Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Surrealistic Pillow - Jefferson Airplane
I have a long history with this album, although not with this particular copy. I first encountered it via my stepmother's record collection. I left that copy behind when I moved out and bought my own one soon after. I first heard the Airplane on the first rock record I ever bought, the compilation "Get It Together." It had the two hits off this album, "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" both of which blew my adolescent mind. I was about 14 when I heard this album and it instantly became one of my favorites. I knew very little about the San Francisco Sound but I assumed this zonked out folk-rock must be what it was like. Of course then I heard "Crown of Creation" and "After Bathing at Baxter's" not to mention the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service and realized this album was just the tip of the psychedelic iceberg. It definitely seems a lot less exotic to me now than it did in my teens. I still love it though. It may be tame from a psychedelic standpoint, but for a folk-rock junkie like myself, it is among the very finest expressions of that genre. The band introduces their dynamic fusion of folk-rock and psychedelia with the opening song, Jorma Kaukonen and Marty Balin's "She Has Funny Cars." The song's construction, the vocal interplay between Grace Slick and Balin and the jangly guitar come straight out of folk-rock, but the hypnotic bass line from Jack Casady, Spencer Dryden's tribal style drumming and Kaukonen's guitar solo are pure acid rock. The trippy lyrics seem to be about seizing the day and trying to relate to other people. Slick brought Darby Slick's "Somebody to Love" to the Airplane from the Great Society who cut a version that was in a raga rock vein. The Airplane increased the tempo and added slashing guitar chords giving it some hard rock power. I've always loved the chemistry between Kaukonen and Casady on the song and Kaukonen's closing guitar solo is one of my favorites. "My Best Friend" came from the band's original drummer Skip Spence who left to form Moby Grape. It is a folky song with an idyllic feeling to it that reminds me of the Lovin' Spoonful. The record slows down with the romantic ballad "Today" by Balin and Paul Kantner. Balin sings the song with a lot of feeling and it is one of the most beautiful songs the band ever did. The song is laden in reverb and gradually builds in strength as it goes along and Slick joins the vocal. Jerry Garcia reportedly played the lead guitar riff. The record gets even quieter with Balin's moody "Comin' Back to Me" which he sings solo supported by acoustic guitars and Slick on recorder. It is a poetic and yearning statement about lost love that shows Balin's strength and sensitivity as a vocalist. Side two opens with Balin's raucous "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds". The song is a hippie diatribe in which Marty complains about the price of marijuana and people putting down his hair. This hard driving song is one of the best rockers on the album and has a terrific solo from Kaukonen. Kantner's "D.C.B.A-25" is one of my favorite songs on this album. I used to play it over and over again as a teenager. The dual vocal between Kantner and Slick is very compelling. The song's evocative trippy lyrics foreshadow Kantner's work on "After Bathing at Baxter's" and Casady's melodic bass lines show why he was the best bassist in rock not named McCartney. "How Do You Feel" was written by Tom Mastin and like "My Best Friend" it doesn't sound much like a typical Airplane song. It is a poppy folk-rock love song most notable for the beauty of the joint vocal which resembles the Mamas and the Papas. "Embryonic Journey" is an energetic acoustic guitar instrumental by Kaukonen. "White Rabbit" is Grace Slick's psychedelic ode to "Alice in Wonderland" and it is another import from the Great Society repertoire. In its earlier incarnation it was an uptempo raga-rock adventure. This version is slower and far more dramatic as Dryden's martial drumming inexorably drives the song to its roaring climax. I've heard it a gazillion times and it still sends me. The album concludes with Balin's fabulous "Plastic Fantastic Lover" which I think is one of the best things he ever wrote. The cascade of imaginative lyrics describing the artificial female of the title shows Marty at the height of his creative ability. A relentlessly rocking song with a powerful beat, an irresistible bass riff and lots of howling psychedelic guitar work, it ends the album with a bang. The song clearly signals the Airplane's future musical direction. This classic album demonstrates why the Airplane was the best band to come out of San Francisco - great musicianship, great vocalists and great songwriting, none of their rivals could match their firepower. I would argue that not only were they the best band ever to come out of San Francisco, but during the years that they made "Surrealistic Pillow," "After Bathing at Baxter's," "Crown of Creation" and "Volunteers" they were the best band in America, period. This classic album belongs in every rock fan's collection. Recommended to anyone looking to feed their head.