Sunday, October 14, 2018
Jefferson Airplane Takes Off
So many of my musical faves have died this year and I don't post enough to keep up unfortunately. Marty Balin's passing last month hit me pretty hard though so I have to acknowledge it. I've been a fan of the Airplane since I was 12 years old. They were my favorite American band when I was a teenager even though they had already broken up. "Surrealistic Pillow" and "After Bathing at Baxter's" were a big part of the soundtrack of my life back then and I still enjoy listening to them. I initially was attracted to the music of Grace Slick and Paul Kantner with its transgressive and defiant attitude as well as its psychedelic character. In contrast I found Balin's songs kind of corny. As a result this album was for many years one of my least favorite Airplane albums, since it is dominated by Balin who wrote or co-wrote 8 of the 11 songs and sang lead on most of them as well. As I grew older though, I became attracted to Balin's romanticism and soulful voice and this album became one of my favorites. When I heard Marty had died, this was the album I reached for. I think it represents the purest expression of his vision for the band. Slick and Kantner asserted themselves on "Surrealistic Pillow" and dominated the band after that. Balin is quoted in the liner notes saying "all the material we do is about love" which is certainly true of this record and has always been Balin's greatest strength as an artist. The album opens with "Blues from an Airplane" by Balin and future Moby Grape member Skip Spence who was the Airplane's drummer on this album. The song is not a blues, it is pure folk-rock propelled by Jack Casady's booming bass lines. The song introduces the elaborate vocal harmonies that would become a signature aspect of the Airplane's sound throughout its existence. The album's velocity increases with Balin and Kantner's "Let Me In" which is driven by Jorma Kaukonen's ringing guitar chords and more frenetic bass work from Casady. Kaukonen has an exciting guitar solo as well. It is a classic example of the zonked out folk-rock that characterized the early Airplane style and foreshadows the sound of "Surrealistic Pillow." Kantner sings lead and does a great job conveying the erotic urgency of the lyrics. Kantner and Balin also wrote "Bringing Me Down" and which is highlighted by Kaukonen's jangly guitar lines and solo. I consider "It's No Secret" to be one of Balin's best ever songs. His yearning vocal is superbly expressive and the dynamic interplay between Casady's rumbling bass runs and Kaukonen's slashing guitar chords is wonderful. John Loudermilk's "Tobacco Road" has always seemed to me an odd song choice for the Airplane but they do it quite well thanks to a heartfelt vocal from Balin and more brilliant bass playing from Casady. The song has been covered many times, but I've never heard a better version than this one. Side two opens with Balin and Kantner's "Come Up the Years." In his liner notes Ralph J. Gleason describes having the song stuck in his head after playing the album and I've always had the same experience. I first heard the song on the 1977 Airplane comp "Flight Log" and I loved it so much that I played it over and over. Even now it still sticks with me every time I play this album. The song features another emotional vocal from Balin with lovely harmony support from Kantner and Signe Anderson. The song is about a guy in love with a girl who is too young for him, but it is so sincere and lovely that it does not comes across as creepy. Casady's bass lines give the song a strong hook and the folk-rock guitar work enhances the song's atmospheric feeling. Casady also stands out on Balin and Kantner's "Run Around" which is sung by Kantner with vibrant harmony support from Balin and Anderson. Dino Valenti's flower power anthem "Let's Get Together" is an ideal vehicle for the early Airplane sound. Kantner, Anderson and Balin trade verses over jangly guitar runs from Kaukonen and Casady's relentlessly driving bass work. The Youngbloods have the best known version of this song, but I think this version is just as good. More jangly guitar introduces Balin and Spence's "Don't Slip Away" which features compelling ensemble vocals over a solid folk-rock beat. Next up Signe Anderson belts out a cover of Memphis Minnie's "Chauffeur Blues." Her powerful vocal reminds me of Judy Henske. It is an uptempo rollicking song that gives Kaukonen an opportunity to rock out over the compelling blues foundation laid down by Casady. The album concludes with Balin and Kaukonen's moody "And I Like It." Balin's vocal is tremendous and the song is loaded with tension and feeling, giving the record an emotional finish. As much as I love this album I have to admit that it feels a bit tentative, it is still deeply rooted in folk-rock unlike the Airplane albums that followed. It is nonetheless magnificent folk-rock, some of the best I've ever heard, easily rivaling the best efforts by the Byrds, the Beau Brummels and Love. There may be a familiarity in the style of the music, but I also hear something new bubbling underneath, the nascent San Francisco sound. I don't think it is purely hindsight, I believe that sympathetic listeners in 1966 heard a calling, a recognition of a shared vision that would emerge in 1967. It is obvious that this music means something to the band and their belief in it is communicated to the listener. It is not commercial music intended solely to entertain and sell records, this record is sharing a communal message. It comes across in the lyrics and in the passionate quality of the music which is driven by the redoubtable instrumental punch offered by Casady and Kaukonen. It is also evident in the band's vocal strength, particularly Balin who was one of the most expressive rock singers of his era. He sang with such commitment and feeling, he completely sends me. I will always be grateful that he introduced himself to Paul Kantner in that folk club many years ago. The result was some of the best rock music I've ever heard. I'm really going to miss him. Recommended to people who value sincerity in music.