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Tuesday, June 14, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: Jefferson Airplane
When the era of the Summer of Love and Haight-Ashbury is invoked, often the first band that comes to mind, especially among those born later, is the Grateful Dead. Second is usually Jefferson Airplane.
This is one of the funny tricks of the passage of time; the further removed from history, the more it changes. Back in 1967 only the squares called anything "Haight-Ashbury". There were lots of scenes happening, thousands of scenes; some overlapped, some were isolated, some blossomed, some mutated, some broke down. They couldn't be pigeonholed by a street crossing name. Similarly, there wasn't really a "Summer Of Love" until Life and Look magazines called it as such and identified the Haight district of San Francisco as its epicenter.
But call the time and place what you will; there is one thing that is true. As respected as the good ole Grateful Dead was at the time, the band that represented the counterculture at large, the concept of the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashburydom, and better living through chemistry in the public imagination across the nation was Jefferson Airplane.
Jefferson Airplane was the first of the 60's San Francisco bands to hit big, and their photogenic, modern, countercultural, psychedelic, light-show-backed image appeared on magazine covers and the Ed Sullivan Show. As many have noted in the past, their career trajectory and musical sound perhaps best mirrored the evolution of the counterculture itself; from wide eyed lysergic innocence, through euphoric optimism, through hallucinatory psychedelicisms, through angry anti-establishmentarianism, through revolution, through drug absorbtion, through dissipation, through back-to-nature, to ultimate commercialism. Jefferson Airplane's timeline of 1966 to 1973 corresponds with the counterculture's perfectly; even Jefferson Starship reflects its day and age.
The thrills the Jefferson Airplane provided remain quite thrilling today; anthropology aside, they benefited in their classic period from the stunning three-part harmonies of leader Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, and Grace Slick. Jorma Kaukonen could effortlessly mix country blues picking with folk-rock conventional leads or some of the most cutting, expressive acid rock guitar ever laid to wax. Jack Casady rumbled underneath with a booming bass, bluesy, funky, or staid. Spencer Dryden brought in jazzy drums, a rarity in what began life as a folk-rock band. Balin, Kantner, and Slick were all good songwriters; Kaukonen became one over time, as well. Their music was capable of great beauty, and scary psychedelia. It was literate and acute. It was experimental, yet accessable. They were the only band to play all three of the biggest 60's festivals: Monterey, Woodstock, and Altamont. The group spun off two successful subgroups.
While Jefferson Airplane will remain forever of its own time, it also transcends it; indeed some of the politics expressed on their late 60's/early 70's releases are sounding more relevant now than they have in decades. While the Grateful Dead ultimately proved far more long-lived, popular, and influential in the long run, the Airplane's recorded legacy holds up far better than the Dead's albums from the same era.
Marty Balin, from Cincinnati, OH, was the original founder who pieced the band together one by one. He had moved to the San Francisco Bay area where he began a recording career at the age of 20 with a couple of sides recorded for Challenge records in 1962. The discs went nowhere, and Balin joined a folk group called the Town Criers in 1963. The arrival of the Beatles in 1964 electrified the folk scene both figuratively and literally. Folkies up and down the coast tossed away their acoustics for electrics, and Balin was one of several folk musicians who saw the possibilities in a folk-rock fusion early on.
His time spent with the Town Criers gave him an idea; he'd start a new hybrid folk/rock band and start his own club for them to play in. In 1965, he bought a pizza parlor on Fillmore Street with the help of some investors, and had it converted into a 100-seat dancehall and theater called the Matrix. He then set about poaching members for his band from other clubs in the area.
At a folk club called the Drinking Gourd he encountered 24-year old Paul Kantner; a singer/songwriter native to San Francisco. He invited him to join the band he was forming as rhythm guitarist. Kantner subsequently nominated 25-year old Jorma Kaukonen from Washington D.C. to play lead guitar. Kaukonen had played guitar for bandless new arrival Janis Joplin on a homemade 1964 tape known to bootleggers as "The Typewriter Tape" (the recording has the sound of Kaukonen's wife Margareta typing in the background behind the duo).
The next ingredient Balin wanted was a female singer with a rich-voiced soprano to play off his hearty tenor. 24-year old Signe Toly, from Seattle, WA possessed a commanding voice, and was recruited. The rhythm section consisted of Bob Harvey on bass and Jerry Peloquin on drums. The name, Jefferson Airplane, was suggested by Kaukonen, as tribute to Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Jefferson Airplane made its public debut on August 13, 1965 at the Matrix. As house band, they played nightly and became a well-honed, sharp act; Kaukonen shining on guitar, and Balin and Toly on vocals. By 1965, folk-rock was in full bloom. The Byrds had topped the charts with "Mr. Tambourine Man", Dylan had gone electric, the Turtles, We Five, and the Beau Brummels had stolen a chunk of the U.S. charts back from the British Invasion bands. Word-of-mouth about Jefferson Airplane made it back to the record companies, who started scouting the band in late 1965. During this time, the band underwent some key retooling. Peloquin was dismissed in favor of Skip Spence, a guitarist from Santa Cruz. Balin hired him as drummer because, as the liner notes on their first album point out, he "looked" like a drummer. Toly married Matrix lighting designer Jerry Anderson, and became Signe Anderson. Harvey was then pushed out in favor of Kaukonen's hometown buddy, 24-year-old Jack Casady.
The lineup of Balin, Kantner, Anderson, Kaukonen, Casady, and Spence was signed to a contract by RCA records in November 1965. Their first single "It's No Secret", a soaring Balin vocal with ringing folk-rock guitars, appeared in February 1966. In support of the single, they began to tour outside of the Bay Area for the first time.
Complications beset the band; the pregnant Signe Anderson gave birth in May 1966, making touring with her newborn difficult. Skip Spence started behaving erratically as his drug usage increased, leading to arguments with the band. In June, he was given the sack, and replaced by 27-year old Spencer Dryden, a seasoned session drummer. Spence would subsequently co-found Moby Grape, but his problems with mental instability worsened over the years; he died in 1999. The single failed to chart, as did a follow-up "Come Up The Years", another chiming folk-rock song, by Balin/Kantner.
Jefferson Airplane Takes Off!, the band's debut, was released in August 1966. It sold well in the San Francisco area, enough to push it to #128 on the charts, but the band was not well-known outside of the S.F.-L.A. corridor. The album is an excellent debut, disctinctive and original sounding in comparison to many of the folk-rock bands of the day. The Balin/Spence "Blues From An Airplane" opens with a minor-key guitar chime setting just the right sense of adventure, and the band takes off. "It's No Secret" is joyous and guitar-driven. "Come Up The Years" instantly tuneful. "Let's Get Together" is an early 3-part harmony love-and-peace anthem by Dino Valente (of Quicksilver Messenger Service, written under the pseudonym Chester Powers) later covered by the Youngbloods. "Chauffeur Blues" is a version of "Me And My Chauffeur Blues" a Memphis Minnie classic done vigorously by Anderson, who could be mistaken for Grace Slick here. It would later be covered by Geoff and Maria Muldaur. "And I Like It" is a slow bluesy number with slight hints of psychedelia in its Kaukonen guitar leads and fills.
Following the release of this album, Anderson was forced to leave the band due to her family commitments. Kantner brought in the 27-year-old Chicago native Grace Slick (born Grace Wing), whom he had seen playing with Great Society, a band that included her husband, from whom she would soon separate. Great Society was a raga-rock outfit of moderate popularity on the Haight, but their real draw was the powerful voice of Slick, as well has her good looks (she had done some modeling in her early 20's). Great Society was breaking up due to tensions between Slick and her husband, and her desire to work with better musicians; she was the perfect replacement for the excellent-in-her-own-right Anderson. In 1970, an atmospheric live double album of early Great Society recordings from the Matrix became available as Grace Slick & The Great Society: Collector's Item.
Slick was with the band when they returned to the recording studio in October 1966, bringing with her two of the Great Society's crowd pleasers, the uptempo "Somebody To Love" (written by brother-in-law Darby Slick) and "White Rabbit", a psychedelic tribute to Alice in Wonderland set to a bolero tempo, which she had written. Both would be retooled into far superior versions by her new band, and would become the band's only top-40 hits.
RCA still marketed them as a folk group when they chose the folkie "My Best Friend" (a Skip Spence tune) as the leadoff single from Surrealistic Pillow; it failed to reach the charts, the band's fourth straight complete miss. The album was released in February 1967. A second single accompanied the release, "Somebody To Love" with Slick on lead vocals. The single caught fire with its aggressive, manic energy, Slick's ferocious vocal, the band's state-of-the-art echoed, reverbed, psychedelic playing, and the song's lyrics of alienation in the absence of love; even in 1967, the Airplane didn't deal in straight sunshine hippie-isms. Surrealistic Pillow is one of the essential albums of the 1960's; while Slick's contributions are best remembered, each track is an absolute classic, from Balin's ultra-modern for the time "Plastic Fantastic Lover" to the jazzy "She Has Funny Cars" a Kaukonen number sung by Slick, to the psychedelic blast-off "3/5 Mile In 10 Seconds", by Balin. Kaukonen also performs solo on the acoustic "Embryonic Journey" an almost mystical-sounding folk instumental featuring his deft picking. Kantner is almost lost in the shuffle, but his "D.C.B.A. -25" is a lovely Mamas and Papas-esque pop ballad. Jerry Garcia was listed as 'spiritual and musical advisor' on the jacket, and contributed some guitar. By May, both album and single were top-10; "White Rabbit" gave them an extra boost, as did a perfectly-timed appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 at the peak of their powers. Ultimately, the album peaked at #3.
The Monterey Pop Festival, a three-day music festival featuring groundbreaking appearances by the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Big Brother & The Holding Co. with Janis Joplin, Buffalo Springfield, among others, was released as a movie and helped put the San Francisco bands on the map. The Airplane's performance, heavily bootlegged and gray-marketed over the years, is one of their finest recordings; running through classics such as "She Has Funny Cars", "Today", Fred Neil's "Other Side Of This Life", the non-album "High Flying Bird" as well as the singles and others is a primo snaphot of the Summer of Love in all its glory. Numerous other live recordings of the Airplane from this era have surfaced, some on legal releases.
The band found itself on the covers of magazines, and promotional videos for "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" in full psychedelic technicolor made them stars. However, the mainsteam's flirtation with the band would be short-lived; the band's openly drug-using image ran counter to prevailing AM-radio mores of the day, and the band itself was too willfully experimental to remain hit-single makers; while their albums would continue to sell robustly, they'd never place a song in the top-40 again until their mid-70's resurrection as Jefferson Starship.
This was apparantly a willful move on the band's part; certainly their next release, After Bathing At Baxter's bore nary a hint of commercial songwriting; the album is as psychedelic as Mr. Natural itself, from the scary, experimental "The Ballad Of You, Me and Pooniel" to the sound collage of freaky conversation snippits, "A Small Package of Value Will Come To You Shortly" to the gentle hippie folk tune "Martha" to the overt LSD endorsement, "Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon". Nevertheless, RCA released an edited "Ballad of Pooneil" as a single, and it made #42 despite itself. The album itself stands as one of the most adventurous albums of the 60's, at times veering almost into Frank Zappa territory (Slick would in fact cut a track with Zappa in 1968, which remained unreleased until 1992). Beneath the surface, a subtle shift in the power structure of the band was already underway; Kantner had a hand in writing 6 of the song's 11 tracks; leader Balin was limited to half a credit, although he sings throughout the album. Balin claimed he didn't write well on the road, but over the next couple of years he would ultimately lose control of the band to Kantner and Slick.
"Watch Her Ride" was released as a second single, reaching #61, and the album peaked at #17, a singificant tailoff from its predecessor. Their next single, "Greasy Heart", a feminist psychedelic number by Slick, was a taster from their fourth album, Crown of Creation, but by then the band's image was too freaky for AM; it peaked at #98. Crown Of Creation, released in September 1968, saw the band evolve even further. It opens with one of Slick's most gentle and beautiful songs, the rumination on aging, "Lather". She also covers the David Crosby original "Triad", a number originally written for the Byrds, but deemed too provocative for release on a Byrds album. "Crown Of Creation", which made it to #64 as a single, is one of the band's key tracks; a rocking psychedelic multi-part harmonic number of semi-veiled anger, putting distance between the optimistic sentiments of 1966-67. The band's avant-garde experimentation continues with "Chushingura". The album is darker and more impatient than their earlier releases; this tension lends it an extra power. It retreated somewhat from the rampant experimentation of Baxters, but was defiantly non-conventional and challenging in its own right. Balin had more of a hand in the songwriting, but Kantner and Slick continue to dominate the album. Jorma Kaukonen also had a hand in writing a couple of songs.
The band's performances in 1968 rank among their best ever, and were chronicled on the album Bless Its Pointed Little Head, released in February 1969. Always a tremendous force live, the band is intense here. Balin sings like a man possessed on "Plastic Fantastic Lover" given a molten metal performance by Kaukonen/Casady. Kantner, never a great solo singer, turns in his best vocal effort ever of the Donovan-penned "Fat Angel", a gentle trip-soundtrack that circles and hovers and swirls on Kaukonen's lead. "Other Side Of This Life" shows more teeth after two years of setlist presence; the band's harmonies mesh with a terrific instrumental assault; again, Kaukonen, Casady, and Dryden hold their own with the vocalists. Folk music for the timid this wasn't. The album reached #17 on the charts.
The band appeared in the morning hours at Woodstock in August 1969 with pianist Nicky Hopkins (their performance, while audio-taped and available on record, was never filmed). The tenor of the times had changed a lot in the two short years between Monterey and Woodstock. While Woodstock was considered the great beginning of a new era at the time, in fact it was the close of an era. The Summer of Love had withered in the face of drug burn-outs, dope rip-offs, and busts. Violence marred the Democratic convention in 1968, and the Enemy of the Counterculture, in the personage of Richard Nixon, occupied the White House. The body count climbed in Vietnam as word of massacres reached home. The hippie Utopian ideal saw its last glimmer of light under rainy skies at Woodstock; countercultural America had positioned itself in an us vs. them stance by late 1969.
Volunteers, released in 1969, is the band's most political offering. Its very existence was a difficult birth; originally to be titled Volunteers of America, the title was nixed by the organization of the same name. RCA threatened to withhold release because of the inclusion of the line "up against the wall motherfuckers" in "We Can Be Together". The band refused to back down, and ultimately RCA released the album. Bookended by the revolutionary rhetoric "We Can be Together" and the jaunty rocker "Volunteers" which share the same essential riff, the album is the Airplane's most varied offering musically. Each cut is a standout, although the best include the post-nuclear apocalyptic nightmare, "Wooden Ships", written by Kantner/David Crosby/Stephen Stills. The song features ambitious three-part harmonies and solos from Balin, Slick, and Kantner, while Kaukonen's razor sharp acid leads cuts ribbons. Crosby, Stills, and Nash's version is leaden in comparison. Kaukonen gets his best-ever Airplane moment on the traditional "Good Shepherd", singing lead with Slick harmonizing. "The Farm" is a rustic back-to-the-earth number featuring Jerry Garcia on pedal steel. "Eskimo Blue Day" is a heavy psychedelic environmental number sung by Slick. Balin lends a sweet vocal to the Kaukonen-penned "Turn My Life Down". The album peaked at #13; the single "Volunteers" reached #65.
The good feeling Woodstock generated evaporated on December 6, 1969 when the Rolling Stones staged what was to be a rival festival to Woodstock at the Altamont Speedway. Naively hiring the biker gang Hell's Angels as security guards in exchange for all the beer they could drink, the concert was disrupted with riots, and mayhem, including a murder captured on film in the documentary Gimme Shelter. Jefferson Airplane's set was marred by violence right from the start, with hopped-up Hell's Angels savagely beating concertgoers with pool cues at random. Marty Balin, watching appalled from the stage, jumped into the audience to break up a fight, and was beaten unconscious by marauding Hell's Angels, also captured on film.
This struck the final nail in the coffin of hippiedom, and also seemed to sap something from the band. In early 1970, the band released a non-album single, "Mexico"/"Have You Seen The Saucers?", a marijuana anthem and sci-fi conceit respectively; it didn't chart. Kaukonen and Casady turned more and more of their attentions to the acoustic blues spin-off band they had formed, Hot Tuna, which released a live acoustic debut in May 1970 that charted at a respectable #30. It is in fact an excellent debut, demonstrating the duo's folk-blues that they were unable to work onto Airplane albums. Spencer Dryden, shaken ever since the episode at Altamont, opted to leave the group ("that train without brakes" he called it) in early 1970; he'd eventually join the Grateful Dead offshoot New Riders Of The Purple Sage. He died in 2005 after a long illness.
Losing Dryden began a chain of events that ultimately changed the band in profound ways. The band was no longer getting along, and had split into three factions. In one corner were Slick and Kantner, who by this point were romantically linked. Casady and Kaukonen were in the opposing corner. Odd man out was the band's founder and original visionary, Marty Balin. Still, the band continued to play in 1970, replacing Dryden with 25-year old drummer/songwriter/singer Joey Covington (Joseph Michno), from Johnston, PA. Hot Tuna frequently opened for the Airplane; they were augmented by fiddle player Papa John Creach, 53 years old, from Beaver Falls, PA. A journeyman musician, he ultimately became a permanent member of both Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. His fiddle would ultimately have a big effect on the band's sound, and became part of what would be the foundation of Jefferson Starship's sound a few years later.
The biggest change of all came at the end of their fall tour in 1970, when Marty Balin decided to quit the band he had pieced together, ceding control to the Slick/Kantner axis, although his resignation wasn't made public until April 1971.
These changes meant there was no Jefferson Airplane album for 1970, so RCA cut its losses and released the anthology, Worst of Jefferson Airplane. In subsequent years, the Airplane's material has been repackaged in many different configurations, but this album remains their best anthology, since it focuses on their 1966-1970 peak, and doesn't feature material from their weaker 1970's releases. Later releases, in an effort to be inclusive, would give too much space over to post-Balin material. A novice wanting an overview could do worse than begin with this collection.
Also at this time, Paul Kantner released a solo album, which he credited to Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship, Blows Against The Empire. Establishing a pattern he would revisit on later albums he and Slick would release, the album featured a roster of seemingly any west-coast musican of note, including members of the Grateful Dead, the Quicksilver Messenger Service, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and the Airplane itself. A science-fiction concept album that also seemed to concern itself with the birth of Kantner and Slick's baby, it is the first album from the Airplane family that wasn't first-rate; its muddled production and convoluted plotline bury some worthwhile songs, although "Have You Seen The Stars Tonight?" is lovely, and "The Baby Tree" a cute folk fable. The album peaked at #20. Years later, in 1984, Kantner would again revisit this concept, recording The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra as a sequel, with the then current Jefferson Starship lineup plus many guests.
As a deal-sweetener to re-sign the band, whose contract had expired, RCA offered them their own label imprint, Grunt records, which released the Jefferson Airplane's sixth album, Bark, in August 1971. Bark sold well, peaking at #11, but signs of rot were setting in. The hole left by Balin's departure is left unfilled, although Covington and Kaukonen contribute songs as do Slick and Kantner. What the album lacks is a sense of unity or purpose, other than self-preservation. There are some fine songs on the album; Slick's defiant "Lawman", featuring excellent fiddle from Creach, is a keeper and the Covington/Casady/Kantner number "Pretty As You Feel" was the band's final charting single, peaking at #60. "When The Earth Moves Again" is a stately number. But much of the album sounds like solo numbers more than group efforts; Kaukonen's "Feel So Good" is a blueprint for Hot Tuna's electric albums. As a whole, it is a tremendous comedown from their 60's output.
With Grunt records at their disposal, the band released a rash of solo recordings in the early 70's. Hot Tuna followed up their debut with another live album, First Pull Up, Then Pull Down in spring of 1971. Paul Kantner and Grace Slick released an album as a duo, again with a host of guest stars, Sunfighter, in December 1971. Sunfighter is actually a better album than Bark, featuring the excellent Kantner title track, an environmental song featuring horns and the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and the macabre "Silver Spoon", a Slick ode to cannibalism. Hot Tuna's first studio album, Burgers, was released in February 1972, featuring the excellent "True Religion" and "Water Song".
In April 1972, Covington left the band, and was replaced by John Barbata (ex-Turtles). With Barbata on board, the band recorded its seventh and final studio album, Long John Silver. This is the weakest offering from the Jefferson Airplane (until their 1989 reunion). The best song is a surprisingly rabid anti-health food rant by Slick called "Eat Starch Mom" on which Kaukonen approaches heavy metal. But most of the remaining tracks are tuneless and meaningless; not only had the band run out of ideas, they had run out of ways of expressing them. Sales reflected this; the album peaked at #20, the lowest since their debut, and took sixth months to reach gold status.
Still, a tour was half-heartedly arranged. The band hired David Frieberg (ex-Quicksilver Messenger Service), an old pal of Kantner's from his pre-Airplane folkie days, to sing the Balin parts. The setlist for this tour drew mainly from Bark and Long John Silver, although some older favorites like "Crown Of Creation" were featured. The tour was nothing to rave about, and was marred by unruly patrons at a number of venues. The final show of the tour was performed at the Winterland ballroom on September 22, 1972. The only original Airplane members at this point were Kantner, Kaukonen, and Casady; the difference in sound from the bright eyed debut to the lackluster, murky recordings captured on the album from the tour, Thirty Seconds Over Winterland, is profound. The album is an unworthy swan song, although it is better than Long John Silver, with Kaukonen supplying the best moments, "Feel So Good" and "Trial By Fire". Slick, surprisingly, takes no leads on the record. The album peaked at a weak #52. Interestingly, Marty Balin appeared at their final show, and sang lead on the impromptu "Your Wear Your Dresses Too Short", which was released in the Jefferson Airplane Loves You box in 1992.
No announcement was forthcoming on the status of Jefferson Airplane, but it was, in fact, finished. Kaukonen and Casady turned their attentions to Hot Tuna full time, and released The Phosphorescent Rat in 1973. Kantner, Slick, and Frieberg released an album together, also in 1973, Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun. The album again features a raft of guest performers, including Airplane members, and has its moments; "Across the Board" is an excellent Slick tune, while Jack Traylor's "Flowers Of Night" isn't bad. But the formula was running dry, and the public was growing tired. The album peaked at #120.
1974 saw the release of Grace Slick's first "solo" album, Manhole, although it too contained many of the same Bay area names the Kantner albums had. It charted at a poor #127, but was noteworthy for a number of reasons. In some ways, it is the last experimental piece of work ever from the extended Airplane family; the title track is a 15-minute long underground rock workout with orchestra. Featured on that track was the young 19-year old guitarist Craig Chaquico, who would soon receive an invite to join Jefferson Starship. An odd inclusion is David Frieberg's "It's Only Music" which doesn't feature Slick as vocalist, songwriter, or instrumentalist. It's a weird album, in a good way, even if it isn't very consistent listening.
The last Jefferson Airplane album to be released until the reunion was Early Flight in 1974, a collection of leftover tracks, uncollected singles, and other extras that hadn't made it onto albums. Most notable was the first appearance of "High Flying Bird" on an album, featuring Signe Anderson on vocals. Kaukonen and Casady had left the Airplane fold for good, and were busy with their own albums; Kaukonen released his first solo album (with guitarist Tom Hobson), Quah, an excellent collection of acoustic numbers, including fan favorites as "Genesis" and Odetta's "Another Man Done Gone".
With the Airplane in shambles and their solo albums not selling, the band decided to tour again. Kaukonen and Casady passed up the invitation to rejoin them, so a new touring band was put together featuring Kantner, Slick, Frieberg, Barbata, Creach, plus Kaukonen's brother Peter on bass, and Craig Chaquico on lead guitar. Since the name "Jefferson Airplane" was co-owned by members no longer present, Kantner redubbed the new configuration Jefferson Starship. The band's first tour under this moniker opened March 19, 1974. Peter Kaukonen would be replaced within weeks by Englishman Pete Sears, who had appeared on Manhole.
