Jefferson Airplane


Staff member
An influence to numerous folk outfits (FAIRPORT CONVENTION et al) rather than being at the centre of the genre’s core, JEFFERSON AIRPLANE were indeed the quintessential West Coast psychedelic rock band who initially stemmed from the post-BYRDS scene.

Formed by San Franciscans Marty Balin and Paul Kantner in early 1965 (taking their moniker from a reference to BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON), the pair recruited other like-minded hippies such as singer Signe Ann Toly (soon-to-be Signe Anderson), Jorma Kaukonen on rhythm guitar, Bob Harvey on bass and Jerry Peloquin on drums, and made their debut at the Matrix on August 13th that year. When both Peloquin and Harvey were given their marching orders, the new line-up, featuring Canadian guitarist-cum-drummer Skip Spence and Jack Casady, signed a lucrative recording contract with RCA Victor.

However, things did not get off to a good start when debut single `It’s No Secret’ flopped, while follow-up, `Come Up The Years’ did likewise. In August ‘66, the group’s first album, JEFFERSON AIRPLANE TAKES OFF {*6} sold evenly, indeed it was a competent hybrid of folk-rock and blues notable for the powerful singing of ex-TOWN CRIERS member Balin on the majority of the tracks (Anderson sang on their reading of Lester Melrose’s `Chauffeur Blues’). Best song on board was undoubtedly `Don’t Slip Away’, and there was also room for an embryonic take of DINO VALENTE’s `(Let’s) Get Together’ (later a smash for The YOUNGBLOODS), while one could forgive them for their flat version of JOHN D. LOUDERMILK’s `Tobacco Road’ (a one-time hit for The NASHVILLE TEENS).

By the time of the LP’s release, however, Signe had left to have a baby and was replaced by Grace Slick (formerly of The GREAT SOCIETY); Spence had also vacated the drum stool to form MOBY GRAPE, his place was filled by Spencer Dryden from PEANUT BUTTER CONSPIRACY. The potential of this all-playing, all-writing group was fulfilled on the follow-up LP, SURREALISTIC PILLOW (1967) {*9}. A folk-based psychedelic classic, the record spawned two Top 10 singles, `Somebody To Love’ and `White Rabbit’, the sultry Slick having brought both songs with her from her previous band. Her powerful vox was so much stronger than Anderson’s, and her commanding clarity stamped itself indelibly on every song, particularly the latter, a neo-classical lysergic nursery rhyme (inspired by the Lewis Carroll book, Alice In Wonderland) that managed to sound at once sinister and insidiously catchy. Even Kaukonen’s blistering guitar work and newcomer Casady’s relentlessly inventive bass playing sounded more assured, the album going on to sell half a million copies. Described at the time as an “amplified Peter, Paul & Mary”, JEFFERSON AIRPLANE’s acid-rock cues came no better than `Today’ (penned by Balin and Kantner), Balin’s `Plastic Fantastic Lover’ and `3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds’, Kantner’s `How Do You Feel’ plus Kaukonen’s plucky instrumental, `Embryonic Journey’.

One of the many high spots from that year’s iconic Monterey International Pop Festival (alongside JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE, The MAMAS & THE PAPAS, etc.), JEFFERSON AIRPLANE then took psychedelic experimentation ever further with AFTER BATHING AT BAXTER’S (1968) {*8}. Comprising a number of free-form song “suites”, the album was hard going at times; the melodies were still in there, they were just harder to find among the wilful weirdness and extended instrumental jams (`Spare Chaynge’ was one such dirge, clocking in at 9 minutes). Slick once again contributed a couple of cuts, `Rejoyce’ (inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses) and `Two Heads’, but it was Kantner’s harmony-fuelled `The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil’, `Watch Her Ride’ and `Martha’ that stole the show.
R.C.A. must have breathed a sigh of relief when the band came up with the relatively more accessible CROWN OF CREATION (1968) {*7}. A more conventional set of songs, it featured the scary `The House At Pooh Corner’, Slick’s haunting `Lather’ and a cover of DAVID CROSBY’s menage-a-trois elegy, `Triad’.

