I Know Who I Wouldn't Mind Sharing A 'Surrealistic Pillow' With...
The Lineup Card 1965-1972:
Marty Balin (vocals) until 1970
Paul Kantner (rhythm guitar, vocals)
Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar, vocals)
Jack Casady (bass)
Signe Anderson (vocals) until 1967
Skip Spence (drums) until 1967
Spencer Dryden (drums) 1967-1970
Grace Slick (vocals) 1967-1972
Joey Covington (drums) 1970-1972
'Papa' John Creach (violin) 1970-1972
John Barbata (drums) 1972
David Freiberg (vocals) 1972
The Airplane were the most widely popular of the San Francisco psychedelic bands, and in their 1967-9 peak, commanded not only audiences full of acid eaters, but also had the luxury of commanding the charts and even playing (stoned) on American Bandstand!. They began as a pretty square folk rock outfit, penning melodic little love songs for Tony Bennett to sing and all that idealistic mid-60's folkie nonsense, but rapidly took to the geist of the '66 Frisco zeit and presented themselves as the jovially doped up and dropped out musical commune as you see on the cover of Surrealistic Pillow. And though they kept more than a smidge of the romantic folkie sound of their first album they also began to 'freak out' with their hard-acid inclined rhythm section and 'scare the shit out of parents' with their newly added Patty Hearst-esque little-prom-queen-next-door-kidnapped-by-freaks-and-forcefed-LSD-until-her-eyeballs-bled co-lead singer Grace Slick. And boy, if this band had a member to remember (besides maybe bass maniac Jack Casady), it was siren voiced ice princess Grace Slick. Regally attractive, intriguingly suggestive, and possessing a voice of such power and clarity that the only comparison I can give is that she was the silk to Janis Joplin's sandpaper, the cream to J's cookie, the Courvoisier to Joplin's Southern Comfort. After that the band went totally off the experimental high dive (while their live shows got heavier and heavier), backpedaled, tried politicism and science fiction, got strange and out of date, then went on to lose their ace rhythm section and become a mediocre soft rock 70's hit machine along the lines of Fleetwood Mac or Chicago, but not as good.
The Airplane is known as one of the 'big' San Fran psychedelic groups, but I have a hard time lumping them in with real furry, ugly Bay Area heroes like The Grateful Dead or Quicksilver Messenger Service and such because, dammit, they were a frigging pop-rock band! Their early stuff (and some of the later) was so aimed towards radio success that I can easily draw closer parallels between the Airplane and the Mamas and Papas than with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Here was a band with a crooning folkie male lead singer, a dorky sci-fi obsessed rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist more at home playing Leadbelly tunes in a coffeeshop than wigging out on a Marshall stack, who the fuck ever on drums, and, well, Jack Casady and Grace Slick. They couldn't even sound heavy enough on Surrealistic without asking Jerry Garcia to come in and help on guitar! But they were able to write a half-freaky half-melodic hit when they wanted...shame is they also believed their own hype and saw themselves as 'beyond pop music', resulting in some truly awful drug damaged experimental bullshit along the way. And to wrap it all up after their long decline they spun off their 'rocking half' (Casady and Kaukonen, who did learn to get interestingly heavy along the way, to his credit) as jam stalwarts Hot Tuna, while the Slick/Kantner/Balin (sometimes) pop axis formed the sleazy lite hit machines Jefferson Starship (with a guitarist from Quicksilver M.S. ...man, the guy must've really needed work) and then onto the totally slicked-up mid 80's idiot show named Starship, which bore only Slick as a reminder of the old days and otherwise had about as much sonic connection to 1967 as a power drill.
As usual, though, there's lots to like about some of the Airplane's stuff. When they wrote a hit, it was a great tune, when they rocked they did it pretty muscularly, and when they got freaky they got pretty far out, and often times even had a healthy sense of humor. Plus they had Grace Slick, who in her prime was an example to all female singers everywhere...ladies and gentlemen, your sugarcubes are being passed out as we speak, and while you wait...the Jefferson Airplane....
Special Thanks to Fredrik Tydal for his fact checking on these reviews.
Enjoyable, inoffensive collection of dated, melodically-second rate folk rock tunes that sound a bit too much like Sonny and Cher with a loud bass player. Okay, so Marty Balin is this sort of croon singer, a little guy with this little pipsqueak voice (not my favorite part of the band, no way) and his current female foil Signe Anderson always combine in this sort of so ugly it's cute vocal soup where one of them is always holding some note out too long or going too high or something. They don't always suck, like 'Come Up The Years' is pretty well done (and done straight), but the Byrds or the Beach Boys they aren't. And when singing alone, Signe comes across as white as Julie Andrews but not as cool. And that's by far the thing that'll pop into your ears first on this thing. Besides that overactive bassist, who just can't refrain from a-twiddlin and a-twaddlin' like some bluegrass guy or something. There are only a very few 'trippy' or even 'moody' sections on the record, maybe the opening 'Blues From A Airplane', 'Runnin' Around' (which I hate) or the previously mentioned 'Come Up The Years' are a bit goth, and 'And I Like It' almost sounds like it could have come from the '68 Velvet Underground, but you're more likely to hear them playing happy and ready-for-AM radio. Take their square Byrdsy version of the later Youngbloods hit 'Let's Get Together', which you may know from Nirvana's Nevermind, and 'Chauffer Blues' sounds like the '63 Rolling Stones with LuLu on vocals, as examples.
Songwriting? Hey, not so bad for your basic mid-60's folk rock band on it's first effort...but just remember what I said about Sonny and Cher. About my favorite track is 'It's No Secret', (where you can pat yourself on the ass if you guessed '...that I love you!!' as being the second line) which has a snappy vocal hook and, erm, not much playing from the band. But a decent groove for this sort of thing, and that's gotta go a long way when you're not in the business of kicking ass or dropping jaws (yet). And they don't. I mean, this album isn't necessarily light by any means, not with the rhythm section pounding as hard as they do on most of the songs. But the guitars never get louder than 'chime', and the focus is always on the vocals, vocal harmonies, and vocal hooks. The solos never even get to last longer than four bars or so, max! You'll never make it at the Cow Palace playing like that. Too much wuss for a hairy man like myself, not enough catchiness or melody for a sissy man like I used to be. Bring on the rock.
