Friday 14 October 2011

Jefferson Airplane "Takes Off!" (Revised Review 2015)

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Jefferson Airplane “Takes Off!” (1966)

Blues From An Airplane/Let Me In/Bringing Me Down/It’s No Secret/Tobacco Road//Come Up The Years/Run Around/Let’s Get Together/Don’t Slip Away/Chauffeur Blues/And I Like It

 Three months younger than ‘Revolver’, four months younger than ‘Pet Sounds’ and two months younger than ‘Face To Face’ and yet recorded before the bulk of any of these, ‘Jefferson Airplane Takes Off!’ is an album that just keeps on giving. The band may be missing Grace Slick (who joins in time for next album ‘Surrealistic Pillow’), they might still feature a few covers in their set and the cover is one lost hangover from the ‘quirky’ covers of the mid-60s, but considering that this is the first ever album by any of the burgeoning San Francisco scene (‘the Liverpool of America’ as its christened on the sleeve; beating The Grateful Dead, Love, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service and dozens of others by a matter of months or even years) this album isn’t half a daring and wayward beast. Sure there’s DNA from earlier genres and the sleeve’s multiple references to folk don’t seem as amiss as they would on any other Airplane records, but nothing ever sounded quite like this album before. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but ‘Takes Off!’ is different, full of songs about death, unhappiness, anger and world politics, a year or sometimes two before these world views became fashionable. Most fans compare this album to ‘Rubber Soul’ and there’s similar sense of waving goodbye to the past and embracing the future all at the same time, a sort of folk-meets-flower power vibe. 

That duality is also expressed in the front and back covers. On the front the band are waving, with fixed cheesy grins, dressed in aviation gear (the only picture that will ever make the link between the band name and ‘flying’ that obvious). It looks like the sort of thing Brian Epstein made the Beatles do in 1963 before they all learnt better, even with Marty Balin’s priceless expression mixing boredom and anarchy (bettered only by Pete Townshend’s evil stare on the cover of The Who’s ‘My generation’ the year before). But the back sleeve is a completely different story: under the heading ‘A Jet Age Sound’ the band tell us their philosophy, that all their songs are about ‘love’ and brotherhood in a deep and meaningful sense and are a ,means for ‘communication’ between the 60s generation, plus the observation that they want the music on this record to ‘be like a big hand that grabs you and shakes you’ (according to founder Marty Balin). In 1966 no one, not even Jerry Garcia or The Beatles had quite verbalised all that was new and ‘different’ about the peace and love generation to quite this extent before and throughout the record you’re not quite sure if you want to embrace that newness – or run away from it, screaming.

Jefferson Airplane's progress up to this point had been miraculously speedy. The first of the 'big four' San Franciscan bands to get a recording contract (beating the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service by a year or so each), 'Takes Off' has a similar sound to each of these other debuts - the musical equivalent of baby photos, with certain characteristics we'll come to know and love already formed but others missing. The sound, for instance, is a big shock: the primary instrument after the voices is Paul's acoustic guitar, with Jorma, Jack and Skip only showing flashes of the take-no-prisoners rhythm section they'll become. Like the first 'Dead' album the performances are sometimes a little too fast, like the first Big Brother album are occasionally a little too lightweight and 'cute' and like the first Quicksilver album a little muddled about what on earth this eclectic band are all about. However 'Takes Off' is arguably more accomplished than any of this trio - the Airplane already sound like the Airplane to come, just slightly softer; the performances are played fast through enthusiasm and excitement but aren't that overcooked really and the occasional lightweight moment simply adds to the mixture of sounds, with charming songs like 'Don't Slip Away' and the cover of 'Chauffeur Blues' still better than most of Big Brother's debut. A lot of the 'messages' on this record are ones the band will be singing for years to come: 'Come on people, smile on your brother, everybody get together and love one another right now' 'Something new, what's that sound around my heart I feel?' 'This is my way, this is my time, this is my dream and you know I like it'. This is a band who know largely where they're going and what they're doing, just with slightly less power and with a sound slightly closer to the mainstream that what will come.

