A Quick Note: On March 25th various media announced that Paul Kantner, 71, suffered a mild heart attack. As a founding member of Jefferson Airplane, and a continuing member of Jefferson Starship, my exploration of this band’s music is much indebted to Kantner, and I wish him a rapid recovery.
October 16, 1966 is the day Grace Slick debuted as a member of Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore Auditorium. She brought two songs with her that would appear in February, 1967 on the band’s next album Surrealistic Pillow. “Somebody to Love,” penned by brother-in-law Darby Slick, and her own work “White Rabbit” powered the album to #3 on the Billboard charts. With Spencer Dryden in the drummer’s chair replacing the departed Skip Spence, the RCA recording featured eleven tightly recorded songs that were a departure from those on Jefferson Airplane Takes Off.
Surrealistic Pillow is usually recognized as one of the most important records of 1967, together with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, Are You Experienced, and the self-titled first album by The Doors. For the most part, Pillow is a very conventional album, with eleven discrete and distinct sounds. But in the studio, RCA seems to have eased their limitations. On this record we begin to hear the Jorma Kaukonen’s psychedelic guitar stylings, and Jack Casady’s bluesy bass. Most importantly, the band’s musical direction began to slip from Marty Balin’s grasp. Jefferson Airpllane Takes Off had eight Balin compositions and three covers. Pillow had only five Balin songs, with additions from Slick, Paul Kantner, Kaukonen and Spence. The music got a little faster, straying from Balin’s preference for dramatic, romantic ballads. Even so, “Today,” written with Kantner is an achingly beautiful song, while “Comin’ Back to Me” seems nauseatingly melodramatic. But even Balin gets in on the act with the fun, quirky, uptempo “Plastic, Fantastic, Lover.”
With the commercial success of Surrealistic Pillow, the Airplane fixed the eyes of the nation firmly on San Francisco as it proclaimed its “Summer of Love. By the album’s release the Airplane already performed at the January Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park that heralded the beginning of the Hippie movement. But the nation had its eyes firmly on the band as well. The Airplane made numerous appearances on national television including this one on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand
(Try not to notice a sulky Marty Balin at then end of the video when there isn’t time to interview him.)
The band’s national prominence culminated with a set at the Monterey International Pop Festival. They performed Saturday night, June 17th, 1967 with the Byrds, Hugh Masakela, Moby Grape, Otis Redding, and others. Let’s just say their performance was expected and incendiary.
After the success of Surrealistic Pillow, touring, television, and Monterey the band returned to recording. After four months without RCA looking over their shoulder, what sprouted was one of the most original records of the psychedelic era, After Bathing at Baxters. In a departure from their previous records, Balin surrendered direction of the band to Kantner. Balin’s only writing credit is the tasty “Young Girl’s Sunday Blues.” But the most significant difference is in the structure of the album itself. No longer a collection of discrete songs, it is organized into five “suites” of loosely related songs.
The music is also a departure from previous recordings. Though some are “traditional” they are often connected by interludes of improvisation. There are some great songs on this record. The opening “Streetmasse” suite with “You, Me and Poohneil” and “Sunday Young Girl’s Blues” is brilliant, though they are connected by the trippy and pointless “A Small Package of Value Will Come to You Shortly.” Slick chimes in with social commentary on “Rejoyce,” and Kantner’s “Martha” is psychedelic folk rock at its best. More than anything, the band seems more collaborative than in their previous work. The vocals shared between Balin, Slick and Kantner with lots of room for Casady’s rumbling bass and Kaukonen’s tasty guitar.
This album must have been a huge disappointment for RCA. No viable singles, and if Surrealistic Pillow was something “new” it was at least accessible to a wider audience. After Bathing at Baxters is anything but. I remember getting this album for Christmas when I was 13 (1968.) It was, without question, the weirdest album I’d ever heard. Today, I think it is absolutely amazing, a brilliant relic of the psychedelic era and it is highly recommended. .
It’s estimated 100,000 people flocked to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1967. They came for lots of reasons that are not the subject of this writing. But they also came for the music. The Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape and countless other bands contributed to the revolutionary sound they heard and turned the entire nation on to something new.
Surrealistic Pillow: According to Discogs, there are 87 pressings of Surrealistic Pillow, most on LP. One would think it possible to get high quality record for a reasonable price, but most are pretty spendy. I dunno, maybe there is some sort of Surrealistic Pillow speculation going on I’m unaware of. It was important to me that I have great copy of this album, so I simply broke down and bought the Sundazed mono reissue on high grain vinyl from Amazon. About $20 with free shipping on Prime. Good stuff. The album can also be downloaded to a mobile device for free with a Prime membership.I’ll probably add a stereo play copy at some point, but it will need to be cheap.
Monterey International Pop Festival: The Airplane’s performance was an important feature of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1968 concert film Monterey Pop. This is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. However the band appears on only two songs in the movie. In 1992 Rhino issued a 4 X CD boxed set of music from MILP. It is an amazing collection of great music from The Association to Otis Redding to The Who to Hendrix. This is still available from Rhino for about $32, less if you can find it used. Hours and hours of great listening, including five songs by Jefferson Airplane.
After Bathing at Baxters: ABB is the last record the Airplane issued in mono, so if you like that sound, it is available. The record, with its distinct Ron Cobb illustration on the cover, was reissued by Sundazed, but is not readily available. I found many very nice copies of this record available used for $15-20.