Monday, 22 October 2012

Paul Kantner/Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane/Starship) "Sunfighter" (1971)

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Paul Kantner and Grace Slick “Sunfighter” (1971)

Silver Spoon/Diana (I)/Sunfighter/Titanic/Look At The Wood/When I Was A Boy I Watched The Wolves//Million/China/Earth Mother/Diana (II)/Universal Copernican Mumbles/Holding Together

Having a family can do funny things to musicians (see this week’s top five!) That sudden need for stability – so different to the usual rock and roll rollercoaster circus, the ability to see life afresh through new eyes, the idea that your child is in some way ‘re-living’ your life and fear of what the future might bring for your offspring. Imagined what it must be like if both of you are musicians – and that both of you are in the same band. Grace Slick started off her career in Jefferson Airplane by sleeping with everyone but the lead singer, but she always had a special bond with rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner and the pair were inevitably going to fall for each other big time. Outspoken and committed to the counter-culture, both seemed to be coming to the destination of peace and counter-culture dynamism via completely different journeys (Kantner from the idea of a universal brotherhood, Slick from the idea of the goodness hidden deep in the individual). The baby this pair spawned was going to be one hell of a child with those genes, perhaps the saviour of mankind and deliverer of justice to a crumbling capitalist nation (Kantner imagines just that on his 1980s epics ‘Nuclear Furniture’ and ‘The Empire Blows Back). Slick’s sense of humour didn’t ease the establishment’s fears when she jokingly told a music reporter her baby would be called ‘god’ (‘With a small ‘G’ so she doesn’t get big headed’). This album is about that baby, what she was, what she might grow into and how the world might look when she came of age and there she is proudly held aloft on the cover into the sunlight, her mother’s (left) and father’s (right) hands proudly holding her up but submerging under the great tidal wave of life to come.

I could write a whole review on that album cover (don’t worry – I’ll just stick to a paragraph, honest!) which just shrieks of hippy symbolism. Is the sun rising or setting? Is this the scene of great ecological destruction that has caused the world to be submerged by water, with the baby’s parents desperately trying to hold their baby aloft and out of harm’s way as they plunge to the icy depths below? Or is this a new birth, a baptism of a new generation born into a changing world built not from old tired corruption but from the 1960s belief in peace, freedom and equality? And what of those clouds, a photo-shopped halfway point between stormy and sunny – are they wafting in to cast long heavy shadows over the baby’s progress or are they battles already fought, heading off in the distance? Is this baby being born up to the sun as a sacrifice, or so that nature recognises her and other babies born into this generation as part of the new evolution of mankind, the (to quote the TV series begun 18 months later when this idea is still on everybody’s minds) ‘Tomorrow People’?
It helps that China (the baby was named for both the pretty crockery and the pair’s belief that China, not America, would be the dominant political force in the future and would treat the baby as ‘one of their own’, something they got half right; this is a long-running Airplane gag that was even turned into song with Marty Balin’s ‘If You Feel’ on ‘Crown Of Creation’) was born in January 1971. Had she been born in the 1960s I doubt any of the above paragraphs would have occurred to mother or father, but the changing of the decade of the 1970s was a big thing with the world (not just the music world but the whole world) holding its breath to see what would come next – and still holding it when punk came along circa 1976. The 1960s were such a time of turmoil and change, for better or worse, that it seemed certain that something would happen in the following decade, whether building on the progress made or something new altogether. All the groups on this site around in 1970 suffer this to some extent (The Who’s ‘Lifehouse’ and Cat Stevens’ pair of 1970 LPs ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ and ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ in particular) but the Airplane were always among the most socially aware bands who always pushed for change in their work. After all, Kantner and Slick had spent 1970 tearing down the existing societal systems on the band album ‘Volunteers’ (Gotta revolution!) and on their own joint LP ‘Blows Against The Empire’ working out what would come in their place (tired of Earthlife a bunch of hippies hi-jack a spaceship meant to colonise other planets and make money, instead spreading vibes of peace and equality throughout the universe – one of many wonderful reasons that puts this glorious masterpiece in my all time top three). The timing is too right, something is in the air and the date is as good a reason as any to think about the future.

‘Sunfighter’ is an album torn almost neatly in two by optimism at what life will be like for the new-born and pessimism that the 60s generation still have battles to fight. If ‘Blows’ is a utopian album, whose only obstacles for the hippies come early in side one and are easily swept aside, then ‘Sunfighter’ is a much more ‘earthly’ album in more ways than simply being set on Earth. Sacrifices made aren’t always for the right reasons (hence this album’s theme song ‘Diana’ – not written for the Princess of Wales who’d be about 10 at the time but a revolutionary in the hippie ‘Weathermen’ movement who gave her life in vain), the Earth grows under the weight of population (‘Sunfighter’ and ‘Million’) and in the final battle between hippies and squares its unclear who wins, just as its the winners in war always end up losers in some way too (‘Holding Together’). When mother Grace sings to her baby ‘I hope she’ll see some things that will make her life happy’ she speaks not only as a parent but as an intrigued onlooker, desperately hoping her generation have done enough to disrupt the world to make her successors safe. Hence also the fact that we get to see lovely childhood pictures of both Paul and Grace on the album’s inside cover, as if passing on childhood and dreams to the next generation. Incidentally note the lives both singers left behind: Paul is dressed in his smart cadets uniform, already being groomed for war and confrontation; Grace is dressed in a posh skirt practising hard for a piano competition she’s clearly not enjoying. The message is clear: things can change for all of us, not just our children.

Above it all, nature is bigger than all of us on this album. Passing on life to a new generation perhaps made Slick and Kantner think about how life was passed to them – and how the human cycle has been passing on life, hoping for a better future, since he existed (often futilely). Nature is huge on this album, not in a sweet look-at-the-bunny-rabbits way but in a giveth-life-and-taketh-it-away way. Along with Paul McCartney and Wings’ album ‘Wildlife’ (reviewed a few issues back) this is one of the world’s earliest ecologically aware LPs, with lines about how this really is the very last chance to put things right. Both ‘Earth Mother’ and ‘Look At The Wood’ are songs about mankind’s role as a plague on the Earth, distorting her protective care to their own money making ends; the eerie ‘Universal Copernican Mumbles’ and the devastating ‘Titanic’ the sound of the Earth disintegrating when he gets it wrong. With every generation that passes the chances of them making it to old age without ecological disaster gets less and less likely and in retrospect its fascinating to hear the ‘youth’ generation (Slick is one of the older AAA stars and even she’s about to turn just 31 at this point) moving on from their own contemporary battles to tackle problems that have been around as long as man (or the Industrial Revolution at least, which is where my blame lies for the unforgivable inequality and twisted priorities that still run today). The title track of the album, among other things, bids the human race to make ‘peace’ with their sun, just like the human race did in prehistoric times, asking her forgiveness for wrongs past and hoping against hope she doesn’t zap us all with ultra-violet light (which brings on an interesting point; I’m still convinced that , in CSNY’s words, ‘we have all been before’ and the human race has reached our technological peak once before and then lost it in some great catastrophe – there’s simply too much evidence that mankind has been around a lot longer and used to be much cleverer than we now think. If true then we really have to beware what we do in the future or we’ll end up back where we were in the past, splintered, adrift and helpless. Hence, possibly, our belief in a ‘sun-god’ as legends were passed on by word of mouth that sunlight breaking through the ozone layer nearly caused our death).

Talking of CSNY, guest stars are key to this album, just as they had been on ‘Blows’ (this is the last of a terrific run of West Coast albums in the early 70s that various members of the Dead, the Airplane and CSNY all contributed to, giving their services for free and for the spirit of the ‘music’). Crosby actually sings on more songs on this album than he did on CSNY’s ‘Deja Vu’ album in 1970 and his sweet harmony is a good counterpart to Paul’s growly bass and Grace’s stinging soprano lead. Graham Nash too crops up on a couple of tracks although he’s harder to hear than Crosby (that’s his harmonica work on ‘Look At The Wood’). Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia plays some great guitar on three of the album’s tracks, including a powerful solo on ‘Wolves’ that ranks amongst his best. And lots of Airplane-Starship bandmates past and present come out to play, including guitarist Jorma Kaukanen, bassist Jack Casady, drummer Joey Covington, violinist Papa John Creach and the first appearance of a 15 year old guitarist called Craig Chaquico on ‘Earth Mother’ some three years before he becomes a full time member of Jefferson Starship. Best of all the usually straight-laced Edwin Hawkins Singers, who provided the memorable ‘oompah oompah stick it up yer jumper’ refrain on The Beatles’ ‘I Am The Walrus’ make their second and final AAA appearance on this album’s title track. Even more than ‘Blows’ its these little guest spots that help give ‘Sunfighter’ its wide palette of sounds and enables it to leap from one extreme to the other without making it hard on the ears.

Sadly this is probably the last time the various members loosely dubbed ‘The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra’ by Kantner ever played together with any regularity (there’s an attempt at a revival in 1983 on ‘Blows’ sequel ‘The Empire Blows Back’, but Crosby is ill from drug abuse and about to go to prison for it, while Garcia is still recovering from a coma, so it’s never quite the same). This is because of both esoteric reasons (after 1971 the belief that love would save the world expressed by all three bands is a memory, not a mission statement) and for practical ones. Many of the stars of San Francisco had moved out by 1971, either to find ‘peace and quiet’ aware from the glares of photographers or in the wake of the Charles Manson massacre of Sharon Tate and his spoken hatred of rich millionaire pop stars that left many afraid, long after the wannabe-pop star was put away. Grace and Paul were two of the last to move out, ending up in a commune in Bolinas, Marin County for much of the time this album was being made. While the pair never fully settled into that way of life (Grace, especially, got annoyed at being told off for wearing make-up and fought back at her neighbour’s holier-than-thou attitude and even Paul admitted later he despaired at how serious everyone took everything) it did influence the writing of several songs on this album. The Weathermen, the most extreme band of revolutionaries of the day who were into blowing up buildings to destroy Western Capitalism were big heroes in the commune – except to Paul, who thought that killing random innocent people was a tragedy (see both parts of ‘Diana’).

