Monday 3 March 2014

Jefferson Airplane "Surrealistic Pillow" (1967) (Album Review)

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Jefferson Airplane "Surrealistic Pillow" (1967)

She Has Funny Cars/Somebody To Love/My Best Friend/Today/Comin' Back To Me//3/5ths Of A Mile In Ten Seconds/DCBA-25/How Do You Feel?/Embryonic Journey/White Rabbit/Plastic Fantastic Lover

Well, that was a bit of a sudden change wasn't it?! If debut album 'Jefferson Airplane Takes Off' is a case of getting the Airplane off the launch-pad then 'Surrealistic Pillow' is where the navigation system kicks in for the first-time and all the layers and sounds that will come to personify the band begin to fall into place. A much-loved album containing two top ten singles (the only top ten singles the Airplane will ever score, incidentally), 'Surrealistic Pillow' was released just as the Summer of Love was about to shine. In fact, with a release date of March 1967 and a folky sound at times that makes it more like an album from 1965, you could argue that 'Surrealistic Pillow' is a 'Spring of Love' album, the start of a musical spirit and blossoming that was about to take the world by storm. Listening to it now it's a curious hybrid of the 'old' and the 'new' : most psychedelia albums from 1967 would have sounded like they came from a different planet to purchasers of records in 1964 or 1965 but this one psychedelic record that, like a recently died haircut, leaves its (folky) roots showing, gentler and more acoustic than most recordings made by the band's peers but with searing electronic Jorma Kaukanen guitar on top. The other surprise is the band's confidence: less than a year ago (in both 'their' time and 'our' time) we were praising the band for being the first San Franciscan band to set out their home turf's new, freer sound and take the first troubled steps to introduce to the world a whole new musical scene. 'Takes Off' is a record that, understandably given its history, plays things as safe as it can for as long as it can, with forays into folk, blues and pop as well as the band's signature sound. There's only one such concession on 'Pillow' and that song - 'My Best Friend', a song left over from that first album and written by the band's first drummer Skip Spence before he took up with Moby Grape - sounds a century older than the rest, not just a year. Far from being the new kids at school, Jefferson Airplane now sound like the coolest kids in the playground and the only people who know where it's 'at'.

A major piece in the missing puzzle is new vocalist Grace Slick. Grace has so come to dominate the public' image of the band that people can't imagine the band without her, but in actual fact she officially joined the band just three weeks before starting the recordings for this album. The band were actually told not to bother hiring her when it was discovered that it would cost $750 to buy her out of her contract with her former band - as it turned out its was probably the best bargain in the history of the music business. Grace's voice was quite unlike anything heard in the music world - even Janis Joplin hadn't hit her stride yet when this album came out - and her take-no-prisoners style took the band to a whole new level Having heard 'Takes Off!' it's clear that the rest of the band hired here because she sounded just like their first singer Signe Andersen without the blues trappings (who left the band in late 1966 to have a baby; in a sign of how quickly times changed Grace will have a baby with Airplane guitarist Paul Kantner and it doesn't slow down her role in the group one iota). Signe was a gifted singer and perfect for the Airplane back when it was a folk-rock band, but the addition of a female singer who wasn't just there for the harmonies but was every bit the equal of the male singers around her was somehow very sexy and very 1967The fact that Grace brought with her two songs that were obvious hits and are still the Airplane's best known songs today ('Somebody To Love', written by ex husband Darby Slick, the guitarist in 'The Great Society' and her own 'White Rabbit' , which seems to have been written during the magic month off 'between' bands) probably helped both her confidence at taking on the hard task of stepping into another singer's shoes and allowing the band to think they'd made the right choice. It's nothing short of incredible that she picks up what to do so quickly - but then she had spent a long time in San Franciscan's third best band 'The Great Society', an Airplane soundalike who could have been every bit as great as the Airplane and the Dead (it's a tie which is San Francisco's 'first' best band by the way) had they rehearsed a bit more and squabbled less. What the Society missed most was a 'foil' for Grace to bounce off that was her equal - and she and Marty work brilliantly here for two people who'd only just met (this chemistry inevitably led to rumours about her closeness to Marty, but according to Grace's autobiography Balin was the only member of the Airplane she didn't 'seduce' during the band's five years). Marty and Signe were old friends and could 'read' each other as well as any other singing duo of the 1960s, but Balin and Slick together sound telepathically linked at times, a much under-valued aspect of the Airplane sound.

