Society's originals were, Jefferson Airplane's versions were much stronger, tighter, and more accessible. Darby's song, with the Airplane retitled "Somebody To Love," went from wobbly psychedelia to a loud, driving rock song, cut down by a minute and a half in length. Grace's own "White Rabbit" underwent an even more drastic rework, from The Great Society's sprawling, 6+ minute raga rock to Jefferson Airplane's two-and-a-half minute nugget, with Spencer's militant snare work and Jack Casady's muscular bassline giving it a backbone that The Great Society's version lacked. "White Rabbit," with its hallucinatory lyrics and snake-charmer guitar work, perfectly encapsulated the sound of the emerging psychedelic rock genre. It remains one of its most quintessential songs today.
With "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love," Jefferson Airplane not only had a new vocalist but a new lead vocalist. Signe and Paul both took lead vocal turns on Takes Off, but Marty was really the frontman on that album. On Surrealistic Pillow, they had two frontpeople, each with entirely different but equally commanding voices. Grace had the hits, but Marty wasn't slacking. He sang several of the album's best songs too, including some immortal gems that absolutely dwarfed anything on Takes Off. With "Today" and "Comin' Back to Me" -- both sung by Marty and written or co-written by him -- Jefferson Airplane helped pioneer the haunting, hypnotizing sound of psychedelic folk. It's a sound that's still being shaped today, with artists like Angel Olsen and Jessica Pratt carrying the torch, and no matter how much the genre grows, "Today" and "Comin' Back to Me" remain two of its best songs. With "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" and "Plastic Fantastic Lover" (both written and sung by Marty), the Airplane started to head in the harder psychedelic rock direction that would soon become their calling card, and the tightened-up instrumental unit of Paul, Jorma, Jack, and Spencer had the attack that these songs needed. Paul continued to hone his singing and songwriting skills with the jangle pop of "D.C.B.A.–25," and Jorma had his time in the spotlight too, with his now-trademark solo guitar workout "Embryonic Journey." Also of note were contributions from Jerry Garcia, who was credited as "spiritual advisor" and who lent some guitar work and musical ideas too.
Takes Off was a promising debut, but with Surrealistic Pillow, Jefferson Airplane formed an identity. Each members' individual contributions began to stand out, and the six of them could really gel together too. The lyrics became more concerned with social commentary and allusions to drug use, which would both become major themes of the Summer of Love. Just as important as the music was the vivid title (allegedly inspired in part by Jerry Garcia) and the album artwork, which featured the iconic Herb Greene photo of the band in front of Herb's hieroglyphic wall. The wall became a psychedelic rock emblem, and -- crucially -- the band looked so cool in that photo. San Francisco wasn't just about wearing flowers in your hair; the Airplane wore black shirts and sunglasses and looked as hip as the East Coast trendsetters in The Velvet Underground. Surrealistic Pillow became a defining document of the psychedelic rock era. It's a near-perfect record and it deserves all the love it gets, but it's not the apex of Jefferson Airplane's career. In many ways, it was just the beginning.
After Bathing At Baxter's (1967)
Surrealistic Pillow will forever be a definitive document of the psychedelic rock era, partially because it truly is one of the best albums of its kind, but also because it's a little more palatable than a lot of the other psych stuff that was coming out at the time. It's overtly psychedelic music, but it's still a pop album, the same way forebears like Fifth Dimension and Rubber Soul were trippy and genre-fluid but still ultimately pop albums. On stage, Jefferson Airplane were a much different story -- a harder, jammier, less commercial-sounding band than the one heard on Surrealistic Pillow's concise, polished songs. When Surrealistic Pillow hit and gained the band crossover success, they leaned even more heavily into the sound they were developing at their live shows. Maybe Jefferson Airplane would be less overlooked today if they'd given the world another "White Rabbit," but in 1967, they had no intention of doing so.
Embracing a harder, jammier sound also meant toning down the contributions of balladeer Marty Balin, and relying more on the increasingly eclectic Paul Kantner and Grace Slick compositions as well as Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady's improvisational instincts. And that's exactly what they did for their second album of 1967, After Bathing At Baxter's.
