Thursday, 26 July 2012
Jefferson Airplane "Crown Of Creation" (1968) (News, Views and Music 154)
Jefferson Airplane “Crown Of Creation” (1968)
Lather/In Time/Triad/Star Track/Share A Little Joke/Chusingura//If You Feel/Crown Of Creation/Ice Cream Phoenix/Greasy Heart/The House At Pooneil Corners
I don’t know whether it’s because of the date ‘2012’, the endless news reports about lax security at the Olympic games, the worrying developments in Syria, the complete hash our world leaders are making of the economic world crisis or the fact that the Spice Girls are now back together but there’s a feeling in the air that the Earth can’t be long for this world. Something is going to happen – what I don’t quite know despite finding myself trawling through youtube for half an hour looking for answers – and the signs are that it won’t be nice, but it’s the same feeling that was in the air before 9/11. Everywhere we look is doom, gloom and ‘grrrrl power’, leading me to the conclusion that if this is our last year alive as a species in any great numbers, that might not be such a bad thing. As ever, I find any feeling that I have in the present day has already been answered by one of my groups somewhere years before I was even born and so this week we look at an album from the equally turbulent year of 1968. We’ve remarked before on this site how close the two dates are and the only difference between then and now was that ‘their’ senseless unnecessary war was in Vietnam and ours is in Afghanistan and Iraq and that they spelt their dangerous loony power-crazed incompetent ‘N-I-X-O-N’ and we spell ours ‘C_A_M_E_R_O_N’. ‘Crown Of Creation’ famously depicts an atom bomb on the record cover (a brave political statement back then), has a title track musing that the human race has reached about as far ahead as any one species can and ends the record with a song set at the end of the world when every living thing dies. To be honest if you’d have asked anyone about our chances of survival when this record came out in 1968 then they’d have laughed at the idea of the human race living till now, something that should actually bring us comfort that we really have been here before and come through, if not unscathed, then at least with a future.
‘Crown Of Creation’ is heralded by many Airplane fans, neatly I might add, as the jewel in the ‘crown’ of the Airplane’s 1960s classic recordings. It certainly has a lot going for it, with four writers/vocalists all writing some of their best material and a sound that’s more accessible than on earlier albums if still overwhelmingly original and obviously Airplane from the first bar to the last. Personally it doesn’t have the fun or the fluidity of my favourite Airplane moment ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ or the emotion and excellence of ‘Surrealistic Pillow’, but its darker touches do have a certain charm and brilliance to them. Many critics talk about this album as a sort of quaint period peace, as if the Airplane were just some hippies who should be forgotten now, and yet had any mainstream music band released this record in 2012 they’d still be slapped on the wrists for breaking all the taboo subjects on this record that still stand.
The title track of ‘Crown Of Creation’ alone goes in areas other songs, then or now, simply don’t reach. The words are taken by memory from what author John Wyndham wrote about in his third best-seller ‘The Chryslaids’ (a strong candidate for his best book), something unusual in itself, and damns mankind to a future as ‘fossils’ of his own planet because no one species is allowed such total control over his surroundings. Most songs in 1968 were still about settling down with someone you love and having babies – this song is literally about survival. The end song ‘The House At Pooneil Corners’, with its driving angular one-note riff, is every bit as insistent that mankind has had his day with apocalyptic verses that warn ‘there will be no survivors my friend’. Even the non-Armageddon songs still wreak havoc with radio airplay and censorship today, such as ‘Greasy Heart’s references to sex toys and with more references to sexual appetites than your average Ann Summer’s advert. Also, the Airplanes’ cover of David Crosby’s ‘Triad’ (which the Byrds refused to release) upsetting all traditional views of how love has to be between two people totally on its head. ‘Share A Little Joke With The World’, an all too often forgotten track, is also a pretty nifty piece of writing for the times dealing with death and the afterlife – still deeply unfashionable subjects for musicians to write about in 1968. All this is to be applauded and welcomed, with this album a logical extension of the Airplane’s quest to tear down the societal barriers between what people are told to do and what they really think and full of lessons our soppy bunch of modern day rebels would do good to learn. The only thing left for the band to break from here on in is swearing – and they legendarily break that taboo in half by using the ‘f’ word on their next album for the first time ever in rock and roll.