‘Silver Spoon’, meanwhile, came directly from the pressure the commune members placed on Grace to turn vegetarian (ironically she went a stage further in the 1980s and turned vegan, but at the time she was incensed at being told what to do – a common theme in her work). The nature songs on this album, both original and covers, seem to chime in with the idea of a self-sustaining commune where no one works except to grow crops and keep livestock, while ‘Wolves’ is a song about societal interdependence that makes even more sense when you realise its author had been eyeing people struggling to get along in a small confined area first-hand. The pair realised the setting wasn’t right and moved out of Bolinas shortly after release, but the things they learnt there about the un-practical and darker side of hippie life does imprint many times on this work. Peace, love and prosperity is still possible, but it’s a harder battle to win than on any Jefferson-era work until the ‘new wave’ quartet from 1979-84 when Kantner’s songs in particular all but admit that ‘his’ generation didn’t go far enough in their war against civilisation.

Talking of civilisation, much of this album may have been inspired by and certainly comes across as an extended version of Grace’s 90 second howl of pain ‘Sunrise’ from ‘Blows Against The Empire’. That song is one of the Airplane family’s nastiest and most militaristic songs yet, condemning ‘2000 years of your God-damn glory!’ and the way so many have suffered at the hands of the rich and powerful to a marvellously intoxicating sound of guttural feedback breaking down all barriers. It was an impressively heady mixture in 1970 when the world was still relatively prosperous – it sounds like nothing less than a call to arms against bankers today. Clearly the song is too short to study such a big idea properly, but ‘Sunfighter’ (note the similar name) is up for the challenge, with an opening track questioning what it really means to be civilised (and accompanied by the same eerie mixture of reckless wild feedback and passionate rolling piano) and several songs about how things could – and should – be completely different than this. ‘Million’ and ‘Wolves’, especially, sound like the propaganda machine for the hippie movement about the alternatives to living under Western capitalist rule, although the angrier, more scared responses in ‘Diana’ ‘Titanic’ and the title track are open enough to suggest the hippies might not have it all their own way.

While not as consistently drop-dead gorgeous as that first joint album ‘Blows Against The Empire’, there’s so much about ‘Sunfighter’ to admire, from some of the most moving songs about having a family ever written (the song simply titled ‘China’) to some of the pair’s greatest and most atmospheric songs about human interaction and responsibility (‘When I Was A Boy I Watched The Wolves’ is a remarkable and revealing song, one of my eight Desert Island Discs). Little bits here and there still knock me out despite knowing the album really well: the bare murky nasty production on ‘Silver Spoon’ that out-punks punk, David Crosby’s guest harmony on ‘Look At The Wood’, the outrageous three minute sound effect of the Earth dying that’s labelled ‘Titanic’, the wondrous droning Eastern production on ‘Million’, the sheer innocence and optimism of ‘China’. If I was forced to grab a record from the wreckage of my collection to keep me company in the aftermath of some great disaster I could do worse than this record: teacher, friend, entertainer and prophet.

That said, there are several moments where this record’s aim definitely outdoes its abilities. The ‘Diana’ sections are too brief to work as a song, the ‘Titanic’ piece too obscure for repeated listening and the closing ten minutes of the record (‘Mumbles’ and ‘Holding Together’) is one of the hardest to sit through on any Jefferson family album. The used of so many outside songs by other writers is worrying (the fact that Grace and Paul manage to get three songs each onto that year’s Airplane record ‘Bark’ might be why they were hard pushed for material). The story, for what it is, is also much harder to follow than on ‘Blows Against The Empire’, although there clearly is one (the third and final Kantner-Slick album, the memorably named ‘Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun’ from the following year, is merely a collection of songs without a theme).

And yet for all its faults there’s something hypnotic about this album. It’s grown up and occasionally dark and edgy in a way that the other Airplane and related albums are often childish or least woefully optimistic. The world painted on this album is one of disasters as well as freedom, one of acute sadness as well as joy and the world is delicately balanced, as likely to collapse under the weight of human expectations as it is to springboard mankind to greater achievements in space in the future. Like all things Grace and Paul worked on, I learnt lots from this album which has been a much worn and much discussed album in the 20 years I’ve owned it: why the way they tell you behave at school and at church isn’t necessary the best way for you, your friends and family or your planet and why at the end of the day peace really is the only solution. Like all teachers, this album occasionally gets it wrong, some of the arguments are flabby and ‘borrowed’ from other sources and the amount of ‘homework’ you have to do on your own makes you wonder whether you should bother at all. But like all good teachers, there’s a patience and an encouragement at the heart of this album that makes me think that both Paul and Grace must have good role-model parents to their newborn baby, even with the pair’s much discussed break-up in the late 1970s and their descent into alcoholism and drug use.

As for China, she became an actress and MTV’s youngest DJ in the 1980s at the tender age of 16 before fading out from the public view and declining all interviews whenever she’s asked. After being seemingly created as a leader of the counter-culture with so much resting on her shoulders and all but greeted as the messiah by celebrating Jefferson fans she simply went back to being a human being, living life the way ordinary human beings do. You sense that despite this album’s talk of Paul and Grace wanting to give their baby a better world, one of more opportunities and freedom, with more chances for her to be herself and not be pushed around by a mad mad world, they’d be pretty happy back in 1971 to know that would be the outcome. At times on this planet the world hasn’t got long to survive and the grip of the powers-that-be is all too great; the future didn’t turn out the way anyone planned it in 1971, least of all the counter-culture, but it survived and the powers-that-be have weakened in some ways, even if they don’t seem to have realised it yet.

Any fears that having children will make Slick and Kantner ‘soft’ is immediately dispelled by the opening track ‘Silver Spoon’, one of the most outrageous and threatening songs written by Grace, whose raison d’aitre was to shock her audience in every way she knew how. On the surface it’s about cannibalism (‘Where are the bodies for dinner? I want more food!’), most likely inspired by the commune in Bolinas nagging the pair to become vegetarians. There’s a verse where Grace’s angry narrator plunges straight into really dark territory and acknowledges that in the future, if there’s a fast, she’s be prepared to give her life to keep her cannibal friends going. This line is clearly intended to prove to Grace’s commune neighbours how strongly she feels about the right to eat meat, but it’s an uncomfortable line in the context of the deliberately tuneless music and suggests that, already, she’s thinking about changing to being a vegetarian. Then again, like many of Grace’s period songs sex is never far from the surface and there’s hints that Grace is singing about oral sex too (‘You think that I will come to your mouth looking for a home?’ is a line that’s running the line towards censorship circa 1971, the sort of line where the fans know exactly what Grace means but will leave the censors scratching their heads in puzzlement). Many fans have guessed at these two ideas but in my eyes (or ears) there’s a third and another favourite Jefferson family theme, one of equality. The opening lines about spitting out ‘silver spoons’ are clearly about how man should be as equal as he can, and that if one of us can’t afford cutlery and has to eat with his hands then the others should too. All three themes mingle and roll together in this piece about ‘singing cannibal songs’ on a really edgy track that deals with the darker, nastier side of life, a sort of rejection of civilisation and culture and possessing the idea that beneath our finery we are all primitive mammals.

All of these ideas spill over into one fascinating outburst of aggression and fury that’s an exhilarating ride to listen to and a perfect depiction of that animal aggression referred to in the lyrics. Airplaner Jack Casady’s always warm, loud bass tones are here exaggerated to breaking point, frequently curling into round fiery balls of aggressive feedback, while Grace’s unique piano playing using block chords rather than individual notes) rolls forward back and forth throughout the song. The result is one of the nastiest, angriest AAA songs of all, one that’s compelling in its sheer un-comfortableness, as for almost the last time the Jeffersons push their natural sound to its absolute limit. Somehow it makes sense that future Airplane/Starship member Papa John Creach makes his debut on this track, the septegenarian violinist’s angry squeals far more suitable on a track like this one than the band’s later more MOR recordings. Grace’s vocal is the icing on the cake – piercing, shrill, taunting, deadly serious and somehow deeply sexy even though she’s singing about death and raw unsophisticated primitive essence; of all her great vocals down the years this may well be her best even if it is a tad low in the album mix. Hearing something this raw and aggressive in 1971 must have been quite an eye opener, especially from a woman – full kudos to Grace for managing to pull it off. Interestingly Kantner seems to be missing entirely from this opening song on only his second solo/joint album! One of the highlights of the album, although you’ll be pleased to learn the rest of the album isn’t as aggressive and raw as this!