Given that the band hadn't even existed a year earlier and was still in flux a few months before the first recording session, this is impressive stuff. While Marty and Paul had been trying to get a group off the ground for years - Balin even co-buying and renovating a disused pizza restaurant so that he could convert into a club named 'The Maxtrix' and get into music by 'becoming' the house band - everybody else was largely new to this, either folky friends of Paul or strangers spotted by Marty at a club. Signe was the first to sign up, spotted by Marty at a nearby 'rival' club The Drinking Gourd singing along to the music. Jorma followed after a chance meeting with his old buddy Paul (appalled at the idea of folk musicians turning he electric he said 'no' several times before being persuaded to see an early line-up and realised the band had better equipment than he had as a solo act so threw his lot in with them!)  Skip joined next, Marty seeing him at the Matrix and realising that his unkempt blonde rock and roll look was exactly what he wanted for his band - in his excitement accomplished Skip didn't have the heart to tell his new boss that he'd never actually played the drums before (though with true Skip willing he gives it a good go it all the same - actually for such a newbie player Skip's the musician revelation of the set, simple and sturdy but more than in control of the Jefferson monster straining at the leash to get out. Though replaced soon after the album's release by Spencer Dryden, one of the great unsung heroes of 1960s percussionists - a bored Skip simply taking off for a holiday just when he was needed the most and finding himself turfed out the band - Spence more than holds his own and his songwriting is already as accomplished as Marty's. His departure is the band's loss and Moby Grape's gain, where Skip reverts back to being a guitarist - although you sense that Skip's future LSD-induced breakdown might have come even quicker had he stayed a part of the madder and more intense Airplane rock scene). Finally the original Airplane bassist wasn't really working out so Jorma suggested an old pal of his from years ago and gave Jack a call to come over. From the second Casady plugged his bass in and played ten times louder than his predecessor the first template for the Airplane sound is born. Yes the band badly misses Grace and Spencer from the classic days (great as both are, neither Signe nor Skip have quite the range), but you know what? The Airplane could and did function perfectly well without either of them. While sequel 'Surrealistic Pillow' is clearly a march forward in oh so many ways, I'd love to have heard a second album by this line-up with the extra confidence behind them - if not quite as magnificent without the hit singles Grace brought to the band and the more inventive drumming then on this evidence it would still have been pretty darn great. Far from being a mere 'test flight', 'Takes Off' already sounds like the real deal and is perhaps the most under-rated album in the entire Jefferson family (although you could make a case for 'After Bathing At Baxters' 'Dragonfly' 'Spitfire' and 'Nuclear Furniture', neglected gems all four).

The band themselves sound very different to anything that has gone before, if not quite up to the killer songs about peace (there was always that contradiction about the Airplane) that are to come later. Marty Balin is the star here, just as he is on ‘Surrealistic Pillow’, re-writing the pop and ballads of the 60s and giving them a definitive psychedelic twist, updating the multi-generational themes of boy meets girl for the umpteempth time and yet still managing to make them sound new and enticing. It’s hard to remember now, after so many years of seeing Grace Slick as the lead singer of the band (to the point where the Monterey Pop Festival film cuts Marty out entirely and films Grace mouthing to his singing), just how integral Balin was to the band he founded. It was ‘his’ club, ‘The Matrix’, where the band were formed, Marty who picked the musicians and most of the songs and – despite his lack of instruments – very much Balin who was the driving force behind the band’s sound. He’s also the driving force in all the promotion for the album as the sleeve-notes make clear, doing his bit to promote and explain the San Franciscan peace movement a full year before reporters discover |Jerry Garcia is the world’s most eloquent hippie. His sudden fall from ‘grace’, as it were, doesn’t kick in until ‘Baxters’ album three – and by album five Marty’s gone, fed up of the divisions in ‘his’ band and unable to find the leg room to get his material over (until his sudden re-invention of himself as an MOR balladeer with Jefferson Starship anyway). That end result seems incredible after listening to this album, one where almost every vocal and almost every passage of the album that grips you belongs to Marty. Along with the extraordinary sequence of Balin songs on ‘Pillow’, this is a remarkable run of songwriting and it’s sad that we don’t really get to hear more from this talent again properly. 

