Monday 14 February 2011

Jefferson Airplane "Bark!" (1971) (Revised Review 2015)

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Jefferson Airplane “Bark” (1971)

"We have only begun to grow, you know!"

When The Earth Moves Again/Feel So Good/Crazy Miranda/Pretty As You Feel/Wild Turkey//Law Man/Rock and Roll Island/Third Week In The Chelsea/Never Argue With A German If You’re Tired, or, European Song/Thunk/War Movie

The one main problem with writing a site like this one is that I can’t show you the album covers to go with the reviews. Do have a look out for ‘Bark’ next time you’re in a record fair or second-hand shop though, even if you hate the Airplane, because there’s no way I can do justice to the cover: there’s a fish wearing false teeth sticking out of a brown paper bag staring out at you. Seriously, even 'After Bathing At Baxters' looks normal by comparison. And such is the extreme variety and experimentalism on this album that after hearing it the cover seems to fit quite well (this is the band who’ll give us flying toasters in two album covers’ time after all, for no apparent reason), even though this isn't - as I expected - a concept album about tooth decay in aquatic creatures as caused by president Nixon (well after 'Volunteers' and 'Hey Frederick' would it have surprised you?). To continue our rumination of album covers reflecting the contents which we started in our last issue (editor's note: a rumination about the 'room-within-a-room' world of Pink Floyd's 'Ummagumma'), the cover of ‘Bark’ is the perfect synopsis of the contents, half-throwaway and disposable (there’s even a list of alternate uses for the plastic bag on the back cover) and half deeply inventive, with music that can’t be heard elsewhere and still partly with the bared teeth of old, even if they are false teeth because even the band themselves feel they’re getting on a bit judging by some of the lyrics (something which seems hilarious now that they’re all some 40 years older).

Many unkind reviewers have dismissed this album, claiming its ‘Bark’ is far worse than its bite because – by 1971 – the Airplane were almost establishment and not the young punks of the mid-60s and with the departure of both Marty and Spencer were 'soft' and outdated in a post-Altamont world. Certainly the Airplane do sound a little less than full strength on this album, what with a band hiatus during 1970 and most of the band's best material ending up in solo and Hot Tuna records, but that's 'soft' only by their standards: compared to any other band around in 1971 this album has plenty of bite and killer instinct. Even this far in to their career spin, the Airplane still pushed the boat further out than any other band in this period and went to places no other mode of musical transport could take you (not that airplanes can push boats, but you know what I mean). After all, what other album contains graphic sexual imagery translated into German (so that the censors won't 'notice'!), a rant against a policeman coming to arrest the singer (and not the rant you expect either - Grace's main concern is that he's half her age and doesn't know about the world yet), a track that basically says 'we're all doomed and band won't be around for much longer' (Jorma's witty 'Third Week In The Chelsea') and which starts and ends with an apocalypse, the first in our past ('When The Earth Moves Again') and the last in our future, in a fictional 1975 uprising to be exact ('War Movie'). Not for the first or last time on this site, ‘Bark’ is a forgotten album for all the wrong reasons, overshadowed by the triumphant albums around it and neglected by fans ever since. In fact some fans who swear by ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ and ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ and were there at the time don’t even remember this album, something which has surprised me (after all, how can you forget an album that features a fish wearing false teeth?!)

In many ways ‘Bark’ is the ultimate Jefferson Something album. Ever since the band’s first album in 1966 they had been growing in different directions, pulling in a tug of war that saw the group fragment into lots of smaller rudderless Jefferson Airplanes, all with their different lead singers, styles and backing, as if the band are doing a ‘loop-de-loop’ in the sky and don’t know which direction to fly in anymore. ‘Bark’ is that experiment times a hundred, with a different line-up on nearly every song and little in common between the Paul Kantner Airplane, the Grace Slick Airplane, the Jorma Kaukonen Airplane and even – for the one and only time on his one and only Jefferson Airplane record – the drummer Joey Covington ‘s Airplane. Usually when we talk about a band splintering into different genres, with members feverishly working on their own songs in several studios at once, we’re talking about a really bad, stilted album that might have sounded so much better had the band actually talked to each other and knocked off said album’s rough edges. Not so in the Airplane’s case – ‘Bark’ isn’t the best Jefferson record by any means (that’s still probably ‘After Bathing At Baxters’, the ultimate in free-style psychedelic freak-out), but it makes much more sense for the Airplane to disintegrate this way than most bands and they do so with a certain style and, forgive the pun, Grace. Every arrangement on this album makes sense, even the weird ones, as the Airplane try out one template after another. Unlike most bands in disintegration mode, each one of these possible new Jefferson Airplanes also sounds like a way forward and – with the exception of Covington’s overlooked dead end – they will become a way forward. Over the next couple of years Kantner and Slick will reign in their differences to make a series of duo albums and then create the new-look Jefferson Starship while meanwhile Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady are already 75% of the way to forming their spin-off band Hot Tuna, a band much looser and instrumentally driven than the Airplane but still with the folky edges heard here.

