Jefferson Airplane (1st of 2)

Pictured: Most of the Jefferson Airplane personnel as of their debut album. (l – r), Jorma Kaukonen, Paul Kantner, Jack Casady, Marty Balin, Signe Toly Anderson, Spencer Dryden. (Skip Spence played on most of the album.)

I was originally not a big fan of West Coast bands not, one hopes, because of some East Coast snobbery but more because I thought some of them were just too laid-back, too “California” or something. (I’ve never been a Byrds fan, for example. Heresy I know but there it is.) But bands like Creedence, Spirit and of course, the Doors seemed to be less folkie and somewhat more ballsy. And the Airplane, I think, with their weird world view and unconventional three-part singing really caught my ear. This is my long-overdue tribute to them. 

It really all starts with Cincinnati-born singer Marty Balin. He went to high school in San Francisco and wound up doing a couple of tunes for the now-defunct Challenge Records. Challenge – whose biggest hit was the 1958 tune, “Tequila,” – was co-founded by singing cowboy Gene Autry. Alas, that was pretty much Challenge’s biggest hit. Balin’s records sold little and the label eventually went out of business in the late ’60s.

Marty joined a group called the Town Criers in the 1963-64 time frame. Considering this was during the pre-Beatle, pre-long-hair folkie craze, it’s no surprise that the Criers were a very clean-cut looking group. Love to hear that if only for historical purposes, you say? Ask and ye shall receive. Here they are ripping it up with “900 Miles.”

Like pretty much everybody who heard the Beatles, Balin shed his folkie skin pretty quickly and aimed towards more of a folk-rock sound. He also had a bit of foresight and entrepreneurial savvy and with a couple of investors, opened a club in San Franciso called The Matrix. (born 1965, died 1972.)

While not quite approaching the fame and prestige of its crosstown neighbor Fillmore West, the Matrix featured its share of great bands in its brief lifetime with everyone from Big Brother and the Holding Company to bluesman Charlie Musselwhite to Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks.

The Town Criers had played frequently at a local club named the Drinking Gourd where Balin met folk musician Paul Kantner. Kantner was a native San Franciscan who was sent to Catholic military boarding school after his mother’s death. As an escape, he got heavily into science fiction and soon enough developed an anti-authority attitude and became a protest folk singer. Like Balin, he found inspiration in folk groups like the Weavers and the Kingston Trio.

One of the great advantages that Balin had as a club owner was that he could pick and choose the house band. And so with Kantner now on board, they decided to be the house band. A singer named Signe Toly Anderson was a well-known jazz and folk singer in the San Francisco area and Balin invited her to be co-lead singer.

Kantner had a friend, a blues guitarist named Jorma Kaukonen who had come from Washington, D.C. where he used to play in a band with then-guitarist Jack Casady.* When he moved to California, he got married and gigged around town. Fortuitously, one of the musicians he met at a coffeehouse jam was a then-unknown blues singer named Janis Joplin.

Janis asked Jorma to back her up (this is in 1964) on some tunes and so they went over to his house and Janis wailed on some great blues stuff. These tapes have surfaced and are known as the Typewriter Tapes as Jorma’s wife is typing a letter home in the background. This stuff is great! Check it out here. (Janis is holding an autoharp from her own folkie days. To paraphrase comedian Robert Klein, it’s a great instrument if you’re in a prisoner of war camp and you don’t have access to real instruments.)

Per Wikipedia, Kaukonen came up with the band’s name, based on the name of a friend’s dog.I had this friend in Berkeley who came up with funny names for people. His name for me was Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane (for blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson). When the guys were looking for band names and nobody could come up with something, I remember saying, ‘You want a silly band name? I got a silly band name for you!'”

The Jefferson Airplane made its debut at the Matrix in August of 1965, rounded out by drummer Jerry Peloquin and acoustic bassist Bob Harvey. Peloquin soon quit due to the band’s drug use and was replaced by Skip Spence. The band felt Harvey’s bass playing was not up to par so he was replaced by Kaukonen’s old D.C. chum, Jack Casady.

After a short while, the band caught the attention of the highly influential Ralph J. Gleason who was not only the jazz critic of the San Francisco Chronicle but who was also to become in a few years time a founding editor of Rolling Stone magazine. With Gleason’s endorsement and with bands like the Grateful Dead, Airplane and Moby Grape, the so-called “San Francisco Sound” was well on its way to being established.

San Francisco in 1965 was becoming an epicenter of what would become known as the counterculture, largely consisting of a broad swath of ages from teenagers to young adults who rejected the conformity of their parents’ 50s lifestyle. Add to this stew the fact that San Francisco was a much more wide-open, carefree, experimental city than similarly-sized cities like Boston and you have a recipe for experimentation. (There was never any such slogan as “Banned in San Francisco.”)

