JEFFERSON AIRPLANE TAKES OFF (1966)
Blues From An Airplane/Let Me In/Bringing Me Down/It's No Secret/Tobacco Road/Come Up The Years/Run Around/Let's Get Together/Don't Slip Away/Chauffeur Blues/And I Like It
This was Jefferson Airplane's debut album and it has flown under the radar somewhat in comparison to the next one but that shouldn't detract from its ground-breaking effect. It dates from 1966 and at the time garnered little attention in the music media but it has retrospectively gained more of a reputation. Incidentally, the female lead vocals are delivered by Toly Anderson as opposed to Grace Slick, who joined for the next album.
There is a youthful vibrancy and energy that comes through when listening to this album and the stereo sound is superb for 1966. It was promoted on the album's rear cover as a "jet age sound".
Blues From An Airplane is a convincing piece of blues given a weird, psychedelic update. The guitar parts are very much like those that The Velvet Underground would come to use so much over the next few years. Let Me In is also very representative of embryonic psychedelic rock. The Beatles would have loved to have come up with something like this at the time. The rhythmic blues of Bringing Me Down has echoes of The Rolling Stones' material from the same period and It's No Secret is also very infectious in its mid-sixties avant-garde pop sort of way. It is a sort of vibe that is pretty impossible to describe but I know exactly what it is when I hear it. The guitar solo on this is also very Byrds-esque.
Tobacco Road is a bluesy rock standard that seemed to be covered by many artists at the time. The Airplane make it their own with a psychedelic veneer. Come Up The Years is dreamily hippy-ish, wit swirling psychedelic instrumentations and lyrics about how much she turns him on, delivered in airy, folky tones. Once more, the stereo on this cooks to boiling point. Run Around is a beefier, druggy rocker with lyrics about being blinded by colours (man) and having had enough of your hands round my brain.The hippy anthem, composed by Chet Powers, Let's Get Together has most winsome stereo sound and another folky, harmonious shared vocal. The song was much covered as an anthem of peace and love during the 1966-1969 period. The most famous was probably by The Youngbloods.
Don't Slip Away has a superb Byrds-style guitar riff and a sonorous, slightly haunting vocal. The upbeat blues rock of Chauffeur Blues has echoes of Janis Joplin about it while the Joplin vibes continue on the bluesy soul of And I Like It.
Prudish RCA executives demanded that certain innocuous words and phrases (that contained slightly druggy or sexual suggestions) were removed from both Let Me In and Run Around, while the carefree pop of Runnin' Round This World was not allowed on the album at all, because it contained the word "trips".
Of the other non-album tracks High Flying Bird is a very psychedelic number while It's Alright is a very Stonesy circa 1966 song. Go To Her is in the same vein, with a great drum, guitar and bass break.
SURREALISTIC PILLOW (1966)
She Has Funny Cars/Somebody To Love/My Best Friend/Today/Comin' Back To Me/3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds/D.C.B.A. - 25/How Do You Feel/Embryonic Journey/White Rabbit/Plastic Fantastic Lover
This was Jefferson Airplane's second album, released in December 1996, and the one that saw them "break through". It was as much the sound of 1967's "summer of love" as Scott McKenzie's If You Go To San Francisco was. It is adventurous, bubbly, poppy but also druggy and innovative and fully deserves its strong reputation. By the way, was it obligatory to have at least one band member wearing dark shades on the cover in 1966-68?
She Has Funny Cars is one of those jaunty, upbeat folky sixties rock numbers that merge breezy vocals and light jazzy touches with a rhythmic, rocky backing. It has some great solo drum breaks on it and some searing guitar too. One of the group's two big hits was the bluesy, grinding rock of Somebody To Love, which brought vocalist Grace Slick's powerful voice and persona to people's attention. It is an absolute copper-bottomed classic piece of late sixties in-your-face rock. Great guitar solo near the end too. One of the earliest examples of proper ROCK music. It is 1967, so some airy hippiness has to creep in and duly does so in the carefree, summer morning vibe of My Best Friend. It bulks up a bit towards to end, however, finishing far more powerfully than it had begun.
