Tuesday, January 10, 2012


From the time I was a little kid, I found it very easy to have a “least favorite band”. That band, by a mile, was JEFFERSON STARSHIP. Until Jane’s Addiction came along, they were my poster children for bad rock music, largely on the basis of their awful 1974-78 songs “Miracles”, “With Your Love” and “Count On Me”. We won’t even talk about “We Built This City”, which is truly an unspeakable abomination and came out long after the band had already almost destroyed music. Exhibit A for my hate for this cosmic/hippie stargazin’ band of travelin’ wanderers were the vocals of Marty Balin, a noxious, Vegas-y croon/warble that sends chills up my spine and kills all the plants in immediate vicinity to the radio. So you can probably understand why it took me a while to investigate the 1960s recordings of JEFFERSON AIRPLANE, the far more heralded band that mutated into the execrable Starship.

Here we are in 2012, and I’m transmitting my first real opinions of Jefferson Airplane’s music. I’m ostensibly a fairly knowledgeable fella about the history of rock and roll and all that, and it’s not like I don’t already know the Airplane story, and could have named every member and his/her instrument at any point in the last thirty years. I’ve lived just about my whole life in the San Francisco Bay Area, 22 years in San Francisco itself, and the late 60s hippie scene only recently (i.e. the past decade) stopped looming large over SF’s musical history. I think it might have been the death of Bill Graham, or the San Francisco Chronicle’s wise-but-30-years-too-late decision to stop letting JoelSelvin write in their paper.

The Jefferson Airplane’s a band I’ve had a great handle on in every way except actually listening to their stuff. The only LP I’d heard all the way through up until two weeks ago was the 1967 smash hit “Surrealistic Pillow”, the one that gave the world both Grace Slick and their two most popular songs, “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” – two songs just about everyone, including me, likes. All this time I’ve known that other people have many kind things to say about their work, and about the adventurous, experimental California hippie rock that I’ve disdained for many years, save for my faves LOVE and MOBY GRAPE (I have a lot of catching up to do, I know). I decided to investigate (and buy) their other early albums, the ones I hadn’t heard. My findings may shock and surprise you!

“AFTER BATHING AT BAXTER’S” – Jefferson Airplane’s third album, also from 1967 completely wiped the slate clean on the Starship. It’s that good, top to bottom and on virtually every track. The band, having experienced huge success with the aforementioned “Surrealistic Pillow” and its singles, went into an LA studio, drank a ton of booze, dropped acid like it was Razzles, noodled and farted around, layered overdubs and experimental cut-ups, turned the guitars up high & ran them through the fuzz-pedals becoming so popular at the time - and made a phenomenal, non-commercial record.

 I’d read about this one before, and was expecting something pretty unapproachable, but that’s not at all the case. It’s a beautiful album, with a touch of folk here and there (the 45 “Martha”), but with some outstanding psychedelic weirdness and overblown guitar on tracks like “Two Heads” and “The Last Wall of the Castle”. Not only do I admire how bold the band was to record something not tailor-made for the kids, but they did it in such a creative manner, with no two tracks sounding like each other. Sure, the jazz experiments are a little much, and Grace Slick is an acquired taste (self-admitted as someone who can’t really sing). But there’s only one track with Marty Balin on lead vocals (“Young Girl Sunday Blues”)! And it’s good! Pretty fantastic stuff across the board.

“JEFFERSON AIRPLANE TAKES OFF” – So next I listened to their first one, when they were a San Francisco folkie band with a slightly different lineup (Warbling folk singer Signe Anderson instead of Grace Slick; Skip Spence on drums instead of Spencer Dryden). I’m going to say right here it’s not the equal of either “Surrealistic Pillow” and certainly not “Baxter’s”. but it’s a young-sounding record with a lot of Balin and despite that, a lot of good ideas. The songs are often minor-key versions of garage rock, just quieted down in most cases and with a little more freedom to, well – be free I guess. Most clock in around the 3 minute mark, and you can just hear Haight Street starting to crawl with the great unwashed, pouring into Golden Gate Park for the free concerts that this record would help trigger. I need to study this one a little more, I reckon.

Damn it, those hippies have really wormed their way into my head. I’ll be investigating the work of Quicksilver Messenger Service next – any recommendations for where to get started would be most appreciated.