When Marty Balin turned a San Francisco pizza joint into a music club, he was just hoping to have a place to play folk rock with friends as inspired by the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel as he was. His club, The Matrix, became the birthplace of his band, Jefferson Airplane, who quickly soared way beyond folk rock and helped invent psychedelic rock.
At its start, Jefferson Airplane differed from the way most of us know them in one significant way: the lead female singer. By the time the band’s debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, came out on RCA Victor in 1966, singer Signe Anderson was pregnant. She left the band that year, opening up a key spot in the lineup. And original drummer Skip Spence left during the recording process, so some tracks feature a new member, Spencer Dryden.
Before we let the new singer in, here’s an early track featuring Anderson. “Chauffeur Blues” was written in the late 1930s by pioneer blues record producer Lester Melrose (1891-1968). It’s immediately obvious that Airplane is rooted in the blues, largely thanks to Jorma Kaukonen’s aching lead guitar. Anderson’s voice is deep and bluesy, too, with much more jazz-inspired flexibility and use of vibrato than her powerhouse replacement.
Exit Anderson and enter Grace Slick, providing the undeniable sonic “it” factor able to launch Jefferson Airplane into the big time. Slick was already a friend of the band, singing with a group called The Great Society that made the rounds of the San Francisco scene, including Balin’s club. At the urging of Airplane’s bass player, Jack Casady, she stepped in to replace Anderson in 1967.
The first album with Slick was Surrealistic Pillow, and suddenly the band found itself in a whole different league. It was the Summer of Love, and this album contributed greatly to putting the San Francisco Sound on the musical map.
It didn’t hurt that Slick showed up with two major hits at the ready. She’d originally written “Somebody to Love” and the trippy “White Rabbit” for The Great Society; they were Airplane’s first two singles and remain their defining songs even today. (Surprisingly, they’re the band’s only Top 40 singles, although several of their albums charted well.)
“D.C.B.A -25,” by rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner, is a textbook introduction to Slick-era Airplane. Kantner sings co-lead on this song, whose title he has claimed refers to its main guitar chord sequence and a 25 mg micro-dose of LSD. Slick co-leads the vocals in her unique fashion, following slightly behind Kantner and singing harmony at surprising intervals not at all characteristic of the rock or blues traditions.
That same year, the ambitious band also churned out another album, After Bathing at Baxter’s. This one had an experimental structure, presenting the songs in little suites. The album title reportedly is code for taking LSD, a fair warning of the music’s free-floating style. Every band member contributed to the songwriting.
“Rejoyce” is by Slick, the second song in a grouping called “Hymn to an Older Generation.” That’s Slick on piano as she oscillates between ominous and romantic melodic passages. The music takes a breathless tour of five or six distinct genres, held together by Casady’s bass.
Baxter’s was slightly ahead of its time, but the mainstream American music consumer was ready for psychedelia by the time Crown of Creation was released in 1968. The album went to No. 6.
While it’s hard to beat the song “Lather” for poignancy – It’s about an emotionally stunted man turning 30 (a birthday gift to Slick’s then-boyfriend and band drummer Dryden) – “Ice Cream Phoenix” merits special attention for its production and arrangement. All the vocalists in the group sing in harmony throughout, and Kaukonen’s lead guitar acts as a counterbalance, like the other half of a conversation.
It’s hardly surprising that songwriters who had openly celebrated their use of hallucinogens would continue to make the public uncomfortable. The lyrics on Volunteers (1969) were deemed offensive by some for their anti-war and pro-anarchy content, not to mention the swear words. This was 16 years before the RIAA started slapping “Explicit Lyrics” warnings on album covers.
The Volunteers recording sessions at the studio of veteran San Francisco producer Wally Heider were often visited by fellow musicians. Stephen Stills plays Hammond organ on “Turn My Life Down,” and Jerry Garcia provides pedal steel for “The Farm.” And here’s David Crosby, credited with playing “sailboat” in the creaky opening of “Wooden Ships.”
There were plenty of changes afoot during the 1971 recording of Airplane’s sixth studio album, Bark. Founder and singer Marty Balin left, as did drummer Dryden, who’d been in and out for a while. He was permanently replaced by his usual substitute, Joey Covington. The biggest change in the sound of the band was the addition of blues violinist Papa John Creach.
Airplane had always incorporated blues sounds, but under Creach’s influence they jumped in deeper. Check out this instrumental, “Wild Turkey,” credited to Kaukonen and starting off as a guitar solo. At 0:51 Creach picks up the thread with his electric fiddle, and the rosin dust flies.
1972 marked the end of an era as Jefferson Airplane recorded Long John Silver, its last studio album for 17 years. Despite the personal conflicts that marred the sessions, they managed to put out some nice tracks, including the Creach- and Slick-penned “Milk Train.” Creach’s strident violin lines, Kaukonen’s guitar, and Slick’s angry, powerful singing are the perfect blend of fire-producing chemicals.
In 1974, the band split into the blues-heavy Hot Tuna (led by Kaukonen and Casady) and the more rock-committed Jefferson Starship (with Slick and Kantner). Jefferson Starship and its final iteration, Starship, produced a total of 14 albums and had a few huge hits. So there was no pressing need for the original lineup (minus Spencer Dryden) to regroup for the special album Jefferson Airplane in 1989. Unfortunately, it’s as nostalgic and ʼ80s-tinged as you’d expect.
Probably best to stick with the old records instead.