All that said, the downside of all this is that all too often ‘Crown Of Creation’ seems to be jumping up and down, shouting ‘look at me and how clever I am!’ This fourth album is badly lacking the band unity and strong musicianship that made the first three albums such a treat and its notable that it’s the last album to feature the definitive line-up of the band all the way through (vocalist and founding member Marty Balin and drummer Spencer Dryden leaving towards the end of sessions for next LP ‘Volunteers’). Despite the speed of the recording sessions (the album being released just nine months after ‘Baxters’) an awful lot of goofing around in the name of recording time seems to have gone on – as any fan whose sat through the interminable three bananas ‘bonus features’ of the CD re-issue will attest (it speaks volumes that Grace Slick’s duet with Frank Zappa on the avant garde ‘Would You Like A Snack?’ is the sanest selection here and yet its still more bonkers than ‘Revolution #9’ and ‘Two Virgins’ played over the top of each other and at the wrong speed). The greatness of the first three Airplane albums was that it was at least three (maybe four or five) bands in one, with all six members overcoming their differences to make the ‘whole’ of each recording work; this time around, and from here on in, it sounds like four solo projects being stuck together. Perhaps it was – certainly the band seem to have got into overdubbing in a big way on this album and while that’s not a bad thing (‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ would sound nothing without the overdubs) the Airplane are a band that tend to nail their best work straight away in a live single take. Frankly being a part of the Airplane wasn’t an exhilarating high quite as often or as effortlessly as it had been in the ‘early years’ and that tiredness and loss of direction is beginning to show.
Individually the band are firing on all cylinders for this album. Grace Slick’s pair of songs show her light and dark sides, just as she showed her primal and literary sides on ‘Baxters’, purring her way through the childlike ‘Lather’ and berating un-liberated frustrated sexual beings the world over on ‘Greasy Hearts’. Incidentally, by this period she’s slept with all the band at various stages except singer Marty Balin (despite their many fiery duets suggesting to the audience they might have been a couple). This is pretty good going seeing as she’s only been in the band a couple of years by this point and won’t have any major repercussions till the sessions fort next album ‘Volunteers’, though it’s worth noting that it’s her closeness to Dryden and Casady especially that influences her songwriting for this album. Paul Kantner has taken a step back from his domination of ‘Baxters’ and yet his songs are still central to this album’s main concepts, his ‘Crown Of Creation’ the logical stepping stone between his songs of future dreaming and early 70s science-fiction dramas and ‘Pooneil Corners’ being a less happy update of the upside of ‘The Ballad Of You and Me and Pooneil’ from a year earlier. Guitarist Jorma Kaukanen continues his run of songs that sound disjointed, wordy and angular, adding a threatening presence to the album and large dollops of fierce spiky guitar that’s among his best work. The band’s ever under-rated rhythm section of Spencer Dryden and Jack Casady (the loudest bass in rock after John Entwistle) sounds superb here, big and fat and loud and as equally adept at straightforward rock and the album’s more outgoing exploratory moments. Finally and most unexpectedly, the groups’ original focal point Marty Balin is back, not quite dominating the band the way he had on ‘Takes Off’ and ‘Pillow’, but still very much at the heart of things, turning in some of the album’s best moments. It’s as if the band are regrouping after the difficult end to the year they had in late 1967, realising the battles they face are bigger than any difficulties within the band, and yet there’s not as much effortless ensemble playing here as normal – arguably only ‘Greasy Heart’ ‘If You Feel’ and maybe ‘Pooneil’ feature just the band playing ‘live’ from one note to the last.
If there’s a theme to this album then its best summed up by the chorus of ‘Share A Little Joke With The World’: ‘The World Around You Never Catches Up With You!’ Time and again on this album the characters in the songs have found a brave new world of peace, fun and enjoyment and yet the mean ol’ authorities and the status quo want to put an end to it. ‘Lather’ is a character moaned at by all and sundry for not growing up despite reaching the terribly old age of 30 – and yet there’s no good reason why he should; he’s happy simply being himself, finding personal peace and in the words of the song ‘being wise’ for not jumping through the hoops of modern life (which won’t matter a jot when everyone’s dead anyway). The character who loves threesomes in ‘Triad’ isn’t out to outrage society, he simply can’t bear the thought that he has to tell one of his girlfriends he loves the other more – and if they all agree to the terms of the relationship and it makes them all happy then why not? It’s notable that the end of the world comes, at the house on Pooneil Corners on the last track, not because of greedy political leaders or lust for money but because of lies, deception and lack of empathy. This is a largely childish world on this album but there’s no reason why the adult world shouldn’t have turned out as charming and sympathetic as the childish one (‘White Rabbit’, perhaps the band’s most famous moment, is after all a put-down of adults who read books about drugs to kids and then expect them to forget it all when they’re older). As the title track puts it, mankind has reached his zenith and should calm down a bit now, please, without so much emphasis on pushing forward and overcoming others. There’s also the theme running through this album that if the adult world knew how close they were to destruction they’d give their youngsters some slack and maybe become more like they are (open to the world and happy to be alive) in order to save their planet from destruction. In the words of ‘Ice Cream Phoenix’ ‘do people love if there’s no tomorrow?’ On this album the answer seems to be no, despite the band’s best attempts at celebrating all the good things in life. Grace Slick even ends her unwieldy song ‘Greasy Heart’ with the cackling words ‘don’t change before the empire falls...’, hinting that everyone who gives in to the pressures of society will only have to adjust again when the youngsters win.
