[Review] Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship: Blows Against The Empire (1970)

You’ve just volunteered for an all-star interstellar trip. Enjoy the ride…

Kronomyth 1.0: The mothership of all sci-fi concept albums.

Jefferson Airplane took some time off to refuel after Volunteers. Paul Kantner and Grace Slick used the break to release a revolutionary science fiction concept album, Blows Against The Empire. Featuring cameos from various Airplane members, David Crosby, Graham Nash and three-fifths of the Grateful Dead, Blows was an all-star interstellar trip that suggested “The House at Pooneil Corner” on a grander cosmic scale.

Kanter and Slick were expecting their first child, an event plainly referenced on “A Child Is Coming,” and the idea of a new generation of revolutionaries seems to have inspired Kantner to write his own musical manifesto for the future. Blows is a brilliant album, even as it’s an overblown middle finger to the establishment much of the time. The transition from the opening call to arms, “Mau Mau (Amerikon),” to the disarming “The Baby Tree,” is genius. In those two songs, Kantner manages to paint a vivid new Utopia and then poke holes in his own Utopia moments later. Slick provides an equally brilliant brushstroke with the beautiful distortion of “Sunrise,” a song that anticipates the alien soundscapes of prog electronica by several years.

Blows will feel familiar to anyone who has waded through Kantner’s recent works. “Lets Go Together” isn’t different in spirit than “We Can Be Together” and makes a reference to “wooden ships” in the lyrics. But there’s the sense on this album that Kantner is finally free to make the kind of music he wanted to; when he sings on “Hijack” that “People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty and hijack the starship,” he might as well be singing about himself. As the culmination of Kanter’s science fiction short stories into a longer conceptual work, Airplane riders will definitely want to check this one out. Despite charting well on its release, Blows Against The Empire didn’t contain a hit single, and so the album has faded from memory over the years. It is well worth a dusting off, particularly if you’re still carrying a torch for the Airplane’s pop polemics.

Read more Paul Kantner reviews

Original LP Version

A1. Mau Mau (Amerikon) (Paul Kantner/Grace Slick/Joey Covington) (6:35)
A2. The Baby Tree (Rosalie Sorrells) (1:42)
A3. Lets Go Together (Paul Kantner) (4:11)
A4. A Child Is Coming (Paul Kantner/Grace Slick/David Crosby) (6:15)
B1. Sunrise (Grace Slick) (1:54)
B2. Hijack (Paul Kantner/Grace Slick/Marty Balin/Gary Blackman) (8:18)
B3. Home (Paul Kantner/Phil Sawyer/Graham Nash) (0:37)
B4. Have You Seen The Stars Tonite (Paul Kantner/David Crosby) (3:42)
B5. X-M (Paul Kantner/Phil Sawyer/Jerry Garcia/Mickey Hart) (1:22)
B6. Starship (Paul Kantner/Grace Slick/Marty Balin/Gary Blackman) (7:07)

CD reissue bonus tracks
11. Lets Go Together (alternate lyrics)
12. Sunrise (acoustic demo)
13. Hijack (acoustic demo)
14. SFX
15. Starship (live)

The Players

Paul Kantner (vocals, guitars, banjo, bass machine), Grace Slick (vocals, piano) with Harvey Brooks (bass on B6), Jack Casady (bass on A4/B1), Joey Covington (drums and vocals on A1, congas on B2), David Crosby (vocals and guitar on A4/B4, backing vocals on A1/B6), David Freiberg (backing vocals on B6), Jerry Garcia (banjo on A3, pedal steel guitar on B4, sound effects/vocals on B5, lead guitar on B6), Mickey Hart (percussion on B4, sound effects/vocals on B5), Peter Kaukonen (lead guitar on A1), Bill Kreutzmann (drums on A3), Graham Nash (congas on B2, sound effects on B3, backing vocals on B6), Phil Sawyer (sound effects on B3/B5). Produced by Paul Kantner; engineered by Allen Zentz, Pat Ieraci (Mauriceman, master of the machines, sir real, master of the razor-lazer), Graham Nash, David Crosby, Phil Sawyer, Bob Shoemaker.

The Pictures

Cover by CCCP. Books by Patti Landres. Space by Jim Goldberg. Design by Paul Kantner/Jim Goldberg. All the work by Jim Goldberg. Title by Tony Nagamuma.