For all my compliments, though, it’s easy to see why so many fans hate this record because if you hear any Airplane earlier than this one you’ll soon be scratching your head over the sound. The 1971 and 1972 Airplanes have been long dismissed as a sort of ‘ghost’ ride, a few feet up in the air in mockery of the great world-reaching journeys the band took us on in the five years between 1966 and the turn of the decade. It's easy to underestimate 'Altamont' (the December 1969 festival headlined by the Stones and in which the hell's angels security team beat an audience member to death for daring to have a gun; poor Marty also got hit in the head earlier in the day for trying to save a young girl from a beating) and it's bad vibes now that we know it didn't happen again (well, there've been a few riots down the years - including a stampede at a Who gig in 1982 where 12 fans got crushed because of a misunderstanding over the sequence of doors being opened). But back at the end of 1969, with the hippie dream hanging by a thread and revolution in the air (thanks not least to albums like the Airplane's own 'Volunteers'), the future seemed full of little Altamonts. Spencer, who'd been talking about how the dream had gone sour for several months, left in disgust; an increasingly distant and disillusioned Marty followed soon after. The Airplane could have thrown in the towel there and then, their military-style variant on the old 'Woodstock' peace vibe one of the darker shades in the music world in 1969. But instead they chose to keep going, even though it was clear that 'original' design for the Airplane (demanding peace as loudly as possible) was no longer relevant in an age so much darker and more treacherous than they were with the drugs of 'White Rabbit', the silliness of 'Lather' and the dreams of unity on 'Won't You Try?' to name just three songs now shown to have consequences and merely complex solutions to what had once seemed such a simple and happy time.
 For many Jeffersonists the Airplane died the year before in 1970 when lead singer Marty Balin quit the band, his influence over the band he founded waning. Without his direction or lead vocals the band don’t quite know how to fill the Balin-sized hole on this album and I miss his forceful vocals here much more than I do on the other Airplane or later Starship albums which need Marty’s solid presence to skate over the musical jumps on this album. Things aren’t helped by the fact that the Starship have just taken off into the sky courtesy of the Kantner project ‘Blows Against The Empire’ which was barely a few months old when ‘Bark’ came out. We’ve already covered this album but  suffice to say ‘Blows’ is one of my favourite albums of all time, a gloriously optimistic tale of hippies hi-jacking a star ship meant for American colonialisation and taking off into infinity and beyond that is painted in such vivid colour it actually sounds like it could happen (please, please, please let it happen, preferably in my lifetime).

By contrast, ‘Bark’ finds the Airplane barely able to get off the ground, with Kantner and Slick’s best songs saved for that project and 1972’s follow-up ‘Sunfighter’ and Jorma and Jack preparing for their own runaway success with Hot Tuna. Add in the fact that the band have just got a new drummer (Spencer Dryden left the band when Balin did, tired of the direction or rather non-direction the band was travelling in) and that Grace is now distracted, pregnant with hers and Kantner’s child and its clear there are a thousand reasons why you can't go and why ‘Bark’ turned out not to be the greatest album in the world. Oh and a new fiddle player with the arrival of 54-year-old Papa John Creach, who must surely have been the last person fans were expecting to 'replace' Marty. That age was positively ancient old back then in rock and roll terms, although it seems nothing now the surviving Airplane members are themselves two decades older than that. A friend of Jorma's and Jack's who'd already gigged a little with Hot Tuna, Papa John's career stretched back to the 1930s and combined blues, jazz, funk and folk - not far off the same blend as the Airplane (though to different strengths) and at times Papa John's distinctive eerie fiddle passages will be a nice sort of retro psychedelia feature (he'll brighten next record 'Long John Silver' and 'Dragonfly' up no end); here though his playing is supremely irritating: almost the first thing you hear on the record is the first of many career 'duuuuuuh-skreeeeeee!' violin shrieks at the start of 'When The Earth Moves Again' where it's particularly ill-suited and the Papa-John led instrumental 'Wild Turkey' is easily this record's lowest spot. The new Airplane flight crew aren't bad by any means - any band would ordinarily be pleased to have Papa John or Joey around - but clearly something is missing and this cabin crew simply aren't the 'team' they once were. Hard as they try to avoid it, the Airplane are clearly hitting the brakes in this period, although this isn't yet a full on crash-landing.