It’s Marty’s charisma that leads the band here, with Paul Kantner not yet the force he would be in a few years’ time (interestingly the back sleeve rte-counts how ‘scared’ he was recording his first vocal – not a sign of ‘Baron Von Tollbooth’ as the band affectionately called him that he showed too often) and a singer by the name of Signe Anderson depping for Grace Slick. She’s much folkier than Grace, a cross between her and Pentangle’s Jacqui McShee and her vocals have often come in for criticism for fans who are best used to Grace’s work with the airplane – but, for these times, she’s the perfect stepping stone, further mixing the genres of folk, blues and space-age rock. Old friends guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady are the powerhouse of the band in this period, with lead guitar parts much quirkier and bass parts much louder than anything heard on record before. Considering he’s never played the drums before – and will go back to being a guitarist after quitting the band in 1967 – legendary acid casualty Skip Spence sounds remarkably good – and, having played his outrageously out-there ‘Oar’ solo album the other day - remarkably together. Considering that both Signe and Skip will be long gone by album number two and that the band are still missing miss Slick as their lead foil and anarchist cause celebre, the Airplane are still remarkably bonded on this album and very close indeed to the sound that’s going to spawn their sprawling career into Jefferson Starship and beyond. Even if the Airplane don’t quite reach the stars yet, they very much are reaching for them even in this early period, causing quite a few upsets along the way.

Record label RCA were, in 1966, very much the friend rather than the enemy. After all no other record company had yet approached the growing San Francisco ‘love-in’ scene and it’s to their credit that they chose the relatively polished Airplane over the still-congealing Grateful Dead and the covers-led Love. It’s to the Airplane’s credit, too, that their reputation had grown in just a year to the point where a major record label was knocking at their door. But that’s where the mutual admiration society largely ended. RCA were horrified by the ‘first’ version of this record, one that included original uncensored versions of the runaway song ‘Run Around’ and the double entendre filled ‘Let Me In’ and demanded that these two songs be altered and that a third, ‘Runnin’ Round This World’ be dropped altogether on reasons of ‘taste’ (the latter contained such morally subversive words as ‘trips’ – well, it was 1966 when this sort of thing was new). They were all but ready to drop the Airplane as quickly as they’d found them until the sudden unexpected success of follow-up album ‘Surrealistic Pillow’, still regarded fondly as one of the best albums of the flower power era (after which the band were too big to get rid of, with the Airplane gleefully delivering the anarchistic ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ which broke every taboo under the sun). Nowadays it’s hard to work out what all the fuss is about. Sure ‘World’ is a drugs record, but only to the initiate rather than the general public – certainly compared to, say, The Small Faces ‘here Comes The Nice’ or the Airplane’s own ‘White Rabbit’ the following year it now sounds very tame indeed. The other two songs too seem a strange thing to get so hot under the collar about – the few fans who bought the record on its original release probably didn’t notice anything subversive anyway (the line ‘lay under me’ on ‘Run Around’ passes by before you really take it in – and the double entendres on ‘Let Me In’ were probably treated as a metaphor for ‘love’ at the timer, with its talk of doors and keys). Having your second single banned and two songs on your first LP changed did much for the Airplane’s credibility, if little for their sales and caused no end of chaos back in the office of RCA.

At first RCA decided to put their latest inexperienced signing into a studio with old hand Dave Hassinger. A veteran of the 1950s, Hassinger is most famous in AAA circles for suffering a nervous breakdown after a week’s recording with The Grateful Dead but seemed to get on surprisingly well with the fiery Airplane. Despite having just a four-track machine to work on (and a control desk that Jorma remembered later as having ‘just three knobs for left, right and centre’) the band successfully manage to get their ‘live’ sound across: the sheer fury of the guitar-and-bas interplay and the charisma of the band’s three singers. There are virtually no overdubs on this album (a glockenspiel on ‘Come Up The Years’ is the only thing the band remember adding), but unlike many one-take-and-some-mistakes albums around (especially in the early 60s) ‘Takes Off’ still sounds rounded and whole, without the need for any major additions, very much the ‘individuals playing as one’ concept Marty puts across in the sleevenotes. Perhaps the major reason for this is the band’s clear vision: yes the three cover versions slow down the album a bit, but the nine group originals here (and more on the CD re-issue) show a band with fire, guts and passion, all wanting a better future and deeper music, a million miles away from the power struggles of later line-ups.

