Monday 2 June 2014

Jefferson Airplane "Volunteers" (1969)

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Jefferson Airplane "Volunteers" (1969)

We Can Be Together/Good Shepherd/The Farm/Hey Frederick!//Turn My Life Down/Wooden Ships/Eskimo Blue Day/A Song For All Seasons/Meadowlands/Volunteers

So far Jefferson Airplane have made a virtue out of giving fans what they didn't expect. What fan, who'd followed the band since their folk-rock days, would have guessed the melodic romantic pop of 'Surrealistic Pillow', the sheer out-there silliness of 'After Bathing At Baxters' and finally the philosophical and darker 'Crown Of Creation'? 'Volunteers' is an album that somehow manages to be both more out-there than 'Baxters' and darker than 'Creation' with one token gesture at romantic pop and as such is often heralded by fans as one of the band's greatest achievements: who else still having hits in 1969 was this brave, this shocking and this uncompromising? In a way 'Volunteers' is like a greatest hits album - only this being the Airplane the idea of having 'hits' is still an ugly word - full of all the politics, the wildness, the razzamatazz you'd expect from the Airplane but have till now have only experienced one at a time from the last three albums. Sadly that also means that Jefferson Airplane are standing still for the first time in their career, delivering exactly the kind of warped political production-fest fans were anticipating. Not co-incidentally, it's also the first Airplane album that feels as if it's already admitting to itself that things have gone a bit out of hand.

That said, an album like 'Volunteers' was inevitable, whatever unusual path-flights the Airplane had taken to get to this point in the past. The last half of 1968 into the first half of 1969 was a tremendously turbulent time - arguably the most turbulent 12 month period since rock and roll music became the Western World's art-form of choice sometime in the mid-1950s to the present day. Nixon's election in November 1968 seemed to fly in the face of everything that had changed in America and by association in Europe: instead of a carefree  'yeah yeah yeah' it was a strict 'no no no!', with an escalation of troops in Vietnam that seemed like a provocative slap in the face to the nation's youth who'd spent the best part of their young lives campaigning against it. The fact that, for the first time, a president seemed to be genuinely roused by what the public thought about him and the ways they tried to oppose him rather than rising above it all only added to the onslaught of musicians ready to throw their weight against him. Even bands as formerly politically neutral were recording their most anti-establishment lyrics in these two years (check out Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Titch's 'Mr President' for an example of how even a former teeny-bopper act from Britain thought they had to stand up and say something) - to the Airplane, perhaps the premier political band of their times before CSN had got going and Pink Floyd had started their passion for the subject, speaking out was as natural to them as breathing and making music. The Charles Manson murders also suggested that the war was having to be fought from the inside, by peaceful hippies against warrior ones.   Even so, the sheer passion with which 'Volunteers' runs with its political message flying from the mast (and records sleeve) in glorious technicolour is startling even now with how brazen the Airplane are about slagging off the establishment back at a time when discussing politics in song was still a slightly unusual thing to do.

The fiercest - and best - track on 'Volunteers' is 'We Can Be Together', a song that still has shades of the Airplane's philosophy of love and peace but pulls no punches in saying what the band want and what they're prepared to do to get it. 'We are forces of chaos and anarchy, everything they say we are - we are and we are very proud of ourselves!' If there was a single sentence that was ever going to make the establishment run for the hills away from their rebelling youth it's this one, especially the all-in-it-together rally-cry manner cry in which the band sing it. Some sloganeering songs are just a tad silly (even John Lennon overcooked the lyrics in his very Airplane-like 'Sometime In New York City' album in 1972 which surely must have been inspired by 'Volunteers' in design as much as music) but you absolutely believe the Airplane when they promise to bring death and destruction upon those who deal in bringing death and destruction down on innocent people. The song doesn't even end there, peaking with a triumphant 'up against the wall Motherfuckers!' which - as far as I can make out - is the first time the 'f' word was ever used on a rock and roll record (unrecorded folk songs don't count before you write in - I mean songs released with a vague chance of being bought in a record shop) and yet doesn't seem to have got the band into any more trouble than usual or indeed been noticed (which is odd given the backlash against first John Lennon and then the Grateful Dead for using the 'f' word in short in 1970 and 1971 respectively, for 'Working Class Hero' and 'Wharf Rat'; RCA apparently only relented when one of the band pointed out the word had slipped through on the Cast recording of 'Hair' - which just happened to be out on the label!) Fair enough, the only way the band could get the word through the censors was via RCA Victor's refusal to let the word through onto the lyric sheet (where it was replaced, at the band's insistence, to the far less provocative 'Fred' as nod and a wink to fans about the ridiculousness of it all; the single mix of the song - yep they actually released it as a single! - was remixed slightly to make the word less clear but is still quite obviously there to anyone who wanted to hear it) where it would have gained more notoriety, but even so it seems odd that there wasn't a bigger outcry (especially given that, just three years before, the band had been forced to drop a song from their first album for containing as offensive a word as 'trips'. How times change!) Grace Slick's song 'HJey Frederick' then adds the repeated chorus line 'the human name doesn't mean shit to a tree' - yet another word not common to songs in 1969 although the Airplane weren't quite the first to use it this time -  Like the rest of the album, it seems to have added up to the feeling that the Airplane were always going to push the envelope with something like the 'f' word and if enough people who disagree with it look away they can pretend it never happened. 