The other, less talked about but still majorly important change is new drummer Spencer Dryden. The band's first drummer Skip Spence had been the most eccentric member in an eccentric band, chosen by Marty and Paul for the band because he 'looked like a drummer' even though he tried to audition as the Airplane's guitarist. Eccentricity was clearly an Airplane hallmark (Skip's lone solo album post-Moby Grape, 'Oar', is one of those albums that defies description and re-writes every law about music that's ever been written, recorded just before the drummer was sectioned under the mental health act). Spencer was pretty eccentric too - enough to fit in with the rest of the band - but being that little bit older and a little bit more experienced than everyone else means he's almost always the band member most in control, able to flick a song this way or that depending on what everyone else in the room is playing. Interestingly Spencer's own songs will be the battiest and most rule-breaking things the Airplane ever do ('A Small Package Of Value...' 'Chusingura'), but as a member of the band he's the one most 'with it' and best able to cope with the four different bands playing around him (Marty, Grace, Paul and Jorma-Jack all have such different writing styles that in comparison with other period bands it's often hard to tell what the default Jefferson Airplane sound actually is).

Another key player on this album who doesn't get enough credit is Jerry Garcia. The Grateful Dead haven't even released their first album yet but Garcia especially is already being treated as a 'daddy' figure by fans of West Coast music (he's already been nicknamed 'Captain Trips' too, a title he hated). The Airplane's experience recording their first album wasn't a terribly happy one, mainly due to censorship issues; when RCA Records tried to give the band an even stricter producer the band retaliated by asking for a 'mediator' they could trust, picking Garcia as a friend they knew would back them up and could speak (or at least bluff his way through) all the technical know-how necessary. Garcia's credit of 'musical and spiritual supervisor' is the first of many dozen times Garcia will 'help out' on another band's records and he may well have done a lot more than simply 'oversee' the album (tracks like 'Today' and the wonderfully-titled outtake 'JPP McStep B Blues' especially sound like his work rather than Jorma's or Paul's and the band are adamant he plays guitar across the album; however producer Rick Jarrard and the paperwork made for the sessions claim Garcia was nowhere near the making of this LP).

One thing we know for certain about Garcia's involvement, however: it was him who came up with the album's quotable, happily hippily daft title, which meant as much or as little as the listener wanted it to be (the Grateful Dead don't get an album title this good until 'Wake Of The Flood' in 1973). The album is certainly at one with the psychedelics of the era, but without much of the darkness and aggression that is usually associated with American psychedelia, 'Baxters' included ('Pillow' did particularly well in Britain because ots much more in keeping with 'English' psychedelia, which is charming rather than frightening - unless it's played by the Rolling Stones or The Who). As a result it manages to be both dreamlike and comforting (like a pillow), making Garcia's name 'sound' right while simultaneously laughing at the ridiculous names a lot of the San Franciscan scene was coming up with (after debut albums by the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, The Chocolate Watch Band, Moby Grape and Quicksilver Messenger Service in quick succession , the Airplane moniker suddenly made them look like the 'sensible' kids on the psychedelic rock scene).

However there's one star over and above Grace, Spencer and Jerry on this album and that's Marty Balin. In early 1967 the Airplane are still seen as very much the lead singer's backing group and just as with 'Takes Off', Marty is writing all the best stuff on the album in the years before the Airplane become the Paul-and-Grace show. Marty had already mastered how to write (and sing) the heavy rockers on the first album and adds a couple more good ones here, but what really impresses are the ballads: it took guts for a band as full of bravado and as known for their power and guts on-stage to record songs as slow as 'Today' and 'Comin' Back To Me'. Considering the pair had never sung together before there's already a spooky chemistry between Marty and Grace that's spookily telepathic: on the duets with Signe the pair tended to challenge each other and compete but Slick and Balin are already goading each other on rather than treading on each other's toes. Marty even gets time to design the album's classic packaging, from the classically-trained-musicians spoof on the front (where the band's name is significantly inscribed onto that most folky of instruments, the banjo) and slightly surreal collage on the back (look out for the negative of Jorma inserted upside-down quietly in the top middle - it's fairly hidden so you might not notice it straight away but even at a glance your brain is telling you that there's something...different about this picture before you spot what it is, which is very Airplane). What's so sad about this is that, for a variety of reasons, Marty will never be so dominant in the band again: he gets a single co-credit on the next band record 'After Bathing At Baxters' (compared to the five he gets here) and nothing like the 'air-time' his golden voice gets here until the Jefferson Starship years (when, what do you know? The album he dominated the most - 1974's 'Red Octopus' - becomes by far the Starship's biggest seller).

