The stage is dark. A screen flashes ocean imagery and a red sun behind the singers as they harmonize together.
A shimmering alchemy of voices converge into one ringing sound while the rhythm guitar pulsates with the light show. The lead guitar cuts through the stage like a river and twists out into the audience.
The jazz-rock ensemble Jefferson Airplane perform “Crown of Creation” to an enthralled crowd.
From the first note of their debut album through the last note of 1969’s Volunteers, Jefferson Airplane were a musically diverse force that took the world by storm. They began as a popular San Francisco folk-rock band in 1965, and within two years they skyrocketed to fame with the band’s two seminal hits, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”
For fans, the magic extends far beyond the band’s two popular hits.
The Airplane’s sound catapults you through an echo tunnel and into what rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner once called, “The unbridled passion of the 60’s”. Jefferson Airplane soared to the top of the charts during a time when rock music was exploding with talent, new ideas, and technology.
The Airplane were unique among other popular bands of the time, not only for their large membership (6 players), but also for their ability to seamlessly combine folk-based music with jazz, blues, and psychedelia.
The band’s musical professionalism and thunderous live performances attracted local San Francisco musician Grace Slick, the member who ultimately launched the band to superstardom.
Like all legendary bands, a mysterious element drove the Airplane’s sound. The songs drew from a dynamic color palette loaded with reverb, and surrounded by layers of a gauzy dreamscape.
The music and the overall persona of the band were an ideology; more than any other band of the 60’s, Jefferson Airplane represented the boundless optimism, joy, escape, and romance of the time.
My introduction to the Airplane began with Grace Slick’s face on the cover of her 1998 autobiography, Grace Slick: Somebody to Love?
One day, I wandered around a book store browsing for anything that looked interesting. I walked up to the front and casually turned toward the new release shelf. A large, shiny cover with a woman’s face captured my eye.
I did a double take and froze. The most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life was staring me down with unnerving intensity. Grace’s infamous “laser stare” stopped me in my tracks.
I immediately walked over to the book and stared at the cover for another moment. I opened it up and began reading. The first page contained several author quotes about drug experiences, trouble with the law, and various other comic tidbits. They were hilarious.
Okay, I thought, this lady looks like a goddess, and she’s funny. As if that wasn’t enough, she was also a painter. The book contained full-page color portraits of rock stars and rabbits.
After reading the book a couple of times, I finally picked up a copy of the Airplane compilation album, White Rabbit and Other Hits. I listened, and I was hooked.
As it turned out, Grace Slick was a fantastic singer. The interplay between the various instruments and the two voices – Grace and Marty Balin – was unlike anything I had experienced. Complex layers of minor key madness danced around soft rhythm brushstrokes. The music flashed with colors while the lyrics evoked rich imagery.
Year by year, each album by the Airplane portrays a changing era. Their debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, reveals a more innocent, folksy vibe than later albums.
The album was released 1966, right at the turning point before full-blown psychedelia and heaver rock hit the airwaves. The song “Run Around” is awash in late night carnival lights. Two lovers romance around the town walking along the waterfront, reading poetry and gazing at the stars.
Many songs on the album are folk-based. The sound stretches way beyond traditional folk, however. You can hear a sonic dimension specific to this band that defies both genre and description.
1967’s Surrealistic Pillow represents the big shift in the Airplane’s sound. Grace’s searing vocal on “Somebody to Love” drives the song forward while Jorma Kaukonen’s lead guitar slides out from underneath the ground and hangs on the ceiling. The album intertwines the Airplane’s earlier folk influences with a new power, bluesy and raging.
Surrealistic Pillow has plenty of quieter moments as well. The acoustic guitar in “Today” sounds like water dropping into a dark pond surrounded by neon flowers. The drums reverberate with pink hues inside a tunnel leading to the pond.
“Coming Back to Me” features a flute backed by acoustic guitar, but again, this is no ordinary folk song. The imagery is so rich that you can see the protagonist. You are him. It’s autumn, you’re deep in the woods. You’re alone in a cabin. You look out the window — there’s the ghost of your lover. The purity of Balin’s voice lends itself perfectly to the song’s theme.
On their 1968 album, After Bathing at Baxter’s, the Airplane dived headfirst into insanity.
At this point, everyone in the rock world was competing with Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix dropped into the scene and blazed fiery trails of new sonic territory. Everyone was floored by Hendrix’s sound, and all the popular rock acts of the day began playing differently.
As a result of Hendrix’s influence (and as a result of the emerging drug culture), some incredibly weird albums emerged in 1968. After Bathing at Baxter’s was one such album.
Baxter’s is a big yellow jazz room with wooden floorboards and xylophones. Men wearing top hats and red suspenders pound on drums. The guitar becomes a spaceship, Grace’s singing sounds tribal at moments, and the lyrics are surreal.
“Wild Tyme” has a marching band feel, the sound of excitement and determination. Flower children march through the streets and over fields. Now they’re pouring out of buildings and the crowd is growing. A couple observes all the changes happening everywhere. They’re wild with joy. They have each other, their friends — everything stretches out in endless possibilities.
“Saturday Afternoon” is another gem; hillsides full of people dance in the sun, and that persistent chiming guitar is a call to the greater power within.
The production and general sound of Baxter’s is bizarre. It’s like they’re playing underground. The band are down in the underworld playing through a bullhorn, and it’s connected to a wire that snakes up through miles of dirt and plugs into your stereo.
Crown of Creation is Jefferson Airplane at their best. The album combines all their earthy folksiness with striking moments of lead guitar and rhythm prowess.
The song “Crown of Creation” is one of my favorites; filled with ancient caves, meadows, and gold. Crown is darker than previous albums, owing partly to the increasing song contributions of Grace Slick.
Always the darkest musical force in the band, Grace wrote scathing lyrics directed at society. The backing music was ominous and unsettling, but darkly alluring. Just like her beauty.
1969’s Volunteers has a few gems, most notably “Wooden Ships”, but this is the album where the band starts to lose me. The sound is almost country in places.
This phase of the Airplane, however, was also a reflection of the changing music scene. The psychedelic 60’s gave way to a brief country-rock fad, shortly before heavier bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin stormed the charts.
If I had to pick only one, I would say “Wooden Ships” is the finest song by Jefferson Airplane. You can see and feel the boat crashing over the waves. You can taste the salt.
The song is a fitting goodbye — Jefferson Airplane set a course away from popular music with one final and passionate song.
They would never return. But in their wake, they left an unsurpassed legend for generations to enjoy.
“We played at the Monterey jazz festival, and someone wrote a review. They said we sounded like a mule kicking down a barn door. We all liked that, you know! We thought, wow, that’s great. Among all these jazz guys we sound like a mule kicking a barn door.”
“Every time I hear “White Rabbit,” I am back on the greasy midnight streets of San Francisco, looking for music, riding a fast red motorcycle downhill into the Presidio, leaning desperately into the curves through the eucalyptus trees, trying to get to the Matrix in time to hear Grace Slick play the flute”
-Hunter S. Thompson