There’s just two things stopping this album from being heralded as the best Airplane albums on the block. Firstly, Signe is great, perfect for this line-up of the band even, but she’s no Grace Slick either in presence or on songwriting. Miss Anderson, who left the band in late 1966 when she learned she was pregnant, shouldn’t feel too bad about that: no other band ever produced a female singer as brave and charismatic as Grace Slick anyway (with the possible exception of Big Brother and the Holding Company). As a result, Marty’s doing most of the work here and the sexual chemistry that so made this band – first between Marty and Grace, later Paul and Grace – is either imagined or inferred. The other is the lack of the standout cover ‘High Flying Bird’, an old folk favourite done by just about anybody who was anybody in the 60s but was arguably done best by the Airplane. The Grace Slick line-up sing it the best live on-stage in the late 60s, but even here, in this early version, Signe Anderson has finally found her voice, throwing off her shackles on a song about death and freedom and liberty and mourning, all subjects pretty much new to rock and roll back then. It’s by far the best on the CD re-issue of ‘Takes Off’, with a power and majesty few of their records match, recorded in the band’s second ever session on December 18th 1965. So why on earth isn’t it on the album, especially given that RCA took ‘Runnin’ Round This World’ off the LP at the last minute.

In fact, as a CD ‘Takes Off’ glitters far more brightly than it did back in the day. Even though the band are clearly just running through their early live concert track selections over and over, there’s a world of difference between the earlier alternate versions of songs included as bonus tracks and what ended up on the LP. ‘And I Like It’ was always slow and brooding, but on its earlier take it was slowed to a crawl and far more dramatic, more like an Otis Redding power ballad than an Airplane slow song. A first attempt at the abandoned ‘Got To Her’ (later re-recorded during the ‘Surrealistic’ sessions with Grace on second lead rather than Signe) and the similar ‘It’s Alright’ are both fine, energetic pop songs that have all the magic of its better known cousins from this period. ‘Chauffeur Blues’ might be about the worst thing on the record but even that sounds better in an early, wilder version that’s less staid than the finished product. And hearing the two ‘censored’ songs in their ‘proper’ versions makes perfect sense. RCA may have done the band some terrible wrongs in 1966-67, with their fumbling attempts to protect social mores that were about to fall anyway, but they’ve done the band proud since especially on this re-issue.

Overall ‘Takes Off!’ sits in a funny place in the Airplane canon. Most fans think of it as one of the greatest debut albums of all time, which it is – offering the sort of revolutionary, line-drawn-in-sand type vibes of ‘Please Please Me’ ‘My Generation’ or ‘Definitely Maybe’. But they also think of it as a pale predecessor of what’s to come, as a lesser ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ (if you’re a new fan who likes the hits) or ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ (if you’re an old fan like me who thinks Jefferson Airplane and the word ‘hits’ should never belong in the same sentence), which is also a pretty fair way of looking at it too. For some reason the Airplane never really got their true deserts amongst the psychedelic scene, perhaps because none of them died young (like Jimi Hendrix and co) or split up at the peak of their powers (like Cream), had a great revival and overcame personal problems (like the Beach Boys) or won awards for longevity (like the Dead). But you don’t need a good death or talking point or revival or period without break-ups to make your claim for greatness and the Airplane offer one of the most exhilarating rides of them all. If you’re new to the band and still a little wary of the drug-fuelled opuses and concept albums to come then may I recommend this humble little debut album, the perfect starting point for fans who want to enjoy all the things that made this band great without losing complete sight of all the things they replaced when they came along in 1966. 