Today is a gentle love song with some subtly appealing guitar, bass and percussion backing. Comin' Back To Me finds the group going all laid-back and gently flute-backed, very hippy, like the sort of stuff Traffic would soon be dabbling in. It was an early example of folk/progressive rock. There is a an easy-going, beguiling appeal to it, almost like medieval folk.
3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds has the band rocking again on a superb piece of psychedelic summer of love rock, full of pounding organ and guitar, rubbery bass and muscular drums. It has a mod-ish liveliness and attack to it that pre-dated punk/new wave by ten years. D.C.B.A. -25 presumably refers to its introductory bass chords and is a harmonious Mamas & The Papas-sounding poppy number. Lots of summery West Coast vibes here. How Do You Feel has a folky flute backing, "ba-ba-ba" sixties backing vocals and an all-round folk rock feel to it. The guitar solo at the end is excellent too.
The short instrumental Embryonic Journey also displays a folkiness in its acoustic guitar picking while the other big hit, White Rabbit, is an Eastern-influenced druggy number ("...and you've just had some kind of mushroom...") that captivates, hauntingly with its perplexing lyrics and rat-a-tat drum sound. It is an odd single in that it has no hook at all, indeed precious little traditional structure. While I like the song a lot, I often wondered what it was about it that attracted the single-buying public.
This impressive, ahead-of-its-time album ends with the avant-garde groove and risqué suggestions of Plastic Fantastic Lover, a delicious, swirling piece of psychedelic rock.
The album serves to be up there with output from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, The Doors and The Velvet Underground from this oh-so-fertile period for inspirational, ground-breaking rock music.
Check out the wonderful harmonica-driven blues of the non-album track In The Morning too. It should have been on the album, there was easily room. The oddly-titled J.P.P. McStep B. Blues was also mysteriously groovy. Go To Her is a robust, guitar-dominated serving of psychedelic, pounding rock and Come Back Baby is a mix of contemporary rock and riffy blues.
AFTER BATHING AT BAXTER'S (1967)
The Ballad Of You, Me & Pooneil/A Small Package Of Value Will Come To You, Shortly/Young Girl Sunday Blues/Martha/Wild Tyme (H)/The Last Wall Of The Castle/rejoyce/Watch Her Ride/Spare Chaynge/Two Heads/Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon
This was Jefferson Airplane's third album, from November 1967, and was druggily experimental (the title was the band's euphemism for tripping on acid). It was less successful than the previous two and had no hit single. It is very much a tripped-out product of its hazy time, but not without its good points. (The drugs clearly affected the group's spelling too, as some of the song titles show).
It was one of psychedelic rock's most uncommercial, pure albums, containing no pop influenced material. Basically it is proof that drugs produced some weird, indulgent music, but within that, some really inspired stuff too. It stands as one of the rock's most drugged-up albums ever, even the inner sleeve artwork was the product of narcotic stimulus, it seems. Thinking about it, was there any creative late sixties album that wasn’t the result of liberal drug use? It is a bit of a difficult listen at times, especially when compared to the more accessible psychedelic pop/rock of the previous two albums, but it is certainly worthy of occasional attention.
The Ballad Of You & Me & Pooneil is a hippy meets psychedelia, drugged-up nonsense classic, full of wailing vocals, reverberating bass, mystifying lyrics, Eastern-fashion vocal wailing and tabla-style percussion. Great for a far-out sixties party, man. Get those stroboscopes working. The strangely-titled A Small Package Of Value Will Come To You, Shortly begins with some Beatles-style sound effects and remains that way throughout its short running time. To be honest, it is pretty much a waste of time. It is soon forgotten, however, as Young Girl Sunday Blues sees a dense, buzzy, psychedelic rock sound return, with a bit of a Somebody To Love feel about it. Grace Slick's vocal is rampant and soaring, but although the production is a bit murky, it somehow suits the album's ambience.
