Monday, 7 March 2016
"Jefferson Airplane" (1989)
"Jefferson Airplane" (1989)
Planes/Freedom/Solidarity/Madeleine Street/Ice Age/Summer Of Love/The Wheel/Common Market Madrigal/True Love/Upperfront Blues/Now Is The Time/Too Many Years/Panda
"We used to say 'don't trust anyone over 30' but obviously we know that's not true anymore at our age...it should be 'don't trust anyone over twelve!" (Grace Slick at reunion show 1989)
Maybe it's the thought of having just lost founding member Paul Kantner and knowing that in the end this really was the last Jefferson Airplane album with all the key players involved that makes it seem different somehow. Maybe it's being starved with Jefferson product after a 1980s that was actually pretty full of Airplanning and Star 'shipping'. Maybe it's the fact that the cold war - which was close to blowing itself out by the time this album came out but actually hadn't quite yet - is a distant memory, with the unpredictability of terrorists and sects making the idea of two world-powers fighting some distant battle seem quaint. Maybe it's a spin of the Earth on its axis to the point where hippie values suddenly seem like sense we all should follow rather than hopelessly naive and outdated. Maybe it's having sat through so many AAA albums full of outdated 1980s synthesisers recently that I've simply become immune. But for the first time probably ever, the only result of what was once voted 'the most unnecessary reunion of the year' for 1989 doesn't seem as bad as I remember it. And I do remember it being pretty bad.
Or to be more specific, for not sounding much like 'Jefferson Airplane'. If ever a band existed to overcome barriers, discover something new that no one else had even considered could fit on the map before or be caught 'doing things that haven't got a name yet' then the Airplane were the band. Times had changed of course while the band had been off doing other things; bank balances had grown while the stakes for what their music could do had shrunk, but still their core fan-base hoped that the sheer alchemy that had made them one of the most exciting bands on the planet circa 1969 would return when all five finally got together twenty years later. The fact that it didn't and that the band ended up with an album that nobody (fan or casual music buying foe alike) wanted or liked effectively killed the band off for good after a quarter century as one of rock's greatest evolvers and survivors. The album's biggest obstacle is, surprisingly enough, what made them so great and unique in the first place - that unique mix of music and characters. In the Airplane everyone seemed to take it in turn to be the 'leader', uncaring who led from the front as long as the music was there and did the talking, while the music evolved naturally wherever the music needed to go. In 1989 the synth is king and every musician no matter how great good or ghastly sounds like they're wearing the same dress - something big and heavy and unflattering. Worse, every band member is being overly polite to each other, worried about taking centre-stage after so long away, so that everyone thinks delivering the album's big ideas and the band's raison d'aitre, is someone else's job. It's a typical Jeffersonian irony: one of the bands who did so much for a democratic, equal society where everyone gets treated kindly gets killed out of politeness.
Or at least that's what I used to think. Hearing this album again for the first time in a while (why listen to this album for fun when you can be listening to, say, 'After Bathing At Baxters' or 'Blows Against The Empire'?) I start hearing an album that works as a kind of parallel to the debut, 'Jefferson Airplane Takes Off!' (making this album, inevitably, 'Jefferson Airplane Come Into Land!') Back in 1965 the band were struggling with how to get so many different styles to gel together and cared just that tiny bit too much about what everyone else in the pop and rock world was doing; 'Jefferson Airplane' has the same problem - the band's only other LP to name themselves as part of the official title, it finds the band struggling with their own identity and caring too hard about keeping up with the 80s pop scene. Like 'Takes Off' you can tell that the band are a couple of tours away from truly flying in formation in that unique Jefferson style and yet the strong ideas are beginning to form. 'Planes' 'Summer Of Love' 'Common Market Madrigal' and 'Too Many Years' all sound like the sort of things the band should be trying and which we should have applauded more. Following the same logic the next album could have been the reunion era's 'Surrealistic Pillow', albeit as much as any record can sound similarly timeless when released with a 1980s/1990s production sell-by-date attached to it. Still, there is promise within this album about what might have been had the band played more gigs, written more songs and spent more time getting to know each other all over again before pressing 'record' (as a sign of how rushed this album is, note that the running order changes slightly from CD booklet to box).
