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    [ Jefferson Airplane ]


    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 eardrums).

    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 group that 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 Fransisco sound".

    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 another liftoff.

    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 hallucinogenic landscapes.

    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 instrumentalists.

    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.