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Jefferson Airplane: 12 Essential Songs

R.I.P., Paul Kantner: The best of the psychedelic rock icons

Rolling Stone Jan 29, 2016
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Written by Andy Greene, Brittany Spanos, Jason Heller, Keith Harris and Simon Vozick-Levinson


Photo: C.J. Strauss & Company

Photo: C.J. Strauss & Company


“Don’t you want somebody to love?” goes the chorus of Jefferson Airplane’s best-known hit. Love was more than just an age-old crutch for pop songwriters in 1967, the year the Grace Slick”“sung “Somebody to Love” was released; it had taken on a metaphysical dimension, and Jefferson Airplane were at the vanguard. The Summer of Love launched the band into the pop charts, but also into the eye of the psychedelic storm that was brewing in their native San Francisco. But even hippie anthems like “White Rabbit” couldn’t keep the eerie weirdness of the times at bay.

Paul Kantner was not only a founding member, guitarist, singer and songwriter for Jefferson Airplane, he was the group’s conceptual heart. Bringing along a love of literature and science fiction that seeped into the Airplane’s songs along with his fuzzed-out guitar tones, Kantner remained with the band, on and off, throughout its tumultuous self-reinvention as Jefferson Starship, taking a long break in the Eighties as Marty Balin steered the newly christened Starship into brief pop success. Starship still tinges the legacy of Jefferson Airplane, which partly explains why the band’s epochal Sixties work ”” as well as its uneven but sporadically brilliant output in the Seventies and beyond ”” finds itself curiously underrated today. But in their prime, Jefferson Airplane had plenty of songs to love.


“It’s No Secret” (1966)

The Jefferson Airplane’s 1966 debut LP, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, was recorded before Grace Slick joined the group and they embraced their iconic psychedelic sound. The collection of folk rock tunes didn’t find much of an audience (it peaked at Number 128 on the Billboard album chart), but the standout track “It’s No Secret” showcased the group’s incredible potential that would soon pay off in a huge way. Marty Balin wrote the song imagining Otis Redding handling the lead, and tried to find his inner soul man when laying down the vocals.

“Somebody to Love” (1967)

Jefferson Airplane shot into stardom with the explosive “Somebody to Love,” a song written by Grace Slick’s brother-in-law and former Great Society bandmate Darby Slick. The fantastical break-up single shot up the charts upon its release ”” their first and biggest hit. It not only helped Jefferson Airplane make their mark on rock music but also put San Francisco and its Haight-Ashbury scene on the map as the center of the counter-cultural movement.


“White Rabbit” (1967)

“White Rabbit” is one of the most iconic buzzes in acid rock history, soundtracking the summer of love in 1967 and a slew of movies ever since. Over a hypnotic drum pattern and one of rock’s most famous crescendoes, Grace Slick uses Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass as a colorful (but not especially subtle) metaphor for using hallucinogens. The Surrealistic Pillow single immediately followed up the success of “Somebody to Love,” giving the band their second Top 10 hit, though the song’s writer didn’t seem to care for its success that much: Slick kept the gold 45 under the toilet seat lid in her bathroom. “It’s just something for the boys to look at when they take a leak,” she told Rolling Stone in 1971. “It fits.”


“Today” (1967)

A gentle folk ballad that balanced out the stranger fare on the Airplane’s breakthrough LP, “Today” is the plush stuffing in the middle of the Surrealistic Pillow. That’s unofficial Airplane copilot Jerry Garcia on sweet, dreamy lead guitar; Kantner would later say Garcia lent “his particular Grateful madness to the whole [Surrealistic Pillow] project,” and his touch is particularly clear on this song. Marty Balin, who co-wrote the song with Kantner and sang the tender lead vocal, later said “Today” was his attempt to impress Tony Bennett, who was recording in the next studio over. These days it sounds less like a tune for the ageless pop crooner, and more like a blueprint for the softer side of psychedelia as practiced by later bands like R.E.M. and Galaxie 500.

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“The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil” (1967)

The first Airplane single solely written by Kantner pays tribute to two of his influences. One was children’s author A.A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh ”” several of Kantner’s lyrics adapted lines from “Spring Morning” and “Halfway Down,” two poems collected in Milne’s When We Were Very Young. The other one was folk singer Fred Neil, who would later become best known as the writer of the Harry Nilsson hit “Everybody’s Talkin'” and who Kantner idolized, calling him “very evocative of a certain soulfulness that was generally lacking in the folk movement.” “Pooneil” was a portmanteau that “referred to Freddie and Winnie the Pooh sort of thrown into a mixmaster on the psychedelic era,” Kantner joked. The recorded version on After Bathing at Baxter’s isn’t quite four-and-a-half minutes, but the band would stretch it out over 10 minutes in concert, with a Jorma Kaukonen guitar freakout and a Jack Casady bass solo turning it into a psychedelic setpiece.