Martha was a single and is an ethereal folky number that sounds like Pentangle or Fairport Convention in places. The harmonies are excellent, as is the electric guitar interjections (and solo). Listen to that big bass sound too. Again, it has a very stoned feel to it, unsurprisingly. Wild Time (H) is a solid, bassy rocker with some pounding drums and killer guitar, it is one of the album's best tracks.
The Last Wall Of The Castle is a storming number too, the sound getting bassier and heavier as 168 approached, the track was probably the heaviest the group had been thus far. Check out the drum/guitar interplay half way through, man. (I have to say "man" at least once during this review, by the way. It is a pre-requisite, man). rejoyce is a weird, haunting piano, bass and haunting vocal number. You can almost feel vocalist Slick's trippy discomfort as she sings. The backing becomes infectiously jazzy half way through, but it is a challenging listen, shall we say. Having said that, its appeal grows with each listen.
The psychedelic rock of Watch Her Ride had a saucy sexual undertone to it as the seventies beckoned and things got even more relaxed. Spare Chaynge was a nine-minute plus piece of instrumental jam indulgence or inspired genius, depending on your point of view. Its cutting guitar and freaked-out drums beat Revolution 9, The Beatles' equivalent record company executive-annoying trip from the following year, for me, anyway. The stereo sound on it is excellent too. It is also another track that grows on me.
Try telling me Siouxsie Sioux never listened to Slick's vocal on Two Heads. This was industrial, slow punk, 1967-style. Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon is one of the few numbers that recalls the band's previous pre-"summer of love" harmonious hippy pop/rock. Even this is given a bass/vocal experimental workout, though, in the "saturday afternoon" part. There is some seriously impressive guitar on this one too.
"Acid incense and balloons...on saturday afternoon..." goes the lyrics. That was a San Francisco saturday afternoon. One in the UK was watching football surrounded by old men in overcoats as the drizzle came down. On a different train of thought, I also feel this song must have acted as a slight inspiration for David Bowie's Memory Of A Free Festival.
Sgt. Pepper had shown that a "chocolate box album" of wildly differing styles, side by side, could succeed, and The Airplane went for that to the max, producing a strange, but oddly entrancing offering. It is a classic example of its intoxicated genre.
The non-album tracks include an indulgent, way too long version of The Ballad Of You, Me & Pooneil, a staccato, intriguing acoustic version of Two Heads and the folky, acoustic number Things Are Better In The East, a folk ballad that was totally incongruous in comparison to the actual album's material. Hidden at the end is a nice bit of heavier, full band instrumental. There is nothing that you really need here, to be honest, move on.
CROWN OF CREATION (1968)
Lather/In Time/Triad/Star Track/Share A Little Joke/Cushingura/If You Feel/Crown Of Creation/Ice Cream Phoenix/Greasy Heart/The House At Pooneil Corners
This album, from 1968, finds Jefferson Airplane building on the drug-fuelled experimentation of their previous album in many ways, but at the same time honing the sound somewhat to make it more accessible, albeit in a very psychedelic folk sort of way. This is their folkiest album to date, and their most laid-back, tapping into the contemporary folk rock thing. There is still some rock, though, getting more apparent as the album progresses. You can feel prog-rock stylings creeping in here, as that particular genre underwent its genesis. Groups such as Curved Air owed a lot to this album.
Lather is a bizarre, almost Gaelic sounding folk number full of weird background spoken noises and sexual groaning. It finds Grace Slick singing in a plaintive folky voice and almost sounding Scottish at one point. It is a most unusual song, I have to say. In Time is a low-key, mainly male vocal, once more folky number powered by a beautiful bass line. Some excellent electric guitar arrives near the end, together with some fine drums too. It is an excellent track, and a grower. Triad is a David Crosby song about a ménage a trois, rejected by The Byrds for being too risqué, sung plaintively by Slick over an acoustic, gentle drum and bass beat. Slick was amazed at The Byrds' prudishness, saying "what the hell, it's 1968...". Either way, the song is beautifully delivered.
Star Track is the first rockier track of the album, although the beat is still a slow burning one and the male vocal a quietish one, but the guitar is full of attack and the bass is just out there, man. This vibe is continued on Share A Little Joke, with its Beatles-esque drum rolls and mysterious ambience. Cushingura is a brief, ambient electronic instrumental (notable for being one of the first of its kind) before the bassy, rhythmic rock of If You Feel arrives. Check out that wonderful wah-wah guitar and Jack Casady's bass line too, which is thoroughly intoxicating. In fact, Casady's bass was one of the most memorable things about the album. It hits you between the ears on pretty much every track.
The very psychedelic Crown Of Creation and the quirky rock of Greasy Heart are both very redolent of 1968’s heady underground scene. There is something seriously credible about the latter, with its superb guitar parts that puts it way ahead of its time. Ice Cream Phoenix is also a solid rock number and adds to the afore-mentioned rockier feel on the album's second half. The House At Pooneil Corners is a brooding, sombre, drawn-out and somewhat schizophrenic affair, featuring some impressive guitar and a bit of post punk industrial ambience, all those years earlier.
For many people, this was the height of The Airplane's creativity, for me, though, I find there are a bit too many folky/proggy parts for my liking. I prefer the psychedelic rock/pop of the first two albums. It is an album that demands several listens, however. With each listen I get more into it, so there you go. What is not in doubt is that it is the band’s most accomplished work, musically.
The non-album tracks include the short, rhythmic instrumental fun of Ribumbabap Rubadubaoumoum, the throwaway goofy studio demo nonsense of Would You Like A Snack and the pretty much unlistenable ten minutes of The Saga Of Sydney Spacepig. Yes, the guitar's ok on it but it offers little else. It is just studio doodling and irritating silly noises. None of these tracks are essential at all, comparing most unfavourably with the non-album material from the first two albums.
We Can Be Together/Good Shepherd/The Farm/Hey Frederick/Turn My Life Down/Wooden Ships/Eskimo Blue Day/A Song For All Seasons/Meadowlands/Volunteers
This was Jefferson Airplane's protest album, the one where anti-Vietnam sentiments replaced freaked-out druggy visions on some of the songs. It has its notable heavy moments, its excellent rock parts, but there is a lot of the influence of folk rock around, unsurprisingly, as it was 1969. It has country influences too, for the first time. It is different in character to their previous work, and certainly a long way removed from their first two albums.
We Can Be Together is a sort of heavy serving of folk rock, with chunky electric riffs, solid drums but airy, dreamy, harmonious folky vocals and lyrics in praise of peace and unity. It is notable for the use of the phrase "up against the wall motherfuckers...", presumably in protest against police brutality in support of the Civil Rights Movement, but sounding rather odd when sung in folky, tuneful fashion. Good Shepherd is a more gentle, very folk rock-sounding number, merging acoustic and electric guitars together with some perfectly tuned CS&N vocals. It features a great guitar solo in the middle too, and some wah-wah. Good stuff. Some of that guitar reminds me of Paul Weller's output in the nineties. The Farm is a country, twangy number in praise of the bucolic life. The Airplane have gone the same way as The Byrds and Dylan , it seems. No more freak out parties, man, just take in the fresh country air.
Probably the closest thing to The Airplane's previous drugged-up material is the lengthy, intense Hey Frederick. It contains the album's heaviest piece of rock in the duelling electric guitars half way through. Lou Reed used the same style on his Rock & Roll Animal live album in 1974. Turn My Life Down is an almost funky (in its organ sound), soulful number with a great, rumbling Jack Casady bass line. They are mixing rock with soul here, most effectively. It is back to breezy folk on David Crosby & Stephen Stills' (with Airplane's Paul Kantner) Wooden Ships (later to be included on CS&N's debut album, but it was done here first). It is all very Woodstock in feel, and 1969 in general. Guess what? It was part of the group's set at the iconic festival. Although this album was released in November 1969, after the festival, it was recorded in March-June of that year. The song expertly merges folk and heavier rock once more, featuring some killer lead guitar near the end.