A new album was recorded in July and released in October as Dragonfly, by Paul Kantner/Grace Slick/Jefferson Starship. At the time, the album was well-received, featuring some of the band's most muscular recording in years. Chaquico played like a streamlined Kaukonen, devoid of any blues or folk influence; Creach's fiddle added an agreeable exotic flavor. While time has greatly diminished the album's impact, it still is pretty good, even if it sounds like a band in transition. "Ride The Tiger" is a good hard rock opener, "That's For Sure" one of Kantner's best 70's songs, "Be Young You" a Slick tune that would've been welcome on Bark, and significantly, a power-ballad "Caroline" sung by none other than Marty Balin, who had patched up his differences with Kantner and Slick during the recording sessions. The album restored the band's commercial fortunes, reaching #11 on the charts. Balin appeared with the band at Winterland in October 1974, and agreed to rejoin on a permanent basis.
This set the stage for the band's real comeback album, Red Octopus, released in 1975. With Balin back in the fold, the band put together their most consistent album since Volunteers, and for the first time ever, captured the #1 album spot. The album was praised in many quarters when it appeared, although it too has been tarnished somewhat with passing time. Still, "Fast Buck Freddie" was one of Slick's best vocal performances amd songs in years, as was "Play On Love". Balin's "Miracles", a lush MOR tune, peaked at #3. His "Tumblin' features an unusually winsome Slick backing, it's one of his prettiest ballads. Kantner's heavy metal "I Want To See Another World" is a good tune, and the rest ranges from OK to very good. It is a mature album, and while it lacks the advernturousness of the Airplane, it remains a likeable album. Creach left after Red Octopus, reducing the octet to a septet.
Red Octopus, unfortunately, stands as the last good album from any incarnation of this band. From that point forward, internal turmoil and a quest to keep the hits coming essentially resulted in increasingly crass and uninspired product that jeapordized the Jefferson Airplane's good name. Spitfire, released in 1976, showed immediate and precipitous decline. Slick, who had developed an drinking problem, and Kantner seemed to have run out of songs; no less than 12 songwriters are used. The very last gasp of Airplane-like ambience comes on the extended suite "Song To The Sun: Ozymandius/Don't Let It Rain", credited to the entire band. It's an excellent track, but utterly non-indicative of the rest of the album. Spitfire yielded two syrupy MOR singles, "St. Charles" and "With Our Love", the latter reaching #12. The album peaked at #3, but the reviews were mediocre-to-poor.
Earth, released in February 1978, was even weaker. Balin had another MOR hit, "Count On Me", a fairly pretty piano ballad with a country flavor, but the rest of the album is undistinguished pop/rock. Kantner is largely silent; Slick sounds strained and strident, Balin seems disinterested. Once again, most of the songs are written by various songwriters, only a few of whom were actually in the band. The album peaked at #5, and went platinum; four singles were harvested. "Count On Me" peaked at #8, "Runaway" at #12. The coolest thing about the album was its title, which revealed a pattern that hadn't been previously detected; Dragonfly could be taken to represent air; Red Octopus was water; Spitfire was fire, and then came Earth. If only the albums had lived up to the concept.
The stability of the band fell apart during a European tour in June 1978; Slick, suffering from alcohol abuse leading to missed gigs and erratic, embarrassing perfomances, was fired. Balin left the band at the conclusion of the tour. Barbata was in a car accident that left him unable to perform. Kantner was left to rebuild the band, hiring lead singer Mickey Thomas (ex-Elvin Bishop group) and drummer Aynsley Dunbar (ex-Mothers of Invention).
Subsequent Jefferson Starship albums really can't be considered part of the Jefferson Airplane story, musically. Thomas came to quickly dominate the band, and he and Chaquico had the biggest hand in shaping the band's subsequent sound. On Freedom At Point Zero (1979) the band sounds like Foreigner. This resulted in improved sales, spurred by the arena rock hit "Jane", but it was simply a case of a professional AOR band churning out polished, cynical arena rock. Modern Times followed in 1981, and featured a cameo from Grace Slick, who sings duet with Mickey Thomas on "Stranger"; "Find Your Way Back" was the token AOR hit. On Winds of Change, from 1982, the band sounds like a poor man's Journey, despite Slick's full return. In 1984, the band released the worst album of its career, Nuclear Furniture, which yeilded the barely-a-hit "No Way Out". At this point, Kantner was openly feuding with Thomas, Chaquico, and new drummer Donny Baldwin (brought in by Thomas; he had been in the Elvin Bishop Band, too), and quit the group. Frieberg exited with him.
