Jefferson Airplane is a rock band from San Francisco, California. The group was assembled by folk singer Marty Balin, who had convinced three investors to help him convert a San Francisco pizza parlor into a night club. Balin then assembled a folk rock band, similar in sound to Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan, who were experimenting with an electrified sound. On August 13, 1965, Jefferson Airplane performed on the opening night at Balin’s Matrix Club; the club became an epicenter of the sixties San Francisco rock music scene. The band’s popularity grew rapidly, their efforts championed by noted San Francisco music critic Ralph J. Gleason. They became the first of the San Francisco rock bands to land a major recording contract, signed to RCA Victor Records in November, 1965.
The Classic Lineup:
Marty Balin (b. 1942), singer, songwriter, guitar, piano
Grace Slick (b. 1939), singer, songwriter, piano, recorder
Spencer Dryden (b. 1938-2005), drums
Jack Casady (b. 1944), bass, guitar, vocals
Paul Kantner (b. 1941), guitar, vocals
Jorma Kaukonen (b. 1940), guitar, vocals.
Their first album, Takes Off, featured the following band members:
Anderson left the band after the birth of her child, and was replaced by Slick. Spence was dismissed, after which he helped form the band Moby Grape. Skip Spence is a notable casualty of the sixties, yet another musician who became unstable and handicapped because of excessive drug use.
Early Music Best, and Surrealistic Pillow a Classic
Their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, was a regional success. After two key personnel changes in 1966, the band produced the classic Surrealistic Pillow, strong from head to toe, with two top ten hit records, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love”, which earned the band long lasting national recognition.
The Airplane rode the crest of popularity for several years, but I have little interest in their music beyond the first couple of albums, plus a few of the better live performances. The lyrical content drifted from love songs to political demonstration, and their music strayed into less concise territory. Grace Slick and Marty Balin, the band’s primary vocalists, seemed to compete with one another for attention. As the years went by, the singing became overwrought. More than is typical, Jefferson Airplane created their best music early. The early songs are revolutionary in themselves; they swing gently, the hip lyrics infused with a west coast sensibility.
“Well, you used to tell me,
My love was your flame,
But I had you last evening,
No, it wasn’t the same.
‘Cause you’re bringing me down,
And you know it ain’t right,
You’ve been running around, love,
Staying out all night,
Get outta sight,
Don’t hang around,
You’re bringing me down.”
— Marty Balin – Paul Kantner
Many San Francisco bands featured rambling instrumental passages in concert. The Grateful Dead, and to a lesser extent, Santana, are forefathers of modern “jam” bands like Phish and String Cheese Incident. As a rule, San Francisco sixties rock worked best as concise art.
The Summer Of Love – Over Before It Started
Thousands of young immigrants flocked to San Francisco, and though the summer of 1967 is remembered as the “Summer of Love”, the idealistic and innocent nature of the peace and free love movement was fading. The culture became harder after that. Addictive and dangerous drugs like cocaine, heroin and amphetamine made their way onto the streets, replacing the more peaceful pleasures of marijuana and LSD, with an uptick in crime and poverty.
Over the years, the band reassembled several times, and became formidable pop artists. The spinoff band Jefferson Starship (or simply “Starship”) produced three #1 hits in the dark days of mid-eighties pop. However, I don’t have anything in my collection by Jefferson Starship, or Hot Tuna, Jorma Kaukonen’s and Jack Casady’s longtime side project.
There’s a funny scene in the movie Primary Colors, where presidential candidate Jack Stanton, along with wife Susan and their political strategists, attend an outdoor barbecue dinner at a family friend’s house. As the night grows deep and liquor flows, the men begin to wax sentimental about their mothers. Susan, sitting on the opposite end of the table, notes:
“He’s in a Momma-thon. That’ll go in all night.”
Finally, the chief strategist (think James Carville) jumps up from the table and breaks down in sobs:
“My Mama worked her whole life for her family! And never did anything for herself!”
Everybody jumps up, and soon he is held and rocked gently by the future President, and the family of friends spontaneously break into pacifying spirituals. It’s a key humanizing moment in the film.
My mother experienced her own awakening in the mid-sixties. After years in a traditional role as mother and homemaker, she became more forthright, wanting more from life. Grace Slick and Janis Joplin were local icons of liberation, and Mom identified with them. She latched onto the San Francisco music scene early; by the summer of 1967, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother albums were in heavy rotation on the home stereo. The sweet early music of Jefferson Airplane still sounds fresh to me, and it reminds me of my mother. Oh Momma, what a sweet, smart, loving person you were to embrace these ideals! I wasn’t always the son I should be; I didn’t understand my gifts, and frankly, I wasn’t taught how to best use them. By the end, you knew I loved you, and I can’t begin to express my gratitude for your brave spirit.
1. All selected songs can be found on iTunes. The studio songs can be found on:
Jefferson Airplane Takes Off
Crown Of Creation
2. “Fat Angel (Live)” and “Come Up The Years (Live)” can be found on Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 10/15/66 (Late Show).
3. “She Has Funny Cars (Live)” can be found on Live At The Fillmore East.
4. “In the Morning (Live)” can be found on Surrealistic Pillow.
5. “Somebody To Love (Live)” can be found on Bless Its Pointed Little Head.
Jefferson Airplane Songs:
White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane ✭✭✭✭
Comin’ Back To Me, Jefferson Airplane ✭✭✭✭
Somebody To Love, Jefferson Airplane ✭✭✭
Embryonic Journey, Jefferson Airplane ✭✭✭
It’s No Secret, Jefferson Airplane ✭✭
Let’s Get Together, Jefferson Airplane ✭✭
She Has Funny Cars, Jefferson Airplane ✭✭
Volunteers, Jefferson Airplane ✭✭
Somebody To Love (Live), Jefferson Airplane ✭✭
Bringing Me Down, Jefferson Airplane ✭✭
Plastic Fantastic Lover, Jefferson Airplane ✭
3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds, Jefferson Airplane ✭
Today, Jefferson Airplane ✭
Triad, Jefferson Airplane ✭
Fat Angel (Live), Jefferson Airplane ✭
Chauffeur Blues (Alt), Jefferson Airplane ✭
My Best Friend, Jefferson Airplane ✭
How Do You Feel, Jefferson Airplane ✭
In The Morning (Live), Jefferson Airplane ✭
Tobacco Road, Jefferson Airplane ✭
Good Shepherd, Jefferson Airplane ✭
Come Up The Years, Jefferson Airplane ✭
Lather, Jefferson Airplane ✭
She Has Funny Cars (Live), Jefferson Airplane ✭
Come Up The Years (Live), Jefferson Airplane ✭
Get Together, The Youngbloods ✭✭✭✭
Tobacco Road, John Loudermilk ✭✭✭✭
Tobacco Road, The Nashville Teens ✭✭✭✭
Tobacco Road, Lou Rawls ✭✭✭
Me And My Chauffeur Blues, Memphis Minnie ✭✭
Me And My Chauffeur, Lucinda Williams ✭
The Fat Angel, Donovan ✭✭