The first of the two ‘Diana’ fragments comes from Paul Kantner’s mixed beliefs in the 1970s counterculture. It’s something of a surprise to hear one of the chief architects of the societal ‘revolution’ having doubts after such songs as ‘Volunteers’ but having a child has clearly had an effect on Paul’s political beliefs. The ‘Diana’ in the song is Diana Oughton, a member of rebel outlaw group The Weathermen (aka The Weather Underground) who were either terrorists (in the mainstream’s eyes) or folk heroes (in the eyes of the counter-culture) who delighted in bombing buildings of major capitalist symbols like banks and Government embassies (I must confess my first thought on seeing 9/11 was that the Weathermen were at it again, given how many leading capitalists worked in the twin towers). Their most famous activities were helping and abetting the Chicago Seven in 1971 (seven men who were – probably – illegally jailed on murder charges because the cops had been trying to pin something on them for years; its also the inspiration behind Graham Nash’s live favourite ‘Chicago’ from ‘Songs For Beginners’) and the jailbreak of hippie guru Timothy Leary. The peace and love hippie movement never quite knew what to think about fellow hippies using explosions and weapons to make a point (there are several parallels here with the civil rights movement and about whether Malcolm X’s more aggressive tactics were better or worse than Martin Luther King’s philosophy of peace). Kantner sounds less sure than most, using harsh imagery in this song like the dead bodies ‘buried in cages of cement and steel’ that condemn the acts and on the other hand treats Diana as a mythical hero as ethereal and godlike as her namesake, a ‘Huntress of the moon and lady of the Earth’. The tune for this song is lovely, a mixture of the ‘Volunteers’ type crusading and a requiem for the dead all together, although alas the song is too much of a fragment even if you hear parts one and two of this song back to back. In the excellent sleeve-notes for the CD re-issue Paul recounts how the idea for the song came to him in one great rush while in Fillmore East manager Bill Graham’s office discussing concert terms when a message about the latest Weathermen attack came through on the radio. It’s a shame he didn’t get to a pen and pencil quicker as the song is clearly inspired but too short to get to grips with.

The title track of the album continues this confusion, effectively summing up mankind’s civilisation and culture to date and demanding that something, somewhere, has to change. The first verse is personal, Kantner and his family finding a safe place ‘where we can watch and see our child grow’. The second is about the band, with a ‘rambler man’ inspiring local San Franciscans disenfranchised with their lives to rally to a new cause – some commentators have put this figure as Timothy Leary (again); others – me included – think its probably Airplane founder Marty Balin who had just quit the band when this song was written (the song is dedicated to Marty which is a bit of a giveaway). The idea is that this ‘movement’ (Paul never actually mentions a ‘rock group’ as such) is going to convert everybody to peace, that we’re ‘gonna try to move your minds together, gonna try to pull you through’ adds a nice bit of audience participation to the song (something Kantner was always good, especially the booklet for ‘Blows’ that calls on us fans to be ready to come away on the starship when the hippies steal it away; I’m amazed that he still isn’t on twitter) and a suitably rabble rousing chorus and production. However the key theme of the song is about how human beings have ‘messed up the land’ and how we have ‘maybe just one more chance to leave it be’. As we’ve already said, ecological concern was still new in 1971 (the nearest competitor I can find is Wings in 1972 – 60s folk classic ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ as covered by The Searchers deserves a mention but that song’s really about the aftermath of war than manmade chemical poisons). The chorus is a magnificent double meaning; ‘Ain’t no room for this planet to grow’ relates both to the population explosion and the thought that man simply isn’t learning from his mistakes quickly enough. The song then ends with a return to the science-fiction of ‘Blows’, relating our sorry future to us if we don’t change course with the wonderful sub-Dr Who gobbledegook ‘Sub carbon oscillation, sunshine blurring fascination, pulsar craft moving fast...’ The song then ends with a curious reference that if God exists he should be destroying those who destroy his creations – the only time Kantner ever half-admits to Christianity in song (although many of his later songs feature biblical parallels whilst being supposedly set in our future). While we’re on about the lyrics listen out too for the use of the ‘f’ word - ‘No time to fuck around like we did before’ – close on the heels of the Airplane’s own ‘We Should Be Together’ from the year before, a song generally agreed to be the first to use the ‘f’ word in song (the other accepted candidate, John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ , actually dates from three months or so later) and still shocking to most casual fans. Lyrically ‘Sunfighter’ is fascinating and its clearly groomed as the epic focal point of the album, complete with the bombastic Eddie Hawkins Singers choir (last heard singing ‘oompah, oompah stick it up yer joomper’ on The Beatles’ ‘I Am The Walrus’) and a pretty nifty brass arrangement that gives this song a real weight and heavy, world-weary quality. Unfortunately the tune isn’t quite up to the job of the lyrics and simply marches along ponderously, getting louder and quieter with each passing verse. The ‘true’ chorus (ie there’s several in this song but this is the one heard in the middle and makes up the title) is also quite weak by Jefferson standards (‘Sunfighter, gunfighter, mount the Earth and learn to ride her’) which is a pity.There's also the cobntradiction that Paul and Grace are moaning about the population explosion on an album that features a front cover picture of their new-born child! Still, this is a song so ambitious that it still manages to impress, even if it’s only partly successful.