If there's a theme on this album it's longing - peace and love hasn't really arrived yet and for all their hippie spirit the Airplane were always more confrontational than their peers (as we said in our review of 'Baxters' they don't ask for peace and love, they demand it - by war, if necessary). Like the 'Takes Off' record but more so, these are a group of people looking for change in society, in love and in themselves. Both sides of the record start with two of the angriest songs the Airplane ever recorded; 'She Has Funny Cars' contains the petulant chorus 'what do you want from me?' and asks it of everyone the narrator knows - the girl he never really understands, the society that expects him to settle for less and the people in charge trying to control whose in power 'wearing a disguise' while those like the narrator 'try to revolutionise tomorrow'. '3/5ths of a Mile in Ten Seconds' goes even further, starting the album's second side with the words 'do away with people...' wasting the narrator's time, laughing at him in the street and forcing him to live in a capitalist society at odds with his values. Both songs charge out of the blocks spitting venom. But there are other songs of 'longing' for things to change here too: people miss it due to the funky backbeat and Grace's bravado performance but 'Somebody To Love' is a lonely, unhappy song about a life only being complete if you have someone to share it with. 'Today' is a love song about the future, with the narrator wishing that he could make all his girls' 'dreams come true'. 'Coming Back To Me' is a love song about the past, when in a (drug-fuelled?) haze the narrators thinks he spies an ex-lover walking back into his life. The narrator of Paul Kantner's 'DCBA-25' finds he has the ability to 'read' people and see what they would be happy doing if only they'd let themselves become that person - and dreams of meeting a new soulmate rather than the partner he's with (named after the song's chord structure and the 'type' of LSD Paul was on when he wrote it, it's clearly a song about drugs opening up people's horizons). Cover song 'How Do You Feel?' is about a love affair carried out at a distance, with the girl probably unaware how much she means to the narrator who walks by at a certain time each day just to see her. Finally the narrator of 'Plastic Fantastic Lover' has long been portrayed as being in love with a television set - but actually reading between the lines he's simply waiting for something better to come along, dreaming of a time when censorship and bureaucracy governing what people watch is a thing of the past (or 'TV programme rape' as the song puts it). From the name on down, most things to do with Jefferson Airplane are about going on a 'journey' - at times 'Surrealistic Pillow' sounds like a sat-nav giving directions on where they want the planet to go and grow to.

As ever with the Airplane - who left more outtakes in the 'can' than most during their recording sessions - a lot of songs were left to collect dust until first the 'Early Flight' compilation of 1972 and then the CD re-issue of 'Pillow' in 2003. Some of them probably should have stayed in the vaults: 'In The Morning' was Jorma's major contribution to the album, but it's a shade too 'him' and not enough 'Airplane' to fit on this album (although it's bluesy tones would have fitted 'Takes Off' and are something of a sneak preview towards what the guitarist will do in his next band 'Hot Tuna'). 'Come Back Baby' is another Jorma cover of a traditional blues song that features a tighter band performance but isn't quite up to the album's high level. However the other songs would have made a great record even greater: 'JPP McStep B Blues' is another Skip Spence song recorded after the drummer left the band and is far better than 'My Best Friend', with a quirky love-struck lyric and melody that really suit Balin's voice. Interestingly the song was recorded on the last day of sessions for the album, suggesting the band might have been having second-thoughts about forgoing their 'folk' roots. 'Go To Her', a troubled Kantner song we covered on our review of 'Takes Off'. was revived for this album and again left in the vaults despite being evidence of how much tighter and better the Airplane have grown in the few months since release. Marty's vocal is even wilder, Grace outshines Signe during her cameo and the guitar-bass interplay from Jorma and Jack is breathtakingly exciting, even if the lyrics are still a little basic by 1967 standards. Finally, sadly it was cut from the CD re-issue, but the second, Grace Slick version of 'High Flying Bird' would have been one of the best things on the album: a live favourite that wasn't released until 'Early Flight' the folk standard is completely regenerated into a song where the stakes between life and death are higher and escape is the only solution to a hard life. Perhaps this song inspired the 'writers' in the band to make this album, as the themes of longing and heartbreak are all over this album - of all the outtakes from this album's sessions it would have been a pretty much perfect fit!

In all, then, 'Surrealistic Pillow' is one of those magical records that somehow manages to be both perfect for its times and timeless, full of concepts discussed by every generation (just psychedelic enough, but not 'trapped' by the genre like 'Baxters' or even 'Sgt Peppers'). The two hit singles undoubtedly helped, but 'Pillow' was always going to be a successful record, sounding both like the best of what's gone before and the start of something bold and daring. 'Somebody to Love' and 'White Rabbit' rightly became classics, but it's actually Balin's songs that give this album it's heart and spirit: the two noisy angry rockers - as pioneering as anything released in the first half of 1967 - and the two glorious ballads that show how well the Airplane really could play. The album isn't perfect however - 'My Best Friend' is one of the most toe-curling things the band ever did, Jorma is badly under-used (he gets just two credits on this album and no lead vocals) and some of the performances are a little scrappy here and there (which is no surprise really, given that this line-up of the band was together mere weeks when the sessions started). For my money the follow-up 'After Bathing At Baxters' is an even stronger, certainly more 'complete' record and leaves even 'Pillow' a couple of light years behind, booting out the 'folky' influences on this album and accelerating the power and the weirdness levels. That said, though, there's a reason that 'Surrealistic Pillow' became such a best-seller and 'Baxters' became a cult: there's more intelligence on this album than a lot of what will come, a lot less self-indulgence and being pioneering for pioneering's sake, while 'Pillow' remains easily the prettiest of all the band's albums thanks to Balin's cool head and warm heart. 'Baxters' has more fun and breaks a lot more rules, but 'Pillow' is the effortlessly cool album that gets more girls (or boys). The album certainly did what it needed to do though: for a time shortly after this album Jefferson Airplane were the biggest-selling artists on the pretty huge RCA roster and eagerly celebrated the fact by taking matters into their own hands and refusing to release anything quite so commercial ever again.