Many Airplane records go from terrible to wonderful in the blink of an eye - that's the downside and upside of a band who live that close to the 'source' of inspiration without the editing for public consumption that goes on in other, 'lesser' bands  - but even by their standards 'Bark' is an uneven record. Paul, the only member of the band with an album wholly of original material out in 1970, has exhausted himself: although the 'Blows' sounding history lesson 'When The Earth Moves Again' has a certain charm and the idea of cycles turning over and over is a very Kantner idea this track ultimately sounds like an outtake compared to what came before. 'War Movie' is even more of a struggle, another wordy song curiously stapled together by a silly 'rock and roll' chorus, whilst the escapist 'Rock and Roll Island' doesn't even have that amount of intellect going for it. Not that any of the three are truly bad - not as bad as the painful Papa John Creach instrumental 'Wild Turkey' also on this album anyway - but compared to the sheer verve and excitement that poured out of Paul in the 'Baxters' era the contrast is clear. Instead it's up to Grace and Jorma to see the album out, which both do with spirit: 'Crazy Miranda' is the album's forgotten gem, the 'other' side of the Jefferson tale of 'egg snatchers' and counter-culturalists as Grace's heart bleeds for the young who don't 'get' it, who instead believe the lies of the corporate sheets and the myth of the American dream, her sad voice accompanied by Jack's bass hurling itself at the song in an attempt to change her mind. 'Third Week In The Chelsea' bids an early farewell to the band in style, an unusual country song from Jorma in which he remembers how great it all once was but how the fun has now gone out of it (with Hot Tuna playing their first gigs in 1970, in many ways its odd that he and Jack didn't leave when Marty and Spencer did).

These two songs are the un-missable ones that every fans should discover sharpish, but the rest of the record is rather good too: Grace's stinging 'Law Man' and witty 'Never Argue With A German If You're Tired', Jorma's funky 'Feel So Good' (the catchiest song on the album by a mile - why wasn't this a single?) and most surprising of all Joey's 'Thunk' and 'Pretty As You Feel' are just Jefferson and wacky enough to make the cut, the former a candidate for the weirdest love song in the AAA (sung a capella throughout) and the latter laidback Hot Tuna style blues, albeit with the very Jefferson message that you can be as pretty as you like on the outside, but if you're ugly as sin on the inside then it don't matter at all (perhaps that's why we've got that front cover?!) The odds aren't great, they're nowhere as good as they once were, but the Airplane is still doing so much more than ticking over - this is an album that no other band would ever have considered releasing and none could have done this well.

Certainly ‘Bark’ is no ‘Blows’, but then few records in the history of the universe (both ours and the one the band travels to on the album) are quite as good as that one. The band might be going their separate ways, but their individual talent shines brighter in the early 70s than perhaps ever before, with even this album of leftovers glowing slightly from the brilliance of the surrounding projects. Balin is badly missed, but Jorma really comes to the fore on this album to fill in the gap, with more songwriting credits than on any other Airplane album. Kantner has, admittedly, used up all his great songs on ‘Blows’ but there’s still plenty of interesting ideas going on here, many of which sound like outtakes from that album. Best of all, Joey Covington comes from nowhere to write or co-write two of the band’s best tracks, sparring with his elders and fitting in nicely despite only being in the band a matter of months (his chameleon-like harmonies give ‘Bark’ much of its sound, unique to this album). The fact that the band boot him of the Airplane out a few months afterwards in favour of ex-Turtle and soon-to-be CSNY drummer John Barbata may be a response to the fact that his songs are just too good on this album for comfort for the other competitive members. Best of all, Grace is at her weirdest since ‘White Rabbit’ – and I mean that as a compliment, honest I do – with an angry diatribe over media brainwashing, an angry diatribe over young policeman who don’t have the brains to see the constricting ways of the state and a diatribe so angry it had to be sung in German to fool the censors. None of her songs are that well regarded or even that well known by aficionados, but they should be – they’re a big relief after Slick’s wild unmanageable 10-minute opuses on 1970’s ‘Volunteers’ (which, bizarrely, a lot of fans seem to like but I find unlistenable) and are the only songs here that keep up that album’s welcome anti-establishment feel. There’s also one other important reason for this album’s part-success and that’s the album’s sound – ‘Bark’ is, for the most part, crystal clear even on my old scratchy vinyl copy, with a properly thought out arrangement of vocals, guitars and drums that when heard together make this sound less like an album of solo songs than an ersatz fully functioning band. By contrast follow-up ‘Long John Silver’ is one of the murkiest, muddiest albums I’ve heard since the early Rolling Stones and is much harder to listen to, even if the ‘Airplane’ are much more of a band on it.

