I’ve recently come across many people who spent much of their life dismissing Jefferson Airplane. While I know many others who recognize the greatness that is the Airplane, I find that there is a large amount of music fans who immediately overlook the band due to either 1) the association with the cheesy Jefferson Starship or 2) the band being too “of their time” and therefore, no longer musically relevant or interesting. So to back up my claim that the Airplane deserve their placement in music history as legends, here is my list of their most outstanding recordings and performances.
(Note: This list was compiled and written during many late nights, groggy early mornings and the like, which may be evident when you read it. Afterwards, I somehow felt this atmosphere seemed perfect for this piece.)
1. Somebody to Love (From the live album, Bless It’s Pointed Little Head) -This track unfortunately gets played to death, and typically on film soundtracks. It seems like whenever a character mentions the words “drugs”, “acid”, “the ‘60s” or “Cable Guy”, this song automatically pops up, and for good reason too! It’s just a classic song that features some really catchy hooks and choruses and some of the other standard calling cards for what society deems as being a “psychedelic” track. This version though, a live cut that was recorded in San Francisco during the height of the band’s popularity, is quite possibly the best, most frenetically energetic version that’s commercially available. The band kicks with some crunchy guitar work that sounds like grunge 25 years too soon, Grace throws her entire body and soul into the vocals, Spencer Dryden’s drumming is possibly at the best of his entire career, and the rest of the group fills the sound into a thick wall of vibrating fuzz that utterly destroys all traces of its studio counterpart.
2. Volunteers (Recorded at Woodstock)- “Volunteers” is a totally underrated track from the bands illustrious back catalogue, with its dead-catchy chorus and its battle cry for revolution. At Woodstock, the song took on even deeper significance and rocked way harder with a thicker sound (partly in thanks to session player/master, Nicky Hopkins’ rollicking piano work). This is also a rare moment where Marty Balin’s voice actually fits the song that it sings. I typically am not a huge fan of his forced warble, but here it soars and rips with an intensity that lies beautifully next to Slick’s powerhouse voice.
3. Good Shepard– (From Volunteers) One of the many wonderfully peaceful moments of The Airplane’s studio output. Jorma Kaukonen coos out this gentle serpent of a song without loosing its bite; a perfect combination of mellow acoustic guitar and relaxed vocals against a biting acidic squawking electric guitar. Another truly underrated moment of the 60s.
4. Uncle Sam’s Blues (Recorded at Woodstock)- The Airplane could really coax out a good blues jam here and there, even though it wasn’t something they were known for. Although with “Uncle Sam’s Blues”, one could see why they should have done this much more often and why Hot Tuna became an actual group (and why they ended up being so good too!). This live version may be the most soulful, bluesiest of all of the electric versions of the song, therefore the most poignant and stinging of them all.
5. Today (From Surrealistic Pillow)- This has to be one of the most melancholic, beautiful songs of 1967. The haunting vocals, the dreamy but morose guitar (actually played by Jerry Garcia) and overall rainy day type mood sent shivers outward that can be felt in the work of artists like Crosby Stills & Nash to The Brian Jonestown Massacre. A true dark-eyed beauty.
6. Mexico (A single)- Possibly one the most listenable pro-pot, anti-government songs ever. A beautifully produced, multi-layered number built around a rant about Nixon and his anti-drug initiative. In response to this, Nixon banned all drug related songs from being broadcasted on the radio. What an asshole.
7. Rejoice (From After Bathing at Baxter’s)- A surrealistic daydream type of song with floating, pulsating vocals by Slick and some really strange jazz like instrumentation cut from one of the most experimental records by a mainstream psychedelic rock band at the time. Truly, an odd imaginative song for an odd imaginative album. Clarinet? Why not?
8. Embryonic Journey (From Surrealistic Pillow)- A tearfully beautiful acoustic instrumental that lends more proof as to why Hot Tuna needed to be a band. Delicate but powerful. Short but poignant. The acoustic guitars here say more than any vocals could ever attempt.