Just as "She Has Funny Cars" perfectly introduced Jefferson Airplane's new sound on Surrealistic Pillow, Baxter's opener "The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil" (a portmanteau of Winnie the Pooh and Fred Neil) did the same. The Paul Kantner-penned song opens up with 15 seconds of screeching guitar feedback, making it clear right off the bat that this is not the Jefferson Airplane of Surrealistic Pillow. And the rest of the song follows suit. It's not verse-chorus-verse so much as it's verse-other part-jam-verse-jam, with Paul, Grace, and Marty's voices swirling together in a way that sounds just as freeform as Jack's meandering basslines and Jorma's searing guitar solos. The song clocks in at four and a half minutes, trimmed down from the 11-15 minute version the band would regularly play live, but even at this length, it's clear that this is a looser, louder, more unpredictable version of Jefferson Airplane. The next track on the album is a sound collage that barely qualifies as a song. Jefferson Airplane wanted you to know they were getting weird.
Other moments on After Bathing at Baxter's fully incorporated the jam element the band had on stage. One song, "Spare Chaynge," is nine minutes of instrumental improvisation, and it's just as listenable as the vocal-oriented songs. And, outside of that song, Jefferson Airplane set themselves apart from typical jam bands because their singing and multi-part harmonies always felt just as off-the-cuff as their instrumentation. Where some of their peers would start with the song, go off into instrumental space, and land back on the song, Jefferson Airplane's vocalists often seemed like their approach was just as stream-of-consciousness as the instrumentalists. For a band with four singers, harmonies, and strong lyrical concepts, some of the stuff they pulled off without the song falling off its hinges seemed damn near impossible.
Though not nearly as commercially accessible as Surrealistic Pillow, After Bathing at Baxter's was just as concerned with songcraft as it was with guitar feedback and lengthy jams. Jefferson Airplane were one of those bands who, no matter how weird they got, there was always an underlying pop song. Tracks like "Wild Tyme," "Watch Her Ride," the Jorma-written/sung "The Last Wall of the Castle," and album closer "Won't You Try / Saturday Afternoon" felt totally loose, but they all have tangible hooks to latch on to. And some songs were just as effectively pop as Surrealistic Pillow. The album's most accessible song is "Martha," a Paul Kantner-written/sung psychedelic folk rock song that was just as woozy as "Today" but with a firmer, faster backbeat. The one song that Marty co-wrote and sung, "Young Girl Sunday Blues," is cut from the same cloth as "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" and "Plastic Fantastic Lover," just with a little more meat on its bones. And Grace Slick's songwriting continued to be one of the band's strongest weapons. "Two Heads" is the closest thing the album has to a "White Rabbit," but with a staunch feminist social critique instead of psychedelic Alice In Wonderland references. And Grace's other contribution, "Rejoyce" (a nod to James Joyce) went in a more brooding direction that she'd continue to explore as the band's career progressed.
As the followup to the near-perfect Surrealistic Pillow, After Bathing at Baxter's was perfectly imperfect. Jefferson Airplane weren't shooting for perfection this time around; they wanted rawer production, less structure, more spontaneity, and they got it. Baxter's captured the sound and feel of their live show more than any other Airplane album before or since, and Jefferson Airplane were an ace live band who needed an album like this -- an album that showed there was a whole other side of Jefferson Airplane not represented on "White Rabbit."
Crown of Creation (1968)
After making the jarring switch from the pop-friendly Surrealistic Pillow to the distortion-drenched After Bathing at Baxter's, 1968's Crown of Creation reeled things in a bit and found an appealing middle ground between the two albums. There's nothing as radio-friendly as "White Rabbit" nor anything as jammy as "Spare Chaynge," but it's clearly the work of the distinct band who made both. At this point, on the classic lineup's third consecutive album, the chemistry between all six members seemed like second nature, and each individual member had fully come into their own as well. It feels like a more democratic, collaborative album than its predecessors. Grace contributed two songs, as did Jorma. Paul and Marty co-wrote two together, and there's two others by Marty and one other by Paul. (There's also one by David Crosby; more on that soon.) On Paul's songs, you really hear him starting to find the fantastical, sci-fi rock style that he'd continue to explore with future side projects and post-Airplane projects. Jorma discovers newfound confidence as a singer and songwriter, proving himself capable of going on to front his own band for the next 50 years. (Hot Tuna; more on that soon too.) Marty has a greater presence on the album, after taking a bit of a backseat on Baxter's. Grace continues to be a star.