Amazingly, given the amount of pressure from outside the band with all these outside projects and the poor reception of this album, the Airplane will still get back together for one last album ‘Long John Silver’, which is kind of their ‘Abbey Road’ to this album’s ‘Let It Be’, a much more focussed work with the band writing with each other and playing together on most tracks. By contrast, ‘Bark’ is something of a sprawling mess, with lots of songs created out of jam sessions featuring half the group with a few overdubs tacked on or solo tracks overdubbed to sound like a band at work. But even sprawling messes have their moments and ‘Bark’ has more than most, an album much better than its reputation suggests and one that manages to wave the band a fond goodbye with Jorma’s ‘Third Week In The Chelsea’. Even at cruise level, the Airplane still go to places other bands won’t or can’t go and you overlook this album at your peril – after all, how many albums do you know that feature Grace Slick describing the process of childbirth in German, feature an a capella choir singing what sounds like a 1950s rock and roll song or feature that cover with that fish and those teeth? ‘Bark’ may be barking mad, but I love the Airplane when they’re barking mad and do things that no other band would even think of doing and ‘Bark’ still needs a place on your shelf if you’re even a little bit curious as to what happened to the band after ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Somebody To Love’. Oh one last thought before we leave the introduction – what exactly are you meant to do when you recycle this album’s inner sleeve (which comes with the inviting question 'what can you do with the bag?') I know recycling was in in 1971 and all that (Lindisfarne even do a recyclable cover in 1972) but the wacky sleeve notes never actually tell me?...
‘When The Earth Moves Again’ is a good example of that, the last real science-fiction song from Paul Kantner for a decade or so – until the Jefferson Starship albums about cold nuclear warfare in the 1980s – and sounds like it belongs with the other songs on ‘Blows Against The Empire’, perhaps as a rousing finale in between ‘Have You Seen The Stars Tonite?’ and ‘Starship’. This is perhaps Kantner’s ultimate song on one of his favourite themes (mankind’s destruction), reaching back to our past and looking forward to our future and it deserves to be better known. The band don’t do it justice here, though, partly because of a shrieking over-the-top arrangement that overloads this sweet and simple song with chaotic overdubs from mass vocal parts to Papa John Creach’s distracting violin shrieks and partly because this is the one song on the album that suffers from the continued Airplane illness of muddy production. As a result, it’s hard to hear what’s going on in this song but when you decipher them Kantner’s lyrics are among his most fascinating, with Kantner looking back to our past in Egypt and Maya, figuring that maybe our modern capitalist society has had its own day like theirs did and wondering what will come next.

I might be going off-song here (as usual), but the sci-fi loving Kantner’s thoughts have chimed with a great deal of books written since 1971, as scientists understand more about polar magnetic shifts and the like. There’s going to be far more songs about this sort of thing come 2012 as well I should think, what with the Mayan prediction of the end of the latest period of mankind’s progress on Earth. The song’s title is a clever double pun – after some coming devastation (undated in the song) the Earth moves on spiritually to a new kind of civilisation, but the earth moving could also relate to the ground, which shifts because of some catastrophe (such as a polar shift). Unlike many songs on the subject, though, this is nothing to be frightened of and instead sounds more like something to celebrate by the sound of it, with mankind getting another chance to put right all the things modern man has got wrong. Listen out too for the mentions of ancient civilisations throughout the song, leaving future selves ‘pointers’ for what has been lost, from the pyramids of Giza to the Mayan calendar – one wonders what 21st century man will leave for posterity (the presidential rocks at mount Rushmore and the statue of Liberty perhaps?) and what our future selves will draw from our own history (perhaps one day our future offspring will re-invent the internet and find Alan’s Album Archives?!) ‘When The Earth’ is, as you can probably tell, a horrendously complex song and one that’s hard to do justice to here, building from a muted beginning to a rousing singalong chorus that in typical Jefferson style finds happiness in the most unlikely of surroundings. It’s just a shame that the band don’t do the song justice here, with one of the murkiest production values you will ever here (I had one hell of a job deciphering these lyrics and I’m still not convinced I’ve got them right!)

Remember what we said about this album featuring lots of different bands? Well, ‘Feel So Good’ couldn’t be more different from the last song if it tried. It’s a simple, seductive song that offers very little in the way of lyrics but does feature a much clearer production and one of the all time great rock and roll riffs. Jorma might not have the most obvious rock and roll voice, but it really suits this sweet little ode to happiness. His guitar break, too, is the high spot in this song, interrupting several straight repeats of the chorus riff to suddenly fly over the song’s chord changes and career off into space. I love Jorma’s distinctive guitar sound and ‘Feel So Good’ might well be the ultimate capture of it in the studio – all squealing feedback and wah-wah echo, but with a directness and weight that lesser guitarists out for show can’t match. Apparently this song was created out of a lengthy jam session by Kaukanen, Casady and Covington and originally ran for double the length (you can hear this unedited version on the ‘Airplane Loves You’ box set, apparently, but good luck finding it because I’ve been trying to hunt it down for years!) Although very much in keeping with the rock and roll flashy workouts of the early 70s (think of the posing Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple in this period), there’s a substance and construction in this song that makes it sound far deeper than it really is, albeit there is one interesting verse that tells us that living without happiness is like ‘loving a wall’ that gives you nothing back in return. This track, more than any other Kaukanen classic, points the way ahead to the bluesy improvisations of Hot Tuna and it’s an exhilarating, exciting ride for all its simplicity and shallowness. Oh and if you’re the sort of fan who thinks this is the best song on the album, check out the ridiculously extended 15 minute live version on ’30 Seconds Over Winterland’, the last Jefferson Airplane album.