As originally intended, the title for 'Volunteers' would have been even closer to the bone: the band wanted to call it 'Volunteers Of Amerika', making it even more direct, only a charitable organisation specialising in housing objected to the name (they couldn't do anything to stop the band making the line the key point of the album's title song and spin-off single though). 'We gotta revolution' the Airplane sing, as if encouraging the youth of the day to rise up en masse was something every band did, before warning them of the dire consequences if nothing was done now ('Our generation got so old!' - back in 1969 pretty much the worst thing imaginable; you half-wonder if there's a missing verse out there somewhere in which Marty Balin warns the listener that one day they'll turn into their parents). Moving on, 'Wooden Ships' - 'borrowed' from CSN for reasons you'll understand in our entry below - even re-enacts the third world war Nixon seems so intent on having and shows it in just the way the President of the United States didn't want anyone to see it: as a war not between right and wrong or the left and right but between the war-like adults and their drafted offspring, who foil the war by daring to smile at one another and  build a whole new world based on peace and equality. People think of 'Wooden Ships' nowadays as some daft hippie parable, but it's actually pretty daring stuff for 1969 with its grim radiation suits and demand for change. In context, however, the single most shocking moment on the entire 'Volunteers' album may well be the one that lasts barely a minute and is rather hidden away a track before the end: 'Meadowlands', a song better known in its mother Russian tongue as 'Polyushko Pole'. The only time most Western ears would have heard it would have been during scary propaganda newsreels about how 'the red menace must be fought' - the idea that it would appear on a rock album in America at the height of the Cold War was unthinkable (it would be like a Russian band releasing their versions of 'My Country 'Tis If Thee' or 'God Save The Queen'). Admittedly its not the best version of 'Meadowlands' you'll ever heard and the apparent intended plan of making the song sound as if it was 'leaking' from a radio doesn't quite take off, but nevertheless that doesn't take away from the sheer audacity of having it on the album, even if no one really seemed to notice it at the time.

Interestingly, the biggest offence the album caused at the time seems to have been through the album's front cover, which was actually shot two years earlier as part of the Airplane's suitably subversive promo video for their song about a runaway called 'Martha' and features the band in all sorts of disguises. What really got the public so annoyed, though, was the placement of the American flag behind the band and the 'mock' salute Paul Kantner is giving it, while wearing a lampshade on his head! Had the elder generation calmed down long enough to look at the brilliant faux newspaper included with the album they'd have been even more upset. A quote from Jerry Garcia tells Nixon to 'take a long hard look at his selves', a dig at Nixon's capacity for being two-faced. Another 'article' proudly puts a mock Airplane 'pot-bust' scandal in full view of the nation, as if to demonstrate that the bands of today are through with making drug-use a 'scandal' that sinks careers. Capitalism and industry is 'celebrated' in a photo caption of some proud looking workers: 'Everything we do either makes noise or stinks'. One part of newsprint - the official mouthpiece of the Government back in the pre-Watergate days - is printed with the band's lunch unceremoniously placed on top, as if it doesn't have any importance anymore (Jelly and Peanut Butter Sandwiches - yum!) The biggest shock, though, comes on the 'voxpop' section asking the band to talk about their 'favourite stripe on the flag'. The Airplane's responses are typically dry and daring: Grace's reply 'point that thing somewhere else' would have made a great subtitle for the album! The scatterbrained elongated form of this album's packaging is arguably the Airplane's best use of the space of an album sleeve and the band did more with the 'genre' than perhaps any other band (starting with their glorious band doodle on 'Baxters' to the thick lyric-booklet-with-poems-and-drawings released as part of 'Blows Against The Empire').