In many ways this album mirrors the state of the hippie empire in 1968. The bliss of the Monterey Pop Festival, before Woodstock the best evidence that thousands of people could get together without serious difficulties in the name of peace and harmony, had turned to anguish and rioting. Martin Luther King, the best non-musician spokesperson of his generation, was dead, Robert Kennedy his most natural successor for peace and unity was gone also and the war in Vietnam had escalated despite considerable protest. The elder generation that had turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the revolution of 1967 was now worried enough to be out in force and the trials and battles of the start of the decade (wearing longhair, listening to pop music and enjoying colour and laughter) were being fought all over again on a bigger scale (with longer hair, heavier rock music rather than pop and ever bigger divisions between ideas of right and wrong). The Airplane were closer linked to this hippie rebellion than probably any of our other bands and its natural that their sole record release of 1968 should be darker and more troubled (the Dead are often listed but they just went their own happy way oblivious to it all). The stakes are higher on this album, with not just happiness but basic human rights and survival at stake, with the whole of the human race’s achievements to date at risk of being wiped out in one futile war-mongering gesture.
The Cold War’s been around for a few years by now but really this is in many ways the definitive cold war album of the 60s, just as the Jefferson Starship’s ‘Nuclear Furniture’ (see review no 87) is the definitive cold war album of the 1980s. What’s interesting is that there is no way out on this earlier album – every track here is angular and broken, given heavier than normal arrangements that make even the sweetest of material sound harsh and bitter and the album ends with our destruction, as if there was no genuine way to avoid it. Even ‘Cushingura’, the album’s showcase for drummer Spencer Dryden’s usual percussion-with-sound-effects slot is eerie and ominous, rather than jokey as on ‘Baxters’. Yet by 1983, when thinks look arguably a lot worse what with the ‘star wars’ programme and so on the album ends on a positive note, civilisation coming to an end but not the human race (who are lead to a future of peace and prosperity by their new leader ‘Lightning Rose’). By the time of this later album the battle for the hearts and minds of the young seem to be won, whatever the last vestiges of the ‘old’ straight society want to do with the planet – and yet in 1968 the battle is very much on-going, with the Airplane still trying to offer their followers the message that life is for doing what you feel and not what people tell you to do.
Many fans and critics point out that this album doesn’t have a hit single – although in actual fact none of the Airplane albums ever had a hit single barring ‘Somebody To Love’ and ‘White Rabbit’, both from ‘Surrealistic Pillow’. The ‘hit’ of sorts that everyone seems to know, more by osmosis than any airplay, is ‘Lather’ – and you can see why that song never actually was released as a single (it’s just too darn weird!) I always think of ‘Baxters’ as the Airplane’s most runaway out-there pioneering moment on vinyl, but with a couple of exceptions (the nine minute instrumental jam and the spoken word collage) you could put the needle of your record player onto any track at random and still get what sounds like a single (the oddness and un-commerciality of ‘Baxters’ comes mainly from those two songs and a gradually increasing sense of abnormality when played as a whole). I see this album’s lack of a single from a time still a little before album sales took over from single sales as yet one more example of the group not playing ‘ball’ with the outside world, of doing things on their terms.
There are certainly songs on this album that have stood the test of time well: ‘Lather’ is a sweet little song, unusual for the band and as trippy as they ever got; ‘Triad’ is a lovely cuckoo of a song that’s more sensitively handled than The Byrds’ original take on it; ‘Share A Little Joke’ is a nice hybrid of poppy and scary and the title track is among my favourite of all Airplane pieces, so ridiculously ambitious and serious that it couldn’t possibly have worked in anyone else’s hands. It also has a pretty impressive unified structure where even the songs that aren’t directly about the inter-generation battles or world ending sound like they fit the puzzle still, fitting the ominous mood of the times in an impressive way that shows what a strong ear the Airplane kept to the ground, long after most rock and roll stars had flown up high to their mansions. But listening to the album as a whole is still a struggle, with songs that try so hard to impress that they’re often hard to like, not the easy-on-the-ear joy of ‘Pillow’ or the outrageous bag of fun that’s ‘Baxters’. The Airplane’s devout and vocal following gradually began to die away after this album – arguably that’s mainly because this band, more than most, were such a part of 1967 the world struggled to see how they should fit into the scale of things come 1970 and onwards, but surely due in part for the sheer strangeness of parts of this album. If it seems odd me telling you in one breath how commercial this album is and how odd it is in another then chances are you’re reading this without having heard the record yet: by Airplane standards the challenges taken by the Airplane are light indeed (only one song with whistling feedback, one short percussion pieces rather than minutes of avant garde speech and sound effects, no long great jamming session and only one song over the five minute mark). Yet the overall effect of making every song sound edgy and threatening, without the same sweet punchy harmonies and melodic beauty of their other albums or any real respite from all this doomed madness of adult life, also makes ‘Crown Of Creation’ heavy going. A bit like the human race really – and the jury is still out as to whether the final annihilation of us all so that our planet can get back to its business of simply being, without human intervention, is a good thing or a bad thing.
