Saturday, October 1, 2016
Blows Against the Empire - Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship
Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship
My belated tribute to the late Paul Kantner. This was his first solo album, despite the co-credit this group bares little resemblance to the group Kantner formed later in the decade that shared the moniker Jefferson Starship. I've admired Kantner for many decades. I became a huge fan of the Jefferson Airplane in my early teens just after the band had broken up. I liked the first few Jefferson Starship albums as well. I picked this record up in the early 1980s. It is a reissue, original pressings were gatefold albums. I didn't like it too much at first, but that has changed through the decades and now I prefer it to the post-Marty Balin Airplane and Jefferson Starship albums as well. Kantner gets top billing on the record but it is very much a collaborative effort with musical and songwriting support from his bandmates most notably Grace Slick. The album also features other members of the Bay Area rock aristocracy including support from the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service as well as David Crosby and Graham Nash. The album begins with "Mau Mau (Amerikon)" by Kantner, Slick and Joey Covington. It is an anti-establishment diatribe about fighting the power with sex, drugs and rock and roll. It takes pointed jabs at Reagan and Nixon and would have fit very nicely on the Airplane's "Volunteers" album. This hard rocking raucous song is the track on the album that sounds the most like classic Jefferson Airplane which is probably why it is also my favorite song on the album. The album makes an abrupt change in tone with a cover of Rosalie Sorrell's "The Baby Tree" which is a light-hearted song about an island where babies grow on trees. The song just features Kantner singing and playing banjo. Kantner's "Let's Go Together" is another anti-establishment song about hippies banding together to "wave goodbye to Amerika" and found their own idealistic society which is the main theme of the album. The song continues in the folkie vein of the previous tune with Jerry Garcia taking over on banjo. The song is given extra propulsion by Slick on piano and Bill Kreutzmann on drums. Slick duets with Kantner on the song. It also would have fit well on "Volunteers" and is another one of my favorite tracks. Side one concludes with "A Child is Coming" by Kantner, Slick and Crosby. The song was presumably inspired by the impending birth of Kantner and Slick's daughter China and expresses Slick's wish not to "carry the government's child." They want to get back to nature to escape the indoctrination process of "Uncle Samuel." This is another folk-style track and with Crosby joining Slick and Kantner on the vocals it reminds me of Crosby, Stills and Nash which is not necessarily a compliment, although the three part vocal harmonies are very striking. My favorite part of the song is Jack Casady's thunderous bass lines. The second side of the album is a suite of songs entitled "Blows Against the Empire." The first song is Slick's "Sunrise" in which she tells "civilized man" to go ahead and die since he is not needed or wanted anymore. Slick sings the song like she is calling the faithful to prayer. She double tracks her vocal making it more powerful. Again Casady is the star of the song with his dazzling bass work. "Hijack" is by Kantner, Slick, Marty Balin and Gary Blackman. It anticipates that a starship capable of traveling through the universe will be built by 1990 and urges the counterculture rebels to hijack it and escape to another world. Slick and Kantner duet on the song which is largely driven by Slick's dynamic piano work. "Home" is a brief abstract instrumental attributed to Kantner, Phill Sawyer and Graham Nash (it really took 3 guys to come up with a 37 second song with no melody?) Kantner and Crosby wrote "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite." The song takes place on the stolen starship and is a paean to a hippie utopia. This hypnotic and slightly trippy song is again driven by Slick's piano with additional instrumental color provided by Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar. It is my favorite track on side two. "X M" is another short abstract instrumental credited to Kantner, Sawyer, Garcia and Mickey Hart. It sounds like a spaceship taking off. The concluding song, "Starship," is by Kantner, Slick, Balin and Blackman and it again encourages the hippies to escape on the starship. The song is a stirring rocker featuring some Grateful Dead-like guitar runs from Garcia and more compelling piano work from Slick. Slick and Kantner duet on the song with harmonic support from Crosby and Nash. The song just peters out at the end, but otherwise gives the album a dramatic finish. Although Kantner deservedly gets top billing, Grace Slick's contribution to the album is immense. It would be much less interesting without her. In many respects the album can be seen as part of a counter-culture trilogy with the Airplane's "Volunteers" and Slick and Kantner's "Sunfighter" which I think represents the peak of Slick and Kantner's creative partnership. When I first heard this album I dismissed it as hippie hokum, but I think that is unfair. Kantner was a true believer and though I find his ideas dubious at best, I admire his passion and commitment. The hope and innocence in this record touches me. I think the album holds up better than a lot of the other political music from that era. Musically it is superb, it may lack the fire of the Airplane when it was in full flight, but I still find it invigorating and captivating. Rest in peace Paul Kantner, in my mind you will always be flying high. Recommended to fans of "Volunteers" and "Sunfighter."