It would surely have surprised many fans in the early 70s that the band would ever need to spend any time getting to know each other again, given how telepathically close they had once been. Most fans would have re-acted with denial if you'd told them the first time round that the full Airplane with the classic Grace Slick-Spencer Dryden-Marty Balin line-up would never again play together past 1970 and that the closest we would ever get would be this Dryden-less synth-drum filled version released a full sixteen years after the band's final concert. The Airplane, after all, were always several groups in one and who loved breaking the ideas of what constituted being in a 'band' anyway, with various band members creating breakaway groups and releasing solo albums during the course of their time in the band. Most fans would probably have predicted a series of coming togethers and partings down the years, Crosby Stills Nash and Young style, but in the end this is the only reunion that ever featured more than three members of the sextet together. The way the band got back together again at all after so long away is similarly convoluted and unlikely as to the way they formed the first time. Paul, after all, had walked away from Jefferson Starship in 1984, taking the first half of the name with him and suing the remaining members when they tried to use it. Grace, by now his ex-partner, was one of those members who'd only quit the pop-making covers band Starship as recently as 1987. She'd also announced her retirement as her fiftieth birthday in 1989 got nearer and nearer. Jorma and Jack had made their feelings about the end days of the Airplane quite clear and had their own careers - sometimes together as 'Hot Tuna', sometimes apart. Marty Balin, meanwhile, had quit the Jefferson bands not once but twice - the Airplane in 1970 and the Starship in 1978. Throughout the album's recording sessions Grace was still officially suing Paul in court over breach of copyright for using the Jefferson Starship name without her say-so. Spencer, the drummer who hadn't performed on stage or on record since his stint as a New Rider Of The Purple Sage came to an end in 1975, was the only member you'd have thought needed the money or exposure - and he ended up being the one who passed. All things considered, the Airplane reunion seemed incredibly unlikely even as recently as 1985.
However there was one largely forgotten and overlooked reunion between three of the Airplane members (Kantner, Balin and Casady) in the CSN-referencing KBC Band in 1986 (see if you can guess which is which!) who released one poor-selling record and had a couple of tours. When the band came to a halt, Casady decided to revive the Hot Tuna band with Kaukanen, with Kantner and Slick popular guests at many of their shows, though never at the same time. Paul and Grace finally got together again when she guested, unannounced, at one of his 'Jefferson Starship' shows - the sort of shows Grace was currently suing him over for mis-appropriation of the band name. Grace was, in fact, so unannounced that even Paul didn't know she was turning up - she just started singing the opening bars to 'White Rabbit' in the wings and the new line up of Starship, already used to playing the song, followed suit. Paul could have had his ex thrown off the stage; instead in true Jefferson fashion he gave her a hug. The natural parting of the ways in the early 1970s, with each band member off doing their own thing in ones, twos or threes, seemed to have naturally come to an end nearly twenty years on and after so many half-reunions here and there it was only a matter of time before somebody thought to make the call to re-group the 'explorer' ships back to the mother-ship for an MOT and service.
It speaks volumes that the sessions were probably the easiest-going of any Jefferson album since 'Crown Of Creation' way back in 1968 and the most democratic in terms of dividing the songs (with three for Paul, three for Marty, three for Jorma and four for Grace, alongside one track by outside writers). With most other bands, AAA included, a democratic reunion album made in an atmosphere of peace and co-operation is a good thing; think The Rolling Stones in 1989, The Who the same year or the recent Grateful Dead get-together. Jefferson Airplane, though, are a band who for all their peace and love credentials thrive on frictions and sparks. To be a 'true' reunion faithful to the old Airplane Grace should have slept with half the band (actually she and Marty - the one member she never slept with - are getting very flirty on the cover while her ex Paul appears to be looking anywhere else), Jorma and Jack should have held up the sessions with some impromptu speed-skating tours, Paul should have broken off halfway through to write a bonkers concept album and Marty should have disappeared partway through the sessions, claiming that his role in the band was 'only ever going to be temporary'. Instead the Airplane seem to have worked politely and fairly and nicely throughout, hoping for a revival in their fortunes - and where's the fun in that? certainly nobody seems to have been all that disappointed that the album didn't work out and in a funny way the band were probably luckier that it didn't; having spent money plugging this album and wanting more Epic naturally agreed to sell Hot Tuna's first record in twelve years now that Jorma and Jack had enjoyed working together; Grace finally returned to the retirement she'd postponed; Paul got back to his own personal Jefferson Starship with a better understanding between band members when he could and couldn't use the name and Marty's solo career got an extra boost, with a solo best-of hot on this album's heels and some of his better solo work to come across the 1990s. Unlike The Beatles, who had to put up with calls for their reunions in almost every interview they ever did between 1970 and 1980 and occasionally beyond, Jefferson Airplane could point to this album and get on with what they wanted to do, safe in the knowledge that they were also better friends than they were the last time they'd all been in the same room in 1970.