Only one song passes up this album’s feel of doom and destruction and that’s opener ‘Lather’, the folkiest and lightest the Airplane had been since their first album, but still with the album’s sense of desperation and melancholy. Grace revealed years later that she wrote the song for drummer Dryden’s 30th birthday – slightly older than the rest of the band, he was the first to reach this milestone which back in the 60s was the big ‘grow up’ date when all good little hippies were thought to stop ‘playing’ and get good office jobs (the phrase ‘never trust anyone over 30’ was big at the time, having most likely been coined in the Airplane’s local paper, the San Franciscan Chronicle, by a writer named Mack Weinberger in 1964). However the second verse, about Lather ‘lying about nude in the sand’ likely stems from the arrest of bassist Jack Casady on a beach in Santa Cruz during one of many minor violations in the 60s the Airplane were booked for (border line illegal, everyone was doing it but only the ‘musician’ got done for it; traditionally the Stones are always viewed as the band the police couldn’t wait to bust - actually they busted the various members of the Airplane just as often; Grace’s song ‘Law Man’ from ‘Bark’ positively reeks of ‘I’m being stopped again?! Stop harassing me before I do something you really won’t like!’) The name ‘lather’ is unclear though – it might simply be an unusual rhyme for the ‘leather’ chair that waits for the character at the bank, had he not been having too good a time on his own, ‘drawing bumps’ ‘putting drumsticks either side of his nose’ and ‘thrashing the air with his hands’.
Grace’s vocal is poised so finely between innocence and sarcasm that its hard to tell where the band’s loyalties lie on this song, although the dismissive way she sings of Lather’s friend getting congratulated for ‘driving his very own tank’ and killing people hints she’s on Lather’s side. The way she sings ‘but that’s all over’ before a very Syd Barratt type voice intones ‘child’ is enough to scare all of the aging flower children for a split second, with even the narrator so swayed by public pressure to grow up that she regrets not telling Lather to remain a child. There’s an intriguing last verse too that suggests that success and fame is unfairly seen from an adult’s point of view: to the children around him he’s ‘famous’ and a hero. The band certainly have fun in the sound effects box for this recording, tippy-typing on a typewriter, blowing things up with an explosion and audience sound effects (suggesting that Lather is, indeed, a rock musician). Band friend (and Marty’s writing partner Gary Blackman) also surpasses himself with his wonderfully Airplanish credit of ‘nose flute’, making the ‘Lather’ of this song sound like he should be with Ray Davies’ ‘Phenomenal Cat’ from ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ released the same year. However even without the effects this arrangement is weird enough, with a very Kinks-ish use of harpsichord to suggest more innocent times, acoustic rather than electric guitar and fittingly one of Dryden’s best performances on drums, mimicking military rat-a-tats and veering from ominous to childlike in seconds. Grace captures the drummer’s offbeat sense of humour well across the song (Just listen to the punch-line of collage ‘A Small Package Of Value...’ on Baxters which is hilarious; legend has it he was the nephew of comedian Charlie Chaplin but hid his family links from public view successfully till his death in 2005) and regards both him and this song with fondness. It also speaks volume that Dryden left the band a little under 18 months after this album came out, citing the band’s bad experience at Altamont (where Marty Balin got beaten up by a Hells Angel hours before a concert-goer was stabbed during the Stones’ set) as evidence that the hippie dream was over. It’s a fitting end for a character who seemingly only wanted to play and hated things getting too serious.
