The Jefferson Airplane formed in 1965 as the house band at Marty Balin’s club, The Matrix in San Francisco. Though we often think of them as exemplifying San Francisco’s psychedelic music scene, they really didn’t start out that way. Jefferson Airplane, like the L.A. band, The Byrds, began by reflecting the influence of electrified folk.
The bands’ composition was also not set as we remember them at the height of their fame. Balin was the leader and frontman. The rest of the band was lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen; bassist Jack Casady; guitarist Paul Kantner; drummer Skip Spence; vocalist, Signe Andersen.
The band signed with RCA and recorded The Jefferson Airplane Takes Off in 1965, though the record wasn’t released until the following year. It’s clear the record company was looking for something clean and competitive with the Beatles. Some lyrics were censored, though uncensored versions surfaced in the first pressing. Apparently these are highly collectible and worth thousands of dollars. The sound is fairly folky, with Balin performing most of the vocals. Kantner sings lead on “Let Me In,” and “Run Around.” Anderson sings lead on “Chauffeur Blues.”
The most interesting songs, from my perspective, are “Blues From an Airplane” and “Come Up the Years.” There is also a very down-tempo cover of the John D. Loudermilk song, “Tobacco Road,” a 1964 hit for the Nashville Teens. None of these songs demonstrate the psychedelic elements that would characterize their later work.
At the same time the Airplane was making a name for itself, The Great Society was another band gaining prominence in San Francisco. Fronted by singer Grace Slick, the band performed two songs that would make Jefferson Airplane a national act. Written by Slick’s brother-in-law, guitarist Darby Slick, the Great Society, with Grace on vocals, performed a much more down-tempo version of the 1967 hit “Somebody to Love.” The second song, also included on 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow, is “White Rabbit.” In 1968 Columbia released a 1966 live recording of The Great Society at The Matrix.
The two bands played many important shows together, including the well-known dance at The Longshoreman’s Hall in October 1965, where they were joined by The Great Society and other bands. They also played shows at Bill Graham’s Fillmore auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom.
In 1966, the original Airplane lineup began to come apart. Drummer Skip Spence left the band, and became one of the founding members of Moby Grape. Signe Anderson left to give birth to her first child. On October 15, 1966, the band recorded Anderson’s last show at The Matrix. The following night Grace Slick was introduced as her replacement. In 2010 the band released a CD of each of these shows.
There are three important albums worth listening to from this early Jefferson Airplane era:
The Jefferson Airplane Takes Off was recorded 50 years ago. It sounds a little dated, and a lot like a folk band. Balin is clearly the musical leader, with the rest of band supporting him. It’s interesting to hear Anderson’s vocals, which are strong, but in much more of supporting role than Slick’s will come to be. Kaukonen’s blazing guitar is not quite in evidence yet. It’s likely RCA was conservative in their approach to this first offering from the band and the San Francisco sound. Used copies are very available on Discogs. I bought a nice copy for $10 plus shipping. The number one thing to remember about buying vintage records is this album is nearly 50 years old. The vinyl itself is in very good condition and plays without skips or noise. The cover has not survived quite so well. Sundazed reissued this record in 2010, so it is possible to get a new copy from Amazon and elsewhere.
The Great Society with Grace Slick: Conspicuous Only In Its Absence. A live performance at The Matrix from 1966 released in 1968. This album give a good look inside this band. What we hear is a band not as polished or as musically talented as the Airplane. Neither “White Rabbit” or “Somebody to Love” are the same songs we will dance to and sing from Surrealistic Pillow. But, chanteuse Grace Slick is in command and shows off her strong voice on these songs and others. I bought my vintage copy at High Voltage in Tacoma for $14.95. It’s a VG quality copy with a NM cover. Some surface noise in the beginning, but still a very nice play copy for a vintage record of that age.
Jefferson Airplane Live at the Fillmore Auditorium (10/15/66): Late Show-Signe’s Farewell This is available as a CD only for about $15. A widely bootlegged performance, this recording was released by Friday Music in 2010. It is a surprisingly good record and offers a lot that Takes Off doesn’t have. The live recording gets a look inside the Airplane as a 1966 live band, beginning with a nine minute live jam that is quite good. A few songs make their way onto this disc that will later appear on Surrealistic Pillow. It’s also a last look at the Airplane in their earlier permutation–because the next night Grace appears on the bill as vocalist. Worth having in a Jefferson Airplane collection.