The album opens with one of Grace's most iconic songs, "Lather," an ode to drummer Spencer Dryen, who she was having an affair with at the time, and who had just turned 30 (which, judging by the lyrics of this song, was a very old age to the members of Jefferson Airplane). It's a melancholic, psychedelic folk song, closer to "Today" than to anything on Baxter's, but with a plainspoken delivery that was smarter, wiser, and funnier than most of Surrealistic Pillow. The funniest part is when Grace sings about Lather (aka Spencer) "putting drumsticks on either side of his nose, snorting the best licks in town," proceeded by an actual snorted nose solo. It's just the right amount of psychedelic whimsy.
Paul embraces a similar side, leading the band through the psychedelic folk rock journey "In Time," which starts out as somber as "Lather" before reaching a climax of vocal harmonies and a thrilling instrumental conversation between Jorma and Jack, as Paul's words offer vivid psychedelic imagery ("Orange, blue, red and green are the colors of what I feel/And my mind, you know it starts to reel in time"). Marty's (sort of) allowed a ballad on this one too. He penned "Share A Little Joke," a gorgeously trippy song that combines Marty's love of balladry with Jorma's love of screaming lead guitar. It's one of the Airplane's strongest songs.
Elsewhere on side A there's the contribution from the Airplane's friend David Crosby, "Triad." As bands like the Airplane and the Grateful Dead were expanding their minds and their sounds, Croz was trying to do the same thing as a member of The Byrds, but his cleaner-cut bandmates were getting increasingly frustrated with his new direction. They let him steer the band in a more psychedelic direction to a certain extent, but they hated the way he advocated for the use of psychedelic drugs on stage at 1967's Monterey Pop Festival, and they rejected a song he wrote about a threesome for 1968's The Notorious Byrd Brothers, "Triad." The Byrds did record the song (it's now readily available on the deluxe edition of that album), but since they wouldn't release it at the time, he gave the song to Jefferson Airplane. Grace did a stunning job with it, and really made it her own. The Byrds' version is fantastic, and it's disappointing that Crosby's bandmates didn't share his vision, but this is one of those things that makes you say "everything happens for a reason." Jefferson Airplane's version is even better.
Side A is rounded out by Jorma's "Star Track," one of his finest contributions to the band, a more third-eye-open song than most of what Jorma would eventually do in Hot Tuna, but also a song that helped lay the groundwork for that band's sound. Side A ends with the screeching electronics of Spencer Dryden's "Chushingura," the ear-piercing sequel to his sound collage on Baxter's, which seems to exist just to see how much of it you can handle before you flip the record over. Side A of Crown of Creation is an effective and often stunning showcase of what this band was capable of at their peak, but side B is one of the finest runs of songs they've ever put to tape.
Side B kicks off with "If You Feel," sung and co-written by Marty Balin, and it rocks in a way that stands out from nearly everything else they've written. As much as Marty gets portrayed as the ballad guy, he could be a great rock frontman too, and "If You Feel" is like the rebellious older brother of "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" and "Plastic Fantastic Lover," dirtier-sounding and untamed by studio precision. Paul's choppy chords bounce off of Jorma's lead guitar stabs in a way that hinted at the following decade's hard rock, and Marty wails his head off. The Paul-penned title track sounds like ground zero for the albums that he and Grace would make together in the early '70s, with lyrics inspired by John Wyndham's 1955 sci-fi novel The Chrysalids and a militant delivery, powered by Paul and Grace's tight-knit harmonies. This isn't flower power at all; it sounds apocalyptic.
"Ice Cream Phoenix" was largely sung by Grace but written by Jorma (with help from album contributor Charles Cockey), and it almost sounds like he's trying to give Paul a run for his money and prove that he can indulge in dark psychedelia too. Grace offers up "Greasy Heart," this album's Penultimate Witchy Grace Slick Song, but unlike "White Rabbit" and even "Two Heads," this one has the same psych-rock sleaze of the Airplane's live show. And like "Two Heads," it's another biting feminist critique.
