FLY JEFFERSON AIRPLANE, GETS YOU THERE ON TIME
As a drug free member of society, a sign that a group's music had
particularly effected me would be the ironic comment I might make: "They
make me WANT to do drugs!" While the use of drugs is particularly abhorrent
to me, certain types of music are such an assault on the senses that the
experience of listening to them can only be likened to what it must be like
to get high. In a strange way, these groups are my "drugs"; they provide my
body with altered states and pretty much satisfy any curiosity about getting
stoned with no real physical bodily damage (save for occasional bruised
A lot of time has been spent ruminating on the music of the present but with
this article, I'd like to point the clocks backwards some thirty years.
Before Polvo, before Geezer Lake, before King Crimson, before any
may have been given the labels "progressive", "emo-core", "avant-garde" or
"psychedelic"; before all this, the one group that defined all these labels
more than anyone else was Jefferson Airplane. Yes, you read right.
Jefferson Airplane was pushing boundaries, opening minds, constructing fluid
sound textures, implementing dense jams and "flying" higher than anyone
before or since.
In my more militant "straight-edge" days, I outright dismissed the Airplane,
as well as, the Grateful Dead and most of the other 60's San Francisco groups
because of their strong drug influences. While I unabashedly hunkered for
the Beatles, the Who, the Stones, Hendrix and Cream (who all had their share
of drug use), I hated the S.F. groups mostly because of what they
represented to me: a failed ideal; the idea of free love and massive drug
use; the "hippies" who "turned on" in the 60's and became the "yuppies" who
made gobs of dough in the 80's and became the very things they rebelled
against in the first place. I hated the whole "Big Chill" "Forrest Gump" view of the 60's (you can
bet I'll be holding my stomach when this new The 60's miniseries comes out).
The bands of Haight-Ashbury personified this more than anyone else.
Add onto the fact that the Airplane's post 60's mutations (Jefferson
Starship and Starship) produced some of the most trite and outright
deplorable pop music (remember "We Built This City" and the theme from
"Mannequin"?) It's easy to see how a detailed look at a long-gone band
from a long-gone era that was in a small part responsible for some of
80's corporate rock at its worst, could raise a few eyebrows.
You have to forget all that. While it is hard to separate the band
from its time (and from what it later became), I urge you to do so.
If you can take in this band on purely musical terms, you will be
astonished, you will be amazed, you will be captivated...
While a lot of San Fransisco bands were formed by complete novices in
the spirit of freedom and experimentation (to a totally stoned
audience, an equally stoned amateur noodling on a guitar was just as
exciting as a Mahler Symphony), Jefferson Airplane were different.
There is a good reason this group was the first in its area to snag a
tasty $25,000 RCA record contract: these people could PLAY.
Their original drummer (Skip Spence, who only lasted one album) may
have only been a temporary drummer, but his successor, Spencer Dryden,
was something else. Dryden was thoroughly schooled in jazz,
especially in the groundbreaking 50's Blue Note and Impulse
recordings. Like his L.A. counterpart John Densmore (the Doors),
Dryden navigated odd time signatures and employed a wide variety of
feels. His work, like Densmore's, was, of course, overshadowed by the
accomplishments of his bandmates. However, the band in its prime,
hinged on his unwavering musicianship.
Jorma Kaukonen not only had a distinct and unique name; he also had a
distinct and unique style as a guitarist. Like most Frisco axemen,
Kaukonen was an folkie who traded in his bluegrass fingerpicking
acoustic for feedback-drenched, acid-tinged electric. Before Hendrix
returned to the U.S. in 1967, Jorma Kaukonen was the widely imitated
but wholly unequalled King of Noise Guitar. EVERY guitarist in San
Fran was copping licks off of him. Take a listen to Sam Andrews' solo
in "Combination of the Two" on Big Brother and the Holding Co. "Cheap
Thrills" album. It is almost a carbon copy of a typical Kaukonen
style. Further evidence of his influence is in Jerry Garcia's playing
on the first Grateful Dead album. Captain Trips may have gone one to
rewrite the rules of guitar playing in the 70's, but in the early
days, he too was lurking around the shrine of Jorma. Make no mistake,
Jorma Kaukonen was the originator of what came to be known as the "San
Balancing his sonic caterwhaling was his rootsy acoustic work on the
Airplane's lighter numbers. His long tour-of-duty in the folk music
trenches had turned him into a highly seasoned guitarist with
unlimited ideas and consummate chops at his disposal.
Which brings us to Jack Casady. If you want to talk about one of the
GODS of electric bass, a player who was so far ahead of his
contemporaries not only in the rock world but the jazz and classical
world's as well, here is your man (A far more eloquent appraisal by
Casady disciple Anthony Jackson is in a 1994 issue of Bass Player).
Casady grew up idolizing Mingus and Scott LaFaro while having a sweet
tooth for early rock-n-roll. He was able to channel these diverse
traditions into some of the most exciting bass playing every laid down
on tape. His lines were able to provide a solid foundation, add color
to Kaukonen's guitar and to the lead vocals, create runs that sounded
like solos yet never stole the spotlight from the vocalists... as the
BP article put it, Casady was the Airplane's "co-pilot, navigator and
bombadier all at once."