‘Titanic’ is one of the strangest moments of any record I own, right up there with The Monkees’ ‘Zilch’ and 10cc’s ‘Une Nuite En Paris’. In fact its potentially even stranger, not a song as such but an atmospheric re-construction of what might have happened the night the ship went down in 1912 (it was the 60th anniversary coming up so it was in the news quite a bit back then, just as it is now in 2012 on the hundredth anniversary). Chances are Slick and Kantner have nothing to do with the track, which has really been compiled by engineer and soundscape artist Phil Sawyer from sound effects of emergency sirens, crashed waves and a strange, pulsating heartbeat that might have inspired the one on Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ in production at the time this album was released. Strangely we never actually hear the ship go down, although there was still much debate back then (only some of it resolved now) about what exactly happened when the ship went down. The effect in this context is to hear mankind’s arrogance and that his belief that he has ‘conquered’ nature with his technology and civilisation is a fallacy. The hint is that if we don’t start trying to save ‘Mother Earth’ soon the whole world could end like this, with one sorry mistake after another. Or in Kantner’s words in the sleevenotes ‘that you’re not quite as strong as you think you are’. It’s a moment to meditate on the themes of the album – or skip to the next track, depending on how much patience you have for sound effect filled instrumentals!

‘Look At The Wood’ is the folkiest song any of the Jeffersons had written for some time and another song about the destruction of nature by man. It’s one of the few songs on the album that Paul and Grace sing together, their very different vocal styles held firmly together by the glue of a guesting David Crosby, singing a tone or so higher than usual. I still can’t quite tell if this song is tongue-in-cheek or deadly serious (‘He’ll be dining on toads and moles’ and the various ad libs from Grace and David on the idea) – if the former then it’s odd that the band are poking fun at an idea they clearly believe in given the other songs on the same subject on the album; if the latter then its among the most Christian songs on any AAA album, full of praise for the ‘architect’ of life giving the Earth ‘for free’ from a band renowned for their atheist views. Like the similarly tongue-in-cheek-but-might-be-serious Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’ by The Small Faces the song deals with a wise hermit (un-named in this song, ‘Mad John’ in the Faces’ vision) who is ‘20 years short of a century’ –alarmingly Grace is only 28 years short of hers as I write – took a new wife every five years and is forever doomed to re-incarnation. It’s nice to hear a near-acoustic song in the band’s repertoire for a change and the harmonies are excellent, as is Jorma’s sterling electric guitar work accompanying Kantner’s acoustic. However the lyrics are simply too strange and the mood too confused for the song to work as well as it should – had the band used these lyrics on another song and ‘spoofed’ their folky background with a song they really could do tongue-in-cheek the result would have been much stronger. Although it doesn’t say on the label I’ve read that the words are Grace’s and the music Paul’s – if true perhaps the pair aren’t as natural a match as we’ve always assumed.

There’s no such qualms about ‘When I Was A Boy I Watched The Wolves’, however. This is simply one of the best songs in my collection, a gorgeous Kantner song with a characteristic rolling melody and a dynamic arrangement that strings several disjointed parts together to sound like a wonderful whole. Despite the lines about being a wolf together in a pride, it’s not really about wolves at all but human societies and the way they interact, all pulling in their separate directions but coming together at times of need and strife. It’s really about being in a ‘gang’, of the wolf cubs longing to join what seems like fun, spending time with near peers rather than tiresome family, before somehow finding themselves cut off from everyone else and with a ‘gang mentality’ that will always pick on the weakest in the pack (with a literal kick the dog syndrome – ‘I imagine yourself calling yourself ‘Big Fang’, observing you run with the pack’). Such an idea is clearly anathema to Kantner and his hippie ideal about protection and equality, but he sure makes this track sound like fun, with lots of fast-paced rhymes that sound exciting and fun (‘Laser bright feel the lunar light coming down on me’). The pack is also not an entirely negative thing: the lines about ‘no eyes shine on the mind protected, no light shines on the fang neglected’ is as good a couplet as you’ll find, all about how being in a pack offers ‘protection’ and ensures everyone gets fed even when food is hard to find. By the end though when the stakes are at their highest the gang has dropped all idea of being a democracy, Kantner Slick and Crosby yelling as oif to their own pet dogs ‘Get down, go back, run with the wolfpack’. Grace’s last held note falling off the cliff of sound when the track suddenly stops is heartbreaking, leaving the wolf we’ve been following for five minutes as isolated within the pack as he was without. If you haven’t heard it I can’t possibly describe how perfect this song is, built from its stunning piano riff and its angry discordant electric guitar, with some of the best vocals on the album and a tune that veers from beautiful to choppily angular and discordant at a moment’s notice. ‘Wolves’ is an exhilarating ride that poignantly sums up the need of humans to belong to something and the responsibility that goes with it and is perfectly placed on this album at the end of the album’s first side, summing up the themes of ecology and animals, family and doubts as to whether to overthrow the system or leave it as it is that have dominated the album. Not only the highlight of the album but of music as a whole, educational, exciting and emotional like the best music should be. Everyone involved should take a bow for this one.