Crown of Creation may have begun with its softest song, but it ends with its heaviest. Album closer "The House at Pooneil Corners" made a callback to After Bathing at Baxter's "The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil," but musically, it was like nothing else in Jefferson Airplane's discography. After some introductory feedback, horror-flick organs enter, followed by absolutely sinister harmonies from Paul and Grace, and the song's secret weapon is Jack's doomy, distorted basslines. Combined with Jorma's evil guitar leads, it sounds like Black Sabbath a full two years before that band released music. Unlike their neighbors in Blue Cheer, Jefferson Airplane never did anything like this again, but for six minutes at the end of Crown of Creation, they were proto-metal.
If Surrealistic Pillow is the most important Jefferson Airplane record, and After Bathing at Baxter's is the most definitive, then Crown of Creation is the most underrated. It doesn't really have any song that would be known to a casual rock fan (maybe "Lather"?), but its songs rival and often top their better-known material. It's also kind of the conclusion of their psychedelic era, the culmination of everything that Surrealistic Pillow and Baxter's had been building towards. After the dust from this album settled, a new chapter of Jefferson Airplane's career would begin.
Bless Its Pointed Little Head (1969)
People seem to be cynical about live albums today, but in the classic rock era, live albums were often seen as just as important as studio albums–especially for bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, who were known for being unpredictable on stage. The one live album that Jefferson Airplane released during their initial run as a band, Bless Its Pointed Little Head, showed off a side of the band that you couldn't find on any of their studio albums. Recorded in fall of 1968 and Bill Graham's Fillmore East and Fillmore West, these weren't just rougher recordings of their well-known songs; in fact, five of the album's nine songs never appeared on studio albums. Of those five songs, three of them were covers. Like the Grateful Dead, covers were a crucial part of Jefferson Airplane's live show. They really made them their own, and some of their renditions have become just as well known as the originals. As for the songs on Bless Its Pointed Little Head that did appear on previous studio albums, they're all from Takes Off and Surrealistic Pillow, and their inclusion here had purpose. The longer, heavier, more improvisational live versions on this album showed just how far Jefferson Airplane had come as a band since recording the original versions.
On Blessed Its Pointed Little Head, rockers like "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" and "Plastic Fantastic Lover" were finally given the untamed delivery they deserved, with the Airplane breaking the songs out of their studio-polished shells. Their pop songs like "Somebody to Love" and "It's No Secret" got revved-up and blown-out in a way the studio versions never even hinted at. The Takes Off version of "It's No Secret" sounds limp in comparison to the bolder, louder live version on this album, and with all due respect to Signe Anderson, it's a treat to get Takes Off's best song with Grace Slick providing the harmonies to Marty Balin, their voices swirling together in a hypnotic brew. The Bless Its Pointed Little Head version of "Somebody to Love" breathes entirely new life into the song, with Grace reinventing her vocals in a way that feels completely off the cuff.
The covers on this album were reworked even more drastically than the originals. There's a rendition of the blues standard "Rock Me Baby," sung by Jorma and pushed to a jammy seven-minute, 45-second length (hinting even more strongly at Hot Tuna's blues rock than most of Jorma's Airplane originals). The Airplane also return to the favor to Donovan with an equally lengthy cover of his 1966 raga folk rock nugget "The Fat Angel," in which Donovan had namedropped Jefferson Airplane. (He also named the song after Mama Cass.) The Airplane's Paul-sung cover turns into a climactic, spacey jam, using their guitars to replicate the sitar-fueled drone of the original. When Donovan namedropped Jefferson Airplane in the lyrics, it was a nod to the West Coast scene that he was clearly inspired by at the time; when Paul sings his own band's name, it sounds like it could be their theme song.
Blessed Its Pointed Little Head's most significant cover, though, is of Fred Neil's 1965 folk song "The Other Side of This Life." Fred was one of the band's biggest influences when they formed (and, as mentioned, part of the inspiration for "Pooneil"), and they'd been performing this song ever since their first few shows. Their version continued to evolve over the years, and it kept getting longer. Here, it's almost seven minutes, and it sounds almost nothing like the 1965 demo they cut of it. At that point, it still sounded like a rendition of Fred Neil's original, but by 1968, they'd completely turned it into their own song. Grace and Marty wail their heads off together, Jack and Jorma take the track into far-out jam territory; Fred Neil may have written it, but it became as much a Jefferson Airplane song as "I Know You Rider" is a Grateful Dead song.
