Category Archives: Jefferson Airplane/Starship

Jefferson Airplane/Starship

Love, Haight and War. These were the ingredients for the American psychedelic rock movement of the Sixties. The world first got a whiff of it coming from the kitchen of a band called Jefferson Airplane. Other bands melted together (Grateful Dead, CSN) and drifted apart while the Airplane added passengers, jettisoned others and emerged in the mid 70s under a new crew, all the while selling records and setting trends.

Founded by singer Marty Balin, the band might have been no more than a signe of the times had they not reached into Great Society for a new female singer, Grace Slick. Suddenly, “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” were everywhere and the world was watching the airwaves for what Jefferson Airplane would do next. The answer came in increasingly trippy records with material written mostly by Balin, Slick and guitarist Paul Kantner. Everything up to and including Volunteers is essential, both historically and musically.

With time, however, it became clear that Jefferson Airplane had too many captains and not enough cocktail servers. Jorma Kaukonen (guitar) and Jack Casady (bass) began to divert their energy to another project, Hot Tuna, while Kantner and Slick began releasing solo albums. Balin left altogether. The Airplane managed to stay aloft for two more albums (Bark, Long John Silver) and then disbanded.

In the mid-70s, Kantner and Slick rechristened the band as Jefferson Starship (a name Kantner had used earlier on his 1970 album, Blows Against The Empire) and began making more commercial rock music with a new group that featured John Barbata, Craig Chaquico, Papa John Creach, David Freiberg and Pete Sears. Balin rejoined the group and picked up where he left off as the band’s primary balladeer; his association with Starship provided the same spark that Slick had earlier, giving the band a new string of hits including “Miracles,” “Count On Me” and “Runaway.”

Personalities continued to clash, and on 1979’s Freedom At Point Zero Kantner brought vocalist Mickey Thomas on board to replace both Balin and Slick, ushering in an age of Jeffersonian gerrymandering that found Slick returning, Kantner leaving to join Balin and Jack Casady in the KBC Band, Starship jettisoning the Jefferson, the original Airplane reconciled for a new album in 1989, and finally a reunited Jefferson Starship. But I’d already gone to bed by then, my head upon the surrealistic pillow of the past.

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Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966)

Folk music was fueling a psychedelic revolution that produced an exciting new sound but few viable heroes for rock and rollers. The Byrds seemed poised to bring rock fans with them into the psychedelic era, then quickly turned into a country/rock band. The Mamas and The Papas were little more than a hip version of Peter, Paul and Mary. Sonny and Cher were, well, Sonny and Cher. Then Jefferson Airplane arrived on the horizon. Here was an actual psychedelic rock band. They played the blues, jammed their two- and thee-minute sounds with creative instrumentation and had one of the best bass guitarists this side of the Atlantic in Jack Casady. (He and Jack Bruce were a pair of Jacks for the ages.) Marty Balin, the Airplane’s original captain, wisely salvaged the best parts of the psychedelic scene (ringing guitars, male/female vocal harmonies, free love imagery) and fit it with a powerful blues/rock engine led by Casady, Kaukonen and Kantner. In a sense, Jefferson Airplane was to the psychedelic scene what The Rolling Stones were to The Beatles: a guerilla force that liberated its beloved music from the machine and returned it to the masses. Their debut, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, is an amazing debut. Every song seems essential, every drop is received like manna in a new world of sound. Of course, everything would change in a year or two, and the heights reached here would be eclipsed by “White Rabbit,” Cream, The Velvet Underground, etc. Grace Slick would expand the role originally played by Signe Anderson and the songs became longer, more experimental and more controversial. Compared to their later albums, songs like “It’s No Secret,” “Blues From An Airplane” and “Come Up The Years” have a certain innocence to them. At the time, however, this was radical and revolutionary stuff, which just goes to show how fast music was evolving in the second half of the 60s.

