Jefferson Airplane’s The Essential Jefferson Airplane, Red Octopus and Blows Against the Empire

5DCC0088-973F-48F1-B90E-0CC4E4BB8301Psychedelic music was originally so named because it sought to recreate musically the mind-expanding experience of LSD. “Psychedelic, man!” The center of this music was unquestionably San Francisco, with bands like the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Jefferson Airplane. Straight from Haight-Ashbury to you they brought in special lighting techniques, extended trippy solos, exotic Middle Eastern modal influences, and more . . . “far freakin’ out!” These three albums provide a workshop on one band’s efforts to expand the minds of a nation.

The Essential Jefferson Airplane begins at the beginning, with three songs from their debut album. Brought together by singer Marty Balin, the original Airplane featured folk guitarist Paul Kantner, blues guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Cassidy and Signe Anderson on vocals. Skip Spence, who would soon be playing guitar for the great Moby Grape, joined on drums. This group released Jefferson Airplane Takes Off in 1966. You can hear the beginnings of their trademark sound on these three tunes. They sought to combine mellow folk, with the inventiveness of jazz, and the solid rhythm section provided a firm foundation for the almost choral vocal work, and creative guitar playing of Kantner and Kaukonen. But it was 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow where they really took off.

Grace Slick replaced Signe Anderson and brought with her an attitude, and a songwriting talent that would lead to the Airplane’s hit, “White Rabbit.” Spence gave up the drum stool to Spencer Dryden, who was a former jazz drummer, and complemented the instrumentally adventurous guitarists. Surrealistic Pillow is one album that has maintained its appeal over the decades. There is a richness and variety to the songs, and from the opening drumbeat of “She Has Funny Cars” the combination of folk-jazz-blues-rock reached a peak that was never really surpassed. Five songs from this album are presented here and they’re all winners. But the first disc (of this 2-disc Essential set) only uses 50 minutes, and leaves lots of room for the haunting “Today” or other personal favourites which were left off. “Somebody to Love” showcases Slick’s powerful vocals, and Kaukonen’s electric guitar; “Comin’ Back to Me” is a moody acoustic Marty Balin love song; Jorma shines again on “Embryonic Journey” an acoustic stunner; and “White Rabbit” has Grace belting out the Lewis Carroll inspired lyrics in front of the whole band.

4B2DD172-2E2F-40A3-A80F-ACCF179C570AAfter Bathing at Baxter’s came out later that same year, and was not quite as good, but when thinned out for a collection like this it seems better. “Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil” combined an almost operatic vocal punch, with rock power and lyrical invention. “Martha” is another haunting ballad with twisting guitar parts and intriguing harmonies by Slick, Balin and Kantner. Two more Baxter’s tunes are included, and then we move to the 1968 album Crown of Creation. “Lather” presents a Grace Slick vocal that shows an innocence previously not hinted at, and links that innocence with lyrics of experience that creates a tension which adds resonance to the story.

Lather was thirty years old today
They took away all of his toys
His mother sent newspaper clippings to him
About his old friends who’d stopped being boys
There was Harley C. Green, just turned thiry-three
His leather chair waits at the bank
And Sgt. Dow Jones, twenty-seven years old
Commanding his very own tank

“Crown of Creation” is a Kantner composed rocker with good harmonies, and a snazzy Kaukonen guitar solo. Slick’s “Greasy Heart” and Balin’s “Share a Little Joke” (presented here in an alternate version) show the variety of talents that made up the Airplane. Three strong songwriters (in Balin, Kantner and Slick, and Kaukonen adding one of his folk numbers from time to time); three powerful vocalists; inventive soloists; a potent rhythm section; and egos all ’round! It all started to break down. There were too many stars for it not to. For a while the tensions led to some fascinating battles in concert. Each one trying to outdo the other meant volatile and exciting shows. Some of this was captured on the ’69 live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head. A couple of songs from the first album, presented in live versions, kick off the second disc. “3/5s of a Mile in 10 Seconds” takes no prisoners, and “Plastic Fantastic Lover” is opened up for invention.

By the time they recorded Volunteers in 1969 Jefferson Airplane had negotiated a contract for total artistic control. Essentially this meant they could sing “Up against the wall, motherfucker” in the chorus of “We Can Be Together.” Earlier they had had the lyric sheet for Baxter’s edited by RCA. Volunteers was a political album. It was my favourite JA album since the first one. Again, it’s represented by five songs. The same five I would choose! “We Can Be Together” with its powerful chorus; Jorma’s folky “Good Shepherd” settles the heart down after all that politicizing (and yet has just as much to say about the state of the nation at the time!). Crosby, Still & Nash had already released their version of “Wooden Ships” when the Airplane’s take on it added sound effects and a bit of context. “Eskimo Blue Day,” and “Volunteers” complete the set.