The Airplane improvised and stretched out their songs all throughout the recordings that make up Bless Its Pointed Little Head, but no more so than on its closing track, "Bear Melt," an original composition that never appeared on a studio album. Here, it's over 11 minutes in length, and it's as good an argument as any that Jefferson Airplane were a pioneering jam band, on par with their pals in the Grateful Dead and the soon-to-form Allman Brothers Band. The Airplane's improvisational nature and stunning musicianship -- particularly fueled by Jack and Jorma -- had been apparent on every album since Baxter's, but Blessed Its Pointed Little Head pushed it even further to the forefront. As a rock bassist, Jack Casady is as good as they come, with a style that's thunderous and constantly in motion. As heard all over this album, it was often Jack steering the songs into unknown territory, and acting as the engine that kept them moving. The way Jack and Jorma communicate musically is damn near telepathic -- it's no surprise that they remain in a band together to this day -- and with Jack providing the strong backbone, Jorma could let his guitar scream. The psych-rock scene was full of players who were revolutionizing how the guitar is played -- Jerry, Hendrix, Santana -- and though he's less of a household name, Jorma was doing the same. Plenty of other hippie axe-slingers tried to mimic his searing, vibrato-ing lead guitar style, but the imitators rarely hit in the same way. As soon as Jorma starts shredding, it sounds just as distinct as Grace Slick and Marty Balin's voices.
Decades don't usually end culturally the same time they end on the calendar, but the '60s did. The hippie era came to a disastrous end with the Manson Family murders in August of 1969 and the doomed Altamont Free Concert in December of 1969, which was headlined by The Rolling Stones and also featured Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and Jefferson Airplane. The poorly-planned one-day festival – which was immortalized in the classic 1970 film Gimme Shelter – led to four deaths, including the stabbing of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter by a member of the Hell's Angels (who had been hired at the last minute to handle security). One of the Hell's Angels also struck Marty Balin on stage, mistaking him for a crowd member. Touted as the West Coast answer to Woodstock, which had occurred in Upstate New York just a few months earlier (and which was also not as peaceful and loving as its organizers and documentary makers would have you believe), Altamont became the signifier that a movement couldn't be sustained by peace and love alone, and that violence was inevitable. Just as 1969 was coming to an end, so did the hippie movement that Jefferson Airplane helped birth.
It's not exactly fair to blame the end of the hippie era on Altamont; even earlier in 1969, it was becoming clear that the whimsical high of the Summer of Love was wearing off. You can tell just from listening to many of the iconic rock records of 1969 -- Abbey Road, Tommy, Let It Bleed, Zeppelin I & II, In the Court of the Crimson King -- which sound like they're on a psychedelic comedown, not entirely removed from the four-year trip the rock world had been on, but clearly setting their sights on something a little more grounded. This was also true of Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers. It was the final album by the band's classic lineup, and even though they were firing on all cylinders, you can sense that it was the end of an era.
The American flag on the cover and the upbeat refrains of "We can be together" and "We are volunteers of America" might have made it look like a patriotic record if you weren't paying close attention, but -- like "This Land Is Your Land," "Fortunate Son" (also from 1969), or "Born in the U.S.A." -- it was clearly the opposite. This wasn't an album of kaleidoscopic colors and smoking caterpillars; these were bold, direct, anti-war songs, particularly the album's two signature songs (the aforementioned "We Can Be Together" and "Volunteers"), and "Wooden Ships," which Paul had co-written with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, whose newly-formed Crosby Stills & Nash also released a version of the song on their debut album a few months prior.
Volunteers was too lyrically controversial to have been seen as an attempt to get back on Top 40 radio (their label RCA was not happy that they used the word "motherfucker" on "We Can Be Together"), but after two rawer, heavily psychedelic albums, it was their most pop-friendly since Surrealistic Pillow. Volunteers has a much bigger, cleaner sound than its predecessors, most likely due to making it with the newly-developed technology of 16-track recording, and the majority of the songs are more traditionally structured than the songs on their previous two albums. They also got an assist from legendary session pianist and longtime Rolling Stones collaborator Nicky Hopkins, who added an even greater sense of cleanliness to their sound, and who also worked with The Kinks, The Who, John Lennon, the Airplane's friends in Quicksilver Messenger Service, and several others.