Eskimo Blue Day is a heavy rock meets prog rock workout with ecologically-aware lyrics - "it doesn't mean shit to a tree..." which raised consternation of record company offices at the time, no doubt. Country rock returned on the Nashville barroom tones of A Song For All Seasons. It seemed that everyone had to dabble in country sounds between 1968 and 1972. This sort of thing is totally unrecognisable from the bands 1966-1968 material, it is as if Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris had come in to the studio. Not that I don't like it, but it is just a complete change in direction.
A short instrumental interlude in the Russian folk tune, Meadowlands, merges into the short-ish but upbeat and vibrant Volunteers. This was a laudable album that managed successfully to integrate several styles of music - folk, folk rock, country, country rock, heavy rock, prog rock and even a few tinges of soul. It definitely showed just how far the group had developed in three years.
The album is included as the studio album in The Woodstock Experience series (also featuring Janis Joplin, Sly & The Family Stone, Santana and Johnny Winter). It is good to listen to the studio album followed immediately by the Woodstock set. The sound is a little "in and out" but considering the fact that is outdoors on a farm in a chaotic festival in 1969 it is remarkably good. The Airplane play a fine mix of material from across their albums and three songs from Volunteers (Wooden Ships, Eskimo Blue Day and Volunteers).
There is some good stuff here. The grinding blues rock of Uncle Sam Blues is very Rolling Stones influenced and The Other Side Of This Life is a great opener. Of course, as it is 1969, the storming version of Somebody To Love contains a drum solo. Although the set captures the whole free and easy feel of the festival, songs such as Wooden Ships and Pooneil are ridiculously extended, becoming live jams. The former is twenty minutes long and not without many listenable points. A young Patti Smith must have been into it, I'm sure, getting inspired by Grace Slick's vocal delivery. Bulking everything out to the max was the way it was, though, and the album, full of atmosphere, is still highly recommended.
When The Earth Moves Again/Feel So Good/Crazy Miranda/Pretty As You Feel/Wild Turkey/Law Man/Rock 'n' Roll Island/Third Week In The Chelsea/Never Argue With A German If You're Tired/Thunk/War Movie
This is an often-overlooked album in the Jefferson Airplane canon, from 1971, after some line-up changes. It has received considerable critical negativity over the years and some have seen it as the band's White Album, a collection of contributions from individuals, but that album didn't turn out badly, did it? This one is ok too, very much a product of its era, but not without positives. It deserves a bit of attention. It sort of reminds of me of Led Zeppelin's In Through The Out Door in its position within the group's work, or The Doors' Morrison Hotel. Sadly, the end was near. It was also the era of albums released with paper bag outer covers - always a sign of trying to make something appear better than it was.
When The Earth Moves Again is a strong rock opener, with a rousing Grace Slick vocal and some great guitar and drums. Jorma Kaukonen's Feel So Good is also powerfully rocking albeit with a slow-ish tempo. While it carries airs of the group's psychedelic sixties material, at least lyrically, it has a deep, bassy seventies rock feel to it. As with the previous couple of albums, it is Jack Casady's beautifully rumbling bass the catches the ears.
Crazy Miranda is a typically quirky, semi-folky Grace Slick song. Much female post punk material owes quite a debt to stuff like this. The electric violin of new member Papa Jon Creach enhances the song.
One of those afore-mentioned positive moments is the beautiful, haunting Pretty As You Feel, with its almost jazzy, laid-back bass and drum interplay. This song is the great drug indulgers of the sixties still getting a bit far out, but much more relaxed this time and coming up with something altogether different. It is a really good track. The instrumental Wild Turkey is a fine mix of piercing rock guitar and a blues beat. Yes, it has a bit of a feel of a studio jam about it, but it is a good feel. Creach adds some superb violin too. I actually really like this track.
Law Man is a surprisingly muscular rock number from Slick. It has country airs about it, but they are robust rocking ones. Rock 'n' Roll Island is one of the album's most upbeat numbers, full of chugging riffs and an uninhibited vocal. Third Week In The Chelsea is an acoustic, folk rock-ish Kaukonen song detailing how reflectively disillusioned he is becoming. Like the others, he had only one more album left in him. It is a nice, evocative song, very 1971 in its gentle, folky feel.