Capn's Final Word: Just to think all that loud bass playing was for not much of a result. Just to think that all that Byrds ripping didn't take along enough melody to save the day. Just to think that Grace Slick had been available the entire time.
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Surrealistic Pillow - RCA 1967
Not that much different than the debut, but the differences that are there are a huge help. First, more guitar, and I'm always first in line to stand up for more guitar. Next, Grace Slick and her Eastern/suburbuan blender singing are here (check out her intro about 50 seconds into the opening 'She Has Funny Cars'...now that is some power!) And, thank God, the songwriting has improved by leaps and bounds with the addition of Slick's songwriting. She only gets to sing two tunes ('Somebody to Love', which was one of the songs her old band, the Great Society, used to do, and 'White Rabbit'. You know a funny story about Great Society? Back in SF in '66, Sly Stone was doing some DJing, and had either recorded or interviewed Great Society. He had such a bad time and decided this band was so awful that if they were able to make records, he might as well try too.) And a few of the songs even rock right on out in a jankly mid-60's way, like the almost surfy '3/5ths of a Mile in 10 Seconds' (what a great title, that), the Townshend-strumming rap song (before there was such a thing) 'Plastic Fantastic Lover' or those two big AM hits.
Still, these guys spend most of their time not on refining their 'rock power' (they hadn't even invented decent distortion yet, you know...), they're about 'melodic dark folk rock with a heavy rhythm section', so if you're in the mood for that, this is the slice of pumpkin for you. Stuff like the shivering 'She Has Funny Cars' or the acoustic around the campfire with an echoplex 'How Do You Feel?' are great tunes for the 'Airplane Sound', and when Papa Bear Balin goes balladeering (on the haunting 'Today') it actually seems like he's earned it, unlike on Takes Off where he sounded like he just wanted to sing love songs 'cos of his ego. Jorma gets his solo acoustic folkie spot on the nice 'Embryonic Journey', but I sure wish they guy had put his effort into playing like that when the band was around. He hasn't yet developed into a major lead player like he would within the next year, and his playing is often simple and surprisingly light here.
But the selling point of this record isn't the haunting ballads or the bedevilling pop, its the Acid Rock with a capital Airplane, and that's what, by the God of Grace, Slick wants to give you all with every last fibre of her being. And it takes about every fibre for someone to belt out 'I THINK SHE KNOOOOOOOWWWWWWSSSS!!!!' the way Gracie does right there on the drug-march 'White Rabbit', which is about finding drug references in kid's stories Hey, kids, do you know why Lewis Carroll had all those hallucinogenic images in his stories? Because the guy suffered from horrifyingly strong headaches (enough to hallucinate) then dosed them with liberal quantities of legal opiate-derivative pain killers (enough to hallucinate). CapnMarvel: Fountain of Useless Facts, especially about drugs. But what I love most about this little ditty is how the whole thing builds slowly up to the orgasmic ending...they never give away the game the whole time, just strum and tap away while Slick intones all these creepy lines about Alice. Until the bridge, though...and that's where it pops. Ooh yeah! Where's the next bus to the Bay, baby? 'Somewhere to Love' is a lot more extroverted about its rocking pretentions, and is just a neato rock tune with that sexy babe singing about being dead and having a mind full of bread. Is that what she says? Sure sounds like it to me. And I may be a bastard sonofawhore, but that 'your eyes, I say your eyes may look like his...' part has gotta be one of the coolest pieces of female singing I've ever heard, and on an album that dates from early 1967, I'd say that's miraculous. And the Marty-sung '3/5ths of a Mile in 10 Seconds' and 'Plastic Fantastic Lover' are nearly as good as that...This album had to blow some minds when it came out. It can still do it 35 years later!
Capn's Final Word: When first listening to it, it sounds a bit hokey, but if you let it wash over a few times you'll find yourself in a pretty neato psychological state of mind, indeed. Boy, am I ever glad these guys decided to rock a bit.
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After Bathing At
Baxter's - RCA 1967..
When you release an album that opens with a wicked, hair-curdling blast of some of the thickest feedback I've ever heard, you better be able to follow it up with some pretty heavy acid shit, twice times the last record, at least. The Airplane do just that with Baxter's, which takes the cute, suburbian living room trip ('hehe! Are you sure this won't affect my permanent?') started on Surrealistic Pillow and heads it out for the head dens and flop houses of the poor area of town, motivating in that freak vehicle you see there on the front. The acid must've been flowing unchecked at this point, because all the formal song structures are gone. The love songs are gone. The pauses between songs are gone. In come the goofy, Zappa-esque collages like 'A Small Package Of Value Will Come To You Shortly', which is a bunch of auxiliary percussion pounding, inaudible bits of conversation, and crazed howling mixed up together. And it ends with someone screaming 'No man is an island!!!!!...he's a peninsula!', which is a pretty funny way of poking a hole in anyone's theory that this sort of fucking about should be approached as 'art'. And another hole that needs to be poked (pricked?) is that this album can only be enjoyed on drugs...I happen to think that the only thing you need to have is a mind that is slightly cracked (like mine was when I first heard it at age 15, and more or less remains so to this day), but not drugs. I say I'd probably have been freaked to the gills by something like this while high...give me the warm climes of Loveless any day while on a 'chemical vacation'...oh, those were the days...Whatever, this album is the pure peak of Jefferson Airplane as a psychedelic freak band. After this they were burnt out jamming fools, but that ain't the same thing.
