[Review] Paul Kantner/Grace Slick: Sunfighter (1971)

The album that proves being born with a Silver Spoon in your mouth isn’t always a good thing.

Kronomyth 2.0: Mommy was a witch, Daddy was a wolf.

I don’t believe rock & roll is inherently evil, but any album that opens with a cannibal feast, well, that’s some pretty obvious evil. Sunfighter is a rejection of the light. Grace Slick’s opening “Silver Spoon” makes Shakespeare’s witches sound like candy stripers. Paul Kantner shape-shifts into wolf form for “When I Was A Boy I Watched The Wolves” and “Holding Together.” You knew that Grace and Paul weren’t going to get the Good Housekeeping seal of approval as new parents, yet they seem hell bent on stirring the cauldron with these songs. You don’t have to look any further than “Look At The Wood” to see where they stand in the battle of good and evil.

I enjoyed Blows Against The Empire a lot. Bark too. Surely, the bite of “Silver Spoon” is worse than its bark. The rest of the record, however, lacks the strong concept of the one and the strong material of the other. Initially, I thought this might be a concept album, which took me down strange avenues. Years ago, an irritable reader pointed out that I was lost in my review (and basically told me where I could go). Maybe I’ve never forgiven Sunfighter for making me feel foolish. I returned here wanting to find something good to say about this record, convinced that, after their last record together, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick were taking the Airplane to new heights of social consciousness. Instead, this is a dark album that feels like outtakes from their last two efforts.

Empire sang of a brighter future, Sunfighter sings of a savage, supernatural present. Maybe they were trying to fashion new gods for a new world, or reviving the old gods to replace the fat, happy, American gods of hearth and hopeful optimism. Or maybe I’m just drifting off into strange waters again, on due course for a second comeuppance. Given the amount of talent involved, Sunfighter should have more to show for itself. Kantner and Slick are incapable of not being interesting; they’re also capable of being better than this.

Original LP Version

A1. Silver Spoon (Grace Slick) (5:40)
A2. Diana – Part 1 (Grace Slick/Paul Kantner) (0:52)
A3. Sunfighter (Paul Kantner) (3:50)
A4. Titanic (Phill Sawyer) (2:25)
A5. Look At The Wood (Grace Slick/Paul Kantner) (2:08)
A6. When I Was A Boy I Watched The Wolves (Grace Slick/Paul Kantner) (4:59)
B1. Million (Paul Kantner) (4:02)
B2. China (Grace Slick) (3:17)
B3. Earth Mother (Jack Traylor) (3:16)
B4. Diana – Part 2 (Grace Slick/Paul Kantner) (1:01)
B5. Universal Copernican Mumbles (Pat Gleeson/John Vierra/Paul Kantner) (2:03)
B6. Holding Together (Grace Slick/Paul Kantner) (7:40)

Original 8-track version
A1. Silver Spoon
A2. Look at the Wood
A3. Titanic
B1. Diana
B2. Sunfighter
B3. When I Was a Boy I Watched the Wolves
C1. Million
C2. China
C3. Earth Mother
D1. Diana 2
D2. Universal Copernican Mumbles
D3. Holding Together

The Players

Paul Kantner (vocals, rhythm guitar), Grace Slick (vocals, piano) with Jack Casady (bass on A1/B2), Craig Chaquico (lead guitar on B3), Joey Covington (drums on A1/A3/B2/B6), Papa John Creach (violin on A1/B3), David Crosby (vocals & tambourine on A5, vocals on A6/B4), Spencer Dryden (drums on B3), Jerry Garcia (guitar on A6/B1/B6), Pat Gleeson (Moog & piano on B5), Edwin Hawkins Singers (vocals on A3), Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar on A5), Peter Kaukonen (guitar on A3, mandolin on B6), Bill Laudner (vocals on B1), Graham Nash (ARP synthesizer on A5, vocals on A6/B4), Phill Sawyer (sound effects on A4), Steven Schuster (flute on A1, flute, saxophone & horn arrangement on A3, saxophone & horn arrangement on B2) ,Shelley Silverman (drums on A6), Tower of Power: Greg Adams, Mic Gillette (horns on A3/B2), Jack Traylor (guitar & vocals on B3), John Vierra (synthesizer & keyboards on B5), Chris Wing (drums on B2). Produced by Paul Kantner, Grace Slick; engineered by Pat Ieraci (Maurice the Miracle Man); tru engine hearing by Phill Sawyer.