From the sublime to the ridiculous finds Slick singing in schoolgirl German on the utterly pointless bierkeller beat of Never Argue With A German If You're Tired. This, unfortunately, is a typical piece of idiotic, early seventies indulgence, and it wastes over four minutes, stomping along. Thin it couldn't get any worse? Think again. Thunk is a two minute slice of unaccompanied vocal nonsense. I guess the presence of these clunkers on the album helped get it a bad press and garnered accusations of the group having totally run out of ideas. I have to say it is hard to disagree.
War Movie redeems things slightly on a harmonious, vaguely proggy rocker but you can't help feeling that the album petered out very weakly. Play the first eight tracks.
LONG JOHN SILVER (1972)
Long John Silver/Aerie (Gang Of Eagles)/Twilight Double Leader/Milk Train/The Son Of Jesus/Easter?/Trial By Fire/Alexander The Medium/Eat Starch Mom
This was the last studio album by sixties psychedelic rockers Jefferson Airplane. I knew nothing of it back in 1972, other than flipping past the sleeve in a record shop as I hunted for David Bowie and Mott The Hoople. The group were never my thing but, ever the retrospective explorer, I am giving this the once-over. Please also bear in mind that I initially wrote the basis of this review before revisiting their earlier albums. Having listened to all of those in detail now, though, I can confidently say that this is one of their folkier albums, as the group revisit the folk roots that were always around, merging it with a solid rock/prog rock early seventies style. It may seem a bit dated in places but each track has its good points - something that is the case on all the Airplane albums, particularly the later ones.
Long John Silver is a corker of a rocker, featuring some absolutely stonking guitar, killer bass, pounding drums and a shrieking vocal from the enigmatic, part sexy part slightly unnerving Grace Slick which continues on the slower, but equally muscular Aerie (Gang Of Eagles). It is Slick’s overwrought voice that gives me most of my problems with Jefferson Airplane in general. The music is at times stunning early seventies rock fare, however, being neither glam, heavy or prog but probably influential on all of them. The drug-addled psychedelia of the group’s sixties output had morphed into a more typically seventies thumping rock sound and this is further exemplified on the rousing Twilight Double Leader. Check out that wah-wah guitar and overall rock vibe in general. These are pretty good tracks, although the sound, as on the whole album is just a little muddy, sort of Goat's Head Soup-sounding.
Milk Train is another gutsy rocker, enhanced by some madcap electric violin (played by the marvellously-named Papa Jon Creach) but again Grace overdoes the histrionic vocal as she rants on about no-good men and the effects of drugs on her body. Don’t take them eh, Grace? She’s powerful in her vocal delivery all right, but give me Janis Joplin or Sonja Kristina from the same era. The Son Of Jesus is an unfortunately typical piece of pretentious early seventies quasi-religious hokum. It is this sort of thing that dates the album considerably. Great guitar on it, though. There is always something to to redeem each track, I have to admit. If you thought the religious stuff was over, however, then think again as The Pope is the target for talking in Latin on the clunking Easter?
Trial By Fire merges acoustic and electric guitars to great effect on one of the album’s better tracks. This sort of material influenced early material by Queen and Bad Company. Alexander The Medium has a folky lead male vocal from Paul Kantner, some almost Steeleye Span/Fairport Convention-esque harmonies and more excellent electric violin. Once more, it is very representative of its era and is probably better off left back in 1972, save the excellent guitar solo. Having said that, there is something about it that grows in me. Eat Starch Mom redeems things considerably on a guitar-driven, robust and fuzzy rocker to end this very 1972 offering with.
Would I re-visit this very often, however. Probably not. Oh look, it’s ok but it is not one of those albums that makes you think it still sounds great today. Listening to it is the aural equivalent of going to a museum. Now here's a surprise, though, I have listened to it a few more times since and have warmed to it considerably. It is always worth giving albums a few chances, isn't it? Hell, I'm now quite into it, as indeed I am with Jefferson Airplane overall - it has only taken me over fifty years....