'She Has Funny Cars' is arguably the most 'progressive' sounding cut on the record so it makes some kind of sense that the Airplaners would put it first on the record - and that it would be the first song recorded for the album (and therefore the first recording with Grace on vocals). In the context of March 1967 this a weird song from the title on down (what does the phrase 'She Has Funny Cars' mean and where did it come from?!) , not to mention the aggressive spiky guitar-work, the fuzz-bass that's drenched in so much feedback it sounds as if it's about to explode and lyrics that are spelling out how awful life is as a hippie outsider before the vast majority of people had even heard the term yet. The song makes a lot more sense once the summer of love comes in and these sort of songs are suddenly everywhere (albeit the aggressiveness of this track is more like something from 1968) but at the time 'Cars' is as big a stylistic leap into the unknown as contemporary releases like 'Strawberry Fields Forever' 'Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby?' and 'Nights In White Satin'. Jorma's music manages to be both unusually angular and melodic; yes the guitar and bass are deliberately recorded to sound harsh and bitter but the actual melody is a very tuneful one (in another setting and with different lyrics a crooner could have a hit with this song). Marty's clever words are a neat foil for the strangeness of Jorma's music (interestingly the pair only wrote two songs together and the other was 'And I Like It', the forward-looking last track on 'Takes Off' which sounds more like this record than that one), all about how you can never truly know another person. Marty throws in a few hippie-pleasing moments like 'the world is waiting to be seized' and 'revolutionise tomorrow' marking the first time the Airplane have come up with what will become their trademark 'sloganeering' anthemic sound, but this track is darker than most. You may well miss at first (I missed it for 20 odd years) but the first verse is actually about loss and the fact that the narrator is shacked up with someone he realises he doesn't know or want to be with. The 'what do you want with me?' chorus comes out of frustration at being tied to someone who won't communicate - and yet in the narrator's suddenly awakened (via drugs?) head his soul-mate will be able to speak to him without talking. Marty's lyrics manage to mix both lyricism and emotion but he excels himself on the second verse when he speaks about the world and it's many injustices in a wider sense. Marty sings 'some have it nice' before Grace chimes in with '...fat and round' (a theme Grace will develop into a full song, 'Fat' for her and Paul's third album 'Baron Von Tollbooth' in 1973) and then they both explode into 'Flash!...Paradise!' A neat summary of everything wrong with the world then and now, it's a very clever and memorable moment on a song (and album) full of them. 'Cars' truly gets 'Surrealistic Pillow' started with a bang.

'Somebody To Love' is quite a firework too, a near-perfect three minute pop single turned to maximum. Unless you were a very committed fan of the psychedelic scene pre-1967 you probably had no idea who Grace or even the Airplane were before the song first came on the radio - but you sure would know by the end. Grace gives such a barnstorming committed performance that naturally many fans assume she wrote the song, but actually it's by her ex Derby Slick (Grace kept the name even after she marries Paul Kantner; her maiden name is actually 'Wing') and originally one of the cornerstones of the Great Society's short setlist (Derby was their lead guitarist). The pair had already split long before Grace was poached by the Airplane (and therefore dumping her husband a second time) which might account for why Grace sings what's actually quite a sad song about heartbreak with such venom (it's not unlike the way Agentha sings husband Bjorn's songs about the collapse of their relationship at the end of ABBA ten times better than anything else). The differences between the two versions are day and night: the Society version is a delightful shambles, a rough-hewn song with a stuttering backbeat that sounds more like Peter Paul and Mary than psychedelia, whereas the Airplane arrangement (re-arranged by the whole band and given their already characteristic powerhouse performance) is confrontational and direct, anything but sweet. The song is cleverly written however it's played though, picking up on the sad irony that when you get dumped is the time you need somebody the most and that a rebound romance is a natural result of falling out of love. The song cleverly distances itself from the action, being sung in the third-person for most of the lyric, but Grace's emotional delivery hints that the narrator is singing about their own loss and is simply unable to deal with it head on (in this reading 'Somebody To Love?' sounds like coming up with an excuse to do something stupid). Throw in a catchy powerful chorus that's simple and universal enough to appeal to 'straights' and you can see why this song became such a hit, even with what must surely be one of the laziest, laidback guitar solos ever recorded (and kept for the very end of the song). Hiring Grace Slick for the band - who turns in one of her career best vocals as well as turning up with a ready made hit - was turning out to be a truly great idea for the Airplane...