You may have noticed, if you’ve read much of this website, that I have a particular fondness for opening tracks on LPs: generally speaking they’re loud, proud statements of intent that, whether o not they sum up the whole album, get things off to a rattlingly powerful start. That always seems to go double for debut albums: The Beatles with ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, The Hollies with ‘Talkin’ Bout You’, The Stones’ ‘Route 66’: none of these tracks are as polished or perfect as the band’s main output but they signal a lot about where the band creators are going to go – and why they’re going to be around for a long time. That’s true here with ‘Blues From An Airplane’ as well: this thrashing blues-rock hybrid may not be the most sophisticated piece the Airplane ever wrote but it has huge emotional impact, ratcheting the tension up to an almost unbearable moment within a few short minutes. A short and simple song about neglect in love and worry over whether a lover is being truthful, the fact the band have named it after themselves makes it sound more of a sociological statement, a kind of ‘Theme For The Monkees’ to show how disillusioned and anguished the band are with then-modern day living.
This is a song wonderfully ahead of its time, not so much a blues as funk, arranged to assault our senses with ghostly band harmonies and Jack Casady’s bass (which sounds deeply out of place and loud in the mix, like a creepy horror movie) that make us unsettled. The song also leaps about from section to section, suddenly settling on the unlikeliest of chord changes so that we’re never quite sure where we’re going, until finally climaxing on a chorus whose chorus (‘Come, make me happy, like I’ve never been before’) appears to offer absolution, only to take yet another uncomfortable downturn with the line (‘Have you ever known a heart that needed you more?’) This is desperation in song, similar to ‘My Generation’ in the way the narrator uses himself as a metaphor for his whole generation having doubts about everything that came before and can only be free by rejecting society and embracing the newness of life, ending with the line ‘I can be the man I feel’. The song was co-written by Marty Balin and drummer Skip Spence, both of whom are going to be acid casualties to some extent (though thankfully not for long in the former case) and the pair really get to grips with this song’s eerie feeling, where a sudden surprising lack of trust causes the narrator’s world to fall apart. Of all the songs on the album, this opening track is the most different and the most original, pointing ahead to the sonic adventures to come and is staggeringly ahead of its time for March 1966. We know The Byrds’ David Crosby was a big early fan of the Airplane (he and Stephen Stills will go on to collaborate with Paul Kantner on ‘Wooden Ships’ in 1969) – I wonder if he’d given the band a copy of The Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’, taped in January 1966 but not released till Easter this year, after this song was recorded, because the two are very similar, as adventurous and far-out as music got without breaking entirely free from the mother ship of recognisable sounds. One of the very best Airplane songs of all and the highlight of the entire album – even the backing track of ‘Blues From An Airplane’, included on the CD unlisted as the last ‘hidden’ track, makes for an exhilarating wild ride.
Jorma’s the star of next track ‘Let Me n’, Paul Kantner’s first track for the band whose simple folky chord structure and familiar moaning about a cold and heartless girl is transformed by the band arrangement. I’d go so far as to call Kaukanen’s playing on this album the best anybody had got on record by 1966, loose and reckless and wild but still inherently tuneful, and it’s at it’s best on this track. The solo towards the end of the song especially makes this so-so song about a wayward girl (‘let me in honey, I don’t know what’s so funny’) sound like the end of the world. Jack’s bass rumblings – especially the zooms between the verses – are fantastic too, adding to the chaotic-but-controlled sound of the recording, with Kantner’s own acoustic chord slashing setting much of the tone. The whole song builds up to a head of steam by the end before reaching Kantner’s pay off line ‘thanks for nothing!’ The song was, memorably, banned for one too many sexual entendres too many but is actually pretty risqué for the time throughout: even the ‘let me in’ title is pushing it’s luck by 1966 standards though Paul sings it more as a naive innocent than the lecherous man the censors clearly heard.  Marty mentions in the sleevenotes how uncomfortable and shy Paul was singing this vocal, his first in a professional recording studio and sadly it shows: Kantner never had the most natural of voices and yet when he hits his stride with his political songs later in the decade there’s no one finer or more expressive – here sadly he sounds like the shy 24-year-old kid he was back then, even if he quickly warms up to the song by the last verse. A powerhouse of a band performance, when taken together with the last track it gives this album a one-two punch that’s amongst the most daring things put onto record up to that time. Astonishing.
Alas the album slowly falls down from here. ‘Bringing Me Down’ isn’t a bad song but its one that owes more to the past than the future, unlike the other songs here. The most ‘Merseybeat’ song the band ever did, this features an unusually conventional time signature for the Airplane (who like most San Franciscan bands generally favoured something complex and unorthodox) and simple words that, yet again, are about being let down by a girl. An early Balin-Kantner collaboration, this song does gain from yet another strong band performance that sees the debut of the band’s three-part harmony style which is quite effective. There’s one too many early songwriting mistakes here for comfort, though, such as the clumsy chorus which has far too many words and seems to fizzle out of tune before the end (‘Staying out all night, get out of sight, don’t hang around, you’re bringing me down!’) Jorma’s mix of Merseybeat, surf and psychedelia in the solo is worth a listen though and this is only the third time the Airplane have ever been in a studio too, so it’s forgiven.
