The Great Albums

Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow



'Pillow' talk about a classic from the Jefferson Airplane


October 6, 2002




San Francisco 1967, the fabled Summer of Love--history books often cite the time and place as psychedelic rock's high point (pardon the pun). But as often as not, critics mistake a fascinating social phenomenon for great rock 'n' roll. The fact is, with a few notable exceptions like the sophomore album by the Jefferson Airplane, there wasn't a lot of great rock made in the City by the Bay at the height of the psychedelic era.

The players who drew national attention to San Francisco in the mid-'60s are best viewed as trippy folkies, picking their brains outs while gleefully indulging in the LSD that flowed from the lab of Augustus Owsley Stanley. Local native Paul Kantner sang at hootenannies, and Cincinnati immigrant Marty Balin launched the Matrix, a Fillmore Street folk club. The Jefferson Airplane debuted in 1966 with a surreal folk sound (one that wasn't nearly as imaginative or accomplished as L.A. bands such as the Byrds, Love and Buffalo Springfield), and the group's first manager tried to coin the word "fojazz" from "folk" and "jazz" to describe their music.

"The San Francisco 'sound' was less a musical phenomenon than a manner," critic Charles Perry wrote in his definitive history, The Haight-Ashbury . "It was premised on the simple and straightforward assumption that this was trip music being played by dopers for other dopers." But, Perry added, "Most of the rock musicians in San Francisco were basically folkies learning how to play electrified instruments. They had a tentative sound at first and played a lot of solemn, chiming chords on the beat. When it came time for the guitarist to take a solo break, he often noodled up and down the notes of the scale in a way that might owe as much to inexperience in improvisation as it did to the influence of Indian ragas."

This certainly described the early Airplane. The band was formed by singer/songwriter Balin in 1965 to play at his new club. The other initial members were guitarist-vocalist Kantner, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, and singer Signe Anderson. After a moving through a series of musicians (including Skip Spence, a guitarist and songwriter who filled in on drums for the first album), the rhythm section solidified around drummer Spencer Dryden and bassist Jack Casady, whose fluid, loping lines would provide the perfect complement for Kaukonen's flittery, jazzy leads.

The band's name came from a joke by Kaukonen. The musicians had been riffing on the monikers of fictional blues players, and he suggested "Blind Lemon Jefferson Airplane." Its shortened version proved to be wonderfully evocative, hinting at both old-fashioned roots and modern technological power.

By 1966, thousands of young Americans were flocking to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, drawn by a thriving music scene spawned by ballrooms like the Fillmore and the Avalon, the plentiful psychedelic drugs, and the promise of free love. The major record companies took notice and swooped in, and the Jefferson Airplane was one of the first local bands to enter the recording studio.

"Jefferson Airplane Takes Off" (1966) was dominated by Balin's simple folk ballads, which were tarted up by Anderson's fetching harmonies and the dexterous playing of Casady and Kaukonen. It had only limited commercial success, but when Anderson quit the group, the band found the missing piece of the puzzle. Born in Chicago, Grace Barnett Wing was a child of privilege who attended expensive private schools in New York and spent time as a model in Los Angeles before moving to San Francisco, marrying musician Jerry Slick, and joining him in his band, the Great Society. She'd seen the Airplane and been impressed, and when she was invited to join the group, she readily left her first outfit (and eventually her husband) behind.

Slick arrived bearing two songs that would become the biggest hits from the Airplane's second album. "Somebody to Love" was written by her brother-in-law, the Great Society's Darby Slick, during a depressing LSD trip while he waited for his girlfriend to come home. She wrote "White Rabbit" as a musical tribute to "Bolero" and a lyrical homage to Lewis Carroll's surreal children's book, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland. "The adults were saying, 'Why are you taking all these drugs? This is bad,'" Slick recalls. "But they had read us these books, like Alice in Wonderland, where she gets high, tall, takes mushrooms, [smokes] a hookah, [takes] pills ... I was saying, 'You read us all this stuff when we're little and then you wonder why we do it?'"

When the band entered the studio again, Slick's powerful, soaring vocals on these two tunes and her fluid, sexy scat singing behind Balin and Kantner's lead vocals on the other numbers was the most striking element of the Airplane's sound. The album was recorded on four tracks by an RCA staff producer in a little less than two weeks at a cost of $8,000 (no small sum at the time). The band's friend, Jerry Garcia, appeared uncredited as guest guitarist, though he did receive a nod on the cover as "musical and spiritual adviser," and he suggested the disc's name: "Surrealistic Pillow."

Once again, the title is apt--there is a gentle, lulling, somnambulant feel to much of the album, with the notable exceptions of Slick's two turns as lead vocalist. Spence contributed the old-timey, clip-clopping "My Best Friend." (A legendary acid casualty often mentioned in the same breath as Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson, he'd make one classic solo album, "Oar," before dropping out of the music scene.) "Today" and "How Do You Feel" are gorgeous ballads, with the harmonies on the latter owing a debt to the Mamas and the Papas. The idyllic "Comin' Back to Me" features Garcia and Casady on intertwining guitars and Slick on medieval recorder, and "Embryonic Journey" is an enigmatic instrumental and solo acoustic showcase for Kaukonen.

Musically and lyrically, parts of the disc are very much tethered to the times. "She Has Funny Cars" is notable primarily for the pounding drums and repetitive, mantra-like guitar and bass riffs, while "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" is a groovy slice of psychedelic pop with exceptionally goofy lyrics ("Do away with people laughing at my hair/Do away with people climbing on my precious prayers/Take me to a circus tent where I can easily pay my rent/And all the other freaks can share my cares"). But elsewhere, the Airplane still sounds ahead of its time and remarkably current. Bathed in reverb and propelled by an insistent beat, "Plastic Fantastic Lover" is a nicely barbed critique of the insidious powers of television. Then of course there is "Somebody to Love."

The Airplane's masterpiece and the ultimate anthem of the Summer of Love boasts a relentless four-on-the-floor rhythm, great sweeping waves of reverb that make the massive guitar riff and nimble solo sound larger than life, and a slippery bass line that weaves in and out of the mix throughout. But the most breathtaking aspect of the single is Slick's voice.

Even if you didn't know that Slick was stunningly pretty, with intense, piercing eyes and a brilliant, sarcastic wit, her singing brings into vivid focus a strong, self-assertive, and utterly confident woman who is introducing a new role model to rock, replacing the meek waifs who dominated much of the pop scene, and perfectly summing up the attitude of a generation (male and female) unafraid to seize what it wants from life. "When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies," she begins.

What follows is rightly posed as a question, but in Slick's hands, it becomes an emphatic declaration. "Don't you want somebody to love/Don't you need somebody to love/Wouldn't you love somebody to love/You better find somebody to love." The power with which these lines are delivered leaves little doubt that the singer found and took exactly what she wanted.

That forcefulness is a strong contrast to the gentle, tentative questioning of San Francisco's other psychedelic explorers, and it remains not only the Jefferson Airplane's finest moment, but one of the most memorable female vocals in rock history.