After a thundering live set, BLESS ITS POINTED LITTLE HEAD (1969) {*6} – which featured a 7-minute run-through of DONOVAN’s `Fat Angel’, FRED NEIL’s `The Other Side Of This Life’ and the trad cue, `Rock Me Baby’ alongside the unnecessarily-long group improv, `Bear Melt’ – the band recorded the last album to feature the classic JEFFERSON AIRPLANE line-up, VOLUNTEERS (1969) {*7}. It featured the unflinching politics of `We Can Be Together’, and though the title track was used in the Woodstock movie, the band’s own performance wasn’t filmed. Pianist Nicky Hopkins was drafted in to bolster their sound, while GRATEFUL DEAD’s Jerry Garcia guested (pedal steel) on `The Farm’, a song that celebrated the band’s communal, easy-going living arrangements; CROSBY & STILLS (without NASH) worked with Kantner on the excellent `Wooden Ships’.

Soon after the album’s release, Dryden left to join country-orientated The NEW RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE and was replaced by Joey Covington; Balin, too, departed around this time after a prolonged period of tension with Slick, while HOT TUNA violinist Papa John Creach took up the slack. It was here the essence of JEFFERSON AIRPLANE truly changed away from their grassroots to something akin to arena rock. The subsequent BARK (1971) {*6} and LONG JOHN SILVER (1972) {*6} albums (duly released on the band’s newly-founded Grunt enterprise) bore none of the intensity of the ‘Airplane’s earlier work, although both chalked up Top 20 positions. Split between compositions by all individuals involved, only Jack, Jorma and Joey’s `Pretty As You Feel’ (from ’71), fell into chart waters. The band’s final effort, the concert-piece THIRTY SECONDS OVER WINTERLAND (1973) {*6} was similarly underwhelming. By this point, John Barbata had replaced sticksman Covington, while David Freiberg (ex-QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE) had been recruited on vocals. While Casady and Kaukonen went full-time with their side project, HOT TUNA, Slick and Kantner formed JEFFERSON STARSHIP with the remaining ‘Airplane alumni. The name was taken from an earlier, Kantner sci-fi inspired “hijack” project that released one album, BLOWS AGAINST THE EMPIRE (1970) {*7}. Augmented by the band (including Slick), plus CROSBY & NASH, MICKEY HART and JERRY GARCIA, the post-apocalyptic concept also cracked the Top 20.

Switching the emphasis to family (collaborators KANTNER and wife SLICK had become proud parents of a daughter, China), SUNFIGHTER (1971) {*6}, was another diversion from ‘Airplane activities. Boasting similar alumni from Paul’s previous project, the record was almost prog-like in its radical left-wing political themes. Whether NIRVANA were inspired by the glorious cover sleeve (holding up baby China to the sun), psychedelia and acid-folk were at the core of beautiful tracks such as `Silver Spoon’ and finale, `Holding Together’.

Adding David Freiberg to the triumvirate equation, 1973’s BARON VON TOLLBOOTH & THE CHROME NUN {*5}, was a spin-off too far. Featuring lyricist ROBERT HUNTER, bassist Chris Ethridge (from The FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS), DAVID CROSBY, GARCIA, HART and a guest spot from The POINTER SISTERS, no one it seemed had told them that flower-power had withered a long time ago.

Back on course, the debut JEFFERSON STARSHIP album proper, DRAGON FLY (1974) {*6}, was well written and skilfully executed, although it was clear the band were headed towards the mainstream. Fresh from her “Manhole” project set, Slick, plus cohorts, Kantner (now her ex), Freiberg, Creach and Barbata were joined by guitarist Craig Chaquico and Englishman/bassist Pete Sears; the hotch-potch of communal composition led to self-indulgent shifting directions; exceptions being `Ride The Tiger’ (a minor hit) and the sole Balin offering, `Caroline’.

With 1975’s chart-scaling RED OCTOPUS (1975) {*8}, Jeff Star’s sleek sound was crystallised; the album shifting a cool four million copies. Balin was also back in the fold full-time by this point and it was his Top 3 song, `Miracles’ (Slick and Sears’ joint effort, `Play On Song’), that was the group’s turning point. At a time when other husband-wife teams such as WINGS and FLEETWOOD MAC were the kingpins of soft-rock, Top 3 set SPITFIRE (1976) {*6} was another set to weave their magical harmonies. `With Your Love’ and the gospel-esque `St. Charles’ were the romantic hit-single aspect to the record, while the adventure and complexity of the `Song To The Sun’ suite harked back to Jefferson days.