That year was significant in that there were “happenings” which were loosely organized concerts where people would show up at a venue based on hearsay or maybe a poster. Bands like the Dead and Airplane would play and people would just wander around, often either high on LSD they brought (possession in the US was legal until 1968) or perhaps having been dosed by the band. (The Dead were notorious for this.)

It was at one of these shows that they encountered a band called the Great Society** whose lead singer was husky-voiced ex-model, Grace Slick. The band had been inspired by not only the Airplane but also the Beatles and Dead. The band managed to record only one single but significantly, their producer was Sylvester Stewart aka Sly Stone. The Great Society were popular in the area but their record had little to no impact.

In late 1965, aided no doubt by their increasing popularity and American record labels’ need to have a response to the Beatles, the Airplane landed a contract with RCA. Their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, was released in late 1966 making them the first major SF band to release an album. I’m not sure who was negotiating their contract but they received a then-unheard-of advance of $25,000 (About $200,000 in 2019 dollars.)

This album’s songs were largely written by Balin and Kanter, with Balin taking most lead vocals and Signe backing him up. The rock magazine Crawdaddy – which was the first one to take rock criticism seriously called the album “the most important album of American rock” of 1966.”

Listening to this album now, it’s kinda hard to figure out where the hell the Airplane got their unusual sound. They sorta sound folk-rock-ish but then kinda pop as well. But due in part I think to Balin’s influence the Airplane have always been as much a vocal band as a “psychedelic” rock band.

Here’s the Balin/Spence tune, “Blues from an Airplane:”

Spotify link

I would be remiss if I didn’t here quote Wikipedia on the RCA executives, aka dickheads, response to some of the tunes: “RCA executives found some of the lyrics too sexually suggestive. They had the band change the lyrics in “Let Me In” from “I gotta get in, you know where” to “You shut your door, now it ain’t fair”, and “Don’t tell me you want money” to “Don’t tell me it’s so funny”.

In “Run Around” they had the end of the line “Blinded by colors come flashing from flowers that sway as you lay under me” altered to “…that sway as you stay here by me”. With “Runnin’ ‘Round This World” the executives insisted that “trips” in the line “The nights I’ve spent with you have been fantastic trips” referred to taking LSD, though the band insisted it was merely common slang.

Even replacing the word “trips” with a guitar arpeggio did not placate RCA’s concerns with the line’s sexual connotations and refused its inclusion on the album, and the recording remained unreleased for the next eight years.”

Balin’s tune “It’s No Secret” was released from the album. I don’t recall if it was anywhere near a Top Ten hit but it eventually got fairly significant airplay on what within a year would blossom and be called underground radio. The local FM station KSAN, along with WBCN in Boston, WMMR in Philly and WPLJ*** in New York were all significant players. The ubiquitous Sly Stone was a DJ on KSAN for a while.

Spotify link

That was the one and only album with that lineup. Anderson quit when she had a baby; Skip Spence was tossed when he skipped town to Mexico one day without telling anybody. The band recruited Slick to replace Signe and Spencer Dryden replaced Spence who went on to form Moby Grape.

And while the Airplane’s debut album sold fairly well, by early 1967 – the so-called “Summer of Love,” – they would be flying at least nine miles high.

*In 1970, Kaukonen and Casady formed a side project called Hot Tuna which largely specialized in acoustic blues. They are active to this day and were in fact in this area maybe a month or two ago.

**The Great Society was “a set of domestic programs in the United States launched by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964–65. The main goal was the total elimination of poverty and racial injustice.” This worked so well that both of these, of course, are now completely eradicated in the US. {snort}

***The station was originally named WABC-FM but was rechristened WPLJ after a tune on Zappa’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich album. The letters stand for White Port and Lemon Juice. I know this because I was living in New York and recall this happening. Elton John later recorded his classic 11-17-70 album at WPLJ’s studios. I heard that live too.

 

 

 

 

21 thoughts on “Jefferson Airplane (1st of 2)

  1. (I’ll save my J.A. two cents for Part 2.) Re Johnson’s Great Society, while poverty and racism are, indeed, still around, there were long-term successes. What really undermined it was Johnson’s funding of the Vietnam War, carried on by Nixon.

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    1. Let’s say that’s true. Statistics show that the poverty level in 1964 was 19% and it was 12.3% in 2017. The Vietnam ended 45 years ago. What’s our excuse for this not being in, say, the below 5% range? I say we’ve lost the will or we just don’t care. The GOP is all about “I’ve got mine, you get yours” leaving only the Dems who talk about healthcare and jobs. And I suppose if we take care of those, why, voila! poverty will just take care of itself. Not a word from any of the 80 or Dems who are running for pres about poverty. Not. One Word. BTW,the threshold for a family of four, including two children, is US$24,250. Who can live on that?