The Plastic

Released on elpee in November 1970 in the US (RCA, LSP-4448) {orange label} and in 1971 in the UK (RCA Victor, SF-8163) with lyrics booklet and gatefold cover; reached #20 on the US charts (RIAA-certified gold record).

  1. Re-issued on elpee in the US (RCA, LSP-4448) {black label} with gatefold cover.
  2. Re-issued on elpee in 1979 in Japan (RCA, PG-116).
  3. Re-released on expanded compact disc in 2005 in the US (RCA) with 5 bonus tracks.

1 thought on “[Review] Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship: Blows Against The Empire (1970)

  1. “Have You Seen The Stars Tonite?” was on the anthology “Flight Log”. A good choice, on Grunt’s part because it hooked me into this album. At the time, I was totally into it, including the elaborate artwork in the booklet of lyrics. However, now that I’ve reached the Medicare years, I find its flaws, both musical and lyrical, more irritating than in my rather naïve youth.
    The opening, “Mau Mau (Amerikon)”, is startlingly loud and raw after the deceptively sweet acapella intro — rawer, in fact, than anything the Airplane had cut in the studio. Lyrically, this manifesto continues the already excessive proselytizing of “We Can Be Together” and the obnoxious conceit of “Crown of Creation” and “Have You Seen the Saucers?” The latter, of course, was the idea that the hippies were the next stage in human evolution. I do like the dig at Ronald Reagan, but this is, overall, too far over the top for me.

    In (I’m sure) intentionally stark contrast, we get the sweet “The Baby Tree”, which is part of a longer Rosalie Sorrels piece called “Baby Rocking Medley”. It’s welcome, since Kantner could never have written something like this on his own. “Let’s Go Together” is somewhere in between. A nice melody, escapism, and Garcia’s banjo move this along nicely. Too bad the mix of the vocals leaves something to be desired.

    Then, we get another problematic track, “A Child is Coming”. It starts off with that nice, jaunty melody welcoming the new baby, even with that touch of political paranoia. That’s over in less than two minutes. Then, we get almost five minutes of chants of “it’s getting better”, over and over again. Well, really, it doesn’t. The point could have been made in half the time.
    It’s interesting to contrast Grace’s simple guitar demo of “Sunrise” with the final version. To get that effect, Paul overdubbed 16 tracks of Casady’s bass. The effect is eerie, and Grace’s vocals are threatening. Then, there’s “Hijack”. The lyrics-by-committee (which first surfaced in the Woodstock version of “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil”) ramble all over the same TWO chords (mostly) for eight minutes. Without the rest of the Airplane, this gets rather monotonous.

    It’s also here that the ethos of the album emerges in the worst way. The hijackers are going to steal the starship so they can fly to their brave new planet for “free minds, free bodies, free dope, free music”. Kantner may have read Heinlein, but apparently, not “Lord of the Flies”. He had already seen how this “free” stuff turned out in Haight-Ashbury and Altamont. How was this supposed to turn out any better on Alpha Centauri?

    In any case, the lovely “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite?” is another welcome interlude. David Crosby replaces Balin in a beautiful third harmony. I’d like to know what tinkling percussion instrument Mickey Hart is playing. Garcia gets this AMAZING, unique effect from his pedal steel here, as he would on Graham Nash’s “I Used to Be a King” and on his own records. Not countryish, but REALLY spaced out. The total effect is really cool.

    Finally, “Starship” yet more rambling ranting over (again, mostly) the SAME two chords as “Hijack”. As with most of Paul’s songs from here on out, individual phrases sound intriguing, but they don’t cohere into an effective narrative.

    I must admit that I WAS impressed when I saw Kantner’s rebooted lineup of the band perform the entire second side as their opener in 1992 (including an attempt at the sound effects!). Nonetheless, the album, more so than anything since “After Bathing at Baxter’s” and what was to come, isn’t strong enough musically to transcend its dated philosophy, more so than its sci-fi plot. Paul still didn’t give up on the former, which, I suppose, is commendable, in its own way.

    Although the album made the Top 20 on release, it only went gold in the wake of “Red Octopus”. I can only imagine the reaction of the fans who were expecting more “Miracles”!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *