2010-10-04

Jefferson Airplane and The Calm Before the Storm


STATS
Jefferson Airplane: Dionysian
Jefferson Starship: Apollonian
Mythos: In their heyday, the Airplane were the definitive SF psych band, having evolved from earnest folk rock outfit to druggy, bluesy jam band. Reconfigured as a mainstream rock outfit in the early 70s, scored a string of soft rock hits until evolving into an arena-rock band with a revolving lineup.


An author's worst enemy is the dreaded word count. Which is why the Internet can be the author's best friend. The reason I bring it up is that I had to trim a section on the Jefferson Airplane after doing a tremendous amount of work on it (especially in the editing stage- it's a lot more difficult to say less than more). Grace Slick gets her own section in the book, though arguably she did her best work with the Jeffersons - both the Airplane and the pre-Mickey Thomas Starship. I say "arguably"because Grace's solo albums have their partisans.

My chapter on the new Dionysians was a bit top heavy, so I had to cut out the section on the Jeffersons. It's not entirely fair, but Slick is seen as the star attraction of the Airplane, having earned the band's chart hits. Slick's frenemy, Airplane founder Marty Balin, would turn the tables in the 70s when he joined Slick's Jefferson Starship outfit with husband Paul Kantner and earned the band a string of big-selling soft rock standards.

The two JA vids here demonstrate exactly why Slick was not only the breakout star of Psychedelia, but also show how she carved a whole new identity for women in Rock 'n' Roll, which I refer to as the 'Isis' archetype. Something about Slick's posture always reminded me of a Romanized depiction of the goddess- maybe that was all her finishing school training.



But the cut was also one of those fortuitous heartbreaks, since I discovered this video which marries some poignantly innocent flower child footage to Jefferson Airplane's "Embryonic Journey." This video really captures the striking parallels between the ancient Mysteries and the early days of the Aquarian Explosion, and would carry over into print.

It's all so poignant because things would very nasty very quickly for a lot of these people, as bad drugs and bad actors would flood the sunny streets of San Francisco soonafter. When people set about creating the next major countercultural movement, I hope they will learn from the mistakes of the Sixties, as well as all of the other utopian movements that collapsed upon themselves. Without any further melancholy, here's the excised section on the Jeffersons...


Though unfondly remembered as the band that evolved into 80s synth-popsters Starship, The original Jefferson Airplane were acid -dazed outlaws who kick-started the Psychedelic Rock revolution. The Airplane arose out of the mid 60s folk rock explosion, when founders Marty Balin and Paul Kantner began to add electric guitars to their romanticized folk and blues ballads. The band picked up two blues virtuosi, guitarist Jorma Koukonen and bassist Jack Cassady, as well as howling folk mama Signe Andersen. The group got signed and got some buzz with their debut LP. Onstage the Airplane were already a bonafide jam band, earning the rep with their blissed-out improvisations.

LSD and other hallucinogens were all the hot ticket in town, and the Airplane’s new batch of songs got weirder and druggier. They got even more so Grace Slick defected over from rival band the Great Society when Andersen became pregnant, and soon became San Francisco’s flagship Psychedelic band.

In early ‘67, the Airplane cut the landmark second LP, Surrealistic Pillow, which featured their early signature songs ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Somebody to Love’, both sung by Slick. The album was a hit and the Airplane became major stars. But the drugs were getting to them, like everyone else. The Airplane went overboard in the studio for their third LP, After Bathing at Baxter’s, causing Balin to walk out in disgust at the acid-crazed mayhem.

Their fourth studio album Crown of Creation (1968) reflected a trend towards science fiction and apocalypticism. The album featured ‘Triad’ which friend David Crosby agave them after The Byrds had rejected it. The Airplane loved Triad - free love was their way of life, and Grace bedded all of her bandmates save Balin at one time or another.

The Airplane peaked in 1969 with their landmark LP Volunteers, which climaxed with the pile-driving revolutionary anthem, ‘Volunteers (of America)’. From that point on things got dicey. Having been usurped as Airplane leader after Pillow, Balin found himself isolated in the band he created and he left in 1971.



With the Airplane in shambles, Kantner enlisted an all-star cast of friends for a new project he named 'Jefferson Starship'. That project came to fruition with Red Octopus (1975) which also saw Balin onboard as a full member. Balin’s lusty ‘Miracles’ became a major smash, Octopus topped the charts for four weeks, and the band continued on with a string of Top 20 hits. The Starship were now far more successful than the Airplane had ever been, thanks to the very same love ballads that isolated Balin in the 60s.

That success was short-lived. Slick’s drinking had gotten out of control, and she and Balin left the band in late ‘78. Balin was replaced by Mickey Thomas and Jefferson Starship took on a more calculated arena rock sound, gradually devolving into the uber-commercial Starship, best known for ‘We Built This City’ (1985). A full Airplane reunion in 1987 did little to staunch the bleeding. After a protracted legal struggle, Kantner and a revolving cast of Bay Area journeymen reclaimed- and restored- the Jefferson Starship name.

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