Less headline-making but nevertheless pioneering for its day is the theme of ecology on this album, a theme that will go on to dominate the work of quite a few of the Airplane members in their later careers but appearing here surprisingly early, before ecology was much of a concern in the public eye. 'Good Shepherd' imagines a pastoral world with mankind a flock of sheep, once again back where they should be before the demands of the industrial revolution got in the way. 'The Farm' is one of Paul's silliest songs, impatiently tripping over itself as it runs towards the countryside and escape from city life (although quite what animals Paul is breeding there judging by the fad-out is anyone's guess). 'Hey Frederick' is Grace's message song that mankind ought to care about nature because nature doesn't care about mankind (it was here first!) 'Wooden Ships' imagines mankind starting again from scratch, away from the radiation-filled cities and supermarket chains with a life spent eating berries and getting back to what real life has always been about, whatever that might be. The theme might take second place compared to the one of politics and war but it gives 'Volunteers' a more rounded feel than it would have if it was just a collection of political slogans: unusually the Airplane provide half an answer as to what to put in place as well as asking the question of the motives of politicians and business owners. 

Actually 'Volunteers' is a lot more fun to read than it is to listen to. The band are all smiles about this album now that things between the band members have calmed down a bit, but at the time 'Volunteers' seemed like an unhappy experience for one and all. Both lead singer Marty Balin (who for a third album in a row gets precious little to do) and the band's longest serving drummer Spencer Dryden jump ship after this album and much as the latter has talked about his last song for the band 'A Song For All Seasons' as being about a frictional band breaking up it sounds woefully heartfelt to me. Has there ever been a more pertinent farewell than the line 'While your records line the shelves you're fighting amongst yourselves' and 'While you're climbing up the chart your band just fell apart'? (Well, yes actually - Jorma's song 'Third Week In The Chelsea' from the band's next LP 'Bark', which rather outlines what an unhappy state the Airplane were in during this period). The loss of Marty (to return again, thankfully, as part of Jefferson Starship in a cameo in 1974 and full-time in 1975) is especially sad given that the Airplane were a band made in his image, back when Paul was his shy bespectacled occasional co-writer and Grace hadn't yet joined the band. Legend has long had it that the rest of the band were rather dismissive of Balin's love songs and slow ballads and wanted to move in a more 'political' direction, even though Marty's were both the best-selling and often best-received songs on earlier albums. The Airplane needed a bit of love and peace to go alongside musically preparing for all-out war and without him the last two Airplane albums are often heavy-going. 

Uniquely, however, Marty's one solitary song on the album (co-written with Paul at that) is his one political statement of the decade, the angry title track which spits with more venom than any of Kantner's wordier epics. Balin clearly had a knack at distilling the essence of the Airplane into shorter, compact pop songs and it's nothing short of a tragedy that he isn't along for more of the ride. Dryden, too, is a loss: I rate replacements Joey Covington and Johnny Barbata very highly indeed but neither quite has the flair or the shambolic professionalism of Dryden, whose ragged enough to sound at one with the rest of the group but professional enough to tie them all together. What a shame that, just at the point when the Airplane were fighting their biggest battle on the world stage, they ended up fighting against themselves instead - even if the split seems like one of the friendlier, more supportive ones out of the AAA bands. 

Brave stuff then, but a good political album has to work harder than mere ordinary albums - it has to be strong musically as well as thematically, able to be hummed knowingly between two like minded souls down the street as well as blasted from the rooftops during sit-ins. 'Volunteers' has moments of greatness - 'We Can Be Together and 'Volunteers', which are very nearly the same song anyway and Grace's two epics, which are very Airplane in the way they go from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again in the space of a few minute's jamming. Best of all, though, might be Jorma's unexpectedly pleasing adaptation of the bible reading 'John: Verse 10', as first adapted into a hymn by Methodist Reverend John Adam Granade sometime in the early 1800s. Given the Airplane's dismissal of Christianity elsewhere on their records (especially Grace: see 'Easter' from 'Long John Silver' - 'All I did was paint some eggs' and 'The Ballad Of The Chrome Nun' from 'Baron Von Tollbooth': 'Nobody needs to baptise me, every time I laugh I got religion') I was expecting a really sarcastic version of the song but instead Jorma's version is polite and sweet, offering the 'humanity' Marty used to bring to the band and allowing a fleeting vision of Jesus as the world's first hippie, trying to call his lambs together in the name of peace. Amazingly the wikipedia page for the traditional songs adds that the piece is most famous now for being 'adapted by the Jefferson Airplane', which goes to show just how much influence the 'Volunteers' album had at the time. In fact Jorma is having a good album all round, turning in some of his best songs, some typically brilliant guitar work (the moment when he starts duelling with himself on 'Eskimo Blue Day', the needle suddenly lurching into the red of distortion out of nowhere is simply fabulous) and easily his best vocals for the band, taking over the inspired 'lead' of the leaderless band from Marty on album one, Grace on album two and three and Paul on three and four. The good news is he'll keep up this good run of form on the band's final two studio LPs - the bad news is everyone else drops a further level, distracted by solo LPs and Airplane offshoots. 