'My Best Friend' sounds all the more icky coming after all that heartfelt passion. A Skip Spence leftover from the first album, it seems an odd choice to revive: very much a folky 1965-era song about a rather artificial and twee relationship by psychedelia standards, it may well have been added to the album more as a 'thankyou' to Spence during his difficult first year with Moby Grape and give him some royalties (a natural guitarist, Skip really struggled with drumming but ploughed on as the Airplane already had three guitarists and got rather good by the end considering as the 'Takes Off' album proves). That said, though, including this song sounds more like sabotage to the career of a band member who left them in the lurch, it sounds so out of place here (it's not a patch on Skip's other writes and co-writes for the band 'Blues From An Airplane' 'Don't Slip Away' and this album's outtake 'JPP McStep B Blues'). It's not that the band play it badly (Grace and Paul particularly sound unusually good on this song actually, quite unlike any they'll ever sing on again) so much as they sound like they don't quite know why they are playing it. The lyrics are odd too: 'You're my best friend and I love you so well' goes the opening line before adding '...Till the end of time you won't see me'. Admittedly this kind of skewed logic makes more sense when you've heard Spence's lone solo album 'Oar' (in as much as anything on the record makes sense...) but the rest of the song seems to have been deliberately underwritten, full of period pleasing references to the girl's vicinity as her 'love stream' and a pre-Oasis moment of hippie solidarity in 'D'yer know what I mean?' On any earlier album by any band - even 'Takes Off' - the listener would probably have given this song the benefit of the doubt: its sentiments are quite sweet after all, the sudden double-speed up during the song's 'middle' is genuinely exciting and on its own terms it's not that bad a song (even if Jorma's corny ';that's all folks!' ending suggests that he, at least, doesn't think much of the song either). It's just that the game-plan has changed, revolution is in the air and the rest of 'Surrealistic Pillow' sounds like it belongs from another century, not just a few months after this was written. Easily the worst song on the album.

'Today', however, is a moment of pure genius - arguably the best song on the album alongside the two singles. Marty's set of lyrics might well be every bit as cloying and sentimental as 'My Best Friend', but when set to Paul Kantner's articulate, mournful music they sound almost too heartbreakingly real for comfort. In actual fact this was about as close to a 'hack' song as the band ever came to writing; hearing that Tony Bennett was in the nearby studios when the Airplane were working on 'Takes Off' Marty actually wrote this song for the crooner to sing, but never got up the courage to offer it to him (it was covered by American Soprano Renee Fleming in 2010, mind, but hers is an awful version where she seems to be ignoring her years of training and is trying to sing like a folk-singer). Paul's mournful guitar riff (especially the inversion of it which ends the song like a final sob) is one of the best he ever wrote, full of sadness and longing. Marty's words, too, sound like a sequel to the Beartles classic 'Yesterday' vowing to 'please' his loved one 'more than before' despite the fact that he's 'changed' compared to how he was yesterday (another of this album's reference to analtered understanding of the world). The chorus, promising that all her dreams will 'come true' should sound hackneyed, but this is a likeable narrator whose made it very clear that he's putting his heart on the line and the opening verses make it clear how much courage he's plucked up to reveal his inner feelings and his frightened thoughts that she might not think the same as him. On paper it looks thin, but with the music it's a revelation - and as the song says 'I can't use words, they don't say enough'. The band performance on this song is truly great: Marty gets so into the song you believe him when he claims to be 'so full of love I could burst apart and start to cry'; the criss-crossing guitars - with Jerry Garcia playing the lead to Jorma's deeper riff - are featherlight and delicate and the background choir of Grace and Paul, mixed very low until the final verse, perfectly judge their parts too. A real delight and proof that the Airplane could play as softly and subtlety as anyone else.

Talking of which few non-fans would guess in a million years that 'Comin' Back To Me' was by the same band as 'White Rabbit' and 'Somebody To Love', never mind from the same album. In many ways it isn't: Marty, Paul, Jack and Jerry Garcia all play acoustic guitars while Grace plays a sensitive and ear-catching improvised recorder part (sadly she'll only play the recorder once more on record - had she recorded more songs like this then the recorder classes I used to have at school might have been a lot more interesting!) Marty revealed even more of his inner self here (his mind, apparently, 'opened' by a particularly good batch of marijuana he had that night)and in his haze imagines he sees an old flame walking back into his life. Even before Balin admitted how he wrote the song you kind of know that the figure in the song is a hallucination and you sense the narrator knows it too (she still hasn't arrived by the end of the song), but somehow that still doesn't matter - he takes comfort from the image even if it isn't true and simply 'made up for fun'. This song features many of Balin's most poetic lyrics ('The summer had inhaled and left its breath too long') and occasionally oversteps the mark ('The shape of sleepy music and suddenly you're hooked') but the song rings very true and cleverly manages to get away with only a one-line chorus repeated at the end of every verse instead of the usual verse-chorus structure. The emptiness of the backing gives Marty a real chance to shine and he excels himself here, keeping the song interesting for all of the five minutes despite the fact that nothing much is physically going on at all. This song was apparently written very quickly and recorded very soon after (on November 1st 1966, the second day of the album sessions a few hours before 'How Do You Feel?') and it sounds like it: the performance successfully conjures up the hazy, delicate fog the narrator is lost in and proves once again that the Airplane had a real Grateful Dead-like telepathic interplay with each other even when the full band wasn't there. Full kudos to Grace for getting her recorder out on only her second recording day with the band too - her part is exactly the 'foil' Marty's narrator needs, calling siren-like to him during the course of the song.