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Jefferson Airplane: Surrealistic Pillow (1967)

Kronomyth 2.0: HELLO DALI. You’re standing at the gilded gateway to the psychedelic revolution, the twin spires of “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” beckoning you with open mind. The Airplane’s second trip stands as the first truly great achievement in the cultural exodus to San Francisco. You could call it a groundbreaking record, but it’s more of a sky-opening one: the potentialities of popular music were significantly expanded with Surrealistic Pillow. Much of its genius stems from the different personalities within the band, all of whom brought something unique into the mix (including departed drummer, Skip Spence). There are the fragile, unreal ballads from Balin (“Today,” “Comin’ Back To Me”), the ambitious adventures of Paul Kantner (“D.C.B.A.—25”), the combustible rockers (“3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds”) and even an acoustic oasis (Jorma’s “Embryonic Journey,” which served as a sort of template for countless guitar interludes from “Embryo” to “The Clap”). Truly, the bands that came before appeared as men on a chessboard, moving in predictable fashion. Surrealistic Pillow’s charm is its unpredictability; you simply don’t know what’s coming next. The same could be said for the Airplane itself, which was flying straight into heavy turbulence, but here it’s all part of a fantastic journey. In 2003, the album was remastered and expanded with six bonus tracks, including a second Skip Spence song (“J.P.P. McStep B. Blues”) and Kantner’s “Go To Her,” both of which had turned up earlier on the catchall compilation, Early Flight.

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Jefferson Airplane: After Bathing At Baxter’s (1967)

Kronomyth 3.0: FLYING HIGH. The Airplane continued to fly into the outer fringes of rock with the psychedelic masterpiece, After Bathing At Baxter’s. Presented as a series of themed sections (e.g., Streetmasse, The War Is Over, etc.), the songs were actually written over several months and likely conceived as individual acid trips (“bathing” is a code word for tripping). Although not as accessible as their last album—nothing here has the immediacy of a “White Rabbit” or “Somebody To Love”—the album contains some indelible moments of music: “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil,” “Martha,” “Watch Her Ride,” “Two Heads.” I get the sense that Kantner and Slick were actively hijacking the Airplane at this stage, steering it into higher altitudes of consciousness. Balin is merely a passenger, present on vocals but contributing only one track (albeit a good one), “Young Girl Sunday Blues.” A second song written by Balin during this period, “Things Are Better In The East,” reveals him to be the straight man in a band of kooks. Whether it was mutiny or mutation, the Airplane quickly became something bigger than Balin first imagined, from psychedelic balladeers to psychedelic pioneers. When it was released, Baxter’s was at the edge of progressive music, making heavy use of distortion, stream-of-consciousness and other advanced studio techniques, for which producer Al Schmitt was along for the ride, not an architect. If you were to make the case for Jefferson Airplane as a progressive rock band (and it would be a short argument relegated to a few albums), After Bathing At Baxter’s would be Exhibit A. It is an album that rewards repeated listenings and (presumably) altered states, with rich lyrical imagery to mine for meaning, particularly from Grace Slick. Like I said, it doesn’t have a readymade hit on which to hang your hat, but there’s enough mind candy here to occupy two heads.

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Jefferson Airplane: Bless Its Pointed Little Head (1969)

Kronomyth 5.0: ANNOINT TO REMEMBER. A psychedelic mass for the senses, this is what you wished the Airplane sounded like on stage every night. It’s all about the chemistry: the chemistry between Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady (shades of the Dead’s inspired intermingling), the chemistry missing between Grace Slick and Marty Balin as they each carve out a piece of the spotlight and the chemistry flowing through everyone’s veins. Opening with the black-and-white King Kong (credited here as “Clergy”), closing with an 11-minute technicolor trip (“Bear Melt”), Bless Its Pointed Little Head is a fantastic plastic journey through the Airplane’s early catalog, captured in exciting versions on stage at the popular East and West Fillmore venues in 1968. Originally released as a single elpee, the vinyl experience doesn’t replace the concert experience; instead, it functions as a concert sampler. Wisely, the album samples some of their most popular songs: “Somebody To Love,” “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” “3/5’s of a Mile In Ten Seconds,” “It’s No Secret.” But a good half of the album looks beyond their first four albums with improvisational pieces and covers, including a very cool version of Donovan’s “Fat Angel,” which name-checked the band way back in 1966 with the line “Fly Jefferson Airplane / Get you there on time.” In 2004, BMG expanded the original experience by adding a few more performances from the 1968 Fillmore shows including two tracks from Baxter’s: “Watch Her Ride” and “Won’t You Try.” A self-contained show featuring the Airplane in their fearless and experimental fullness would be a gift (eventually arriving in the mail thirty years later), but this compilation fills the gap for the curious, the initiate and the time-traveling pilgrim alike. Bless Its Pointed Little Head captures what was best about the band’s early live performances and gives you a taste of the Airplane experience without the turbulence of a two-hour concert.

