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The Spotlight is on Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane was an American rock band formed in San Francisco, California in 1965. A pioneer of counterculture-era psychedelic rock, the group was the first band from the San Francisco scene to achieve international mainstream success. They performed at the three most famous American rock festivals of the 1960s—Monterey (1967), Woodstock (1969) and Altamont (1969)—as well as headlining the first Isle of Wight Festival (1968). Their 1967 record Surrealistic Pillow is regarded as one of the key recordings of the "Summer of Love". Two hits from that album, "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit", are listed in Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time".

 

The origin of the group's name is often disputed. "Jefferson Aairplane" is slang for a used paper match splint to hold a marijuana joint that has been smoked too short to hold without burning the fingers – an improvised roach clip. A popular conjecture suggests this was the origin of the band's name, but band member Jorma Kaukonen has denied this and stated that the name was invented by his friend Steve Talbot as a parody of blues names such as Blind Lemon Jefferson. A 2007 press release quoted Kaukonen as saying:

    "I had this friend [Talbot] in Berkeley who came up with funny names for people," explains Kaukonen. "His name for me was Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane (for blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson). When the guys were looking for band names and nobody could come up with something, I remember saying, 'You want a silly band name? I got a silly band name for you!'"

The group made its first public appearance as Jefferson Airplane at the opening night of The Matrix on August 13, 1965. The band expanded from its folk roots, drawing inspiration from The Beatles, The Byrds and The Lovin' Spoonful, and gradually developed a more pop-oriented electric sound.

Two significant early concerts featuring the Airplane were held in late 1965. The first was the historic dance at the Longshoremen's Hall in San Francisco on October 16, 1965, the first of many 'happenings' in the Bay Area, where Gleason first saw them perform. At this concert they were supported by a local folk-rock group, The Great Society, which featured Grace Slick as lead singer and it was here that Kantner met Slick for the first time. A few weeks later, on November 6, they headlined a benefit concert for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the first of many promotions by rising Bay Area entrepreneur Bill Graham, who later became the band's manager.
Jefferson Airplane Fillmore poster, February 1966. This was the first non-benefit concert held at the venue.

In November 1965, Jefferson Airplane signed a recording contract with RCA Victor, which included an unheard-of advance of $25,000. Prior to this, they had recorded a demo for Columbia Records of "The Other Side Of This Life" with Bob Harvey on bass, which was immediately shelved by the label. On December 10, 1965 the Airplane played at the first Bill Graham-promoted show at The Fillmore Auditorium, supported by The Great Society and others. The Airplane also appeared at numerous Family Dog shows promoted by Chet Helms at the Avalon Ballroom.

The group's first single was Balin's "It's No Secret" (a tune he wrote with Otis Redding in mind); the B-side was "Runnin' Round The World", the song that led to the band's first clash with RCA, over the lyric "The nights I've spent with you have been fantastic trips." After their debut LP was completed in March 1966, Skip Spence quit the band and he was eventually replaced by Spencer Dryden, who played his first show with the Airplane at the Berkeley Folk Festival on July 4, 1966. Dryden had previously played with a Los Angeles group called the Ashes, who later became The Peanut Butter Conspiracy.

Signe Anderson gave birth to her daughter in May 1966, and in October she announced her departure from the band. Her final gig with the Airplane took place at the Fillmore on October 15, 1966. The following night, her replacement Grace Slick made her first appearance. Slick was already well known to the band—she had attended the Airplane's debut gig at the Matrix in 1965 and her previous group, The Great Society, had often supported the Airplane in concert.

The group's second LP, Surrealistic Pillow, recorded in Los Angeles with producer Rick Jarrard in only thirteen days at a cost of $8000, launched the Airplane to international fame. Released in February 1967, the LP entered the Billboard 200 album chart on March 25 and remained there for over a year, peaking at No. 3. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. The name "Surrealistic Pillow" was suggested by the 'shadow' producer of the album, Jerry Garcia, when he mentioned that, as a whole, the album sounded "as Surrealistic as a pillow is soft." Although RCA Victor would not acknowledge Garcia's considerable contributions to the album with a "Producer" credit, he is listed in the album's credits as "spiritual advisor."
 
In addition to the group's two best-known tracks, "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love", the album featured "My Best Friend" by former drummer Skip Spence, Balin's driving blues-rock songs "Plastic Fantastic Lover" and "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds", and the atmospheric Balin-Kantner ballad "Today". A reminder of their earlier folk incarnation was Kaukonen's solo acoustic guitar tour de force, "Embryonic Journey" (his first composition), which referenced contemporary acoustic guitar masters such as John Fahey and helped to establish the popular genre exemplified by acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke.

The first single from the album, Spence's "My Best Friend," failed to chart, but the next two singles rocketed the group to prominence. Both "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" became major US hits, the former reaching No. 5 and the latter No. 8 on the Billboard singles chart. By late 1967 the Airplane were national and international stars and had become one of the hottest groups in America. Grace Slick biographer Barbara Rowes called the album "a declaration of independence from the establishment  What Airplane originated was a romanticism for the electronic age. Unlike the highly homogenized harmonies of the Beach Boys, Airplane never strived for a synthesis of its divergent sensibilities. Through  each song, there remain strains of the individual styles of the musicians [creating] unusual breadth and original interplay within each structure."

This phase of the Airplane's career peaked with their famous performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967. Monterey showcased leading bands from several major music "scenes" including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the United Kingdom, and the resulting TV and film coverage gave national (and international) exposure to groups that had previously had only regional fame. Two songs from the Airplane's set were subsequently included in the D. A. Pennebaker film documentary of the event.