‘In Time’ is a rare collaboration between Balin and Kantner, sounding from what we hear on album as if Kantner’s typically downcast folky yearning on the verses has been joined to Balin’s more upbeat poppy chorus. Compared to the rest of the album ‘In Time’ is understated, with the listener straining to hear exactly what Kantner sings behind a backing that features Casady’s bass turned way up loud, drowning everything else in the mix out (though for good reason – his part is typically exciting and livens an otherwise fairly dull track). Lyrically this is more like a CSN piece, with the narrator up a mountain looking on the people below him as if apart from them and wondering why he even bothers to try to live in this world. The answer is love and the second verse onwards is the closest to a traditional love song we’ll get from Paul until at least the 1980s. There’s a hint too that the subject of the song might be Grace (‘I see you at the same place that I play’) and certainly the pair were an item for much of the 70s, having a child together (‘Chyna’, the star of the front cover for their joint album ‘Sunfighter’). However, if so, Grace is notable by her absence from most of the song, only joining in on the noisier more psychedelic chorus that uses the old ‘Baxters’ trick of relating this wonderful experience in colours, ‘orange, blue, red and green’, in contrast to the drabness of life around the narrator. It’s guitarist Jorma who excels on this track, though, turning in a wonderfully noisy electric flurry on the song’s second half that brings the song to a marvellously exciting climax that arguably doesn’t need another repeat of the rather boring verse structure to end on.
Talking of CSN, ‘Triad’ is a homeless David Crosby song about a ménage a trois, one he’d tried to record with The Byrds during the sessions for ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ (see review no 20) but didn’t see the light of day officially until outtakes set ‘Never Before’ in 1987. It’s a very Crosby song this and you sense that had he known the other Byrds were about to sack him and that he’d form CSN (a band with decidedly less censorship rules) he’d have kept for himself (a very slow but still very beautiful live solo version can be heard on CSNY’s ‘Four Way Street’ album of 1971). Crosby was huge friends with the Airplane by this time and so giving the song to them to record seems an obvious step (having been sacked from the Byrds and with no source of income, Crosby badly needed it at the time) – quite frankly its odd that Crosby didn’t consider at least asking to join the Airplane given how close they were (‘Wooden Ships’, on the first CSN album, is a collaboration between Crosby Stills and Paul Kantner written the same year ‘Crown Of Creation’ was released). Crosby was indeed in love with two women at the time, neither of whom resented or felt jealous of the other – indeed Crosby could arguably have written this song about five or six way love given his habits of the time! – and the almost casual way centuries of civilisation are overthrown in the three minute Byrds original is a very special Crosby moment.
If anything, though, the Airplane version is even tougher for authorities to take, slowing down the original’s poppy texture for a slow and stately acoustic vibe that places the emphasis firmly on the words not the music. Giving the song to Grace to sing is a masterstroke too, taking away any of the threat of chauvinism in the lyrics by giving the girl in the song two guys to love instead (an even more risqué thought for the day). Like many of Crosby’s songs, ‘Triad’ is about being forced by society to choose something and then rejecting the thinking that lies behind it as flawed: the narrator isn’t trying to overturn society or use and dump women (or in this version men) – he simply doesn’t want to choose between two people he feels so passionately about. As the song puts it so neatly ‘I don’t really see – why can’t we go on as three?’ Just because society says it’s wrong – symbolised by the ‘mother’s ghost’ that stands ‘at your shoulder’ representing the ‘parent’ generation and the 1950s as a whole - that’s not a reason enough on its own. I can also attest at how this song still has the power to shock (well, it did in the late 1990s at least) because I used the Byrds’ version for a music lesson dissection of a song and what elements went into it; my teacher never spoke to me again! (Another egg stolen there, Crosby! – see review no 44 for what the hell I’m talking about!)
Crosby, like Kantner, knew and loved his science fiction and pinches some of the imagery (‘water brothers’ ‘sister lovers’) from Robert Heinlein’s novel ‘A Stranger In A Strange Land’ (a Crosby favourite – the Byrds recorded but never finished a Crosby song of that same title in 1965). Naturally, given the song’s contents, more than one fan has taken these lyrics to represent homosexuals and lesbians – actually in the novel you can become someone’s ‘water brother’ by sharing a drink with them (though Crosby probably left the lyrics stand with a knowing wink). The title is especially clever, despite never being mentioned in the lyrics: all music is based on ‘triads’, chords of three notes that meet together in harmony – if they can sound so good together why not human beings and relationships too? Strangely peaceful by Airplane standards, this version of ‘Triad’ sets out the argument more calmly than the original and the acoustic guitar washes make it one of the more beautiful of all Airplane recordings, even if the song desperately needs something different to inject a bit more life into it by the end (the five minutes of this version drag much more than The Byrds’ version’s three).