For all it's good points and reputation, however, 'Volunteers' seems too heavy-going to be the classic album so many claim it to be (#370 on the Rolling Stone 'greatest albums of all time' for instance, second in the Airplane canon only to the all-conquering 'Surrealistic Pillow' at #146), famous only because it tries so hard to shock. The album begins and ends superbly, but becomes far too self-indulgent in the middle. Grace's two jam-heavy songs rather dominate and lopsides the album at eight minutes and six minutes, which wouldn't be so bad if they weren't a) so similar to each other and b) were surrounded by better compact material. The fact that the whole album can be divided into four songs that are arguably too long ('Grace's pair, 'We Can Be Together' and 'Wooden Ships', which adds almost a minute on top of the already pushing-it five minute CSN original) and six songs that are far too short (everything else) is not a good sign. While the production of this album is spectacularly clear and a huge advance on the last four albums (sidenote: as this is the only Airplane - or Starship album for that matter - I got to know on CD first rather than vinyl that fact might have confused my ears slightly) the playing is often ramshackle even for the Airplane, the band hitting their magic sweet spot less often than they do on 'Crown Of Creation' and 'Baxters', even if it's still every bit as wonderful when they do finally hit gold all at the same time (as beat heard some three minutes into 'Eskimo Blue Day'). While I could easily listen to Jorma on top form all day, there are notably far more guitar solos interrupting the lyrics than normal, making for an Airplane album that's actually shorter than the folk-rock debut LP if you go by just lyrics alone. 'Volunteers' undoubtedly packs a punch and has been rightly applauded for that - but the times when the album isn't punching he seems to be wondering around the ring singing to himself instead of fully engaging with the 'grand statement' he wants to be making. There are far worse albums around than 'Volunteers' and had this record been an unloved, unfairly neglected minor gem like, say, follow-up 'Bark' then I might have made more of a case for it. But 'Volunteers' isn't a classic Airplane LP despite containing many classic Airplane moments: it isn't as full of good songs as 'Surrealistic Pillow', isn't as adventurous as the sublime 'After Bathing At Baxters' and while it approaches 'Crown Of Creation' in terms of dark and moving lyrical content there simply isn't enough of it here to compete with so many instrumental passages. We gotta revolution all right - but a more groundbreaking revolution might have been to have made quite a different record instead of the one the whole world was expecting the Airplane to make. 


'We Can Be Together' is a driving Paul Kantner song that combines the riff from 'Volunteers' (apparently 'borrowed' from a bluegrass lick Paul learnt from David Crosby) with the text of a political rally. Basically a speech for hippies to tell the elder generation to get out of the way, it's at one with several other Kantner songs to come: ('Mau Mau Amerikon' 'and 'Stairway To Cleveland' to name but two)  but goes even further - in fact further than anyone could have imagined in 1969. In addition to the lyrics we've already outlined above, just listen to this: 'We are forces of chaos and anarchy...' 'We are obscene hideous dangerous dirty violent - and young...' In short, the worst nightmares of the parental generation have turned true - this is a rallying cry to a nation to rise up, alongside that period's 'other' big rallying songs The Beatles' 'Revolution' and The Rolling Stones' 'Street Fighting Man' although its far more straightforward and less coy than either (Jagger sings about London being too 'sleepy a town' to revolt, while Lennon can't make up his mind whether its a good thing or not: 'Count me!') What parents probably missed thanks to the music, the 'f' word and most of the lyrics, though, is that at it's heart this rallying song is also a plea not to do anything foolish - not to fight fire with fire, as it were, and 'become' like the enemy: this isn't some hot-headed rant but a plea for togetherness and brotherhood, admittedly threatening 'up against the wall motherfucker!' as it's most memorable line but also promising to 'tear down the wall' as soon as the tyrants have been overthrown ('Volunteers' is another album Roger Waters must have had in his collection judging from the 'wall' imagery in this song!) As political as the always political Airplane ever got, even the music on this song is everything the elders of the 1960s would have fired: Jorma's guitar part doesn't fill in some pretty notes like guitarists used to in the good old days, he slices through the track like a knife. Even Nicky Hopkins, guest painist on so many wonderful AAA albums, forgoes his usual melodic frills for some heavy piano pounding that adds to the mood of menace and insecurity. Jack's bass playing is fat and loud, nailing each note to the floor and emphasising each angry outburst. Meanwhile the three-voices of Paul, Marty and Grace are featured all together for pretty much the last time in a show of unity ('Volunteers' itself being the exception) and never have they sounded bigger - or scarier. Listening to this recording, even without the words, it's clear that a battle is being fought, even if it is in the name of peace. (For pretty much the last time the Airplane sound like a band, all doing what they do best and it sounds fantastic. Even with the swearing diluted on the lyric sheet, this is still one of the bravest and most radical tracks of the 1960s. 'Volunteers' is off to a fiery start and may well be the peak of the sheer strength of the band in its glory days - but sadly it's also about as far in this direction as the Airplane could have gone: everything after this is going to be a come-down of one sort or another...