The problem with Baxter's lies in that, for all this 'progression and experimentation', Balin's songwriting has stagnated back in the ol' Pillow and Takes Off pop-song puke pool. Jorma tries gamely to save it with his (newly interesting! Way to practice, Jorma!) soloing, but 'Little Girl Sunday Blues' sounds just like one of those 'let's try to outsing each other via howling' songs off the first record. I almost feel the same way about 'Martha', but I dig the deconstruction at the ending. Makes me feel groovy and leads into the heavy acid jam of Kantner's 'Wild Tyme' nice as you please. See, Kantner was one of those 'heavy' dudes who, once he began writing songs, didn't have much time for the love 'n' heartbreak stuff that Balin liked to do, preferring (here) paeons to the hippie freedom lifestyle, or (later) depressing apocalyptic sci-fi fantasies. I happen to like the guy for the most Parton, and most of his stuff here is a cool change of pace. Not all of it works ('Watch Her Ride'), but 'The Last Wall Of The Castle' is wicked and 'Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon' gives each member of the Airplane singer something interesting to do.
But, oh right, I was talking stinkers. 'Rejoice' is just plain Slick creepy, and seems to resemble Sinead O'Connor taken over by idiotic Hippie harpies from hell. She makes some literary quotes in the lyrics, but I care about literary quotes about as much as Japanese fishing rights, and there's no way a line like 'throw up all over his leg' is going to work no matter which over-praised English twit wrote it. Or maybe that was one Slick did. Eh, the snake charm oboe part is neat, though. There's a psychedelic space jam section for Jorma and Casady to suck on ('Spare Chaynge'), which contains nary a note of melody and lasts just a slightly shorter amount of time than a Great Australian Desert Tortoise's lifespan. Eh, it sorta reminds me of all those Grateful Dead post-drum solo 'Space' jams that bored me for all these years, and as such automatically removes Jack Casady from my list of 'Top 5 Best Bass Players'. I guess some bassists find this album to be The Holy Tome, but then again bass players spend most of their lives imitating metronomes in slow motion, so you know...take it (the tab) with a grain of salt.
So in conclusion following this huge rambling review that tells you nothing, Baxter's is nearly indescribable, not unlikable, totally unpredictable (unless you predict that whatever happens next, it'll be 'dark' and 'crunchy'), and pretty frigging far from Pillow in almost all ways. I enjoy it fairly often and hope you do, too. And if you're tripping after dark, don't forget to paint some glowing tracers on your back so drivers can see you.
Capn's Final Word: Not the worst acid casualty I ever heard. May I lay this ancient Chin curse on it? It's Interesting.
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Your Rating: B+
Any Short Comments?: I actually like this album a whole lot more than I thought I would, judging from writings about it. Yes, there's some psychedelic excursions on it, and if there are little pauses between songs, there are actual songs on it, and for the most part they're not too long (one clocks in at over 9 minutes) and they have some structure. There's melodies (albeit not as catchy as some of their best stuff), great guitar noodling, production is nice, the effects and noises adds spice ... yes, it's interesting. I never liked Marty Balin all that much anyway -- I like Kaukonen's stuff, so this one gets a good grade in my book, almost an A-.
Crown Of Creation - RCA 1968.
At the very least, it's divided into songs, each one begins and finishes and you can tell when they do, because there's a nice pause and even a band on your vinyl record. How considerate. But you may feel the same way I do, that after Bathing at Baxter's, there's not very far to go on the ol' Far Freaking Out highway, and I see that the Airplane agree. Large parts of this record are quiet and hesitant, like they fired something on the last trip and don't want to push the spaceship too hard for fear of the thing busting right up into little Christa McAuliffe-shaped bits. Of course, it also could be because they were all so strung out on the wrong kind of sad-face drugs at the time that they could only visualize the end of the world coming in one long, dull, fucking boring history essay examination moan. Personally, I always imagine the end of the world being louder than Fuck, and with lots of cymbal crashes and feedback (see the Stooges' Fun House for a fair interpretation) and casualties and profit taking. To each is own, I guess.
To illustrate exactly what I mean, witness the opening: two of the first three songs on the record are Slick sung near \-ballads, like the oceanically melodic (meaning the melody sorta comes in waves and...ah hell, it's not that melodic anyway) David Crosby group-sex composition 'Triad', which is pretty interesting, and the creepy opening (why?) 'Lather', which sounds like it escaped from the loonier exit of Baxter's house, complete with 'nose horn' and all that hippie crap. Man, even the Balin/Kantner compositions are short on gas. I mean, whole large parts of the record have barely anything going on at all. Take 'Star Track', which sounds like Ray Manzarek on Quaaludes (sans organ) fronting a live recording of the band played at half speed, which is followed by Balin's spittle-drippingly awful 'Share a Little Joke'. If there's a melody or a hook on this song, I'm not man enough to find it, and since there's no force like at least they had on similar Baxter's tracks, what the hell is left?
Gosh, but there gotta be at least a few tracks (besides 'Triad', I mean) that don't totally blow. Keep looking. Balin sings okay on the bouncy pop tune 'If You Feel', but the track sounds like a lame joke next to all these bleak anti-pop songs. The near-interesting 'Crown Of Creation' could almost be saved if they put some effort into making the thing propulsive instead of just lying there like everything else on the record. Come on! How was this thing ever released? Wasn't there somebody in A&R going 'goddamn! this album's a total bummer and will probably lead to bunches of suicides!' Ahhhh....it was released as is because they were counting on the suicides...I get it. RCA records biggest seller was Elvis Presley, you know. That man wasn't necessarily the first to volunteer for McGovern's campaign, if you 'rinse' my 'binky' in 'boiled water', and I think you do.