‘It’s No Secret’ is a second retro rocker, one that must have sounded out of place in 1966 never mind now in amongst the sonic adventures we know the band will go on to enjoy. I prefer this song though because it’s a lot of fun and is played with a real conviction, with Marty on terrific form hollering about how he’s so excited he wants the world to know about his new love. It’s the middle eight though that breaks new ground, suggesting that in his haste the narrator doesn’t care that his girl doesn’t feel the same way and that the love affair is doomed to failure: ‘When I start feeling how strong my love is for you, knowing I’ll be empty wanting your love like I do’ The excitement is infectious, not least because this – the fourth track on the album – is the first not to be a weepie about a doomed love affair and I wish the band had recorded more simple, happy affairs like this because they’re well suited to the task. The band will turn in some terrific live versions of this song down the years when they give this song a much heavier, rockier feel, especially in the Grace Slick era, but here the magic is apparent already and Signe Anderson’s sensitive harmony vocal is superb, her highlight during her short time with the band. Interestingly, the song was written with another AAA legend in mind – Otis Redding, who was interested in the song and would presumably have sung it with the ‘heavier’ style of the band in concert – but alas the great man died before he got a chance. Instead the band elected to release it as their first single – the fact that it flopped is, you sense, more to do with the fact it was by a brand new band with a brand new sound a record company who didn’t quite know what to do with it, rather than the fault of the song itself. Simple, but undeniably effective, ‘It’s No Secret’ is a major stepping stone between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’, spirited and sassy. 
A cover of ‘Tobacco Road’ rounded off the first side of the album and whilst not up to, say, Lou Rawls’ soulful version or The Nasdhville Teens’ hit with it in 1964 it has its moments and shows how eclectic the influences in the band were. The band probably picked it because of its under-dog sentiments (‘I was born in a dump, my mommy died and my daddy got drunk...’), even though the band were – comparatively speaking – born into about the wealthiest circumstances of all AAA members (Grace Slick isn’t in the band yet but she came from a very rich family indeed). Marty’s a great actor, though, and fully believable as the down-trodden narrator trying to make a name for himself and loving and loathing his home-town in equal measure. The band change the arrangement by adding some tasteful and distinctive guitar-work to the opening and a three-part counterpart harmony that only occasionally has all three voices in agreement (for most of the song it sounds more like a discussion between a split personality). Less effective than the band’s own originals (they will never do a cover again as the Airplane past their second album), this is nevertheless a fascinating insight into a band developing before our ears, trying on styles to see if they’ll fit – and by and large this one does, whatever style the end result might be (psychedelic soul?)
‘Come Up The Years’ is probably the sweetest and most romantic song here – and one of the most controversial too. Marty and Paul sing with such innocence that it’s hard to realise that the words are actually about an under-age girl the narrator fancies something rotten. The song is all about wish fulfilment, that the narrator really doesn’t want to break ‘the law’ and knows he ought to leave well alone – but that true love keeps pulling him back for more. More of a lament than a battle cry, this is an intriguing song that might sound pretty tame now but was revolutionary in the 1960s, back when Nabakov’s ‘Lolita’ was still only 11 years old and still a banned book in most places. Listen out for the line ‘the things she’s doing keep turning me on’ – a very early use of a word that was back then only really used by underground drug takers (this may even be where the ever-alert Lennon and McCartney learnt the phrase for their song ‘A Day In The Life’ – the latter, in particular, was a big fan of the Airplane). Yet for all its trail-blazing and hip dialogue, this isn’t the shocking song you might expect it to be – it’s more of a song about a loss of innocence, of the frustration that you have to pick and choose your friends and partners because of what others will say, complete with an overdubbed childlike glockenspiel part that sounds deliberately out of place amongst the older, rockier sounds of the rest of the record. Ultimately the narrator ends the record still wishing and hoping but knowing that their love affair will never be. (As a post-script, assuming the imaginary girl is 15 or so in 1966 then she’d be 60 now and probably a grandmother! How times change...) 