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Mickey Hart: Rolling Thunder (1972)

If you ever wondered why the Dead needed two drummers, hear is your answer. Billy Kreutzmann played the straight man, jazz schooled, capable of thrills and fills but never far from the backbeat (for reference, listen to his performance on Jerry Garcia’s first solo album). Mickey Hart is a very different drummer; his is a cosmic journey to explore rhythm in all its various guises, from the natural to the supernatural. Rolling Thunder reveals that journey in its early going, although Dead fans will find plenty of familiar stops along the way, from jam sessions with Jerry Garcia (“The Chase,” “Deep, Wide And Frequent”) to actual rock songs (“Playing In The Band,” “Blind John”). If you have any expectations of what a Mickey Hart album would sound like, of course, you’ll need to leave those antiquated notions at the door. You weren’t expecting it to start with a howl and an Indian invocation. You weren’t expecting the Tower of Power horn section or the demented psychedelic pop of “Fletcher Carnaby.”  While there is no such animal as a typical Mickey Hart album, his subsequent efforts have focused mostly on rhythms rather than traditional song structures. Thus, Rolling Thunder is, if not atypical of his later work, not representative of it either. It would seem that Hart was initially double minded as to whether he should make a proper solo album or use the opportunity to explore new musical realms, so he chose both paths. “Playing In The Band” and “Pump Song” will remind listeners of Bob Weir’s Ace, “Blind John” suggests a hippy-trippy Traffic featuring vocals from several key members of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship axis, and “The Chase (Progress)” points forward to future works such as Diga and Yamantaka. Ultimately, Rolling Thunder is a mixed bag featuring some famous buds, a few good songs and some interesting experiments interspersed.

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Jefferson Starship: Dragon Fly (1974)

Starlog 1.0: MEET THE JEFFERSONS. As the Airplane was winding down, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick went off to record solo albums that loosely collected a lot of the same players, so that you could reasonably argue their solo records were really just extensions of the Airplane’s journey. In 1974, the pair decided to create a new vehicle using the available Airplane parts–John Barbata, Papa John Creach, David Freiberg–and round it out with then 20-year-old guitarist Craig Chaquico and multi-instrumental Englishman Pete Sears, both of whom had appeared on Slick’s most recent solo album, the unfortunately titled Manhole. Co-credited to Kantner and Slick, Dragon Fly featured eight tracks of partly mystical and partly mainstream rock. The album went gold on the strength of songs like “Ride The Tiger” and “Caroline,” the latter featuring a briefly returning Marty Balin on vocals. A reader of Progrography once asked me if I thought Jefferson Starship was a progressive rock band, and I would nix the notion here. A lot of classic rock bands, many of them formed in the psychedelic ‘60s, were pushing artistic envelopes that sometimes got mailed to strange and exotic destinations: Santana, Grateful Dead, CSN, The Doors. San Francisco, nexus of the hippie stoner bands, nurtured an experimental environment where music was written to transcend the real. As Paul Kantner sings on the opening ride, “We got something to learn from the other side.” And while Dragon Fly does feature some musical flights of fancy (“Hyperdrive,” “Devils Den”), it’s felicity not alice aforethought. Put enough talented musicians together, some of whom have an artistic or mystical bent (Kantner, Slick), and you’re bound to detect the scent of prog in the air from time to time. But Jefferson Starship is just a part of the California Dream that embraced drugs, spirituality, youth, love and music. As with a lot of 70s rock bands (Santana, Eagles, Blue Oyster Cult), endless songwriting permutations exist, including collaborators outside the proper band (Robert Hunter, Tom Pacheco), which makes Dragon Fly a hard album to pin down stylistically. A magnum opus it isn’t, but so long as you don’t come after this expecting any Miracles, Dragon Fly is worth netting.