And it becomes more and more of a bummer as the tracks run out. Sure there's lots of that good ol' fashioned apocalyptic feel, but puh-lease. 'Greasy Heart' is (thankfully) sung by Slicky, and has some raunchy wah playing, but again finds its melodic shopping cart with more than one immobile front wheel. And don't even try to find any hooks when the damned planet actually does cash in its last chip as portrayed on 'The House at Pooneil Corners', you'll be one sad listener, Listener. Listerine, listener? The track just bumbles along in it's two chord glory until finally kicking over around the seventh minute. This, ladies and gentlemen, is not how to win an audience full of people looking for the Happy Hippie Life, but the way to kill them off and leave your audience reduced to the people who were so wasted they couldn't successfully off themselves. Maybe it was released a few years too early for the fashionable disillusion and nihilism of the 70's, but I say the time never did come for a downer album without hooks, interesting sounds, or good performances. Until 1982, anyway.
Capn's Final Word: The hyperdrive is inoperative.
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Bless Its Pointed Little
Head - RCA 1969.
Now, I must disclaim before I begin that I'm very inured to this sort of long, acid rock live album after years of listening to millions of Grateful Dead concerts (some better than this disc, but mostly worse...what can you do?). Lots of folks might find this stuff hard going, but I'm experienced enough to view this thing and all its parts in one go. Anyway, fair warning, this is a San Francisco band performing live in 1968...
To get on with the damn thing already, Bless finds the Airplane in full heavy-acid live jam mode, not yet playing simple political ditties but, at the same time, post-Chop Development. They're like a huge motor pounding on all cylinders, cranking out the torqueys and the horseys and hardly ever even breaking a sweat until the second half. And with a deep down body supercharger like Jack Casady's bass propelling everything along from underneath, this band has power. Remember how I said that the Surrealistic band was not 'built for Rock Power'? Well, this band is, and comparisons to 1970-era Who are very much warranted. They solo, do moodiness, solo, do blues, solo, and most of all, do Jefferson Airplane as heavy as all get the frig out. And that's the selling point, you see.
Anyway, to cut the crap and all the stupid metaphors I just tied myself to the wheel with, I say this is one hell of a good live record. It starts off with one of the coolest movie sound-clips you've ever heard introduce a band (I won't spoil it...but it's well known and it fits brilliantly.)For one thing, you ain't getting the same versions of well-listened singles like 'Somebody to Love' or '3/5ths of a Mile' you're used to. In fact, if it weren't for lyrics, it may take you some time to figure out they're actually playing 'Somebody' when they launch into it. And though I'm not too happy with the Balin/Slick outscream-contest on the opening '3/5ths' (memories of Takes Off's similar hollering plaguing me, I guess) they don't overdo it over the course of the record, so fine by me. It was sorta part of their signature sound anyway. They sure do start off with plenty of juice in the mix...they crash through '3/5ths' like a hellhound is on their tail and the soloing sounds like Acid Guitar Course 1. But the band isn't really all that interested in reproducing their hits, even sounding like they aren't all that damned interested in playing the songs, you see, so after cranking away those first two in economical measure, it's time to leave the ground. First trip? 'Fat Angel' is a long Donovan improv piece (one of two on the record), based on the Airplane emulating the quieter live Doors as closely as possible (or as close as possible without employing an organ or an alcoholic sex bomb lead singer....oh wait, they had one of those latter species, but she doesn't sing on this one. Wait until Massive Improv #2.) while Kantner 'raps' around the phrase 'Fly Trans World Airlines...gets you there on...time!' which then logically morphs into 'Fly Jefferson Airplane...gets you there on...time!'. I suppose some in the audience will be bored by this exercise, and it does seem to be the most self-indulgent on the record, but there's lots of interesting moodiness, as I said, in a Doors-y sorta way. And anyway, its only 7 minutes, and it's improvised (unless they did it this way every night, but I doubt it...these Frisco bands were aces at this sort of thing)
The rest of the album, however, really doesn't have an ounce of fat on it. There's some surprisingly crisp blues jamming on 'Rock Me Baby'...Jorma, I never knew ye! Being that this tune is 90% Jorma and Casady's work, I assume this is quite close to what Hot Tuna sounded like in the 70's, but since I can't confirm that, we'll leave the issue open. They work wonders with 'The Other Side Of This Life', making it sound like one of their best-ever career highlights, 'It's No Secret' is similarly inoculated with The Good Fast Stuff, but I can see that lots of folks might be getting a bit bored with the Airplane after this many 'yeaaah!'s and 'aaah!'s. I dunno, I just focus on what frigging Casady is doing on that Jimi Hendrix bass of his (that's four strings? madness!) and why they decided to do 'Plastic Fantastic' as close to the recording as possible. I guess it's to allow Balin his space to rap, so, you know, that's okay then.
The short 'Turn Out The Lights' is one of those cute little improv crew-instruction ditties San Fran groups liked to do because they had such shitty stage personnel wherever they played. The Dead had special ones for 'Turn Up My Monitor' and 'Take A Step Back' (when the audience began to crush), and the Airplane have one for 'Turn Out The Lights' so people could see the squiggly multicolored gel toothpaste on an overhead they always played in front of.
And, you know, I'm beginning to undergo some Slick withdrawal at this point of the record, so what's to happen but an 11 minute blow-out-the-fuses improv called 'Bear Melt', which resembles a song more than a crap collage, but still gets its fur mighty mussed before it's all said and done. This is the capping highlight of the album, at heart a 'Dark Star' rip perhaps, but with Slick doing one motherfucker of a job on lead vocals. If you're unconvinced of Slick's abilities, just listen here. Actually, the same holds true for Jorma and the rhythm section too. These guys really can hold their own in this sort of thing. Just remember that before there was prog there were these sorts of improvised wigouts, and that most of this tune was probably unplanned when they began playing.
Okay, so in short, it sometimes gets a bit ugly or a solo overstays its welcome but never once does the energy let up, and the band is always thinking. And just like any other San Fran psych group you care to name, it just goes to show that the live band could kick the shit out of the band in the studio. Another rock cliche, but you know how it goes...