‘Million’ opens the album’s second side with another strong song, one that builds on the ‘gang’ theme of ‘Wolves’ but this time by looking at a hippie commune filled with ‘millions’ of people wanting peace. The song deals with the aftermath of a great catastrophe (and may well have started off as a song for ‘Blows’ after the Empire takes control – this song shares the same dreamlike state and whole-hearted optimism unusual for this more realistic, troubled album) and features the plaintive cry that we’ve ‘maybe one more chance to get along with us for the rest of our lives’. The song takes us back all the way to the beginning of civilisation, reminding us that ‘in the beginning we all were one’ living in the same place with the same herd-like instinct for protection and none of the prejudice our supposedly more civilised offspring came up with. The one area that survives Armageddon? Naturally enough given who appears on this album its San Francisco, with Kantner even adding a line presumably for Slick that ‘I bow down to my San Francisco lady’. This song would also have fitted nicely onto Kantner’s ‘farewell’ Jefferson album ‘Nuclear Furniture’ in 1984, an album that – on Paul’s songs at least – the cold war has wiped out most of the planet and left just a handful of survivors, led by the charismatic Rose. The music to this song is really lovely, more of a hymn than a song, with Grace’s piano and some wonderfully sprightly guitar from Jerry Garcia centre-stage on a song about redemption and rebirth and ends with a wonderful double-back on itself that’s very Merseybeat, as if harking back to a time when the ‘hippie dream’ properly began.

‘China’ is Grace’s lovely piano ballad on what it means to her becoming a mother for the first time and its the single most gorgeous song free from anger or bitterness she’s written since ‘ReJoyce’ on ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ in 1967. If you didn’t know about the happy birth you’d be mighty confused by the song which starts off with the line ‘She’ll suck on anything you give her’ and seems to be back in ‘Silver Spoon’ territory (some fans were even more confused by the title ‘China’ and assumed it was about the country). Grace’s lyrics are lovely, summing up her amazement at how her baby can be so fragile in some ways and tough in others (‘Her voice cuts overt the sea even when its stormy, but she’s only two feet higher’). Grace’s chorus is lovely and perfectly placed on this troubled album: ‘I hope she’ll see some things that’ll make her life happy’ before adding that parental cry and panic over ‘how fast’ her baby is growing up. The word that keeps cropping up on this song is ‘new’ – China is a baby without the pre-conceived prejudices like adults do, has no societal inhibitions about when to let out her feelings out and that she knows who she is ‘without looking’ i.e. working out her inner personality and working out how to behave. ‘She’s an all new person who says just how she feels’ is a lovely line, especially when followed by Grace’s humour on the line ‘She’s a fat-faced Goddess of nowhere’. The only thing that lets this song down is the muted production that features Grace’s lone piano until late in the song (when a lovely, empathetic brass arrangement by Greg Adams kicks in) and a lack of a clear melody, although in the context its fair enough that Grace should want to handle so much of this track herself. One of the best songs on parenthood – see our top 10 for some more AAA examples – ‘China’ is an affecting song for any listener, whether they themselves have children or whether the closest they’ve come to having children is pictures of babies printed on record covers! (Records are, of course, my babies, as they are for many a collector).

‘Earth Mother’ is back to the urgent ecological protest and should by rights be termed a ‘Steelwind’ song with Paul and Grace guesting (Kantner’s old friend and – according to some sources – guitar tutor Jack Traylor wrote and takes lead vocal on the song and its his band that play apart from Grace’s piano – listen out for the guitar part by a 15 year old Craig Chaquico who’ll be a member of this band by the time he’s of age). Traylor’s gruff vocals don’t make for easy listening (although Airplane fans used to hearing Jorma sing will know what to expect), especially in harmony with Grace’s almost yelled vocals but the tune is a good one. I’m surprised in retrospect that such an anti-hippy song was let through (the children are ‘ripped on coke and candy’) but the lyrics about what successive generations have done to the Earth are spot-on and, again, wonderfully prescient for an age when Green Peace were still young enough to get confused with GreenShield stamps. The song even makes an apology for the generations to come, admitting that ‘it’s not your fault you’re ill now, it’s the men who went before’ – a very forward looking idea for 1970 and the ‘now’ generation. The song then ends with a re-write of sorts on CSNY’s ‘Teach Your Children’, announcing to the 60s and 70s kids now having families of their own that ‘they recognise no nation, they dance around your throne’. A sweet song with an urgent, almost nursery rhyme melody, ‘Earth Mother’ is a memorable ‘cover’ song that works well set against the backdrop of the rest of the album.

‘Diana - Part 2’ is slightly more successful than the first part, albeit even shorter, with less confusion as to what Diana is doing. This second part makes it clear that it regrets what she and her outlaws did, asking them to remember the fallen and asking them ‘what they see’ when they look at one another; are they still mankind’s saviours or simply murderers? Crosby’s harmony vocal is beautiful here, holding the notes in a way we haven’t heard since the Byrds days. The song ends on a confusing note by asking the weathermen to ‘remember what we sang in America, so many years ago’ – the closest thing in the Jefferson canon to all out revolution is ‘Volunteers’ which uses that very word, but the band have only just recorded that. Is Kantner writing here that the rebels shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were, and should only overthrow the corrupt and intrinsically unfair parts of Western civilisation, not the good and traditional ways. Again the song is too short to really get to grips with and is simply a reflective minute calm before the storm of the final two tracks...