The album also serves as a fair farewell to a great album in some ways too - not the production, obviously, or the average quality of the songs, or the very un-Jefferson method of playing it safe. However like many successful reunion albums, 'Jefferson Airplane' is a compact disc tie-dyed through with nostalgia - and a nostalgia that sounds fitting to what the band's morals and ethics had once been. 'Planes' should have been the closing track not the opening, a sweet song about immortality and passing on the love of something on to a future generation so that it never really dies, with Paul's lyrics finding closure of sorts as he tries hard to offer his childhood the love he never got when he was young and literally passing an airplane down to the next generation to keep and treasure and modify. It remains the first and only song about the transport the band were named after since the rather more unfathomable opening track on the opening LP, 'Blues From An Airplane'. Grace's bluesy 'Freedom' addresses a subject that's been keen to the Jefferson DNA since the first gig, Grace admitting 'I've been standing still so long, I almost forgot you had a song'. Marty's 'Solidarity' is the band's single most Summer Of Love celebrating epic ever - except, of course, for Marty's own 'Summer Of Love' later on this same album. 'Madeleine Street' is a memory of being young, even though fans differ as to which period and incidents it's actually remembering. 'The Wheel' sounded ridiculous on 1989, an OTT hippie song calling for us to be 'one world' when America felt like it was split up at least thirty different ways after a difficult cold-war riddled decade, but it's a nice nod to what the Airplane would no doubt have been singing about the modern age had it been happening in 1967 instead. 'Too Many Years' may be a personal confessional type of love song, but the chorus at least is a 'Wasted On The Way' style 'too many years have gone by' message that every reunion album should have at least one of. 'I get back to thinking about where we once were', a line from 'Summer of Love', is written through this album like coastal town names get commemorated in rock (the sweet, not the musical genre).
That's fine. That's nice. You need to know where you've come from before you can work out where to go next - which is a very Jefferson ideal. But there's a sense too that a whole album of the Airplane looking back on their youth from their rocking chairs is something of a wasted opportunity. I can guarantee that if the Airplane of 1967 had been around in 1989 they'd be kicking Reagan as much as they once did Nixon and they'd be decrying the anti-Russian anti-communist 'star wars' rhetoric the same way they once attacked American foreign policy in Vietnam. The Airplane weren't always political (that element of their music only arrives once Paul and Grace get really going), but heck even the Jefferson-less Starship threw a few songs in there decrying the modern age, while the Jefferson-filled Starship kept such ideals central to their navigation system. The closest we get here is Grace singing about the European Common Market as a sort of storybook fairytale and Paul singing about Nicaragua apparently voting in democratically the very rebel group that had been committing murder and genocide on a mass scale, with some alleged help from some dodgy American arms dealers lending a helping hand (not that you'd know it from the song, which is more about hope for a utopian solution than the nuts and bolts of why 1980s society is a mess despite such 1960s hope and promise for the future). The year 1989 - the bit shortly before the Cold War becomes history and Reagan hands over to daddy Bush - needed an album like the one the younger Airplane could have offered more than ever, with piercing no-prisoners attacks on the corruption and stupidity of those in power. Instead it got fifty odd minutes of Marty singing about how great the summer of love once seemed (which won't have been much consolation for those too young to ever remember feeling hope) and Grace singing about pandas. Actually, closing track 'Panda' is one of the brightest songs here - in terms of subject matter if not as an actual song - as the Airplane finally record their first ecological song, a spin-off of the protest genre which the band had been doing all their lives and which was big in the 1980s. Though Pandas seem an unlikely subject for a band named after one of the machines that has the biggest carbon footprint of any ever invented, it also fits them like a glove. There should have been more songs like this on the album.