Capn's Final Word: Massive, heavy, good parts and bad parts, but most of all different than the studio albums, so you probably need the darn thing in your life right next to your toaster. Oh, and there's no drum solo, so hey!
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Volunteers - RCA 1969
Unless you're one of those weirdos who like bad albums that are also no fun (as opposed to good albums that are no fun, like the kind The Cure used to make, or bad fun albums, like those of The Monkees), Crown of Creation had no better purpose than notifying everyone at the home office that going further with the 'frigged up darkness' thing wasn't happening. It was high time that the Airplane take a rightful place with us hairy backed simians back here on Earth. And what do they want us to do? Revolt! Tear down the establishment! Form communes! Farm! If that sound just like Ruby Ridge if you think real hard, you're not alone. And considering that the members of the Airplane were probably on J. Edgar Hoover's 'Enemies' list, I'd say this is part of a long-running tradition of mentally unstable folk (and Kantner certainly seems a bit unstable...have you seen interviews? He looks like a cat pulled from a toilet drain!) wanting to get out into the country and get shot at by federal agents.
Oh, yeah, but lots of people hate this record. Agh! Wrong! Bells going off! This is the first Airplane record since Pillow to have more than one or two accidental hooks on it (and Creation didn't even have that many! I'm discounting the live record here, of course). I'm not going to stand here and say these hooks are anything earth-breaking or anything, but they're there, you see, and you don't need to look that hard for them neither because the playing is as normal as can be for 1969. Like the main theme of the record goes duh dum duh diddly dum, duh dum duh dum duhh dumda dum dum! What, you can't hear that? Did I just whistle that in dog clef or something? Oh....your Text-to-MIDI plugin isn't working on your Non-IE 6.2 Web Browser, that's it! Stop resisting and go with the flow....Netscape is for dissidents and 30-somethings living with their mothers who frequent knife shows and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon Light. But suffice it to say that absolutely nothing on Baxter's could be rendered in 'dum's and 'diddlie's, because it was all a bunch of wanky panky freaking out, and nothing on Crown can be because everything has a maximum protection anti-snappy forcefield around it for use against the evil force of Woraxes at the end of the Universe. You have to sacrifice the snappy if you want to reach the edge of the space time continuum, you see. And since Volunteers gets no closer to the cosmos than giving a middle finger to ol' Dick Nixon, its snap away....
Okay, so that's not entirely true. 'Wooden Ships' is as apocalyptic as you please, even going so far as to be post-apocalyptic (ooh! better notify a sci-fi novelist about this entirely new wrinkle!) but you know what? Got a hook on it! 'Wooden ships on the water ver-y free!' Of course that one was written by David Crosby and Neil Young and Merle Haggard and God knows who else, so that hook came from extra-Airplane. But 'Good Shepherd'? That's one mighty groovy God song, especially the 'oh good shepherd, feed my sheep!' payoff line my friend Scott Barber used to love so much way back when. And to continue on the whole agricultural sort of thing, they give us 'The Farm' about, well, growing potatoes and cabbage and stuff set to actual country music. Or maybe just the Airplane playing acoustically and Jerry Garcia supplying some tasty pedal steel, to be exact, which may or may not add up to actual C&W based on your particular point of view (redneck). Now, I don't know if Slick and Kantner actually believed in going 'back to the land', or whether the average, lazy, drug-damaged longhair could feasibly go and become successful in agriculture, one of the most labor- and knowledge-demanding jobs in existence besides being subject randomly to all sorts of natural disasters, unpredictable market forces, dangerous corporate competitors, etc. Then again, isn't it just groovy that all you need is a seed and some rain and you've got some food, maaaan! Whatever. Goofy hippies. Trash bin of history, indeed.
But if you don't have at least a microscopic soft spot for hippies (I do), you probably won't like this record. Very little of it has anything to do with subjects other than the long-haired or muddle-headed, and when they get political on 'Together' or the title track, you'd better hold on to your GOP member card, because they're getting agitated in a hurry. See, by 1969 the Flower Nation was rapidly splintering into lots of opposed groups. They'd already covered the 'back to Eden' movement on 'Farm', and the 'back to Jesus' faction on 'Shepherd', and here they're doing the 'bloody revolutionaries' who used to chant for Spiro's head and turn 'up against the wall, motherfucker' into a marching tune. I think that line is used ingeniously on 'Together', and there's very little music outside of the MC5 that makes me want to burn down the ROTC building more than certain parts of this record. Good work.
And there's also very little music that makes me want to burn down 2120 Fulton St. (the Airplane's Frisco address) more than 'Eskimo Blue Day', one of the bands' most aimless acid jams. Luckily the acid jam at the end of 'Hey Frederick', starring the peerless Mr. Nicky Hopkins on ivories, more than makes up for it. And the song it's attached to ain't all that bad either. Its another Slick sex-themed track 'Rejoice' from Baxter's, but harder and more focused. And with some greasy greasy wah no less. And speaking of less, that's what we get from Kaukonen, who only chips in with 'Turn My Life Down' easily the most muddled song on the entire record, and probably the saddest as well. From being the Man to being a nobody, Balin has finally turned full circle and does nothing but sing here.
So shit in a thimble, but parts of Volunteers (the first 2 songs, 'Frederick', and the title track) are my favorite Airplane outside the Pillow singles. And some of this record is plain sad. But I still listen to the damn thing 10 times more often than any other album by the group because of all those crazy sharp hooks!
Capn's Final Word: Hippie crap, yeah, but catchy, rocking, and propulsive hippie crap. With Nicky Hopkins!