Jack Casady was a true pioneer. He made use of harmonics as a melodic
device; he played fluid busy lines like an undulating centipede. His
was also the first use of overdriven and distorted bass anywhere.
This man is a true unheralded musical genius. Most people would rate
Jack Bruce or John Entwhistle higher...forget about it! Bruce's work
did provide bass players with their first superstar but his supreme
ego carried over into his playing which at times sounds more like a
guitarist soloing on a bass. Mr. Entwhistle's overdriven lines
battened down the hatches of the tempest-tossed Who vessel but his
playing didn't explore nearly as many realms as Casady. These two
Brits are undeniably important to the history of the bass, but Jack
Casady stands alone. In Jefferson Airplane, he broke all the rules
and pushed the boundaries even further all the while fulfilling his
duties as rhythm section anchor.
After Spencer Dryden, the other musical underdog of the Airplane was
vocalist/rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner. In a group sporting such
gross instrumental talent and Kaukonen and Casady, as well as, the
prominent Dryden, its no wonder Kantner's contributions became
severely overlooked. But he was no musical slack what-so-ever. Like
Kaukonen and comrade-in-arms Garcia, Paul Kantner was a former folk
musician who plugged in. As a principle songwriter, Kantner was
responsible for some of the more confrontational Airplane songs
("Crown of Creation", "Volunteers" and "We Can Be Together" with is
famous lines "Up against the wall, motherfucker"; no PMRC stickers
for that little chestnut!) Kantner's guitar playing also provided the
foundations for the others' sonic journies. Give a listen to "Fat
Angel" off the live Bless Its Pointed Little Head album. The song
begins as a simple two chord pattern by Paul... which is gradually
embellished and transformed into a full-blown mindbending maelstrom by
Casady and Co. Yet Kantner's guitar rarely strays from the pattern as
the other players venture further and further out.
"Fly Jefferson Airplane, [it] gets you there on time..." he gently
sings during the subdued sections just before the others gear up for
No greater example of the Airplane's instrumental prowess can be found
than on this track. It shows how each ingredient was introduced and
how these components fit together like puzzle pieces to create their
So what about vocalists Grace Slick and Marty Balin? Most people
remember the former more than the later. But it was Balin who founded
the group originally. It was also his soaring tenor as exemplified on
the group's first 1966 hit "Its No Secret" that defined the group...
until a certain Grace Slick was invited aboard as a co-vocalist. From
then on, the audience and media focus was on the ethereal Slick and
her strident vocalisms.
Somehow amidst the acid jazz-stoked instrumentation, Slick and Balin
were able to carve out an equal space in the orchestration with their
singing. Further augmented by the voice of Paul Kantner, the singers
were able to make use of breathtaking harmonies that engulfed
listeners. At times, Grace Slick and Marty Balin's voices
complemented each other; at other times it was an all out vocal war
for the spotlight. When all three voices worked together (as on
"Won't You Try Saturday Afternoon"), it was almost impossible to
distinguish any individual part. Slick might hold a long extended
note that gradually developed into an Eastern modal trill or a laser
beam-like piercing snarl; Kantner's and Balin's voices wrapped
themselves around each other like fornicating serpents; at sudden
instances, Slick's voice would veer low while Balin's swung high into
a wrenching climax; this vocal web would build to a fever pitch that
might climax with all three suddenly landing on the same pitch.
It is amazing that these choral fantasies were produced with no
notation by (pardon my bluntness but let's be frank) thoroughly wasted
kids. A real test would be for someone to notate each voice part
separately. The singing in Jefferson Airplane, at times, had all the
intricacy and complexity of a Palestrina motet; it could also be as
daring, demented and dynamic as the formidable playing of the
I think I've devoted enough screen and exhausted my thesaurus on this
subject. Simply put, there is a lot more to the music of Jefferson
Airplane than the times, events and circumstances which produced it.
For a short while, J.A. were the ultimate soundtrack for a stoned-out
rebellious generation. But a SOBER look at what they created between
1965 and 1971 reveals music no less enthralling, trippy, emotional or
progressive as any experience on hard drugs. Their music is no less
valid or groundbreaking than any other "progressive" group that has
since followed in their wake. It may be hard to separate the group
from 1960's San Fransisco but the Airplane have just as much to offer
musically to people today as they did politically to people yesterday.
Jefferson Airplane was a pure machine of such unconventional makeup
and sleek organic design that reached aural heights that have yet to
be surpassed. The Airplane were the first and still are the best.
"Feed Your Head"
(Recommended recordings: their first six albums are pure classics.
Because the technology improved over that time frame (the Airplane
were among the first to use 16-tracks), the later albums sound better.
I suggest keeping an eye out for remixed or remastered versions of
the early albums. The best career overview is provided in the 2 CD
set 2400 Fulton St. There are a slew of Greatest Hits packages and
one immense box set but this collection is the most definitive. Part
of J.A.'s splendor was in their live shows and there are several
recordings that are just as vital and essential as any album. Bless
Its Pointed Little Head is the original and still one of the best.
The newly released Live at the Fillmore East is also extremely good.
Their live set at the Monterey Pop Festival is also included on that
boxset and features a great rendition of their live standard "Other
Side of This Life" that showcases Jack Casady's unmistakable sound.)
Written By: Sir Brian C.