'Good Shepherd' emphasises the 'brotherhood' of the last song, with Jorma's adaptation of a 19th century hymn actually not all that far removed from the sentiments of the last track. Another album highlight, 'Shepherd' succeeds over most hymn adaptations by making the piece sound totally contemporary, swathing it in glorious swathes of feedback-drenched guitar and adding a neat 'Beatles' beat to it. Rather than simply taking the hymn en masse, Jorma picks and chooses his favourite parts from the original c.1806 original and an 1833 adaptation named 'Let Thy Kingdom Come' (the 'One for Paul, one for Silas' bit, which when the Starship revived it in concert in the 1990s somehow mutated into 'One for Paul, One for Marty!...') Legend has it Kaukanen first knew this song as a folk song rather than a hymn anyway, titled 'Blood Stained Banders' after one of its lyrics and included on the Folksmiths album 'We've Got Some Singing To Do' in 1958 (Jorma has also mentioned versions by Roger Perkins and Tom Hobson as influences) and that it was a regular in his solo setlists long before he met the rest of the Airplane in 1965. Interestingly, when the song was first revived by the Airplane earlier in 1969 it was Grace, not Jorma, who took the lead vocal - thankfully Kaukanen sensibly sings it for the LP, his 'bluesy professorial' voice being a good fit for the material (although Paul and Grace provide some of their best backing vocals too - like many a 'Volunteers' recording Marty doesn't appear to be here). Spiritual and uplifting without going into the specifics of the bible so beloved of other 19th century hymns, 'Good Shepherd' is a good fit for the band all round, warning against 'blood stained bandits' long tongued liars' and 'gun shot devils', like all the best blues-based songs did anyway. Another of the album's best performances make 'Shepherd' a true 'Volunteers' highlight. 

'The Farm' isn't quite as inspired. A silly comedy song by Paul about wanting to escape the problems of the city and escape to the country, it's a theme that will be developed better by many writers in the early 1970s (including Paul and Grace on 'Sunfighter' in a few year's time) but for the moment is clearly meant to be the 'novelty' song on the record. As a result it sounds closer to Dryden's work than Kantner's usual political chest-beating and isn't so much funny as odd ('Took to growin' lettuce, milking cows and honey' - how many farms do you know with beehives?!) and a neighbour who rides a not horse, but a 'toad named lightning'. My guess is that he'd been smoking something potent when he came up with this song, although to be fair topsy-turvyness and inverting the world on its head is a Kantner trait (in many ways this song is a sequel to 'The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil', where the sky looks 'green today'). It's nice to hear Paul sound so joyous for once and even if you didn't know that Paul and Grace were an item at the item it's easy to guess from their joint lead vocals, which are the musical equivalent of a kiss (for a singer with such a strong voice in her own right, Grace is unusual in also having the skill to adapt her voice to other people's and make them sound good too). Something about this song doesn't quite work though: it's too slight by Airplane standards - especially this album - and the performance is terribly slapdash (poor Nicky Hopkins sound like he hasn't got a clue what's going on, but manages to trill away for a few minutes and get away with it anyway). The best part of the song comes right at the end when, in keeping with the surreal feel of the lyrics, farmer Paul goes to feed his animals and is greeted by what sounds like a cross between a hippopotamus, a rhinocerous and a lion. What kind of a farm is this?!...