The Pictures

Cover and booklet assistance by Acy Lehman. Lights inside by Mary Ann Mayer, Joan Chase. Booklet assistance by Gary Blackman.

The Plastic

Released on elpee and 8-track  in December 1971 in the US and the UK (Grunt, FTR/P8FT-1002) and Japan (RCA, SRA-5534) with gatefold cover and lyrics booklet; reached #89 on the US charts.

  1. Re-issued on elpee in the US (RCA, AYL1-4385).
  2. Re-issued on elpee and compact disc in April 1989 in the UK (Essential, ESS 001).
  3. Re-released on remastered compact disc on July 29, 1997 in the US (RCA, 67421).

1 thought on “[Review] Paul Kantner/Grace Slick: Sunfighter (1971)

  1. Well, my friend, you’ve been off the hook for almost 4 ½ years now, so it’s time! I must say that I find your reviews for this stretch of the discography incomprehensible. When I compare this album and Hot Tuna’s “Burgers” with the Airplane albums that bracket them (the, at best, patchy “Bark” and the almost unlistenable “Long John Silver”), I must conclude that the band members were more interested in their outside projects than they were in the Airplane. They were far more meticulous in the songwriting, production and (in Grace’s case) even the singing when doing their own songs.

    Of course, as with everything else they had released from “After Bathing at Baxter’s” onward, there is some self-indulgence here. For instance, there was no reason for Paul and Grace to give their engineer a sound effects showcase (“Titanic”). Nor was there are reason to let their fellow hippie/drug addict pal Jack Traylor (soon to be a Grunt artist) contribute and sing a sub-par ecological “anthem” (“Earth Mother”). Nor was there a reason for Paul to let a couple of his SF keyboardist buddies jam in the studio and then attempt to turn that jam into a song (“Universal Copernican Mumbles”). That didn’t work.

    However, when it came to their own tunes, Paul and Grace sound far, for the most part more inspired than they were on “Bark”. “Holding Together” goes on a bit too long. It also could have used a harmony vocal from Grace – she wrote the music and plays the piano but doesn’t sing. The first part of “Diana” has the worst lyrics on the album, mainly because they glorify someone who would today be called a domestic terrorist. On the other hand, the second part is a moving lament for the kids killed at Kent State.

    As for their other two collaborations, “Look at the Wood” is a surprisingly charming portrait of what an octogenarian hippie might be like. On the other hand, “When I Was a Boy, I Watched the Wolves” seems to be about Paul fantasizing about being a wolf, or a werewolf, or maybe it’s a metaphor for being part of the outlaw hippie community. In any case, it’s a compelling narrative song.

    Their four solo compositions each conjure a different feeling. “Million” finds Paul in an atypically gentle mood – apparently, he’s enjoying bliss with Grace and his San Franciscan community. “Sunfighter” is more typical. Again, he combines science-y phrases like “sub carbon oscillation” and “hurricane nighttime sympathy” together into something that sounds cool but may or may not add up (like a zillion prog artists – of course they belong on “Progography”!). This time, the presence of a horn section and the Edwin Hawkins Singers kick the song into overdrive.

    Finally, there’s Grace. For the first time – and not for a few more years afterwards – Grace waxes sentimental on the album’s single, “China”. Of course, given the subject (the baby on the cover), how could she not? Her singing is really moving, and dare I say, even soulful. The horns, again, accentuate this. At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is “Silver Spoon”. You have TOTALLY missed the point of this song. Grace wrote it as a response to her pretentious neighbors who were lecturing her on going veggie. Like the subsequent “Eat Starch, Mom”, it’s a PARODY of the topic. Maybe she played this one too straight. In any case, I always thought it was a cool song.

    As I said, the production is strong, helping to overcome the weaker parts, and pointing away from the Airplane to what would eventually become the Jefferson Starship sound. It’s a far less monotonous and more diverse album than “Blows Against the Empire”, while avoiding the disjointedness of “Bark”. Of course, they would hit more Airplane turbulence – the disasters of “..Silver”, it’s supporting tour, the resulting live album, and yet more drinking and drugging. The oasis of “Million” would be left behind.

    So, Dave, is, maybe a third assessment of the album now in the pipeline?

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