‘Crazy Miranda’ is the highlight of the album for me, a truly astonishing Grace Slick about media propaganda and the idea that all of mankind has to follow a set of ideals in order to enjoy and fulfil themselves. The sound of this song is straight from ‘Blows’, with Grace’s distinctive ever-busy piano block chords joined by Kaukanen’s guitar at its most edgy and out of control, playing notes here and there rather than following the tune. Even though Grace sings this song straight and – for Grace – in quite a muted way, the guitar and piano work give the feeling of turbulence, all the confusing conflicting emotions that Miranda feels that aren’t the black-and-white conundrums discussed in the free press or Time  and Life magazines mentioned in the song. Miranda is just a simple, ordinary person looking for direction – but the world is so in conflict with itself she can’t tell which side is right. Grace then adds a second verse damning the Bible (a common theme in Grace’s songs in this period), which tells her to ‘stay as plain as you are’ – but for once Miranda doesn’t get any real pleasure out of crossing it either, when the shallow friends she has tell her she’s pretty she still doesn’t feel the love she craves. There isn’t an answer in this song, like all of Grace’s best work, just an empty longing hole that can’t be filled and even at the end of the song, when Miranda has turned to every source going, she still needs an outside source to love her and tell her she is needed. This is an extraordinary song dealing with the old Jefferson theme of ‘connection’ between people and its all poised so perfectly here, from Grace’s reluctant-to-confess vocal to Jorma’s empty, angry guitar whine nagging throughout the song. It really is so hard to work out the truth from what we’re told (just look at how the Coalition are being portrayed as our saviours on BBC news, despite all the evidence to the contrary and the many protests that get the tiniest of reluctant mentions) and Grace’s anger and sympathy have never been better expressed than in this forgotten song.

‘Pretty As You Feel’ is another simple song that came out of a jam session and was originally contained quite the opposite message (it was titled ‘Shitty As You Feel’ on the tape-box before the band re-worked it in the studio afterwards). It’s not quite as convincing as ‘Feel So Good’, even though a great deal of overdubs have turned it into much more of a band song, with Grace’s high harmonies and Paul’s growly bass complementing Joey Covington’s nicely confident first vocal for the band. The song doesn’t have that much of a message, not compared to the others on this album anyway, but the idea that your beauty is directly related to your inner confidence and inner beauty leads on nicely from the last track and is a typically upbeat hippy message from one of our most beloved hippy bands. Covington does a good job at eking this song out for four minutes without it outstaying it’s welcome, adding a little bit extra each time we get the repetitive chorus and adding a bit of energy to this otherwise laidback, bluesy song. Jorma and Jack get co-writes for this song along with Joey, but in truth they don’t get that much to do here – the dominating sound is of Papa John’s violin and its much more suitable here on this more relaxed song. Not the best track on the album, then, but ‘Pretty As You Feel’ is still a good song with lots going for it.

Not so ‘Wild Turkey’, which is all the worst elements of the Airplane gathered together in one track. A raucous instrumental which is – unbelievably – the third on this album to be born from a studio jamming session, this track features Casady and Covington at their most plodding and ordinary, Kaukanen at his screechiest and Papa John at his most irritating. I’ve no idea why this song is called ‘Wild Turkey’ , except for giving cruel reviewers like me the opportunity to call it the ‘turkey’ of the album, a pure piece of filler that does far less in five excruciating minutes than ‘Crazy Miranda’ did in three. We’re used to weird instrumentals from the Airplane of course but usually even they have something going for them, from ‘Spare Chaynge’s trophs and peaks to ‘Emrbyonic Journey’s gentle burst of acoustic folk. ‘Wild Turkey’ never changes throughout, starting out wild and noisy, ending up wild and noisy and staying that way more or less throughout. Possibly the worst Jefferson Airplane track of all.

