With ‘After Bathing At Baxter’s,’ Jefferson Airplane left pop behind and got weird
We recently published a deep dive into the career of psychedelic rock legends Jefferson Airplane. Here's our segment on 'After Bathing At Baxter's,' the album where they ignored the expectations of pop radio and got weird.
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."
Read the rest of our Jefferson Airplane retrospective here.