'Hey Frederick' is Grace's first song on the album, a turbulent heavy going stop-start sort of a song that's turned into an epic thanks to some brilliant extended jamming in the second half and some more fantastic sound effects (never has a tree been felled more...musically than here). One of many acerbic Slick songs that turns on some un-named individual (see 'Two Heads' 'Silver Spoon' 'Across The Board' et al), its either inspired by something real or Grace is one of the best vocal actresses of the 1960s. At first 'Frederick' sounds like a diatribe against men and their 'playing around' with her ('Either go away or go all the way...', this album's obligatory sex reference) but somewhere transmutes into a sci-fi epic full of 'machine men' and 'wire wheels' that suggest that this song is more about the nature v city debate that features on the rest of the album (or, perhaps, the idea that industry is a masculine pursuit -or have I read too much into that line?...) Reading between the lines Grace sounds unhappy about her love life here too, her switching between partners in the years up to 1969 that saw her bemoaning 'one more pair of loving eyes looking down on you'. Such a reading would then make the next lines highly self-critical about her many flings ('How old do you have to be to stop your believing that those same eyes will look at you forever?') - making this the first 'real' self-analytical Grace Slick song (there'll be plenty more of them later - on her superlative solo album 'Dreams' for instance). Finally, there's a curious reference to 'speed' at the end ('How many machine men will you see before you stop believing that speed will slide down on you, like brakes in bad weather') which may be another reference to mankind's love of industry and technology and the fact that one day it will bite him - or might be a reference to the sheer amount of drug-taking in the band, a theme that Dryden will also pick up on in his album's song. Either way 'Hey Frederick' is a curious, multi-layered song most unlike any of Grace's other material, written out more like an essay than a song lyric and one that Grace has never spoken about at all (we don't even know who 'Frederick' is, which might well be the key to understanding the song). Had it been delivered to a lesser band than the Airplane they surely would have struggled (By Slick's standards there isn't much of a tune to run with here) but luckily the Airplane were on storming form the day they taped this. Grace's lovely rolling piano chords have always been a good foil for Jorma's spiky guitar and the two enter into a blistering conversation here, in fact a three-way one given that Jorma is double-tracked for much of the song. For my money Jorma has never sounded better, his playing more fluid or his guitar this fat and heavy - and to do all that while second-guessing what your other self will overdub later isn't just clever, its borderline magic. The moment from 7:00 in might well be the most intense and moving moment of Airplane jamming in their canon, nip-and-tuck with 'Won't You Try?/Saturday Afternoon' at capturing what the band could offer the world at their best that no other band could grasp (yes the Grateful Dead have the same telepathy but they never played this intensely or fiercely). Admittedly, extending a song with just two verses (and no choruses, note, so there's no 'hook' for the listener to grab onto) for a full eight minutes is a challenge for some listeners to sit through - but if you can 'crack' how you're meant to let this song wash over you and build instead of imbed itself into your memory like most songs then there's an awful lot to enjoy. A triumph for Grace, a triumph for the band - but most especially a triumph for Jorma. 

Talking of which 'Turn My Life Down' is Jorma's first composition on the album, although most fans who never got round to reading the small-print naturally assumed this song was one of Marty's, so close is it to his usual style. The only song Jorma gave away to another vocalist doesn't even feature his vocal anywhere (that's Paul singing the leaden contrast to Marty's soaring lead). Jorma has said that he originally planned the song to come out with a 'Smoky Robinson and the Miracles' kind of a way but, realising he didn't have the right kind of voice, gave it to Marty to sing, thankfully giving him more to do on his last album with the group. As it happens, 'Down' turned out more like the sound of the band's first two albums rather than Motown, but Marty still does a good job with the song, a romantic ballad about time stopping still thanks to love. Jorma's most poetic set of lyrics are unusual for him, shorn of the realistic imagery he made his own on later songs, with lines like 'My yesterdays have melted with my tomorrow, the present leaves me with no point of view... [and in the future] I see shadows softly coming'. An unusual line-up of the band sees no drums, no Grace expect via overdubbed backing vocals mixed way in the distance and Stephen Stills making a surprise guest appearance on Hammond organ alongside the two guitars and bass. In truth the Airplane don't sound all that comfortable on a song that sounds like a huge anachronism here, a folk-rock sound that had been drowned out by politics and guitar-led epics, but at least it makes for a fine near-goodbye for Marty by nodding once more to the Airplane sound when they were still very much 'his' band. As a song, though, it isn't anywhere close to Marty's level and it's a shame that one of his own songs couldn't be added ('Things Are Better In The East', for instance, recorded in demo form and added to the 'Baxters' CD as a bonus track). 