‘Run Around’ is a second Balin-Kantner collaboration and the second song to be banned in its original form. In fact the two banned lines ‘you’re outtasite – walk with me and spend the night’ and the even more out there flower power line ‘we roll round the music, blinded by colours, come flashing from flowers that spray as you lay under me!’ are the best parts of the song as originally heard, wonderful poetic psychedelic images that when matched with music that seems to be building to a sudden emotional climax sounds fantastic now some 45 years on. At the time, though, this was a million miles past the point where the censors felt comfortable and daringness personified, even though they’re just two lines on a very simple and almost humble song that unlike everything else on this album seems to be almost begging us not to pay it attention. The change in lyrics (‘ you stay near me!’) is a fair compromise, keeping most of the hallucinogenic literature in a song that’s obviously another early songwriting effort, a mix of Dylan and Beatles that again crams far too many words into each verse. Therre are some other memorable lines too: the girl ‘running her hands round my brain’ (suggesting the ‘girl’ is actually a drug), the narrator needing ‘more of the times when you turned me round’ (hmm, could be either way but probably a drug) and the pair of lovers ‘dancing out into space’ (yep, definitely a drug then). Lyrically this is probably the most complex track on the album – but the music isn’t up to the same pioneering standard (perhaps in an effort to get it past the censors in the first place), with only Casady’s powerful and angry bass offers anything out of the ordinary here, acting as sort of growly counterpoint to all that fun and sunshine catching the ear. Still, this song is impressive for a band so young, even if it is harder to love than some of the others on this album.  
Next a cover of Dino Valenti’s ‘Let’s Get Together’, which must surely be the most copied inter-war song by the hippie crowd. A staggeringly ahead of its time song, the song seems to be advocating peace (likely) and free love (less so), with a call to arms to brotherhood and the idea that this generation just has to get it together and build a new world together. Interestingly David Crosby latched onto this song as early as 1964 – it can be heard on some of the many pre-Byrds recording collections – some two years before the flower power movement got into full swing. The band may well have learned it from Crosby, although it was doing the rounds of the folk clubs of LA in the early 60s a lot too. Jefferson Airplane’s cover version is sadly a little disappointing despite the song’s very natural sentiments, sounding like an uncomfortable mix of naive and knowing on the vocal front. Despite being bigger hippies than most musicians the Airplane nearly always had an ‘edge’ to them, a fiery temper that often flew at the mistakes of elder generations or the shortcomings of their own and ‘Let’s Get Together’ is probably the only Airplane track that doesn’t have any real edge to it at all (some Starship songs follow this pattern, but never the Airplane). Again, this is another song from the album that worked much better live (again, especially when Grace Slick comes out to play) and the band are clearly feeling their way round the studio, but it is saved by some nice harmonies (no one barring The Beach Boys, Hollies and Mamas and Papas were recording tricky complex harmonies like these back in 1966 and they remain quite staggering to listen to now) and another impressive Kaukanen guitar solo. Still, this is the track on the album that most fans tend to skip nowadays.
‘Don’t Slip Away’ is the third in the trilogy of retro rockers, this time from Balin and Skip Spence and unsurprisingly given the credits this is a song largely built on rhythm and some impressive chord changes that really have a swing to them. Marty can always be relied upon to write a deep but catchy set of lyrics, though, and this album features one of his best, with a rumination on how easily some things can fall out of our grasp even if we really want them. There are some classy lines here about how the narrator’s lover can ‘give more love than you’re showing’) which were unusual and ahead of their time, but the melody line does leave a little to be desires, seemingly always finding itself back at the same point no matter what direction the song launches itself in. Yet again, this song is transformed live when the song makes more out of its twin assets (Casady’s angry swarming bass, quite unlike anything any band had recorded up to that time) and Kaukanen’s angry bluesy riff) and sounds a little limp here, without the same powerhouse of noise as on some other tracks. An uncomfortable mix of thoughtful folk and all out rock, it is perhaps the least impressive group original on the record, if still away ahead of most things around at the time.
‘Chauffeur Blues’ is Signe Anderson’s pick of cover version for the album and her one unadulterated lead vocal for the band. It’s not up to anything Grace will do, but unlike some fans I’m impressed by this cover – probably the best of the three on the record. The sudden attack of soul, but sung by a white girl back in the days when only really Aretha Franklin and (at a pinch) Diana Ross had broken through in that genre, makes for a welcome change on the album and Signe was a good singer, even if she lets her ‘roots’ show more than Grace with her deep-throated cackle and vibrato-held notes. (Interestingly, I’ve just looked up research for another song and come across the fact the band chose this song from an album by Miriam Makeba, Paul Simon’s future collaborator on ‘Graceland’, a third singer I should have remembered to mention). Perhaps the biggest comparison is that Signe sounds like a talented teenager acting older than her years yet still learning her trade – whereas Grace is all woman and fully formed by the time she arrives in the band clutching ‘Somebody To Love’ under her arm. The band turn in another strong performance, especially Jack and Jorma who spark off each other really well on this recording, although whoever plays the tambourine (Marty?) needs to give it a rest (has there ever been a record with this much tambourine on it? Only The Monkees’ ‘Headquarters’ springs to mind). This song is pretty risqué for the day too, despite being a few years old by that time, with Signe’s narrator calling for a ‘man’ to ‘drive’ her places ‘where she wants to go’. Incidentally, I prefer the outtake of this track – included as a bonus track on the CD – to the finished version, as its slower bluesy tempo makes it sound much more thoughtful and puts more emphasis on Signe’s marvellous voice.