Sometimes I long for the days of vinyl when you used to have to get up and turn the record over. Back then you could stay in that warm haze as long as you wanted, but now 'Comin' Back To Me' is barely over before it gets shattered by the punk-like aggression of '3/5ths of a Mile In Ten Seconds'. Another nonsense title (taken from the headlines for two separate stories on the same page of a newspaper the band were reading during the sessions), '3/5ths' is anything but a nonsense song. The rattle and fizz of the main riff is a great hook on which to hang a second troubled song about everything wrong with society in 1967 (and just as true today, sadly) and a reminder that the summer of love wasn't as perfect as it's often painted to be. The blow gets softened with a typical pop chorus of 'you know I love you baby, yes I do!' but elsewhere this is quite an aggressive song for the period, full of bullies 'laughing at my hair' and the bummer of being in a capitalist society where you have to pay through the nose to open your mind and get high (at least I think that's what the last verse is all about - the word 'nicotine' is probably a smokescreen to avoid another Airplane airplay ban!) It's the bit in the middle that's the most 'Airplane' -like, dreaming of a future where hippies live in a low-rent 'circus tent', an idea that Small Face Ronnie Lane will be trying out for real in five or so years. Jorma turns in one of his best guitar solos on this track, which tries hard to be above it all but can't quite the emotion running through the song and to my ears at least that sounds like Garcia playing the other, lighter guitar part with him at the start of the song. In fact the recording features one of the best of the band performances, although this song sounded even better live. A little too 1967 to have the longevity of some of the other album songs perhaps (words like 'freaks' and the price of the cigarettes at $65 date '3/5ths' more than the other songs here), this is nevertheless another album highlight.

'DCBA-25' is one of the more forgotten songs from the album, but I'm not sure why - in it's own humble way it's as major a step forward as the other better known songs on the album. Of all the Airplane's songs its this one (and 'White Rabbit') that are most obviously about drugs, from the title onwards (connoisseurs of LSD by now, its named partly after the song's unusual guitar tuning and Albert Hoffmann's original chemical batch 25, the band's favourite 'mix' of acid, which no doubt writer Paul Kantner was taking that day). I can also hear a bit of 'Got To Get You Into My Life' in the chord structure on this song, as if Paul had just 'learnt' that Paul McCartney's 1966 song was a 'hidden' ode to drugs like this one (though in Macca's case it's pot, not LSD). The drug honeymoon is in full swing here, Kantner's narrator really enjoying seeing the world afresh and sighing over 'too many days left unstoned', wasted by living a straight life in a straight world. The first verse is the darkest, hinting that a promising relationship has been snuffled out by his drug use (or at least the drugs awakening the narrator to the fact that he doesn't know who his intended life-partner is any more). If the first verse is sad about the past, the second verse is about the glorious present where the drugs allow the narrator to feel he's 'running home' and enjoying true happiness for the first time in his life. There's even a hint that someone important has just come into the narrator's life thanks to the drugs (well, what do you know? Grace Slick's just joined the band and the pair do become a couple circa 1970, though not yet - Grace is too busy hooking up with Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden right now by most accounts. It may not be a coincidence that Grace's first of many duets with Paul comes on this song - Marty has gone missing for this recording session - and their voices already sound great together). The final verse then imagines a better future, when everyone's mind has been opened by drugs and the narrator can 'see the people of the world, who they are and what they could be'. You couldn't write a song like this now of course, not know it's well known how many drug horror stories are waiting for musicians around the corner in the 1970s, but back in the context of 1967 this lovely low-key track fits the album perfectly, caught exactly at the midway point between folk and psychedelia. 'DCBA-25' might not be the best song on the album, but it's the best song you might not know before buying the album and really points towards the future, especially 'Baxters' which is dominated by Kantner's songs and odes to drugs like this one.