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Bark - RCA 1971
Balin is gone and the airship is definitely hitting some grab-your-barf-bag quality turbulence. Let's see....what else has gone wrong in Airplaneland since last time? Kantner and Slick have started releasing their own albums away from the Airplane nucleus (and the bothersome intrusion of J. Kaukonen, among others), most notably Blows Against The Empire, credited to Jefferson Starship, now just one noun omission away from 'We Built This City On Rock 'n' Roll'. I guess Gracie had her own solo album too, but nobody ever bought that one. Jorma and Casady got their own on with the debut album from their Hot Tuna (nee Hot Shit) jam band side project. And I think the drummer left, but don't hold me to that one. Drummers were leaving Airplane all the time, but Spencer Dryden was the important one.
But that first point is very important. Balin is gone...the former leader, crooner, and melody man, but notice that the word former has been in effect since at least 1968, and definite signs of decay were in evidence even on After Bathing At Baxter's. But the question remains...can Jefferson Airplane continue making albums not only after their leader bailed out, but also long after most of the audience had a second thought about the hippie ideal? Altamont changed a lot, you know, and by 1971 most ex-longhairs were falling all over themselves to sign up to be the most oppressive, disgusting capitalist whip-holders known to the modern world. There were no lazy no-goods like the baby boomers, and there were no two-faced fascist, materialistic sell-outs like them either. And you just know the critics were just waiting to slice this pile of yesterday's news to smithereens after the band took a year off to indulge their artistic selfishness.
So what better idea than to release a record named Bark, which in its original cover (not shown above) showed what looked like a bunch of fish wrapped in butcher paper, with the album title scrawled in crayon across it all? What second rate hack could resist pulling out some comment about how the music smelled about as fresh as the cover or how they should have just called the thing Woof? Boy, those aging San Fran hippies could sure 'nuff be gluttons for punishment if you just gave them half a chance. Luckily, the album is much better than that, being as strong as you could expect from a band so clearly past it's peak. The stripped-down bareassedness we had on Volunteers is 100% replaced by a far more Airplane-ish dense sound. Bark, is, in fact, a mightily well-constructed thing, packed full of interesting musical lines running all over one another and all tied together with a refreshing heftiness taken from their live incarnation (ala Bless). Jorma is in fighting fine shape, and even Kantner's rhythm playing is exceptionally chunky most of the time. It's obvious that the Hot Tuna faction of the band pushed for this harder rockin', and for lack of other ideas, the (bowel) movement was passed.
But the rub is that the band isn't given much interesting to do on here. I mean, the songwriting has given us very little to chew on other than guitar squiggles, and most of the stuff will just get hacked right back up again anyway. For every half-decent hook like on 'When The Earth Moves Again' or 'Pretty As You Feel', you get yet an ugly politicized depress-fest like 'Crazy Miranda' or sub-Volunteers politicized mess like 'War Movie'. And it's not like the tempo ever pushes beyond 'lope', no matter who's writing the tune. The ploddy jam-loaded grooves ('Wild Turkey', fer instance) benefit greatly from the addition of Papa John Creach's hard violin and the tonal variation it adds, but I'd also like a jam to go somewhere more than just 'to the end' like these do. Oh well, still, this especially musical stuff is nice to have amongst some of the furrier hook-barren vocal pieces. If someone could write an excuse for 'Never Argue With A German...', I'd be really appreciative to see the dang thing. Slick singing in German (abysmally) over some Cabaret-meets Jethro Tull-featuring-Mellotron-set-on-'Annoy' is something I'd like to not be played at my wedding, thanks. And lots of piano on this record, too...just pay a listen to 'Thunk', the most retarded track on here. I guess I've found where Tom Waits got his influence, but not his genius.
But not all of this can be counted out outright. It's not all that melodic, but Slick's 'Law Man' is dynamic and powerfully performed, bearing some resemblance to Quadrophenia-era Who with its confessional lyrics and such. And I'm always happy to accommodate some pleasantly impressive country pickin' (damn sight better than 'The Farm', anyway) like 'Third Week In The Chelsea', which thus reminds me of Bridge-era Simon and Garfunkel with early Phish's Trey Anastasio on vocals, if you can get all that. It really sounds just like that. Oh, fuck, just trust me on it...it's a good song.
Capn's Final Word: I'm giving this a C so you don't go away thinking it's very good, but I'm making it a C-plus because there's parts you may dig out that make you smile with recognition that this used to be a decent band. Just like picking your nose.
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Long John Silver - RCA 1972
Here 'tis, the last Airplane record, unless you count the late 80's comeback attempt which I don't own (and wouldn't want to except on pain of death, at least from what I've heard...), and while we're at it, let's count our blessings. What is still reliable within the Airplane in 1972, a date now quite far from their unquestioned peak. Let's see...the rhythm section, no matter who is on drums, is still a heftily swinging thing, and one can still have great deals of fun listening to nothing more than Jack Casady's constant bass acrobatics. Jorma just keeps getting better and better, never losing his 'poison' tone, but somehow managing to hold the band up with his stinging and impassioned leads, if you don't mind my using some of the two most odious cliches in all of guitardom. I mean, ever since he was hamstringed on Voluneers, the guy's just been tremendous. Maybe it's because of stretching out in Hot Tuna, maybe he realized that in the 70's, you need to actually be able to play that thing, maybe he just practiced a lot, but Jorma's improvement on his instrument is quite noticeable (and welcome!). Creach's wailing violin has all of the qualities of a second lead guitar, and his work matches with Jorma like Coca Cola and a fine bourbon whiskey, like Valium and Red Man, like marijuana and Clerks. And Slick is older, smokier, but not one mite bit less flattening vocally than she was way back in '67. Lyrically is another matter, of course, but then it nearly always was.
