Thursday, January 26, 2017
Volunteers - Jefferson Airplane
This one goes out to the new President, congrats on breaking Nixon's long standing record for inaugural dissent protests. I have only hazy memories of the 1972 election and all I remember from the 1968 one is my elementary school classroom's mock election which Humphrey won. If I had been a teenager back then, I would probably have been freaking out just as much as progressives are now, if not more so. Nixon after all was sending kids to die in Vietnam. The protest movement against Nixon naturally extended into rock music resulting in some fine records. I don't think any were better than this one though. This album seethes with anger and rebellion. This is evident in the fiery opening song, "We Can Be Together" by Paul Kantner. With the first verse the sweetly crooned "we can be together, ah you and me" it sounds like a love song, but it is soon evident that this song is urging the counter-culture to unite in violent revolution with lines like "up against the wall, motherf*cker" and "we are forces of chaos and anarchy." When I was younger I thought the song was too extreme and an over-reaction, but I have to admit nowadays I feel a lot more sympathetic to its message. Musically the song is superb, alternating hard rock and more harmonic passages tied together by Jorma Kaukonen's stinging guitar riffs and enhanced by Nicky Hopkins' dynamic piano work. "Good Shepherd" is basically a Hot Tuna song sung by Kaukonen and notable for the interplay between his guitar and Jack Casady's rumbling bass lines. It is a laid back folk-rock interpretation of a 19th Century hymn. It is quite a contrast from "We Can Be Together" and I've always felt it sounded out of place on the album although the religious lyrics are not incompatible with the theme of the album with their emphasis on avoiding the evil and corruption in the world. The bucolic spirit of this tune continues with "The Farm" which is a country rock song by Kantner and Gary Blackman. The song is a tongue in cheek gotta-get-back-to-the-country type song so popular with hippies at the time. The song features Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar and offers harmony support from the pioneering all-woman Bay Area rock group, the Ace of Cups. Side one concludes with Grace Slick's "Hey Fredrick" which clocks in at 8 and a half minutes. The song combines a massive ponderous riff with softer passages driven by Nicky Hopkins' lyrical piano playing, over which Slick intones the surreal lyrics with sensuous heaviness. The song drifts into a lengthy jam where Hopkins and Casady are particularly effective. Side two opens with Kaukonen's "Turn My Life Down" which is a poppy rocker that recalls "Surrealistic Pillow" to me. The song expresses disillusionment and confusion. It features a strong lead vocal from Marty Balin bolstered once again by the Ace of Cups. Stephen Stills rocks out on organ and the band's future drummer Joey Covington plays congas enhancing the instrumental palette of the song. "Wooden Ships" was written by Kantner, Stills and David Crosby and was also recorded by Crosby, Stills and Nash. I prefer the Airplane's version which boasts a superior vocal and a much better instrumental arrangement including outstanding contributions from Kaukonen and Hopkins. The track is stirring and powerful and impressed me greatly when I first heard it as a teenager. It is a post-apocalyptic song that describes escaping the carnage of America on a ship and foreshadows the themes Kantner would develop more fully on "Blows Against the Empire." Slick and Kantner's "Eskimo Blue Day" has a similar epic feel to it although with Gracie at the helm it is predictably less idealistic and more sardonic and surreal in its imagery. Slick's authoritative vocal and the swelling and turbulent music churned out by the band behind her makes this one of my all-time favorite Airplane cuts. Country rock returns with Spencer Dryden's "A Song For All Seasons." It is a shambling, lackadaisical track aside from Hopkins' honky-tonk piano but I like the humor in the autobiographical lyrics. "Meadowlands" is Slick's brief organ performance of a classic Soviet propaganda song. The album ends with Balin and Kantner's rousing call to revolution, "Volunteers." The song erupts with blistering guitar lines from Kaukonen and dueling pianos courtesy of Slick and Hopkins. One of the best political songs ever to come out of rock and a nice finale for Balin's last songwriting contribution to the band he founded. "Volunteers" was the last great album the Airplane recorded, things went swiftly downhill from here for the best American band of the late 1960s. The singing of Balin, Slick and Kantner was tremendously powerful and the band was at the peak of its instrumental prowess. This album is passionate and vibrant and full of the spirit of the era. Despite its topical urgency and political message, the album still sounds relevant to me, particularly since history is apparently repeating itself. Recommended to people who think "alternative facts" are lies.