The album’s second side has been slowly falling apart, then, but ends on a high note with ‘And I Like It’, another of the Airplane’s early milestones with Marty on particularly great form. The song, by Balin and Kaukanen, starts as a slow and bluesy number with Marty’s narrator telling us how happy he is with his life the way it is before transforming into an angry urgent rocker that rejects in song everything that came before and how he identifies with everything ‘his’ generation are up to. The lines ‘this is my way, this is my life, this is my time, this is my dream’ may well be an update of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, here transmogrified so that it relates to all youngsters of every colour and gender who want peace. For all of its famous peace-and-flowers vibe, I’ve always been fascinated by how few genuinely hopeful hippie songs there are around: as far as I can tell in AAA Circles there’s only The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’, The Dead’s ‘Golden Road’, The Small Faces’ ‘Itchycoo Park’ (actually a sarcastic spoof of psychedelia) and this track where you can actually listen and believe that peace is round the corner: that’s small fry compared to, say, ‘A Day In The Life’ ‘Strawberry Fields’ ‘I Am The Walrus’ ‘St Stephen’ ‘Somebody To Love’ ‘White Rabbit’ (etc – there’s many millions more) where the peace movement actually begins to sound like a battleground.
Even this song isn’t without its troubles and tribulations: there’s a terrific churning middle eight that’s the highlight of the song where the narrator ‘wakes up’ to find himself still stuck with the same ‘straights’ in charge, addressing his girl who seems to be having doubts about his lifestyle. In one amazing verse (‘Look around and tell me what you see, is it the same thing you want me to be? I’ve seen it happen so wrong before, please believe me when I say its a bore, I need more!’) Marty manages to challenge the way every generation past, damning the wars and ego-trips of past generations and saying that their restrictive lifestyle is not good enough for him or his brethren. The final repeat of the first verse sounds suddenly triumphant rather than merely hopeful, with Marty confident that these ‘dreams’ of his generation are too important to be side-tracked by money, wars, peer pressure and fashion – the kind of things that ruined all past attempts by the young to revolutionise society. The fact that time will sadly prove the band wrong on so many scores (Vietnam, Watergate and – yuk- glam rock) should in no way affect our view of this song, recorded back in a time when all things were possible. And you know what? I wouldn’t just have liked it, I’d have loved it. Again, the CD issue includes a slower alternate version of the song but this time it merely shows up the holes in the song, slowing down the pace to a crawl until the listener loses interest. Plus Marty isn’t anything like the magnetic presence he is on the finished version. Still, in either version, this is a towering song, no less than one of the greatest unsung songs of the psychedelic movement. 
Overall, then, ‘Takes Off!’ is an inconsistent album, like many a debut album, one that reveals so many backward steps it makes the pioneering sounds at times on the album sounds even more staggering. But as the first bona fide San Franciscan hippie album, ‘Takes Off!’ is a milestone of popular musical culture and every so often, particularly on the first and last tracks, it lives up to that promise of changing the world and making it a better place. In between the churning rollercoaster of self-doubt of ‘Blues From An Airplane’ and the glorious optimism of ‘And I Like It’ the audience is taken on a trip like few other albums have ever taken us before and – if you came or are planning to come to these Airplane albums in order – then I promise your life will never be the same again. Few bands took on as many ‘bad guys’ wielding power as The Airplane – and continued the fight long after they become something of an institution (sure things go wrong in the Jefferson Starship and especially Starship years but they kept up the fight longer than most) and, mainly thanks to Marty Balin, few debut albums captivate as much as this one. I can see why ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ became the ‘hit’ album as it offers a much more palatable mixture of the old and new with two top ten hits to boot; I also know that this album will never replace ‘Baxters’ or ‘Blows Against The Empire’ in my affections because those two albums really do change the landscape irreparably after their release, no matter how few people actually bought them. But this is the first album, back when these ideas were new, never done by any San Franciscan band before, and there were record companies to fight and reputations to gain and followers to seek out in addition to changing the world. The fact that band got as far as they did with their master-plan first time round is, in hindsight, amazing. A wonderful, turbulent, truculent album longing for peace but unwilling to back down from confrontation, this album is where the hippie movement really ‘took off!’ 
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

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