'How Do You Feel?' continues the same folky vibe and features blissful three-part Airplane harmonies for pretty much the first time in the Grace Slick era. Grace's second and last use of recorder kicks off a sweet song about falling in love from a distance and walking past a certain place at the same time every day simply to see a beautiful girl. However the twist is the narrator is too shy to actually tell her and so they keep on meeting without knowing it, over and over (believe it or not shyness was 'in' in 1967, with quietness relating to mysteriousness and the 'inner mind' now opened on drugs; sadly forgotten band Kippington Lodge released a gorgeous song the month after 'Pillow' titled 'Shy Boy' which to my ears is one of the two or three greatest pyshcedelic singles not written by the 'big boys' covered elsewhere on this site). Unfortunately, though, the sound of the song is a little too square and a little too Four Freshman for the recording to quite take off. Paul takes the lead again here on this Tom Mastin cover song, suggesting that the group's biggest folkie chose it to cover (Mastin was a well-loved but poor-selling folk writer who also co-wrote 'Bound To Fall', covered by Stephen Stills' Manassas band on their first LP in 1972) and sadly it sounds as 'wrong' as 'The banjo-based 'The Baby Tree' will on Kantner's freak-out classic 'Blows Against The Empire' CD. The song would have fitted in snugly on 'Takes Off', but here it just sounds anachronistic - or at least it does until the surprising a capella ending when Grace and Marty start a lifetime of singing in unison and the whole song sounds gorgeous. Still, though, cover songs in 1967 were a no-no and this song should really have stayed on the cutting room floor.

'Embryonic Journey' is Jorma's big moment and is an acoustic instrumental played by him alone. While this extremely folky song (which sounds to me as if the guitarist started off by trying to re-create Davy Graham's famous 'Anji' before stumbling on a new riff) doesn't really 'fit' this album any more than the last track, it's a welcome opportunity to hear one of the 1960's greatest guitarists at full-stretch without any other distractions. The song was recorded a long time after the other songs on the album (well, by 1967 standards - on November 22nd 1966 when most of the songs had been recorded by November 4th) suggesting that Jorma might have been struggling to come up with 'his' contribution to the album after having such a hand in the making of 'Takes Off' ('In The Morning' was taped the day before and 'Come Back Baby' even after this track). Indeed, he's meant to have been 'persuaded' to record the song by the rest of the band, who'd remembered him playing it years ago (Jorma wrote it in 1962 while in his teens at a 'guitar workshop'). Note the fact that the song's title is about a 'journey' once again - the Airplane were all about 'trips'. Kaukanen later issued an etnire album of 'sessions' for a 1993 re-recording of this song he made with Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten released as 'Embryonic Journey' in 1994; while lovely in parts, it's a shame the 1967-era sessions weren't included too as a 'bonus' for fans. I've noticed that this song has grown in reputation down the years - at the time it was 'overwhelmed' by the noisier, more immediate songs on the album but the 'modern' Jefferson Starship have revived this song (even without Jorma in the band!), several fans seem to mention it and 'Journey' has even turned up on TV and film soundtracks (generally those by 'hipper' directors who know their psychedelia!) A worthy ending for a song (and a guitarist) that always deserved better recognition, although of course those 'hip' directors may have simply mis-dialled their CD players and were actually after...

'White Rabbit', the second of 'Pillow's biggest songs and a Grace Slick tour de force designed to thrill the youngsters and make the grown-ups go running for the hills. Sounding musically like a bullfight, this is lyrically a 'red rag' to a bull: surely everyone knows the score behind this song by now but I'll spell it out anyway: this is a drug song almost screaming out to get banned. However, at the same time, it's also screaming out the hypocrisy if it is banned: the lyrics are lifted from Lewis Carroll's book 'Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, which back then had just celebrated it's 100th birthday (and the superior sequel 'Through The Looking Glass') which not only sound as if they were written on drugs but actually mention them inside the text (the caterpillar really is smoking a hookah - as memorably re-created in the 1950s Walt Disney version when most youngsters wouldn't have known what it was - mushrooms are eaten and perceptions changed and Alice really is encouraged to 'alter' her mindset and her place in the universe thanks to a pill that says 'eat me'). Perhaps the 'biggest' drug-line of the book though and one very much at one with most of the lyrics on 'Pillow' is the one in chapter two where Alice asks 'why does everything seem so different today? and then ponders whether she's changed identities as a way of seeing thw qworld diffe3rently (Paul Kantner, wqho generally wrote about AA Milne as opposed to Lewis Carroll clearly identified with these lyrics given 'DCBA-25'. Incidentally all this love of childhood books suddenly makes the Airplane's psychedelia seem much more in line with the American's cousins across the pond, where childhood is the key theme of many an English psychedelic song from 'Strwaberry Fields' and 'Penny Lane' through Syd Barrett. Grace's point in writing the song was to say 'why are you surprised at our generation's hang-up with drugs when you read stuff like this to us in the nursery every night?' (Grace did indeed have the song read to her in her childhood, as she mentions in her autobiography). Once again, this is a song that started off life in the Great Society and once again the Society's version couldn't be more different: Grace's lyrics are saved for the grand finale of a long rambling instrumental that brings out even more of the song's 'Bolero' feel and builds up slowly note by note Grateful Dead style. The Airplane's re-arrangement is another powerhouse performance, with the three 'boys at the back' excelling: Spencer's military style drumming, Jack's gloomy bass and Jorma's fiery lead are the perfect backing for the song (Marty and Paul probably don't appear). It's Grace Slicks' stunning soaring vocal that you remember most however; seductive, sexy, scary and scintillating it's no wonder so many 'squares' felt 'threatened' by this record. Amazingly it's maybe the third or fourth song she ever sang with the band, taped the same day as 'Plastic Fantastic Lover' and 'Somebody To Love' on November 3rd 1966 (What a productive session that was! As far as I know this is the only time two top ten singles were recorded at the same session!) Building up to a great climax, the song memorably concludes 'feed your head!', a call to arms that the 'grown-ups' missed but was an un-missable invitation to the youth of the day. 'White Rabbit' is so differently structured compared to every other song around (there's no chorus, the title is never mentioned in the lyrics and Grace barely takes a breath or moves off the song's strutting peacock riff throughout the song) that it really shouldn't work at all; however by virtue of a fine band and vocal performance 'White Rabbit' is still a short-cut for summing up an era for many, recycled in everything from 'The Simpsons' to 'The Sopranos' to tell everyone immediately that they are in 1967. A glorious song, quite unlike any other and arguably one that inspired another Lewis Carroll-type psychedelia song 'I Am The Walrus' whatever John Lennon said about how he came to write it.