“Watch Her Ride” (1967)

Kantner would later recall the recording of After Bathing at Baxter’s as the moment when the Airplane came into their own as psychedelic artists. “We took over the soundboard,” he recalled. “We had motorcycles in the studio, nitrous oxide tanks, marijuana everywhere. Smoke rose out of the boards with Jack’s bass overloading. We experimented with every button.” That album is also where he stepped out as the band’s de facto leader, contributing more as a songwriter and singer. Though a fairly straightforward ”” and fairly smoking ”” rock song that clocked in at a radio-friendly 3:11, the Kantner-penned “Watch Her Ride” only made it to Number 61 on the Hot 100. The Airplane was a psychedelic rock band now, their days of hit singles behind them ”” though they were still mainstream enough that Perry Como invited them to appear on one of his TV specials in 1968.


“Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” (1967)

“Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” embodies the shadows lurking along the underbelly of the hippie ideal. It’s Kantner’s paean to peace and love ”” with a subtle side of desperation and despair. One the surface, the track’s easygoing harmonies and airy arrangement exude flowery sweetness. But the coiled, churning darkness of Kantner’s distorted guitar ”” along with lines like “Won’t you try with love before you’re gone?” ”” hint at the realization that entropy comes to everyone.


“Crown of Creation” (1968)

In 1968, Kantner got a call from someone with the Democratic Party. “They wanted us to write a song for them, and I was reading a book called Rebirth by John Wyndham and I was playing a little blues lick that I had stolen from Jorma,” he recalled in 2012. “I just put it all together as a joke, knowing that if they read the lyrics, they’d never use it.” Well, someone must have read those lyrics. The Democrats didn’t use “Crown of Creation” ”” Hubert Humphrey had enough problems in ’68 without selecting a campaign song based on a novel about telepathic mutants struggling to escape religious persecution in post-apocalyptic Labrador. But as one of the first of Kantner’s songs to be directly influenced by science fiction, “Crown of Creation” indicated the direction his songwriting was headed.

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“We Can Be Together” (1969)

Just a few months after the MC5 battled with Elektra over the utterance of “motherfucker” on Kick Out the Jams, Paul Kantner threw the same word into “We Can Be Together.” One of the Jefferson Airplane’s most savage, incendiary statements, the song embraces every negative stereotype of the counterculture ”” “We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent and young” ”” before dropping the M-bomb and proclaiming, “We are the forces of chaos and anarchy.” Never Mind the Bollocks was still eight years away.


“Wooden Ships” (1969)

One weekend in 1968, Paul Kantner and Stephen Stills found themselves hanging out in Fort Lauderdale on David Crosby’s boat ”” a 59-foot schooner that the king of folk-rock harmony had christened the Mayan. “I had been unceremoniously tossed out of the Byrds, and I had some time on my hands,” Crosby would later recall. “I was down there just goofing off.”

Once Stills and Kantner were there, it was only a matter of time before the guitars came out. “I had this set of changes that I’d been playing for a long time, that I really, really loved,” Crosby recalled. “We were sitting around in the main cabin of the boat, and we started fooling around, as we would naturally do.” Kantner and Stills contributed a few verses each, sketching an allegorical tale about the seafaring survivors of a future apocalypse; the image of “wooden ships on the water, very free and easy” was Kantner’s.

“Wooden Ships” ended up becoming a spacey highlight of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s self-titled debut in 1969. It reappeared the following year in a darker, edgier rendition on the Airplane’s Volunteers. In his original Rolling Stone review of the album, critic Ed Ward wrote that “Wooden Ships” had “been given new life by Paul Kantner. … The song comes off as more of a scream of desperation than does the Crosby-Stills-Nash version. … It is an epic performance, and one of the best the Airplane has ever done.”


“Volunteers” (1969)

Months before they played Woodstock, Jefferson Airplane headed into a San Francisco studio and cut their long-awaited fifth album, Volunteers. The title track, written by Paul Kantner and Marty Balin, seemed like an unambiguous call for a new American revolution, even though the inspiration came from an unlikely source. “It became political but it didn’t start out that way,” Marty Balin said in 1993. “I had woken up to the sound of garbage cans crashing outside the mansion and looked out, and there was this Volunteers of America truck, so I wrote that down and gave it to Paul and he wrote the song. Bang. People put all kinds of meaning into it.”


“Mexico” (1970)

Not longer after taking the Oath of Office in January of 1969, President Richard Nixon set his sights on sealing the border between America and Mexico to stop the steady flow of marijuana into the states. He called it Operation Intercept, and it did not sit well with Jefferson Airplane. Grace Slick made her feelings on the matter very clear in the lyrics of “Mexico.” “But Mexico is under the thumb,” she wrote. “Of a man we call Richard/And he’s come to call himself king/But he’s a small-headed man.” Crazily enough, Slick attended the same New York finishing school as Nixon’s daughter Tricia, and not long after the song came out she was invited to a ten-year reunion at the White House. Slick showed up with Abbie Hoffman. “I had planned to spike Richard Nixon’s tea with acid,” she said in 2011. “But when Abbie and I were on line, a security guard wouldn’t let me in. He said, ‘We checked and you’re a security risk.'”

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