'Wooden Ships' sail into view next. The uninitiated may be thinking it's a huge co-incidence that the Airplane recorded a song with the same name as a CSN classic - actually it isn't. 'Wooden Ships' is the same song. The slightly more initiated might be feeling smug right now and thinking that this is a rare example of an Airplane song - but you're wrong too. Paul wrote the song with David Crosby during a sailing holiday in 1968 (when Crosby had been kicked out the Byrds) and wrote it to a tune and opening line Crosby had had for years but never been able to finish. Stills then added the final, more graphic last verse ('Horror as we watch you die...') and the song duly appeared on 'Crosby, Stills and Nash' some five months before this album's release credited to just Crosby and Stills. Alas Kantner couldn't be credited on the song (not till the CD age anyway), even on his own album, because of copyright issues (their respective publishers refused to share the royalties)> Kantner gave up his rights in the name of peace and love, which is a shame because it's arguably more Kantner's song than the other two (in many ways it's a prequel to his own wonderful 'Blows Against The Empire' project). The Airplane's version is surprisingly slower, dreamier and less intense than the CSN version and lacks the original's shadows and scares (there's none of the persistent 'morse code' lick from the organ to add urgency, for instance, there's less dynamic difference between 'loud' and 'soft' versions and the criss-crossing vocals between Marty Paul and Grace make it sounds like a pleasant boat ride rather than a matter of life and death). Paul also adds a handful of lyrics not present on CSN's version that add ever more detail to this tale of a radioactive Third World War: 'Black sails knifing through the pitch-blade night, away from the radioactive landmass madness, from the silver-suited people searching out uncontaminated food and shelter on the shores, no glowing metal on our ship of wood, only free happy crazy people naked in the universe...We speak Earth talk! Go ride the music!' If CSN's version is more about the war and escape, then the Airplane version is more about the peace that follows, with only Jorma's typically aggressive guitar adding to the feeling that a war has ever taken place. 'Wooden Ships' is, of course, a stunning song in either version - no other song in 1969 was quite this graphic when it came to what the Cold War might cost mankind and few were as prepared to go against the general tone of the day that 'red communists' were the enemy: the moment when the two protagonists from different sides and unable to communicate start smiling at each other is a glorious one(even if the line was nicked by Crosby from a church sign!) The Airplane version, though, is trying far too hard to go in as opposite a direction to CSN as possible and by doing so lose the urgency and tension that makes this song the special little drama what it is (personally I'd have gone all the way and made this song slight and acoustic before exploding into full colour a tad later than the CSN version). Still, you'd have to be pretty poor to record a bad version of such a fabulous song (ie a member of the Spice Girls or some equally talentless band) and the Airplane still come up with a respectable version of a great song.

'Eskimo Blue Day' is Grace's shorter of her two 'epics' of the album, clocking in at a mere (!) 6:31. Fed up of mankind's arrogance and poisoning of their own home, Grace turns on her race and demands just what they're doing pulling up trees that have lived for centuries for small-term industrial profit for a small collection of humans who are so insignificant in so many ways (with the memorable chorus line 'the human name/crowd/race doesn't mean shit to a tree!') Given how early we are in the stages of ecology in popular culture, much of this song's stark yet poetic imagery is impressive - 'snow called water going violent, damn the end of the stream'. Somewhere around the middle, though, the song takes a different tack and over-reaches itself, adding an unnecessary second verse comparing mankind's desecration of the land to a musician who can barely play, a metaphor that doesn't quite come off ('Shift the note and bridge, sings!') Grace is usually at her best on these menacing songs that slowly build, but the Airplane are having a rockier time than usual mastering such an angular, complex song and don't give her quite the backing track she deserves. Like much of the Airplane's on-stage jamming during 1969, a lot of this song turns into thrashing away to fill in time rather than a band that really sound like they know where they're going. That said, the opening strummed atonal guitar work (from Kantner) is definitely ear-catching and while far from Grace's most inspired set of words many of the lines do have a real impact (Compared to your scream the human dream doesn't mean shit to a tree!') Not for the first or last time the Airplane have bitten off rather more than they can chew and even the end jamming - usually the thing they can handle more impressively than any other group - falls a bit flat compared to 'Hey Frederick', simply running out of steam and flailing about rather than the sound of an ancient Mother Earth screaming (even yet another tree being felled at the very end isn't quite as impressive somehow). 

'A Song For All Seasons' reads like a very clever song indeed. A self-referential but genuinely funny attack on the disintegration of the Airplane by drummer Spencer Dryden, it's as witty a goodbye song as you could think of. Yes, Dryden has always denied it was about the band per se - and the Airplane may indeed be only one of many lurking in the lyrics - but with references to the 'acid test' (relevant to only a handful of bands in 1969) and the self-portrait of a mad drummer 'howling at the moon' (compare with Grace's song 'Lather' for some more imagery of what Dryden was like at his most uninhibited!) who else could it be? (Well, yes, I doubt Marty had an exaggerated bulge in his trousers that would 'turn the censors grey' somehow - that's not his style - but the general gist of the song is surely about the band. Unfortunately you can't judge a song by lyrics alone: whoever took the decision to turn this clever song into a dreary country-rock pastiche (of which there are already countless dozens more from the period around, none of them listenable in any way) should be forced to fill in the impossible crossword printed on the back of the 'Volunteers' sleeve for all eternity! Paul and Grace (again there's no Marty) aren't cut out for this sort of thing on the vocals and sound drunk, Jack's bass tries to pretend it's not happening and play as loudly as he's always played and Nicky Hopkins gets to roll out his favourite 'barrelhouse' piano lick. Only Spencer sounds at home here, on a song pretty much guaranteed never to be heard on 'top 40 radio'.  The Who try a similar trick with their own scathing 'Success Story' in 1975 and even Jorma will have a go with his superior 'Third Week In The Chelsea' on Next album 'Bark' ('All my friends keep telling me what a shame it would be, to break up such a grand success and tear apart a name'). 