Side two kicks off with ‘Law Man’, another extraordinary Grace Slick track that finds her ‘tired and sweet from making love’ only to be pulled away from her joys when a policeman calls round for some minor misdemeanour. The poor young ‘lawman’, well out of his depth, tries to do things by the book but Grace’s narrator has played these games before and wants him to go away. Having read Grace’s autobiography ‘Somebody To Love?’, I can tell you this sort of thing happened to her a lot (usually when a minor episode like losing her car keys while her car is parked in an awkward spot turns into her insulting an intellectually-challenged police officer and ending up being booked for some heavier offence) and this is Grace flipping her lid as it happens again. You can just imagine a grouchy Grace sitting down to write to get the subject off her mind and pulling and yanking at the first chords that come to mind for this angular, awkward song which accurately sums up both her annoyance and her tiredness, pulling this way and that as if dropping off to sleep between verses (I shall have to add it to my ‘top five chronic fatigue songs’ one day, alongside The Stones’ ‘Rocks Off’, The Beach Boys’ ‘I Went To Sleep’ and The Beatles’ ‘I’m So Tired).

Grace manages to steer the song away from herself long enough to tell us that the ‘kids’ of the 1960s/70s don’t want to cause trouble any more than the police, it’s just they have a different way of going about things, throwing the claims back in the policeman’s face and making out that the arrests are all his fault. Grace is at her fiery vocal best in this song, taunting the policeman with the line that ‘my old man’s gun has never been fired but there’s always a first time’ before noticing that the lawman is a lot younger than her and that on second thoughts ‘I’d hate to shoot a baby’. This line says it all – back in the ‘summer of love’ it was the Jeffersons of the world who were the ‘kids’ trying to make a difference, but by 1971 the  world had moved on, with a younger generation much less determined to briong down the walls of society (hence the truly awful period of glam rock that’s just round the corner). We’ve said elsewhere on our site that ‘Blows Against The Empire’ was the last gasp of the hippie dream when anything sounded possible – ‘Law Man’, by contrast, has Grace shaking her head at the fact that there are just too many people to defeat and that the next generation have rebelled again, taking sides with their elders to some extent. One long sigh, ‘Law Man’ is extraordinary for offering a much more mature and thought out song about wanting radical change, acknowledging the people it will ultimately hurt who, like the young policeman, are just ‘doing their job’. The fact that Grace let this song through into the Jefferson canon, despite being at odds with most of their earlier work, says much for the band’s bravery and their willingness to compromise, in the same way that an angry Grace is pacified into putting the gun down here, telling the policeman instead to ‘bring your business around here in the morning’.  

Kantner doesn’t seem to have bought into the end of the hippie dream yet, though, as ‘Rock and Roll Island’ – while acknowledging all the horrors of the modern age – simply imagines a rock and roll island where everybody can do what they like without ‘hassle’. It’s sad to hear the man who wrote the bulk of ‘Blows Against The Empire’ reduced to writing a song that sets its sights so much lower, both because the ‘new world’ of hippiedom has been reduced to a mere ‘island’ and because this generic song owes so much to past creations. ‘I never been so high but I try’ is also perhaps the single worst Jefferson chorus of them all, already repeated from several other Kantner songs (notably ‘Won’t You Try?’ and ‘The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil’) but without anything like as much conviction. The production values of the album again let the song down, with Grace undoing all her grand work in the last song for some out-of-pitch caterwauling screaming that overshadows Kantner’s own wobbly lead. There’s an attempt at some classic Jefferson writing here, with references to ‘quasars, pulsars’ (a line that no other rock band of the early 70s would have written into a song) and the idea that the island won’t fall to the outside world till ‘the 29th century’  - but even that’s quite a shame, given that the new planet in ‘Blows Against The Empire’ never falls. It’s as if Kantner suddenly cottoned on to the kind of out of tune rock everybody else was writing in 1971 and decided to add his own ideas to the genre, forgetting all the songwriting lessons he’d learnt in the meantime. The world is knocking at the door and Jefferson Airplane, for the first time in their career, are beginning to cave in. A rotten shame.

‘Third Week In The Chelsea’ isn’t even that cautiously optimistic, with Jorma’s record third song on the album a simple acoustic folk ballad about how the band are beginning to go their separate ways. It’s very Lindisfarnish this track, what with the harmonicas and sweet-and-sour harmonies, although the track is actually closest in style to Pentangle’s own farewell track ‘People On The Highway’. Jorma isn’t being fooled – he knows the hippie dream is ending and doesn’t like what it turned him into anyway, with the band trying to live up to the images they have in the music press and with the narrator staring into a hotel mirror while out on tour and ‘not liking what I see’. He also seems to reject Kantner’s views in the last track, with his lines about how the band are hiding in their imaginations to avoid a case of ‘bad reality’. The song talks honestly about all the pressure on the band to stay together, financial and personal, and reveals that Jorma for one is fed up of the band (or at least he is ‘every time I put down my guitar’ and the music ends, in one of Jorma’s career best lines). Surprisingly, given that this song is about their favourite band’s downfall, most fans really like this track which is witty and honest but doesn’t quite reach the heights of this album for me, possibly because the repetitive tune can’t match the insightful lyrics. The folk sound of this song also sounds badly out of place here, even though it used to be a big part of the Jefferson sound at the beginning (even so, this is the first fully acoustic song for three years). Full marks for the lyrics, though, which rival even Pentangle’s song as the ultimate career kiss-off.