Thus, the band, now called simply "Starship", no longer had any original Airplane members; Slick was the only one who had been in any Airplane configuration. It was firmly under Thomas' control at this point, and their 1985 album Knee Deep In The Hoopla was a cheap piece of claptrap featuring no songs written by any bandmembers. Nevertheless, it yeilded two #1's, the cloying, candy-coated "We Built This City" and "Sara". Sears was gone for the band's 1987 release No Protection, a less successful carbon copy of its predecessor. Slick departed next; Thomas, Chaquico, and Baldwin would record one more Starship album, Love Among The Cannibals in 1989, but it failed to sell. Thomas suffered a savage beating that year, a persistent rumor suggests that it was at the hands of Donny Baldwin, who departed in November 1989; a few months later, the band was defunct..
Meanwhile, Jefferson Airplane decided to re-form for an album and tour. The seeds were laid in 1986 when Paul Kantner put together a post-Starship project, KBC Band, featuring Marty Balin and Jack Casady. Balin had launched a solo career in the intervening years, reaching the top-40 twice with "Hearts" and "Atlanta Lady", but his career had fizzled. KBC Band released a single self-titled album, featuring the latter-day concert staple "America", and toured. In 1989, Kantner, Slick, Balin, Kaukonen, and Casady recorded a new album, titled simply Jefferson Airplane. The album was largely recorded separately, and was mostly panned, although a handful of tunes aren't bad, the best being the swaggering, 60's-style stomper "Madeline Street" by Balin/Kantner. The accompanying tour was better received; at times they almost managed to rekindle some of the old magic. The album peaked at #85, and found its way to remainder bins fairly quickly. It is Slick's last-ever studio album; she has since retired, and has channeled her energies into painting and publishing an autobiography.
Kantner then reconvened a new edition of Jefferson Starship with Balin, Casady, and Creach in 1992; Creach died in 1994. The Kantner-led Jefferson Starship continues to this day, mainly as a concert act, heavily reliant on old Airplane and Jefferson Starship tunes. It released an album in 1995, Deep Space/Virgin Sky, featuring concert recordings that included a rare cameo by Grace Slick on a few cuts; it also had a handful of new studio recordings. Windows of Heaven came out in 1999; neither album is especially good, although they do have more in common with the Airplane than Mickey Thomas-era Starship. Jefferson Starship continues to release live albums of its concerts via the internet. Diana Mangano fills Grace Slick's slot, and does an impossible job well. Kaukonen continues to play, both solo and with Casady in Hot Tuna, and also does an occasional guitar workshop, helping younger players. Jefferson Airplane was elected to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of fame in 1996; Balin, Kantner, Casady, and Kaukonen performed "Volunteers" and "Embryonic Journey"
Jefferson Airplane's heyday was 1966-1970; only fans need more than that, and even the fans usually draw the line after Red Octopus. Someone approaching the band for the first time would do well to start with Surrealistic Pillow and Volunteers. Those wishing a good overview should consider the Jefferson Airplane Loves You box set, released in 1992. Jefferson Starship Gold, covers the Kantner/Slick/Balin years of that band, 1974-1978, although Red Octopus might be a wiser purchase. There are numerous compilations that feature both Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, but most are hit-oriented, lending far too much space to Jefferson Starship's Mickey Thomas output, while shafting the Airplane. A few good live albums have appeared; Live At The Fillmore East, a 1968 recording released in 1998, and Live At Monterey, the entire 14-song set, released in 2001.
Listen to Jefferson Airplane: Plastic Fantastic Lover (1967)
Weekly Artist Overview was delayed this week; normally it appears on Sunday night/Monday AM.
Special thanks to Jefferson Airplane's official website for linking to this article.