The album then ends with 'Plastic Fantastic Lover', the first song in five tracks to feature Marty back on lead vocal and a final storming rocker to go out with. Rattled off at speed, this song is a kind of psychedelic Gilbert and Sullivan patter-song, which like many of WS GIlbert's songs is meant to sound rude but is actually something more mundane (a TV, something Gilbert would no doubt had written about had he born a century later). Balin's quick-snapping lyrics are clever, reckoning that the TV is a much more interesting and reliable companion than any girl could be and comparing the two in a series of hilarious lines (wearing 'Chrome-coloured clothes' with a 'rattling cough that never shuts off'). Too late, however, Balin's narrator realises that even this lover is 'unfaithful' by showing him things he doesn't want to see and 'drains' him instead of filling him with awe like she used to (while 24 hour news stations won't become common until the 1980s this is the first time anyone could put on a television and see some graphic account of real horror and suffering on some channel somewhere, a point often missed at the time - except in the Monkees' 'Head' movie - but often used now in retrospect, in films set in the period such as the Beatles-soundtrack filled 'Across The Universe'). A clever, funny little song, sadly 'Plastic Fantastic Lover' suffers from a rather nonchalant band performance (the live versions - such as the one on 'Bless It's Little Pointed Head' in 1969 - easily beat this studio version hands-down) and being placed at the end of the album, where it sounds a little too lightweight. Ultimately, then this song ends up being both 'remote' and out of 'control' although it got a good 'reception' at the time (boom! boom!)

Overall, though, 'Surrealistic Pillow' manages to be not only clever but moving and pioneering too. The Airplane have come on leaps and bounds since making their first LP and that was a pretty strong effort anyway. A combination of stronger songs, Marty's growing confidence, the arrival of Grace and Spencer and some cracking band performances mean that 'Surrealistic Pillow' is heralded by many as the Airplane's masterpiece and one of the greatest of the psychedelic era in albums. While not quite as enamoured with it as other fans are (for me 'Pillow' is a great 'entry' album for casual outsiders to learn what the Airplane are all about before diving through the 'rabbit hole' and discovering the later, even more unique albums) I can see why 'Pillow' has such love and respect both then and now. It's easy on the ear but heavy on the brain (which is a good and under-rated combination to have), with an air of revolution that's exciting rather than off-putting (as it got for many later) and enough links to the 'old' sound of the mid 1960s so that listeners are taken out of their comfort zones but know they'll get back home again safely. This album is a 'trip'. It might not be the biggest trip. It might not be the strangest trip. It might not be the best trip. But for many people at the time - and those now looking to get into psychedelia retrospectively - it makes for a great first trip to a place that's both familiar and unknown, sweet and scary, musical and unique. Overall rating - 8/10

Other Jefferson Airplane reviews from this site you might be interested in reading:


'Takes Off!' (1966)

'Surrealistic Pillow' (1967)

'After Bathing At Baxters' (1967)

'Crown Of Creation' (1968)

'Volunteers' (1969)

'Bark' (1971)

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

‘Sunfighter’ (Kantner/Slick) (1972)

'Long John Silver' (1972)

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

'Dragonfly' (1974)

'Red Octopus' (1975)

'Spitfire' (1976)

‘Earth’ (1978)

'Modern Times' (1981)

'Winds Of Change' (1982)

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

'Nuclear Furniture' (1983)

'Jefferson Airplane' (1989)

Non-Album Songs 1966-1984

The Best Unreleased Recordings 1966-1974

Surviving TV Footage 1966-1989

Tribute Special: Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson
Live/Solo/Compilation/Hot Tuna Albums Part One 1966: 1978

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

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

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