It's just....Christ! When did they start playing bluesless, tuneless Southern Rock? I guess this is what Acid Rock turns into when it starts incorporating 'roots' influences, but doesn't go all the way like Workingman's-era Dead had the balls to do. Here's what all the songs on here sound like: There's this sort of dark, minor-key chord sequence (not on piano, though...that's a Bark-only phenom, as I kapeesh), Jorma begins playing his leads over it sometimes double-soloed by Creach, Slick and Kantner (sometimes just Slick, sometimes just Kantner) begin pouring out some vicious and not-altogether pleasant vitriol about whatever happens to gripe their cookies at the moment, beit Jesus ('Son Of Jesus', 'Easter?') , free sex ('Milk Train'), food (huh?) ('Eat Starch Mom') or whatever. Then the lyrical structure breaks down into a bunch of ranting, and whatever melody may have ever been just evaporates into distorted wanking. Repeat for minutes at a time, try to make it 'meaningful', and there ya go, you're brand new out-of-date Jefferson Airplane record. Don't buy it, and don't play it near me unless you feel like being snickered at in public.
On one side of the coin there's no ear-searing absolute bullshit trash like 'Never Argue With A German When You're Tired Or European Song' we got on Bark, and you're very likely to dig this record if you're not listening very hard and don't mind some dumb rednecky heavy metal in the background while you beat your children or whatever you people do. But on the reverse, you're getting no variation, no hooks, no melodies, and precious little importance. The bitchy whines of aging hippies rank somewhere between Yoko's wailings and Ringo Starr protest songs in terms of what I'm going to give my attention to. Put this on in the car with others around and you're more than likely to be asked to take it out. It doesn't commit many crimes, but achieves next to nothing. Goodbye Airplane...sorry you had to fade out so sadly....
Capn's Final Word: Is there some sort of prize one can give an album for having nothing memorable on it whatsoever? And let me just say one word about the level of quality of the vocal interplay on this record, and that word is ______.
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30 Seconds Over Winterland- RCA 1973.
As the lysergic 60's morphed into the languid 70's, the Airplane also made a transition from a trippy bunch of avante-gardists who just happened to RAWK into a boogie jam band not too far removed from your crunchy guitar-slinging Ten Years Afters or your Savoy Browns from the other side of the Big Splashy (and much less similar to their San Fran compatriots Quicksilver Messenger Service or the Grateful Dead, who were reaching something of a live peak around this time). This may have preserved them as a concert draw when their albums began to falter, but it sure didn't help them much artistically. On Thirty Seconds Over Winterland we see them nearing the end of their turbulent flight, in desperate need of a shower and with barf bags full to bursting. The Airplane never lost it, not in the same way that, say, the Moby Grape lost it in a big supernova of sucky burnout skidmarking...the Airplane rhythm section still musters up a mighty groove and Jorma Kaukonen's leads are taut and confident, but that's essentially it here. If you're not a big fan of either Woof or 3 Piece Fish Platter, there really isnt much to recommend 30 Seconds other than to say these are 'songs' only in the loosest sense of the word. This is boogie rock, and as such everything either has to service the groove or the soloing. As for the latter part, you either get Jorma or Papa John's magical laughing violin, of which I much prefer Jorma but hey...how often do you hear an acid rock fiddle, anyway? This is by no means as good as the inspired jamming on Bless Its Pointed Little Head...they're too tired and reliant on keeping a repetitive groove to top the Barry Sanders agility of that classic, and Jorma often sounds like he's just quoting from his own book of licks, but it's, you know, passable.
The focus is very much not on the vocals though, as for example on 'Crown Of Creation', the verses are separated by vast parched parking lots of soloing, as is pretty much the rest of the record. This is good news for anyone super worried that a Balin-less Airplane would be able to cover the vocal sections is that the point becomes moot. The entertwined leads of 'When The Earth Moves Again' are ragged but spirited, and I have to give it up that Gracie's still got the same old power on 'Milk Train', but otherwise asking how the singing is on an Airplane live album is like asking how the lead guitar is on a Mariah Carey record. There may be some. but it's not bad or good enough to stick its little neck out and say 'hi-ah!', and even if it did you'd just end up ignoring it anyway.
Capn's Final Word: Live album that's only for Airplane freaks. Okay, but heavy metal just doesn't suit their questing jams like acid rock did four years before.
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Jefferson Airplane- Columbia 1989
This is a late 80's reunion album that attempts to glue a bunch of splinters together to make enough bat for one more swing for the fences. Slick. Balin. Kantner. Kaukonen. Casady. The core of the Surrealistic Pillow > Volunteers lineup, minus drummers (and definitely not including Mickey Thomas of 'We Built This City' and 'relentless sucking' fame), settling all their musical and legal differences and just getting down to getting down in the hopeful, open-minded and musically respectable year of 1989. Listen, your CapnMarvel-Approved Hopelessly Clueless Dinosaur Nostalgia Album alarm system should be way off the chart right about now, and not without good reason...Sixties guys bat about .100 for their 80's albums, especially albums by artists who seem as hopelessly divided as Depends and thong bikinis. This is a band that had factions before it even had a hit single...how are we supposed to reconcile the laid-back jam-bandisms of Hot Tuna and the distressing 80's falsehoods of Starship, with a couple of washed up singers thrown in for good measure? Sounds about as hard as trying to justify an elective war in one country when we're not even done with the first one somewhere completely different. But don't run off just yet...while Jefferson Airplane isn't going to make anyone give up their copy of Surrealistic Pillow and see the light of a late-80's studio reverb box, it's also not embarrassing! Oh sure, some of the lyrics are groaningly bone-headed, ('Summer of Love' and, ummm....'SUMMER OF LOVE') but there's a helluva lot of spirit left in these guys. Firstly, I'm damn thankful that 'Kantankerous' Paul Kantner is still in the band to keep everything hippie-dippie and steer us away from the Starship, who he hates like Dubliners hate sobriety. Just don't expect Hot Tuna, or Jefferson Airplane, to be sure....this is faceless 80's rock they're playing, though thankfully it's pretty damn clear THEY are playing it. There's just no fault that can be placed on the Kaukonen/Casady musical axis...these grooves are crisp and powerful, and the soloing is about as good as it ever was despite a few places where Jorma sounds like he's trying out for Hair Metal Grimace King Of The Year, 1989. If there's ever been a falloff by these two, I can't hear it, but that might just be because all of the GODDAMN EIGHTIES PRODUCTION BULLSHIT CROP-DUST that's SPRAYED ALL OVER THIS ALBUM because EVERY FUCKING ALBUM HAD TO SOUND LIKE SYNCHRONICITY IF IT WAS PRODUCED IN THE 1980s!!! That's enough about that. Eighties production....it hurts. Destroys families. Disrupts the food chain. The sound of a gated snare drum alone, at sufficient volume, has been known to cause baby sperm whales to spontaneously combust in a small watery cloud of blood and undigested plankton. I've spoken enough about it on other reviews for you to know how I feel, and if there's one thing that stands between this album being a small pleasure and a solid failure, it's the goddamn production.