Polished and glossy enough to draw in punters not willing to side with the new wave/punk movement, AOR was in full swing for the sickly-sweet EARTH (1978) {*4}; `Count On Me’ and `Runaway’ were also both platinum platters. Disillusioned with the new direction, GRACE SLICK soon bailed for a low key solo career (two further sets, “Dreams” and `Welcome To The Wrecking Ball!”), as did MARTY BALIN (for “Balin” in 1981); his berth was filled by ex-ELVIN BISHOP singer, Mickey Thomas. Barbata, too, was surplus to requirements, as English-born journeyman, Aynsley Dunbar, was drafted in for the FOREIGNER-esque FREEDOM AT POINT ZERO (1979) {*6}. Surprisingly, endearing and showcasing two arena-rock hits, including the glorious `Jane’, Kantner and Co were again Top 10 property.
While JEFFERSON STARSHIP continued to notch up Top 30 albums such as MODERN TIMES (1981) {*4}, WINDS OF CHANGE (1982) {*3} and NUCLEAR FURNITURE (1984) {*4}, their credibility had shrunk despite gallant attempts at fitting in to the cheesy, commercially-biased 80s.

As STARSHIP, the Kantner-less, Grace Slick-fronted group went on to even bigger success, spurred on by a lawsuit that paid off her aforementioned former lover (she’d since married Skip Johnson in November ’76), giving her the rights to the newly shortened moniker; she was joined by Thomas, Chaquico, Donny Baldwin and short-stop, Sears. Reeling off chart-topping hits like `We Built This City’ and `Sara’ (openers from the dire KNEE DEEP IN THE HOOPLA (1985) {*4}), plus the nauseous pop slush of `Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ (from the equally manufactured NO PROTECTION (1987) {*5}), the group had at least found a formula, albeit diluted with outside pensmiths such as Diane Warren and others. Without the iconic Slick at the helm, STARSHIP’s un-enterprising LOVE AMONG THE CANNIBALS (1989) {*4}, secured the remaining trio (plus additional members and outsider writers) little reward for their efforts; `It’s Not Enough’ was their final Top 20 single.

Incredibly/inevitably there was a full reunion of the classic JEFFERSON AIRPLANE line-up in 1989, messrs Slick, Kantner, Kaukonen, Casady and Balin, resurrecting nothing but pain and MAMAS AND THE PAPAS-styled retro on their singularly ill-advised “comeback” album, JEFFERSON AIRPLANE {*4}. A pointless exercise in crusty nostalgia, it was almost as dull as the dishwater STARSHIP were peddling.

JEFFERSON STARSHIP might as well have called themselves Jefferson StarTrek, given their “next generation” tenacity, as Kantner, Balin and Casady released subsequent sets, DEEP SPACE/VIRGIN SKY (1995) {*3}, WINDOWS OF HEAVEN (1998) {*6}, GREATEST HITS: LIVE AT THE FILLMORE (1999) {*4} and ACROSS THE SEA OF SUNS (2001) {*5}; vocals since ’96 courtesy of Diana Mangano. Just how far a group could sink was when the trio (and female accompaniment) tapped into their nostalgic folk roots to come up with the traditional-meets-contemporary effort, JEFFERSON’S TREE OF LIBERTY (2008) {*4} – the journey should stop here.

Sadly, master of ceremonies Paul Kantner died of a heart attack on January 28, 2016; aged 74. By coincidence, on the very same day, original vocalist Signe Toly Anderson passed away.

MARTY BALIN was still going strong as a solo artist (as of 2016 for `The Greatest Love’ album), but he too met his maker on September 27, 2018.

One of the most amazing psychedelic rock bands around in the SF psychedelic period. Grace Slick was a must in their music and Marty Balin and the boyZ really made it big time .....
A beautiful love ballad by the Airplane

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