"We Can Be Together" and "Volunteers" are two of the Airplane's best songs, and both classic civil rights-era protest songs. They didn't naively wish for peace -- they firmly demanded it -- and the not-idealistic tone was matched by music that sounded more sobering than the Airplane's trippier explorations. Other moments on Volunteers saw the Airplane sobering up too. As The Stones and The Byrds and others had done at that point, the Airplane traded psychedelia for country rock on "The Farm," and Jorma contributed a clean-cut folk rock arrangement of the traditional "Good Shepherd." Still, some of the psych-rock magic of the previous albums did remain. The Airplane's version of "Wooden Ships" is harder and trippier than CSN's (and equally essential), Grace Slick's eight-and-a-half minute "Hey Frederick" is as mind-expanding as anything on Baxter's or Crown of Creation, and "Eskimo Blue Day" is a quintessential song of the psychedelic rock era. Sung by Grace and co-written by her and Paul, it addresses the human impact on climate change -- a message that might resonate even more 50+ years later than it did in 1969 -- and it pairs some of Grace's best howling with some of Jorma's best fretwork.
Volunteers came out three months after Jefferson Airplane's triumphant Woodstock set, during which they had performed "Eskimo Blue Day," "Volunteers," and "Wooden Ships" (with Nicky Hopkins on hand for the entire set), and it'll be forever tied to Woodstock the way Surrealistic Pillow will be forever tied to Monterey Pop. Those two albums neatly bookended the classic lineup's era the same way those two festivals neatly bookended the peace and love era. By the end of 1969, the hippie era as we knew it would be done, and Jefferson Airplane as we knew them would be done too.
Pick up a vinyl copy of 'Volunteers.'
1970 was the first year since Takes Off that Jefferson Airplane didn't release an album. They put out the non-album single "Mexico" b/w "Have You Seen the Saucers" (of which the A-side was a Grace Slick-penned song that took aim at Nixon's anti-drug initiative Operation Intercept, which scapegoated the Mexican-American border and laid the groundwork for Trump's wall), but otherwise the band was largely inactive. Spencer Dryden was ousted from the band in early 1970, Grace was pregnant with her and Paul Kantner's daughter China, and the band's two competing creative factions split off. Jorma and Jack released the self-titled debut album by their band Hot Tuna, while Paul Kantner released Blows Against the Empire, a sci-fi rock opera that featured an all-star cast of musicians from Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and CSN that became known as the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra. Blows Against the Empire and Hot Tuna made the creative differences clear; the latter was traditional blues, and the former sounded like San Francisco's answer to Tommy.
To make up for the lack of activity in 1970, a best-of (called The Worst of Jefferson Airplane) was released in November of that year. Work eventually began on the band's next album, Bark, but Jefferson Airplane's lineup was looking drastically different at that point. With Spencer gone, Jefferson Airplane's full-time drummer became Joey Covington, who contributed some auxiliary percussion to Volunteers and had been joining the Airplane (and Hot Tuna) at live shows. The Airplane also recruited a crucial new member, Papa John Creach, a blues violinist over 20 years older than the other Airplane members who they met through Joey Covington. He played on Hot Tuna's second album (1971's First Pull Up, Then Pull Down) before also playing on Bark. The creative differences between Jorma/Jack and Paul/Grace were creating tension during the making of Bark, and the artistic war between them had another impact on the band too. It alienated Marty Balin, who struggled to fit in with either side's vision, and ultimately left the band.
"Marty founded the band, and without him, in some respects, it lost its way," Jorma said when reflecting on Bark in a 2016 interview with Uncut. "With Joey’s personality, and Marty’s loss, it was a different band. It had run its course," Jack added. "Going back into the band from Hot Tuna, it was almost like, what for?" Still, the fractured band made a record -- their first co-released by RCA and their own new vanity label, Grunt Records -- and even with so many factors working against them, Bark birthed some of Jefferson Airplane's best songs. It's not a classic on the level of the '60s records, but it has moments of brilliance that rival its predecessors.
Without Marty, the stylistic split between the Paul/Grace and the Jorma/Jack factions became even clearer. Bark came together around the same time that Hot Tuna made their second album and Paul Kantner and Grace Slick made 1971's Sunfighter (with the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra), and it's largely split between songs that sound kinda like Sunfighter and songs that sound kinda like Hot Tuna. And you get the sense that the members had more fun working on their "side" projects; Jorma more or less admits it in "Third Week in the Chelsea," a song that strongly foreshadows the breakup of Jefferson Airplane.