“Have You Seen the Saucers” / “Mexico” were originally released as a single and appear here back to back. The single came out in 1970, a time of change for the band. Spencer Dryden left to drum for the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Grace Slick became pregnant by Paul Kantner. Kaukonen and Cassidy just wanted to play so they formed an acoustic (and later electric) hobby band called Hot Tuna. Kantner recorded his science-fiction rock opera Blows Against the Empire (more about that in a moment). Balin, who had been contributing less (only one song on Volunteers), left the band. Then Jefferson Airplane formed their own label, Grunt. The first album they released was Bark, with new drummer Joey Covington.

FEA54B0B-3692-45AC-8CCB-36AD92747AF9Bark saw the introduction of Papa John Creach as a member. He had been gigging with Hot Tuna, and his violin added a different dimension to the Airplane. It seems to pick up from Kaukonen’s guitar, and take it even further. The songs from Bark are solid, and definitely in the tradition of their earlier material. This band, with Covington replaced by Johnny Barbata, recorded the final JA album Long John Silver. It’s represented by two cuts and then two final tracks from the live 30 Seconds Over Winterland.

The essential Jefferson Airplane? Pretty much. Certainly this 2-disc set has great remastered sound and serves as a virtual history of the band, but more than that, it serves as a primer of psychedelic music, of political songwriting, and of some of the most powerful and inventive band interplay ever. We’ve forgotten how powerful the Slick/Balin/Kantner/Kaukonen/Cassidy/Dryden (and others) matrix could be! And the liner notes by Airplane biographer Jeff Tamarkin are informative but could be much longer!

In the case of Kantner’s solo album Blows Against the Empire, the new remastered version, with carefully (and lovingly) restored packaging, we have an event in itself. Kantner had a long interest in science-fiction and sought, with this album, to create something that might sit with the works of Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. High hopes maybe, but he actually wrote to Heinlein asking for permission to use some of the master’s ideas. Heinlein replied that while people had been using his ideas for years, Kantner was the first to actually ask permission and gave his blessing to the project.

Kantner gathered a group of friends; Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Bill Kreutzman, Mickey Hart: the San Francisco mafia all set out to bring Kantner’s plan to fruition. I hadn’t heard this album since before I sold my vinyl copy many years ago. Imagine my surprise when I was totally engaged by the various and creative music captured on this disc. From the opening salvo of “Mau Mau” through Rosalie Sorrells’ banjo tune “The Baby Tree;” from the Airplanesque “Let’s Go Together” (vocals by Grace Slick) right down to the finale “Starship,” this is a powerful collection. How did I miss it the first time? This album was the introduction of the name Jefferson Starship, and while (in this case) it served only to identify a rag-tag collection of guests that name would soon be taken by Kantner’s and Slick’s new band. Oh, and by the way, the album was nominated for a Hugo Award! While it didn’t win . . . Kantner’s effort was recognized right up there with the works of his heroes!

The next album by Jefferson Starhip was 1974’s Dragon Fly, an modest album . . . but when Marty Balin joined up and wrote (and sang) the hit “Miracles” for them it was back to the top of the charts! In 1975 they released Red Octopus, a commercial and artistic return to form.

Red Octopus begins with the rocking “Fast Buck Freddie.” Grace Slick leads the band, on the song she co-wrote with lead guitarist Craig Chaquico. Jefferson Starship at this time was Slick, Kantner with Chaquico, Marty Balin, John Barbata (drums), Papa John Creach (fiddle), Pete Sears (bass & keyboards), and David Freiberg (bass & keyboards). They had an updated Airplane sound, with the same kind of rich vocal mix. The instrumental stuff was good, but not as inventive as the early Airplane. Everyone has a chance to play, and the album is representative of how music had developed by the mid-70s. The earlier struggles for artistic control led to this band being able to have a hit song with the following lyric . . .

Only our bodies were apart / that was so easy so easy / I had a taste of the real world /when I went down on you girl.

So there you have it, ten years of Jeffersons, both Airplane and Starship. It would all collapse into a bloated heap when the band lost the Jefferson and became only Starship. By then the times were changing and they were generations away from the idealism of the 60s. Recently though, Kantner and Balin have resurrected the Jefferson Starship. We’ll see if there’s life in the old boys. But for now, these re-issues will do. Each one contains informative liner notes and interesting bonus tracks, and they lead the listener on a journey of discovery.

And after all, you know what the dormouse said. “Feed your head!”

RCA Legacy, 2005)
(RCA Legacy, 2005) (album originally released 1975)
(RCA Legacy, 2005) (album originally released 1970)

About Deborah Grabien

Deborah Grabien can claim a long personal acquaintance with the fleshpots — and quiet little towns — of Europe. She has lived and worked and hung out, from London to Geneva to Paris to Florence, and a few stops in between.

But home is where the heart is. Since her first look at the Bay Area in 1969, she’s always come home to San Francisco. In 1981, after spending some years in Europe, she came back to Northern California to stay.