A crying, screaming, smash-your-fists-against-the-wall shame, because this material, mostly, is darn good. Balin ('the Lover') contributes the worst song on the record ,'Summer of Love', a sickly-sweet ballad that throws open the man's wormy, rotten vocal and lyrical similarities to Eric Carmen for all the world to see, and Kantner's 'Wheel' is proof that no one should ever put it past a hippie as unapologetic as this man to make something as serious as Nicaraguan civil war into a song so oversimplified and dippy as to almost sound like reverse-propaganda by the Reagan administration (what? People against giving the Contras weapons sound like THIS? I'll mail them an Uzi myself!). But give a hippie some open space and a bag of passable weed, and he might just cough up 'Planes', which if I may say so myself, might not have sounded so damned awful performed live circa Bless His Pointed Little Head. Yeah, there's some corniness about giving kids hugs and shit like that, but what do you expect? They're old! They were too busy getting knocked off their gourd back in the 70's to take care of their own kids, and now that they're grandparents they finally realize maybe raising kids IS sorta rock and roll, after all. I bought my 2-year old daughter her first pair of drumsticks just yesterday...you gonna call ME Ward Cleaver?
Grace Slick's songs are consistently great. She's still in possession of one of the most distinctive and engrossing voices in all of rock music (a damn good thing considering no one else in this band, Balin included, is much of a singer, and some are downright spike-driving), and writes these intense, torchy soul songs that make good use of her instrument. Jorma writes stuff that he can play a lot of guitar over, which is about what I'd expect, I guess. His 'Upfront Blues' sounds just like just about everything that Hot Tuna ever did, which I guess shows how much impact the 80's had on Jorma (and vice-versa). There's for sure not much psychedelia here, hardly any at all really, unless you consider a distorted lead guitar to be psychedelic (and if you do, I get to consider 'emo' to be the stupidest profanation of punk rock ever conceived, okay?), but there's plenty of soul and mid-tempo stuff that passes right through like banana cream pie, only stopping long enough to marvel at how dumb these guys are when they try to get all universalistic on our asses ('Solidarity', 'Now Is The Time'). Would you want the Airplane to try to be all lysergic in the late-80's and write songs about deviant sex and sending the motherfuckers up against the wall? I guess it'd have been original, though probably not very pretty. Still, EVERYONE was recording songs like this in the late 80's, and a little more quirkiness and a little less slickness would've been quite welcome. Overall, I'd say that Jefferson Airplane is a mighty good advertisement to go see the Airplane play some good ol' nostalgic live shows one last time. Umm...15 years ago, I guess. Dammit.
I admit I may be overrating this motherfather, but it's just that it's performed convincingly despite all the production roadblocks and lack of originality or good lyrics (besides Grace). But it's got Nicky Hopkins some decade and a half since I'd last heard from the guy, and that's a damn fine thing.
Capn's Final Word: Nicky Hopkins! Eighties production. Grace Slick! Eighties Production. Jorma Kaukonen! Eighties production.
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Any Short Comments?: This album has one outstanding song: True Love, which is way better than anything Starship ever did and, for my money, beats any song Paul Kantner wrote in the decade. Even though they sound just like Night Ranger on that track (and in some other songs as well), it still kicks ass. The rest is okay, but not enough vintage Airplane for me. Still, not bad for a bunch of "washed up old farts."
Your Rating: D+
Any Short Comments?: Uh... You have some real balls at giving this album a decent review. Back in the 80's, when I was a punk rock kid with a soft-spot for 60's acid rock, I really awaited this album, and TRIED to like it, really did. In fact, I think I managed to convince myself that it wasn't a load of crap, only to face the reality later.
But, I appreciate yer review, mostly because it adds evidence that this album, despite being one of the most famously bad comeback records
ever, is not really THAT bad. I concur that "Planes," for example, is a pretty decent sounding opener, what with Jorma's stinging lead guitar and the Slick/Kanter/Balin harmonies actually soaring for a change. But, it pretty much goes downhill from there.
Part of the problem is the 80's production thing, yeah, and part of it is that Casady's bass is mysteriously nuetered--can't really hear the damn thing much, which is really wrong, considering that his giant and busy bass lines were always about the most reliable aspect of the band. Slick does sing pretty well--I kinda like both of her sappy ballads--the one about traveling to Europe, and the "Panda Bear" one, despite the almost stereotypically stupid lyrics. Neither song has anything to do with Jefferson Airplane, though--coulda been Slick and a bunch of backing musicians, by the way it sounds. The Nicaraguan song is one of those in which they actually sound like the Airplane, but yer totally right about the beyond-boneheaded lyrics. "Summer of Love" is excreable--one of the worst "Old Hippie Longs for '67" songs EVERY written. The Jorma songs are OK--nothing special, but nothing offensive either.
So, why even give it a D+? Well, it does have a surprising number of reasonably good melodies, and a few places that actually sound like the Airplane, or would if they hadn't nuetered Casidy and turned his bass way down in the mix and slopped goopy, echoey 80's production all over. Not completely hopeless, certainly an interesting (if depressing) artifact for Airplane freaks, but still an impressive train wreck.
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