However disjointed Bark may have been, the members couldn't help but (mostly) write good songs for it. There are some oddities, like Grace Slick's Eastern European homage/parody "Never Argue With A German If You’re Tired, Or European Song" and Joey Covington's a cappella "Thunk," but most of the material sounds just as meticulously crafted as '60s Airplane. Album opener "When the Earth Moves Again" is one of the band's best songs, a Paul Kantner-penned composition with screeching violin from Papa John Creach and some of Paul and Grace's warmest harmonies. It's sort of like the bridge between "We Can Be Together" and the music Paul and Grace were making with the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra, as anthemic as the former and as fantastical as the latter. It's the album's strongest moment, but a close runner up is "Pretty As You Feel." Co-written by Joey Covington and sung by him and Grace, it keeps the spacey psychedelia of the '60s alive, and it's embellished with some flavorful guitar from the band's pal Carlos Santana.
Even on the songs that feel more like Hot Tuna songs or Sunfighter songs than Jefferson Airplane songs, the Bark songs still sound different than the side projects because each faction injects their style into the other's songs. The folk-blues of "Third Week in the Chelsea" could've worked in Hot Tuna, but it's a treat to hear Grace harmonizing with Jorma on it, even if they're harmonizing about the end of their own band. On the other hand, Grace's "Law Man" could've been saved for Sunfighter, but it probably wouldn't have had all those Jorma licks if it was. The members might have been less interested in the band than ever, but when they got together in the studio to make Bark, they couldn't help but be Jefferson Airplane.
Long John Silver (1972)
The members of Jefferson Airplane were even more checked out for Long John Silver, an album they've referred to as more of an obligation for their record label than anything else, and this record was marked by even more inner-band turmoil. Joey Covington and the band parted ways in the middle of the recording process, and two other drummers had to be brought in to complete the album. Still, as with Bark, the tense sessions still managed to produce worthwhile songs. And though Long John Silver doesn't have any highs as high as "When the Earth Moves Again" or "Pretty As You Feel," it's actually a more cohesive sounding album than its predecessor. Save for Jorma's bluesy "Trial by Fire," this one doesn't have any songs that sound like they may as well have been Hot Tuna songs. Grace Slick was more or less the sole frontperson on this album, and she sounded as uniquely powerful as ever on this album. Her best moment is "Easter?," a song that takes shots at Christians that start wars and kill in the name of their religion, with Grace sneering and spitting over a sinister piano rock backdrop.
"Easter?" is one of two great songs on the album fueled by Grace's heavy-as-brick piano playing (the other being "Aerie [Gang of Eagles]"), and one of two songs critical of Christianity (the other being the Paul Kantner-penned "The Son of Jesus"). "The Son of Jesus," "Twilight Double Leader," and "Alexander the Medium" find Paul and Grace continuing to hone the forceful, post-psychedelic rock they had been doing on the side, while Jorma came up with some hard blues rock riffage for album closer "Eat Starch Mom" and Grace knew just how to howl over it. Papa John Creach, the band's secret weapon in the '70s, got a writing credit on the violin-filled "Milk Train," and he sounds as ferocious playing that thing as Grace does singing the unflinching lyrics she wrote for it. Long John Silver wasn't a critical or commercial success at the time, and it's not as essential as the four albums the classic lineup made in the '60s, but if you've outplayed the classics and you're looking for more Jefferson Airplane to devour, this really does scratch the itch. It's a fine record, without any real filler. And though it came at a time when the band already knew Jefferson Airplane was finished, it's still fueled by some genuine inspiration.
After Jefferson Airplane
Jefferson Airplane supported Long John Silver with one last tour in 1972 (with Quicksilver Messenger Servce's David Freiberg joining the band to fill in for the departed Marty Balin), which culminated in two shows at Bill Graham's Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on September 21 and 22, 1972. The 9/22 show, which featured Marty Balin appearing for one song during the encore, would be the band's last. They quietly disbanded, and the following year, their breakup was documented with the live album Thirty Seconds Over Winterland, recorded at those Winterland shows and at Chicago Auditorium on that same tour.