      As to racism, I’d come up with a bunch of data/stats but then we’d be here all day and veer too far from the intent of the post. But in the US, it’s always one step forward, three steps back. Remember Reconstruction? We’re only now getting rid of some of the Confederate statues raised after that 12-year period.

      Was it great that Obama was elected? Was that a great leap forward? Absolutely on both counts. But look no further than our current president who is the veritable embodiment of the backlash. His followers? Right with him all the way. MAGA is all about “this is a white supremacist male patriarchy and I will keep it that way.” Check out any poll that asks black and white people about whether there is racism or how bad it is to see the discrepancy in viewpoints. We’ve come a long way – but we ain’t even close to where we should be.

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  2. You’re preaching to the choir, my friend. I feel your anger all the way. The “successes” I referred to are Medicare, Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act (since allowed to lapse thanks to a right-wing Supreme Court). But, yes, one step forward, three back. I was just thinking, driving in to work this morning, how we always seem to pay a price for our minor progresses. After Clinton (a fricking moderate), we suffered Bush 2. After Obama, well…

    Like Grace Slick says, we’ve got a “nut-job goofball” who’s downright “embarrassing.” Some progress.

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    1. Point taken about Medicare, Medicaid, etc. And yeah, as soon as the Court let the Voter Rights thing lapse, more than a few states rushed in to push us back to 1960. And the GOP sometimes thinks they have the wind at their back to get rid of Medicare but that ain’t happening. But hey, they do have a great plan. It’ s just that they never tell us what it is.

      If LBJ had pulled the troops out of Vietnam in 1965 when we had “only” lost 2500 guys, he might be considered one of our great presidents. Alas,

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  3. While I know and generally like Jefferson Airplane’s hits, for some reason, I never explored them in greater detail.

    In December 2016, I saw an offspring, Jefferson Starship, featuring impressive 78-year-old cofounder David Freiberg who had replaced Marty Balin in Airplane, and a pretty good lead vocalist, Cathy Richardson. They played a bunch of Airplane tunes and were fun to watch.

    They opened for Blue Oyster Cult, the main reason why I went to that show.

    Looking forward to part 2.

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    1. Boy I never much cared for Starship. Whereas the Airplane were hip and subversive, Starship went full-on pop. Their song “We Built This City On Rock and Roll” is a fucking travesty. I will trash them more thoroughly in Part 2. 🙂

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      1. Apparently, there is Jefferson Starship, formed in 1974, which morphed into Starship in 80s – the pop-oriented that built cities on rock & roll.

        Frankly, I’m not very familiar with each reincarnation’s catalog. The Jefferson Starship I saw in 2016 played most of the Airplane stuff.

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        1. For your homework, I want you to go to the blackboard and write (1000 times), “Any song called ‘We Built This City on Rock and Roll’ Must Instantly Suck.” 😂

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        2. Whoa! I just found out that Bernie Taupin was one of the co-authors of “We Built this City.” Considering it won many “Worst Song of All Time” awards, not his crowning achievement.

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      1. I don’t think they suck they just didn’t reach me like those other bands that you know I like. Yeah they were laying around my brothers pile. I guess my ear went to that harder edge blues guitar thing. My Gal was a bit of a fan and had a few of their records. Then that transformation happened and I was lost for ever except for that ‘Built This City’ tune, right up my ally ( I don’t think the Doc will buy that one).
        I also like Balin for standing up to those “motorcycle enthusiasts” at Altamont. I think we talked about that before.

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        1. You’ll hear some harder-edged shit in the second post. I consider “We Built This City” second only to “Sometimes When We Touch.”

          As to Balin, yea and he got coldcocked for his troubles.

          I sometimes think if CB wasn’t so selfish, he’d load up the Beverly Hillbillies truck (gal, Big Earl, Princess, random other people, Max Baer Jr.) and move to Boston so we could go see bands like Hot Tuna together.

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        2. Yep, Balin, Kantner, Signe all gone. We’re watching that era disappear before our very eyes. Slick is still with us but had a lot substance problems and kinda looks like your grandmother these days.

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  4. I had a greatest hits compilation, which I sold, and I now just have Surrealistic Pillow. Surrealistic Pillow sounds more like a greatest hits than the greatest hits did, if that makes sense. I do miss a few songs from the compilation though, so maybe one day I’ll go deeper. I like parts of the band a lot – especially Kantner, Karkounen, and Casady – but I’m not the biggest fan of Slick and Balin.

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      1. I was more thinking about songwriting actually – everything on Surrealistic Pillow is pretty good, but outside of that I tend to enjoy the material from Kantner more than the other two vocalists.

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