‘Star Track’ is a typically obtuse song from Jorma that’s actually closer to his work with Hot Tuna, an impenetrable bunch of philosophical lyrics set to a moody guitar bass and drums phase. Not that its a bad song, the structure of this song is particularly clever, changing key every line or so but in an entirely natural way that’s a good fit to this set of lyrics that (might be) about embracing change and evolution. ‘It takes time to love’ runs the chorus, figuring that good things will come to the world if it waits but realising that the elder more war-like inhabitants of the planet are too busy fussing about the small things in life to pay any proper attention to the changes of love and peace. Jorma sounds like he’s playing all the guitar parts himself and this song is lacking the usual take-all-prisoners rocking back track the Airplane do so well. He struggles with his own lyrics in places too although many of these lines are clever (and one, talking about being led away and distracted by an ‘electronic hand’ sounds downright scary given our modern world of I-pads and dumb people using smart phones to run their lives for them). Like ‘Lather’ and ‘In Time’ (and ‘Triad’ in a way) the song argues that society is wrong, so concerned with the detail that they’ve forgotten to let people be human – and by association humane to each other. ‘Running fast you’ll go down slow in the end’, indeed. Why this piece is named ‘Star Track’ is unknown – there’s no mention of stars anywhere in the song, although celebrity may well be one of the harmful distractions in the song. Listen out to for the half-growl half-cough just before the last line in the song – notorious for leaving ‘mistakes’ like these on their final mixes, the band seem to have actually boosted the sound up for this so that it comes across louder than most of the vocal!
Usually Marty Balin can be called upon for a song that’s either fluffy light pop or dreamy romantic ballad, but on this album even he sounds out of sorts and angry at the way the world has turned out in 1968. ‘Share A Little Joke With The World’ is an unfairly forgotten song that’s perhaps only unknown because its so murky and dark, what with the unusual bass-heavy mix and the way the backing track all but falls apart somewhere in the middle. It’s a fine song, however, with one of Marty’s best ever vocals, poised between ghost story and prophecy. A friend of the narrator’s has died, unknown to another friend who asks where he is –unsure quite what to say the narrator replies that he’s been ‘set free’. The friend dies with his final words ‘its all for fun you know’ ringing in people’s ears – but the way Marty sings the lines sounds so sombre and threatening you don’t believe that to be true. A classic middle eight then has the narrator imagining that he’s joined his dead friend wherever he might be, half embracing the fact that his friend is now free to do what society wouldn’t let him do – and half angry and bitter that his own world never got to see him do more. In the context of the album it sounds like ‘Lather’ is the subject of the song, dead either by his own hand in a world that doesn’t care or forced into death in Vietnam or something equally unpleasant and uncalled for, still sharing his ‘joke’ with the world. Jorma’s guitarwork, treated with lots of psychedelic effects, is as strong as ever but the rest of the band don’t seem to have understood this song, not quite sure whether to treat it as fluffy pop or dark epic. Marty’s song deserved a bit better than it got from the Airplane here and, again, Kantner and Slick are either absent or very very quiet.
‘Chushingura’ is one of those terribly self-indulgent snippets that appear on lots of 60s albums and yet having been seen in the modern music world at all (with the exception of Oasis’ ‘Morning Glory’ album). 90 seconds of whistling unturned percussion heads, piano keys and drumsticks being hit together in a seemingly random rhythm, its more like the work of the Grateful Dead drummers than the usual sound collages Dryden made with the band. It sounded mighty out of place at the end of side one on the original album, too, although it makes more sense on CD where it splits up the two Balin songs, acting as a kind of weird eerie overture for the album and the horror-filled randomness of life.
‘If You Feel’ is as traditional as this album gets, back to the driving pop beat of ‘Somebody To Love’. Lyrically, though, this is another oddity, with some very surreal lyrics that sound more like Lennonish gobbledegook than Balin’s usual work. The song fits the album’s themes of ignoring society very well, however, demanding that if you feel like doing something you should do it – whatever that something is, however frowned upon it may be, however lacking in logic it could be. Basically, then, its Lennon’s ‘Dig A Pony’ a year early, a song so free and loose in structure the words don’t even have to make sense (perhaps he heard this album?) The main phrase in the song repeated the most is ‘if you feel like china breaking’ – surely a sad image, invoking fragility and inevitability and yet here its treated like great fun, as if everything existing has to be broken for something new to come along. The fact that Paul and Grace name their first child ‘Chyna’ (in part for the country and in part for the crockery) seems like another odd coincidence, although given the strange things at work on this album anything is possible. Too slight to make much impact and given perhaps a little too much of a throwaway arrangement and performance, there’s still the basis for a great song in here somewhere.