Goodness, how to describe ‘Never Argue With A German If You’re Tired, or, European Song’, which must be one of the weirdest songs in my collection (along with most of ‘Ummagumma’ from last week’s review!) Tired of having her songs blocked by censors, Grace sought to write the most out-there, offensive and shocking track she could – but she wrote it in pidegon-German, knowing that the censors would be too lazy to decipher it and work out what she is saying. My German’s not even as good as Grace’s (the only bits I still remember are ‘Komm Gib Mer Deine Hand’ and ‘Sie Leibt Dich’ and both of those are useless phrases I learnt from The Beatles) but I have it on good authority that the translation is so wonky in places that even German censors weren’t sure what the song was about. The most likely translation is that this is the newly pregnant Grace telling us in intimate detail the physical processes of getting pregnant and childbirth. The delight with which Grace sarcastically drags out her opening line (‘Sticken ein mein haucken’) is a delight in any language and she’s clearly having fun with this track, but without really knowing what the song’s about its hard to get as involved with this song as ‘Miranda’ or ‘Law Man’. The backing is, erm, inventive and either refreshingly different or downright perverse depending on your mood, as a piano-and-drum waltz beat duet plays below a mellotron playing the sound of a choir (who sound like they’re either underwater, drunk, being squashed by a giant troll or all three). I have to say, though, I am impressed by the middle of the song, which is genuinely exciting and seems to fold up on itself only to start up again from the beginning. No other band would dare to try to write a song around the fact that the audience won’t have a clue what’s going on (barring their fans in Germany of course, although arguably they didn’t understand it either) and the fact that Grace half gets away with it is a tribute to her seductive powers of singing because there’s not much else to concentrate on here.  Danke schoen, dat’s gud yah?   

‘Thunk’ is another extraordinary track, unique in my canon. A multi-dubbed Joey Covington sings a simple pop song about how thinking about his girl won’t do him any good because he’ll never actually meet her. Only he’s singing without any backing. For two minutes and fifty-eight seconds. This song drives most fans up the wall (it’s rumoured to be one of the reasons why the drummer only lasted one year in the group) but I really like it – as a fan of the early King’s Singers I wish more bands would get rid of pointless backing sometimes and go to town on their harmonies. Covington’s a good and under-rated singer too: just listen to some of his harmonies on this track, which are four-part counterpoint for most of the song and very hard to pull off even for bands like The Breach Boys and CSNY, never mind one man multi-tracked. Many fans complain at the use of the word ‘thunk’, as if Joey hadn’t realised he was mis-using the word ‘thought’, but they seem to have missed the idea that the narrator is himself in a ‘funk’ about his girl and he’s moping about her more than he’s thinking about her. This song could easily get boring – and I’m glad it isn’t any longer than it is – but Joey adds just enough variation in the pitch and the dymanics to keep up the song to the end (and more than one person hearing this album has jumped at the suddenly shouted word ‘woman!’ even though they’ve already become immune to Grace Slick, Janis Joplin and Neil Young at their loudest). Not the sort of thing you’d want to hear all the time, no doubt, but ‘Thunk’ has a lot of thought in amongst its novelty value and it more than deserves a place on the album. Sigh, if only this line-up of the band had lasted longer....

‘Bark’ ends with Kantner’s final magnum opus ‘War Movie’. It’s another strong song that still manages to fall below even the weakest songs on the ‘Blows Against The Empire’ and ‘Sunfighter’ albums, despite featuring most of the same ideas line-up, including a guesting Bill Laudner (who sounds awfully like David Crosby). Like ‘Blows’, this song is a then-future vision of mankind rising up against his oppressors, only this time the battle is found on Earth not in the skies. A typically Kantner The date given here is 1975, close enough to give rise to the thought that Paul bought a time machine, travelled forward in time and saw the beginnings of the punk movement, but if so he wasn’t very inspired by the music because this is the usual Jefferson mix of block chord piano, block vocals and squealing guitars – the sort of thing a young punk would spit on before falling over whilst trying to do a pogo. In many ways this song is the most dated on the album, far more so than the timeless ones on ‘Blows’ which have a sound and feel all of their own, sounding like muddy prog rock even if the production here is far superior than on the other Kantner songs on the record. Not the best place to end ‘Bark’, though, despite the promise of more establishment-baiting from one of the counter-culture’s best visionary writers. Fans interested in this song and ‘When The Earth Moves Again’ are encouraged to look up the single-only science fiction song ‘Have You Seen The Saucers?’, another song strongly linked to the ideas on this album (and available on the retrospective compilation ‘Early Flight’).