'Meadowlands' is, as we've suggested above, a clever idea that doesn't quite come off. Near-enough the Russian anthem, which even today can't be heard in the Western world, without images of comedy Ruskies and American heroes fighting, the very act of defiance in having this song placed on a mainstream album is enough: who actually needs to listen to it when similar-thinking record buyers can simply point to its name on the back cover (credited to 'traditional') and laugh. Unfortunately, we also have to listen to it - and even at only a minute long this poorly-recorded horror-film organ rendition with some chump proclaiming in the background (Spencer again?) drags on far too long. A neat show of solidarity with the Eastern cause, true, and very fitting for an Airplane album - but couldn't they have recorded it properly? or sung the words to the hymn in exaggerated American accents or something? As a result, far from being the most groundbreaking thing on 'Volunteers' - as the song rightly should in the context of 1969 - it seems more like brainless filler to eke the album out. 

The album then rounds off with a final stab in the heart of everyone who thought that nice Mr Nixon was only doing his job. 'Volunteers' is the sound of a band trying to give a 'voice' to a youth movement who don't yet have one and if anything has become even more popular in the years since its release, as it so successfully reflects both the dark, brittle edge of fear and the joyous energy that one day all of this will be over (sadly we're still waiting, but there's no doubting that politicians aren't quite as trusted word for word as they used to be back in 1969). Marty wrote the lyrics after being woken up by a noisy truck one day and looking out the window noticed a slogan on the truck proclaiming 'Volunteers Of America' (actually the name of a charity specialising in accommodation for the homeless). Marty's inspired, compact lyric suggests he saw quite a different view when he opened his window that day: an America tired of fighting and ready for a peaceful revolution to sweep in and take all the 'old' values of war, hatred and jealousy away. By twisting the wording around to make the youth of the day sound like the 'real' beating heart of America, 'volunteering to pitch in with the Airplane and their ilk and make the country - and the world - a better place, Marty cleverly does the usual Airplane thing by turning things on their head, sending an army marching not into war but into peace and making an institution out of a group of outside rebels. Paul's music makes this new spirit sound like the most intoxicating, exciting thing to get involved with (it was written before 'We Can Be Together', which is basically a slightly slower, less aggressive version of the same tune), the last great collaboration between the Airplane's two founding members and early leading lights. At barely two minutes, 'Volunteers' might not seem like the most substantial of songs, but it gets by on sheer verve, energy and another great Airplane performance, Marty at his best as he cajoles, pleads and begs for change to come. If the elder generation weren't afraid then they should have been - only a band implosion and some trite speeches from Nixon saved him from certain doom right then and there; sadly the Airplane won't be around to rub their hands with glee in 1972 when Watergate finally exposed Nixon as the cowardly liar he was.

Overall, then, 'Volunteers' is a bit of a rollercoaster ride. One minute the band are playing their hearts out, nailing bare and pioneering songs about change and heading off on extended jams that are what music was invented for. On the other, there are cheap and shabby half-hearted songs performed badly and as effortlessly as possible, with 'A Song For All Seasons' and 'Meadowlands' easily two of the worst tracks ever to grace an Airplane record, however good the intentions of both songs might have been. A little more Marty and a little more Grace and 'Volunteers' might have been an album that genuinely ranks with their very best - as it is I'd personally put 'Volunteers' down a notch or two from its current position as the great Airplane album (give or take 'Surrealistic Pillow', whose horizons are much lower but actually shows a great deal more talent). I'm surprised in fact that 'Volunteers' is as revered probably more now than it was then: it's sloganeering and reliance on jamming sessions has dated this album in a way that the sweet 'Pillow' and gonzo 'Baxters' never will, while like many a political album much of this album's reason for being was removed once the Cold War was over and Nixon and those who thought like him 'lost' in one fell swoop. Easily the heaviest-going Airplane album for the uninitiated, I recommend getting to grips with the other records first before tackling this one. All that said, though, in the context of 1969 when political records like this one just didn't exist you simply have to applaud the sheer audacity of a record like 'Volunteers' which took a provocative cover sleeve, a bunch of swear words, a whole host of political rallying and a series of songs that all defy the usual verse-chorus-radio hit structure in their own different ways and turned them into a war cry like no other. Just as well it was a cry for peace or there's no telling how much damage and destruction this album might have caused....Overall rating 6/10

Other Jefferson Airplane reviews 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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