The Airplane also benefited greatly from appearances on national network TV shows such as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on NBC and The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. The Airplane's famous appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour performing "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" was videotaped in color and augmented by developments in video techniques. It has been frequently re-screened and is notable for its pioneering use of the Chroma key process to simulate the Airplane's psychedelic light show.

After Surrealistic Pillow, the group's music underwent a significant transformation. Key influences on the group's new direction were the popularity and success of Jimi Hendrix and the British supergroup Cream, which prompted the Airplane (like many other groups) to adopt a 'heavier' sound and to place a greater emphasis on improvisation. The band's third LP, After Bathing at Baxter's, was released on November 27, 1967 and eventually peaked in the charts at No. 17. Its famous cover, drawn by renowned artist and cartoonist Ron Cobb depicts a Heath Robinson-inspired flying machine (constructed around an idealised version of a typical Haight-Ashbury district house) soaring above the chaos of American commercial culture.

Recorded over a period of more than four months, with little input from nominal producer Al Schmitt, the new album demonstrated the group's growing engagement with psychedelic rock. Where the previous LP had consisted entirely of "standard-length" pop songs, Baxter's was dominated by long multi-part suites, while the track "A Small Package of Value Will Come To You Shortly" was a musique concrete style audio collage inspired by Frank Zappa's avant-garde work on side four of Freak Out! Baxter's also marked the ascendency of Kantner and Slick as the band's chief composers and the concurrent decline in the influence and involvement of founder Marty Balin. The other members, gravitating toward a harder-edged style, openly criticized Balin for his ballad-oriented compositions. Balin was also reportedly becoming increasingly disenchanted with the "star trips" and inflated egos generated by the band's runaway commercial success.

Baxter's also marked the end of the Airplane's brief run of success on the singles chart. While both "White Rabbit" and "Somebody To Love" were US Top 10 hits, "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil", peaked at No. 43 and "Watch Her Ride" stalled at No. 61, though both were listed as being in the top forty in Cash Box. None of the band's subsequent singles made it into the Top 40 and several did not chart at all. AM Top 40 radio, in particular, became wary of a group that had scored a hit with a song that contained thinly-veiled drug references and whose singles were often deemed too controversial, so Jefferson Airplane never again enjoyed the kind of widespread radio support they would have needed to score more Top Ten hits.

In March 1971, Marty Balin officially left the band after disassociating himself from the group following the fall 1970 tour. Although he had remained part of the band's live performances after the band's creative direction shifted from the brooding love songs that he specialized in, an emerging drinking problem—compounded by the evolution of the polarized Kantner/Slick and Kaukonen/Casady cliques—had finally left him the odd man out. Following the traumatic death of his friend Janis Joplin, he began to pursue a healthier lifestyle; Balin's study of yoga and abstention from drugs and alcohol further distanced him from the other members of the group, whose drug intake continued unabated. This further complicated the recording of their long-overdue follow-up to Volunteers. Balin had recently completed several new songs, including "Emergency" and the elongated R&B-infused "You Wear Your Dresses Too Short," both of which later appeared on archival releases.

On May 13, 1971, Grace Slick was injured in a near-fatal automobile crash when her car slammed into a wall in a tunnel near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The accident happened while she was drag racing with Jorma Kaukonen; both were driving at over 100 miles per hour, and Kaukonen claims that he "saved her life" by pulling her from the car. Slick's recuperation took a few months, forcing the Airplane to curtail their concert and touring commitments. In the meantime, Slick recorded a comic song about this incident, "Never Argue With A German If You're Tired," which appeared on Bark.

The band still managed studio dates during 1971. Their next LP was Bark, which was issued in September 1971 with cover art depicting a dead fish wrapped in an A&P-style grocery bag. It was both the final album owed to RCA under the band's existing contract and the inaugural release on the band's Grunt Records vanity label. Manager Bill Thompson had struck a deal with RCA to allow Jefferson Airplane to run Grunt Records as they saw fit, but still use RCA's distribution.

The single "Pretty As You Feel," excerpted from a longer jam on the LP with lead vocals by Joey Covington, its composer, was the last Jefferson Airplane single to place on the US singles chart, peaking at No. 60. The album rose to No. 11, higher than Volunteers.

Even after the departure of Balin, major creative and personal divisions persisted between Slick and Kantner on the one side and Kaukonen and Casady on the other. (Jorma Kaukonen's song "Third Week In The Chelsea," from Bark, chronicles the thoughts he himself was having about leaving the band.) These problems were exacerbated by escalating drug use—especially Slick's alcoholism—which caused the Airplane to become increasingly unreliable in their live commitments and led to some chaotic situations at concerts. The band held together long enough to record one more LP, entitled Long John Silver, begun in April 1972 and released in July. By this time the various members were also engaged with their various solo projects.

n 1974, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick formally launched Jefferson Starship with the album Dragon Fly. Marty Balin co-wrote and sang on one song, "Caroline", and had officially joined the group by the time of their 1975 follow-up Red Octopus. Aside from these principal members, the band consisted of David Freiberg (keyboards, bass), Craig Chaquico (lead guitar), Pete Sears (bass, keyboards), John Barbata (drums) and Papa John Creach (electric violin). After the acrimonious events that resulted in Jefferson Starship's 1984 breakup, Kantner reunited with Balin and Jack Casady in 1985 to form the KBC Band. They released their only album, KBC Band, in 1987 on Arista Records. On March 4, 1988, during a Hot Tuna San Francisco gig at the Fillmore (with Paul Kantner, as well as Papa John Creach joining in) Grace Slick made a cameo appearance.

 

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