So that’s that. For an album packed with enough ideas to keep Pink Floyd going for a triple LP, ‘Bark’ should feel like some sort of huge grand statement. The fact that it isn’t says much for both the band’s superior spin-off albums and the gradual end of the hippie dream in the early 70s which made songs about spaceships and hippies sound deeply passé. What a crying shame for the early 70s generation that they never got their own band as brave, as proud and as distinctive as this one to lead them into battle – and what a crying shame for us that this is almost the last gasp of the Airplane before it was grounded for good. Not everything on this album works (not everything on any Jefferson Something album works), but for such a varied and eclectic bunch of songs there’s a much higher strike rate than this album’s reputation suggests. ‘Bark’ may be barking mad and not necessarily the first choice of album to play to your non-Jefferson friends and family, but I’d rather hear a band stretching themselves and occasionally failing than a band playing it safe any day (who said the Spice Girls?!) Imagine my delight when this album (along with ‘Long John Silver) finally secured a CD release for the first time a couple of years ago – and imagine my horror when, yet again, most of the music press ignored it and the few that didn’t misunderstood it, judging it by tyhe standards of 2009. But back in 1971 recording a song in German to fool the censors was genuinely daring (nowadays with our horrible, largely confrontational top 40 I sometimes wonder if it would be a good thing to get all the sensors back again), as was recording an a capella song featuring a multi-dubbed drummer.  Alright, I’ve finished barking now I promise. Forget the time period it was made in if you like - good music like this never dies to those with ears and minds open enough to hear it - and I, too, want to end my days on a rock and roll island with bands who have as much heart and courage this one (and remember, it won’t be exploited until the 29th century!)

Other Jefferson related articles from this site you might be interested in reading:


'Takes Off!' (1966)

'Surrealistic Pillow' (1967)

'After Bathing At Baxters' (1967)

'Crown Of Creation' (1968)

'Volunteers' (1969)

'Bark' (1971)

'Blows Against The Empire' (Kantner)  (1971)

‘Sunfighter’ (Kantner/Slick) (1972)

'Long John Silver' (1972)

'Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun' (Kantner/Slick/Freiberg) (1973)

'Dragonfly' (1974)

'Red Octopus' (1975)

'Spitfire' (1976)

‘Earth’ (1978)

'Modern Times' (1981)

'Winds Of Change' (1982)

'The Empire Blows Back'# aka 'The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship) (1983)

'Nuclear Furniture' (1983)

'Jefferson Airplane' (1989)

Non-Album Songs 1966-1984

The Best Unreleased Recordings 1966-1974

Surviving TV Footage 1966-1989

Tribute Special: Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson

Live/Solo/Compilation/Hot Tuna Albums Part One 1966: 1978

Live/Solo/Compilation/Hot Tuna Albums Part Two 1979-2013

Essay: Why Flying In Formation Was So Special For The Jeffersons


  1. another incredibly thorough review of an album that didn't get much notice at the time the only recognition that airplane get these days is probably for white rabbit and certainly not this album-i liked it a lot back in the day and didn't miss marty balin at all or consider him all that important back then[within only a couple of years my opinion of him was changing,and rushed out to buy bodacious ].the sound of when the earth.. was certainly flat and muddy[!] too but i loved it then,perhaps it had a spectorish feel about it and the screeching [violin]was integral to it for me.i think i liked the same as you ;pretty as you feel,crazy miranda,war movie etc and the wonderful lawman-i never knew about the original title of pretty [glad i didn't actually]or the background to lawman.-i liked JC's contributions i remember reading somewhere that there was disquiet about the time he wanted in the studio and pushing for a solo album-maybe he was on a promise when he joined .
    the album did have a brown paper bag didn't it?....maybe it;s just my memory fading.
    oh and there's a great youtube of pentangle's people on the highway.
    now i'm going to have to put half of bark onto my phone having been reminded of it ...only the best stuff gets on there...thanks

    1. Hey thanks Billy, your taste gets better and better, or at any rate more like mine! Yes I'm upset when people reduce the Airplane to just two songs - at their peak they could do anything and while this isn't their peak it's still a very under-rated album. Ah you might be right about the paper bag, articles I've read disagree whether there was one or not. I'm a CD age fan really, though I did have this on vinyl secondhand, without the bag. Yes I liked Joey's contributions too, he could have grown into a fine Airplane writer I think, he had that quirky feel all the band had but an original sound too. Thanks for the info about a possible solo album, I'd not heard that before. I think I've seen the Pentangle clip, superb! You might know this lot already but this is the AAA Youtube playlist for Pentangle: Thanks as always for your comments Billy! 8>)