The title track is probably my favourite on the album, quite unlike any other song I’ve ever heard – ye there have been lots of songs about doom and destruction before (see our top five below) but never in such a detached third-person way. For once on the album the majestic vocals of Grace, Paul and Marty are heard soaring in tandem and they could be singing the telephone directory on this song and still sound amazing. The words, however, are among the best Kantner ever wrote (or ‘pinched’ in this instance), getting the gist of a speech made in the Wyndham novel ‘The Chrysalids’ if not actually copying it wholesale. In the book (Wyndham's best or second-best), those born with some deviant - telepathy or an extra toe - are hounded out by society and condemened to death; the racism inherent in the book is an obvious parallel for the world in 1968. Apathy and lethargy and turning a blind eye to persecution is destroying the world as we know it, with too many people clinging on to old ways of war an violence instead of embracing good old peace and love. As we’ve mentioned before, though, the Airplane were the toughest band to ever sing about peace and love and this is another scary, threatening song, complete with terrific pounding bass rolls from Casady and some brilliant eccentric playing from Jorma. Basically the human race can get no higher and if it insists on squabbling amongst itself then a change of guard is inevitable, just as the dinosaurs lost out to creatures smaller than themselves. Mankind reaches out for ‘stability’ but unless he changes his ways the only stability he’s going to find is among the ‘fossils’. The ‘old’ guard make one last stand in a swirling a capella middle eight, announcing that out of loyalty they cannot tolerate a new way of thinking that might be a threat to them – the newer kids on the block reply, in typical Kantner style, that they ‘cannot tolerate their obstruction!’ A stalemate ends in world destruction, leaving such lofty concepts far in the past as the narrator cries out in frustration that there are still ‘worlds to gain’ and yet all his lofty dreams have died along with the planet, a long slow struggle for survival his only aim left. For once on this album the strange bass-heavy mix works in the song’s favour, making the pounding bass reverberate round the speakers and punctuating all the ultimately empty philosophy of the lyrics. There’s a tremendous moment late in the song where the words stop and the bass, drums and guitar all come flying out to fill the gap, lurching from tempo to tempo on a whim of the cymbals, before finally petering out – one of the most exciting few seconds’ worth of music on any Airplane record. It’s the vocals, though, that make this song – eerily peaceful, above it all and drenched with just the right amount of echo, their early accusations (‘YOU! are the crown of creation) gradually turning to a final shrug of the shoulders with the dying final note of ‘ah ah ah ah’ consigning the human race to dust with a rare final resolution to the song’s base chord (an action as final as it gets – there’ll be no codas in this song). Paul Kantner had many fine moments with the band he founded and most of them use this song’s trick of science fiction and scenes from our past and future to inform the present, but none do so quite as splendidly as this, one of the greatest of all Airplane songs. It’s a shame the band never used this same trick again, with this the most serious of all their songs. Listen out for another ‘cough’ just before that last lonely verse!
‘Ice Cream Phoenix’ is another curiously titled song by Jorma, sung by him in tandem with Grace and Paul. The song structure is slightly more accessible than in the last song and the lyrics a shade less impenetrable, although it’s still an often uncomfortable ride with poor Spencer so unsure of the song’s main beat that he’s left to accent any note he fancies with a terribly off-beat drum track. There is some sort of link with the album’s theme, though, with an opening verse set in the heavy Winter of a big city, bringing the world to a halt – and yet conversely letting the inhabitants thrive, giving them time to be themselves. Like all of Jorma’s work the lyrics get into a bit of a muddle but contain some terrific lines, such as ‘Are you so old that you know childhood?’, asking if we ever truly grow up and become wise. The chorus, however, is odd: the people are wary of loving in case the world ends, but they’re not crying either, something which confuses the heck out of the narrator. Closing with a lovely flurry of guitar, this is an intriguing song that deserved to have a little bit more time spent on the arrangement. Grace’s vocal is also mixed way too high, overpowering the other two (Marty is missing).
‘Greasy Heart’ has the opposite problem: a fine band performance rescuing a song that, by Grace’s standards, is only half-cooked. Like many of her songs (‘Two Heads’ ‘Silver Spoon’) its for the times a terribly outrageous song about sex, back in the days when it was unheard of a for a female singer to mention it on stage (all today’s female performers owe a huge deal to Grace and Janis Joplin, whatever it is they sing). Alas the song itself isn’t quite as clever as either of those other two examples (which explore, respectively, the masculine and feminine sides inside everybody and turning a song about sex into cannibalism by the last verse), simply being there for the shock factor. Grace’s sarcasm is rarely better, however, claiming that the idea of a woman needing a man is absurd now they’ve invented so many exciting sex toys. The poor bloke in the song gets a raw deal all round, borrowing her wig to cover his vanity and backing off from drugs ‘because his veins’ are getting big’ - a pun on his vanity. I must admit I’m completely stumped when it comes to the title, which is only a peculiar throwaway line sung once in the lyric – too much good living surely suggests the opposite of the message in the rest of the song. There’s a confusing chorus riff too of ‘don’t ever change – even if you can’ which seems to run at odds with the rest of the song too; is this sarcasm because the world will never own up to its sexual antics? Or advice to the younger generation under pressure to conform? The final words suggest the latter although they seem to come from another song entirely, promising that one day the world will catch up with the youngsters of the day and that when the old empire falls ‘you’ll laugh so hard you’ll crack the walls’. Grace is on terrific form on the vocals and the rest of the band do her proud, especially Jorma’s guitar work, about as close to the thin line between noise and melody as one instrument ever came. But there’s a hollowness at the heart of this song, with only two conflicting verses to work with and none of the twists and turns we’ve come to expect from Grace down the years.