‘Universal Copernican Mumbles’ is a fascinating mood piece from Kantner and his writing partners John Vierra and Pat Gleeson and might be the words of the religious figure in the album’s other pieces talking to the ‘young’ generations being born. ‘I will help you find the way if you help us find the way to your heart’ runs the first verse, with a ghostly, vocally treated Kantner urging his offspring and her peers to keep up the hard work of peace and love. The song is accompanied by the same roughly hewed piano lick, some staccato plucked strings and a curious jumble of synthesised electronics that are caught between being too late for psychedelia and too early for prog rock. Again, this is more of a fragment than a song and doesn’t work as well as the longer songs on the album, but at least its big on atmosphere and kind of fits the album’s themes.

Unfortunately the grand finale ‘Holding Together’ is a bit of a wet rag and is easily the weakest song on the album. The song sticks far too rigidly to its riff and simple chords while at the same time trying to sum up the album and life, the universe and everything. There’s a very Pete Townshend style guitar part in the middle from Jerry Garcia which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on ‘Who’s Next’, but that aside the playing here really isn’t very good (even Grace’s usually reliable piano appears to slow down and lose the tempo near the end). The song starts portentously ‘Look for Atlantis – it’s waiting for you’ and rather goes downhill from there, calling on dead Apache Indians and the Vietnam dead onwards into the light and ‘the cavern of the starmaker’, presumably the same deity who keeps cropping up across this album. Most interestingly of all, I’ve only just noticed this song’s throwaway reference to a ‘Rosemary’ – is this the same leader of the future as seen on ‘Lightning Rose’ (from JS’ ‘Freedom At Point Zero’ in 1979 and most of 1984’s ‘Nuclear Furniture’?) There are dozens of allusions here to Airplane/Starship songs, some years old some not released yet, including watching a ‘wolfpack’, ‘riding a tiger’ (see ‘Dragonfly’ 1974) and ‘the empire breaking up below you’ (is this song another outtake from ‘Blows’?!) The central theme of the song is a good one, the idea that those left behind in the late 20th century are merely ‘holding together’ and marking time before a better, brighter generation come along but the rest of the ideas of the song are a mish-mash that don’t quite fit together. The song, too, goes on far too long and actually ends completely once before kicking in again with its wobbly, arthritic riff – you sense that 99% of listeners wish it had ended the first time round. Still, the biggest problem with this song is that it tries to do so much (summing up the album, the Airplane philosophy and goodness knows what else in one go) – lyrically at least this song does a pretty good job at all those things, but ironically it fails badly as a song and would never work at all out of context of the album).

Still, even with the lapse at the end, ‘Sunfighter’ is one hell of an album, managing somehow to be as uplifting and celebratory as other Jefferson family albums despite going into places that are much much darker than normal. Few albums have the breadth of subject matter to take in everything from the birth of a baby to cannibalism and the destruction of the Earth and its to ‘Sunfighter’s credit that, for the most part, the album is real and solid enough to withstand such weighty themes. There are a good four songs here (‘Silver Spoon’ ‘China’ ‘Million’ and the excellent ‘Wolves’) that are among the best the Jefferson family ever released and it’s easy to see why so many fans of the time much preferred this album to the band’s release ‘Bark’ in the same period, simply because of ‘Sunfighter’s scope and how much almost all of these songs mean to their creators (even though I like that album more than most – see the link below for the review). ‘Sunfighter’ isn’t perfect, it doesn’t have the delightful concept of ‘Blows Against The Empire’ (still a record for my all time top three) and the experimentation here is much more hit and miss than on the death defying leaps of my favourite Airplane record ‘After Bathing At Baxters’. But that said there’s much to applaud, from the insightful lyrics to the hummable songs to the breathtaking guest stars and the often superb performances. This album about life and death will also appear somewhere to everyone, whether you like your Airplane soft and woolly (‘China’ ‘Diana’) or angry and abrasive (‘Silver Spoon’). Even if Paul and Grace’s vision of the world wasn’t quite right (the 1970s generation, as a whopping great generalisation, went back to the stability and comfort of the 1950s and left the rebellions to their parents), they did get some things right (the ecological concerns on this album make it sound more modern and contemporary than it should) and some things half right (the cold war is over, but only really because other battles have superceded it). More realistic and gritty than most Airplane albums, there’s still a sweetness and hope at the heart of ‘Sunfighter’ that means it’s still a stirring, uplifting album in the best Airplane tradition. Alas Paul and Grace only released one more album (with David Frieberg) before abandoning their solo careers (forever in Paul’s case, till the 1980s in Grace’s). Much as I love the Starship (and I adore the Airplane) I can’t help feeling that that was a shame. Grace’s more personal songs matched to Paul’s more universal generational epics were an almighty combination and the pair really are at their best here.

Other Jefferson Airplane/Starship/Family record reviews you might be interested in:


'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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