After that Winterland show, Jack and Jorma turned their attention fully to Hot Tuna, who -- after recording their first two albums live and relying heavily on cover songs -- began making proper studio recordings and writing more of their own material on 1972's Burgers. 1974's The Phosphorescent Rat pushed the band in a harder rock direction (and featured the fan fave "I See the Light," one of the most Jefferson Airplane-like Hot Tuna songs). After that album, they became a power trio with drummer Bob Steeler and went in an even harder rock direction with their "rampage" trilogy (America's Choice, Yellow Fever, and Hoppkorv). A live album and a hiatus followed, but Hot Tuna returned in 1986 and never looked back. A constantly-touring act, Hot Tuna continued to embrace the improvisational side that they had brought to Jefferson Airplane, and when the jam band scene began to take shape, Hot Tuna were welcomed in as godfathers and contemporaries, alongside other pioneers like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. Jorma also led a prolific solo career in conjunction with Hot Tuna and during their hiatus. For my money, his best non-Airplane work is his 1974 solo album Quah, one of the great '70s folk rock albums. Hot Tuna and Jorma's solo career both remain active today.
Meanwhile, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick officially recruited David Freiberg into their faction and made another record with the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra, 1973's Baron von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun (nicknames for Paul and Grace, respectively), credited to Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and David Freiberg. The next year, Grace Slick released her solo album Manhole, featuring many of the same musicians. (Despite creative differences, Jorma and Jack did tend to contribute to one or two songs each on those Planet Earth albums.) Later in 1974, Paul, Grace, and David Freiberg scaled down the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra into a committed lineup who could go on tour, and they gave the band a name: Jefferson Starship. Jefferson Starship debuted with 1974's Dragon Fly, an album that reunited Paul and Grace on one song with Marty Balin ("Caroline"). The following year, Marty officially joined Jefferson Starship and they released their first album with him as a member, 1975's Red Octopus, and it was one of Marty's songs that gave Jefferson Starship their first big hit, "Miracles." The more Hot Tuna embraced traditional blues and the jam band scene, the more Jefferson Starship embraced a more polished pop rock and soft rock sound, leaving Jefferson Airplane's psychedelia in the rearview.
Jefferson Starship's lineup changed a lot over the years, with Grace and Marty leaving in 1978, followed by the release of 1979's Freedom at Point Zero, which birthed another of the band's biggest hits, the David Freiberg-sung "Jane." Grace returned soon after. A Paul Kantner solo album called Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (but not featuring most of the legends who were part of the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra in the early '70s) came out in 1983, and Paul left Jefferson Starship the following year. Without him, Grace Slick and other Jefferson Starship members became Starship (due to legal threats from Paul over the name) and 1985 brought their debut album Knee Deep in the Hoopla, featuring -- yes -- "We Built This City." The (very corny) single gave Grace her first number one hit, and two more (equally corny) number ones followed: "Sara" and "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," the latter from 1987's No Protection, their final album with Grace. Though they had nothing to do with Jefferson Airplane, those songs did more damage to the Airplane's reputation than any of the inner-band turmoil or commercial failures that plagued their later years. It turned them into a punchline for many people, especially in an era when the emergence of punk, post-punk, and alternative rock was already causing so many '60s and '70s bands to be deemed dinosaurs.
Around the time was Grace was topping the charts, Paul, Marty and Jack reunited in the short-lived KBC Band (aka The Kantner Balin Casady Band). When that band's short career ended, Paul began popping up at Hot Tuna shows, and in 1988 Grace showed up too, spurring a Jefferson Airplane reunion the following year, with Grace, Paul, Marty, Jorma, and Jack heading out on (a well-received) tour and making one album that even the band isn't proud of. "It was done for shallow reasons. Money!," Jack said. "It wasn’t based on anything real."
Following the Airplane's reunion, Paul Kantner re-activated Jefferson Starship, with Grace, Marty, Jack, David Freiberg, and even briefly Signe Anderson joining the lineup over the years. Paul and Signe both passed away in 2016. Marty passed away in 2018. Grace Slick has been retired from music for decades. Hot Tuna are still putting on great shows, and they're likely to play one or two Airplane songs at their shows. Don't take them for granted.
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