‘The House At Pooneil Corners’ is the most epic song the Airplane ever recorded, taking in nothing short of the end of the world and switching through more sudden shifts of mood than your average 90 minute rock opera. It’s only partly successful, with a song that only too well sums up the un-comfortableness and uncertainty of impending chaos. Keeping the second half of the song rigidly to one chord is a great idea on paper, suggesting the stubbornness of the ‘old’ ways to adapt to change , but in practice it makes the song heavy going and in places sounds as if the record’s got stuck. The curious name makes sense when you realise its the second in a two parter Kantner dedicated to his favourite author AA Milne – Pooneil being most likely a hybrid of the innocence of ‘Winnie The Pooh’ and the knowingness of songwriter Freddy Neil’ (whose ‘Other Side Of This Life’ was an Airplane concert showstopper). Both this song and ‘The Ballad Of You and Me and Pooneil’ start with the same majestic burst of uncontrollable feedback, but that’s where the similarities end – the ‘Baxters’ song is all excitement, newness and wonderment, the chance to do new things without restriction; ‘The House At Pooneil Corners’ (‘...Pooh Corner’ being an AAA Milne chapter heading) is all aggression, uncertainty and devastation. Anyone who wonders why the hippie dream ran sour would do worse than to listen to these two songs back to back, to hear the changes in the air between 1967 and 68.
As edgy as songs come, the song’s riff simply won’t let go, moving on slowly towards some great disaster as Paul, Grace and Marty excel themselves alternating vocals on a series of verses that range from the poetically brilliant (‘Seas will wash off the ashes of violence’) to gibberish (Can’t help but see the rhinoceros around us’). They all suggest that mankind is dooming not just himself but all known life-forms to a fiery death, with the animals of Noah’s Ark rising up one by one to make their anger known before they die. There’s a slight return to the usual Airplane themes of love and peace (‘you know I’m still going to need you around’) but they’re shortlived, overtaken by line after line of graphic description of how the world ends. The song then splinters into a cascading three-part round of ‘the idiots have won!’, the old war ways of the world overpowering even the brilliance of the summer of love with their demand for destruction. Up till now the last few passages of the song have been brilliant, like Pink Floyd at their peak finding the exact place to drop the bombshell and yet – nothing really happens, there’s a few jagged guitar lines as the song fades and that’s it. No bombs, no explosions, no resolution, just a whimper – satisfying given how the world probably will end, of course, but a damp squib as the end of the record. You wonder if the song was set to run even longer than its 5:56 running time but the band, ironically, found time was too short. Still for a moment there this song causes a real shiver down your spine, especially Marty’s calm line ‘there will be no survivors my friend!’, casually damning everything we’ve ever known to ‘silence’. Difficult to listen to unless you’re in the mood and with as many bad lines as great ones, this is still an epic achievement and a brave slab at driving home just how fucked up we all were in 1968 – and by association in 2012.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this album is that, whether you agree or not with the common view that this album is pretty near the band’s ‘crown of creation’ it still, like the song, leaves them with very little place to grow. The Airplane will spend their next record, ‘Volunteers’, trying to put things right and never will be they quite so political or stubborn in their refusal to have peace on the agenda again. ‘Crown Of Creation’, though, is where the seed is sown and its warnings about doom and chaos filter through everything they do from heron in (well, maybe not Starship’s MOR ballads, but more or less everything else), leaving them less and less scope to upset the world and shock people. Getting through this album is a ‘trip’ in itself that should only be undertaken in the right mood – its certainly not built for easy listening and has an eerie mood that even the most bonkers Pink Floyd albums can’t reach. That said, when this album manages to match everything up and gets the message, melody, lyric and performance right – as on the title track – the results are staggering and worth any amount of struggling with lines like ‘cows are almost cooing, turtle doves are mooing, why is why a Pooh is poohing’. The band’s Crown Of Creation? Not quite, although for parts of the record it does come very very close.