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Jefferson Starship: “Miracles” (1975)

Starlog 2.1: MY FAVORITE MARTIN. Shortly after leaving the red planet, we ran into this lovely little nebula. Half the size of its original namesake, “Miracles” is still a mesmerizing encounter: sounds sparkle from the speaker and the whole thing is one, small waking dream for mankind. There isn’t much to say about the B side except that the red witch demanded some sort of sacrifice for giving Balin the spotlight. She gets her say with “Ai Garimasu,” which would translate as “There is love” (Ai ga arimasu) in Japanese.

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Robert Hunter: Tiger Rose (1975)

If you’re only going to buy one Robert Hunter album, you’re looking at it. Hunter never seemed to get his sea legs on his first, and wisely chooses a Western setting for some of the best songs on his second album, including “Wild Bill” (a fine riding companion to “Panama Red”) and “Cruel White Water.” The lyrics are up to Hunter’s high standards this time, really some of the best stuff this side of Bob Dylan, and the arrangements from Jerry Garcia are lively and muscular. The album’s only weakness is Hunter’s voice, which remains a pale imitation of Dylan and Johnny Cash. (Tellingly, Hunter re-recorded the vocals for the 1988 re-release.) The presence of Dead and Starship members notwithstanding, Tiger Rose aligns more closely with the music of New Riders, whose David Torbert appears on a few tracks. It doesn’t appear that any of the songs from Tiger Rose slipped into the Deadshow, so if you’re looking for another “It Must Have Been The Roses,” you won’t find it here. That’s a shame, since the Dead could have done wonderful things with “Ariel” and I would have loved to hear Jerry Garcia sing “Wild Bill.” Although Hunter’s albums inhabit the same world as the Dead, they’re not imitative of the Dead. Hunter is more overtly influenced by Dylan (“Rose of Sharon,” “Dance A Hole”) and drawn to the traditional songs of sea and land, not psychedelia. He does branch into rock and roll on this album as well (“Over The Hills,” “Last Flash of Rock’N’Roll”), but doesn’t have the voice to support it. Look, neither did Ringo Starr, and some of those albums were a lot of fun. Tiger Rose is a lot of fun to listen to, and once you remember that Hunter is a writer not a singer, you’ll appreciate the effort and might actually find yourself enjoying this album from beginning to end.

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Jefferson Starship: Spitfire (1976)

Starlog 3.0: ENTER THE SEVEN-HEADED HYDRA. Spitfire is the spitting image of their last album but without the contributions of Papa John Creach (or, for the zen masters among you, the absence of an already-invisible violin). Marty Balin again provided the big ballad, “With Your Love,” and the album furthered the Starship’s winning ways, but on close inspection the band was more fractured than ever. Balin continued to bring in songs from outside the band, Grace Slick barricaded herself behind the acid-spitting dragon queen persona and Paul Kantner’s journeys into space grew more quixotic and less coherent. A lot of successful bands in the 70s had individual egos to feed: Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Grateful Dead. My impression of Jefferson Starship is a seven-headed hydra that feeds on itself. They’re a female-fronted rock band, psychedelic dinosaur and soft-rock peddler rolled into one monster. At this point, it’s obvious that I’m not buying into the Jefferson Starship experience. They need to manage their portfolio better; consolidate rather than diversify or dazzle us with diversity. I think I would prefer a solo album by Balin, Kantner or Slick at this stage, knowing that they had some actual skin in the outcome, rather than Spitfire’s mediocrity by committee. Of course, Starship fans will tell you this is a solid album, and they’re right. The material here is as good as anything you’ll find on Octopus or Earth, with highlights that include “St. Charles,” “Song To The Sun” and that minor miracle of pop music, “With Your Love.” It’s just that Spitfire, like most Starship albums, is a lighter record than the sum of its parts would indicate. Take Balin’s ballads out of the equation, and you’re holding a very average 70s rock album in your hands.

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