9. When The Earth Moves Again (From Bark)- From a strange later-day era of the band’s career which traded out Marty Balin and drummer Spencer Dryden for the underrated Papa John Creach on violin. This track aches with melancholic notes of transition. Both the band and the world were moving on from the psychedelic communal haze of the 60s into the more intricate, burned-clean style of the 70s. Somehow, this track always reminded me of a San Franciscan answer to the Loaded album.
10. Hey Frederick (From Volunteers)- Grace’s vocals here both soar and comfort from one moment to the next at an intensity that was rarely achieved elsewhere by the singer (or many others). Power chords that are worthy of Live at Leeds-era Who chug hard, pushing along the vocals, stinging guitar and a Beethoven-in-a-saloon-like piano all through a meat grinder, expelling out a consistently shifting tempo that stretches into a tasteful nine-minute jam.
11. Two Heads– (From After Bathing at Baxter’s)- Give me another song that says something even remotely like “And you can fill both your feet with sand, no one will know you’ve gutted your mind but what will you do with your bloody hands?” Oh yeah that’s right, you can’t.
12. White Rabbit (Recorded at Woodstock)- The ultimate summarization of the commercial success of the drug culture of the 1960s coming face-to-face with the entirety of the culture itself. You can almost hear the band feeling the 500,000 sets of eyes reading over their shoulders. Yet I have also never heard a more rocking version of this somewhat child-like classic. After being several years old by this point, the standard doesn’t sound tired.
13. Triad (From Crown of Creation)- The infamous deleted David Crosby-penned Byrds song about a threesome-type relationship that helped in Crosby’s exit from the group is faithfully rerecorded here. Somehow Airplane makes the song sound much more genuine and believable than the Byrds and solo-Crosby version. I don’t know what this says about Crosby of the folks in the Airplane, but I’ll let you the reader and listener be the judge.
14. Plastic Fantastic Lover (from Surrealistic Pillow)- Why doesn’t this song get mentioned when people speak about Pillow being a great album? I definitely feel that its unusual subject matter, driving engine train like rhythm, Dylan-esque lyrics and mid-60s folk mashing into light-psych arrangement makes it a standout on this standout record.
15. Lather (from Crown of Creation)- This spooky, tongue-in-cheek surrealist waltz about a boy who never really grew up (Spencer Dryden). Its mix of humor, nostalgia, nose-sounds, sullen vocal delivery makes this unlikely story of identity crisis one of the more unique tracks of the entire decade. Actually, this song may better portray the Woodstock generation better than anything penned by Dylan, Mitchell, The Beatles, etc.
16. My Best Friend (from Surrealistic Pillow)- This fragment of Alexander Skip Spence’s time with the band (unfortunately without his presence on the actual recording) is definitely one of the highlights of the bands’ entire career. It’s catchy, Western-flavored bubble gum sweetness shows the absolute brilliance in Spence’s pop-sensibilities as well as a fine counter point to the rest of the albums’ slightly dark acidic edge. Makes one wish that Moby Grape and Jefferson Airplane could have produced an album together where “My Best Friend” left off.
17. Comin’ Back To Me (from Surrealistic Pillow)- Speaking of that dark, acidic edge, this murky, stark piercing song sucks the air out of any room that its played in. When one thinks of the summer of ’67 and its seminal albums, one would never in a million years imagine one featuring a song full of such damp despondency. Slithering somewhere between Jackson C. Frank and “Ballad of a Thin Man”, this song hits where it hurts and haunts you for the rest of the day. (The version from The Fillmore Auditorium featured on Jefferson Airplane Loves You is also pretty amazing.)
18. Aerie (Gang of Eagles)– (from Long John Silver)- From the final album from the band (prior to their very ‘80s reunion record some 15 years later or so), this track shows how the Airplane were definitely shifting into various directions. The fantasy like lyrics are very similar to what was common place in then-contemporary prog bands while the guitar work sits somewhere between the hard distortion that the band was known for by ’69 and the bluesy noodling that was being further explored in Hot Tuna (Kaukonen and Casady). Papa John Creach squeezes in a few smoking electric violin shrieks and the rest of the band gives the track their (final) all, making it an epic last hurrah. Even though the shadow of the impeding doom that was the Spaceship was looming very closely at this point, the band were able to drop the curtain with some musical dignity that has (believe it or not) stood the test of time.