The other trouble, if you really know your Jeffersons well in this period, is how much of this album is recycled. 'Planes' and 'Summer Of Love' were two of the most popular songs The KBC Band performed live on their 1987 tour and though the band split before they had a chance to record it in the studio the arrangement is clearly closely modelled on the original, with just a few extra Slicked-up harmonies for good measure. Two of Jorma's three songs 'Ice Age' and 'Too Many Years' had both appeared already on his 1985 'Too Hot To Handle' solo album where they sounded rather better. Even Grace's 'Panda' had already been played by her in superior form on a TV special she made with Graham Nash the year before. You can't help thinking that the band are using this reunion project as an excuse to show their better songs of recent years to a wider public - but if so then it's sad just how low even these better songs fall against the glories of the band's past.
The 'real' problem though is that the Airplane were a band built - a few classic Marty love songs aside - mainly for speed, adrenalin and excitement. It's hard to sound excited when you're singing about growing old against a backdrop that makes even the teenage kids of the day sound old before their time (seriously, most of the 1980s performers still going sound much younger now thirty years on), which robs the band of one of their biggest unique selling points. The 1980s production, by Ron Nevison who'd worked with Jefferson Starship in the final Kantner days and on Grace's last solo album 'Software', then takes away the first thing that hits you on any past Airplane recording (Jack's fat bass sound) and sticks Jorma off somewhere to the side instead of dead centre where he belongs. Add in the lack of full-on harmonies ('Planes' is probably the only song to feature Paul Grace and Marty soaring in tandem), the tacky pop cover (something Jefferson Starship might do but never Jefferson Airplane), the strange blues instrumental (something Hot Tuna always did, but rarely in the Jefferson family), the depressingly large number of session musicians in the credits (with only Jorma's brother Peter a familiar face/sound) and the overall feeling that the band are wailing about something you can't quite hear over the synths instead of inviting the audience to join in and live inside the song with them and you have several reasons why this reunion album adds to being a disappointing and underwhelming release on the whole. Had the better songs ('Planes' and 'Summer Of Love' especially) been draped around something more substantial, though, we could so easily have been talking about the re-booting of a career here and another glorious ten years or so under the Jefferson banner.
Using up their best song and the only track on the album that sounds as if it's a 'true' collaboration at the start, 'Planes' is - fittingly enough - the essence of the Airplane. A Jeffersonised version of CSN's 'Teach Your Children', it's a typical Paul Kantner epic about taking a sad song and a sad start in life - and making it better. An eternal doodler, there's surely more than a little of Paul himself in the character of the kid in class whose oblivious to everything except the drawings of planes and ignored by everyone except the girl sitting next to him in class. The lad has a difficult life - 'his mother didn't want him and his father was always working' (in real life Paul was close to his mother who died young, but his father was indeed always working and packed him off to boarding school) but doesn't get bitter because the Airplane aren't a bitter band. Instead he loses himself in daydreams and imagination and a middle eight where it feels as if he is physically soaring along with the plane, a million miles away from the all-too-real earthly restrictions pulling him down to Earth. By the time of the second verse the boy is older (he met a little girl and they had another little boy) but still not grown up - he's still referred to as a 'little boy' still obsessed with planes. The father learns to pass on his 'coping mechanism' and enthusiasm to his boy and in typical Kantner style teaches him to dream big with nothing to hold him back, but with the added proviso that hopefully there'll be less for him to escape from. A sweet middle eight informs us that 'both his mother and father love him and hold him and hug him whenever he needs it!' It would be nice, too, to think that Paul had his most famous band in mind when he wrote this song about experiencing wonder and escape from hardship and learning to pass the ability onto other people - except that this song started life as a KBC track long before an Airplane reunion was on the cards (arguably when Paul started performing it circa 1986 he was as out of love with the Jeffersons as he ever would be, having split with Starship and about to split with Balin and Casady). It just 'sounds' like a high-flying Airplane song, though, and the band do it justice for perhaps the only time on this album, with some sweet Nicky Hopkins keyboards in a Grace Slick style (the 'Volunteers' pianist returning once more on what's probably the last of his 30 odd AAA appearances) and some soaring Paul, Grace and Marty vocals just like the old days. The song isn't quite perfect - the chorus especially sounds unfinished and ends without a rhyme ('I love planes...experimental aircraft...jet jet aircraft!'), while Kenny Aronoff fails badly at the admittedly thankless task of trying to sound like Spencer Dryden and even Jorma sounds slightly off with his unusually grungy playing (is it in fact brother Peter performing here?) Even so 'Planes' is a near-classic that ticks most of the right boxes and more than deserves it's top thirty US single chart placement, the last of the band's career to date. Had the rest of the album soared close to this sort of altitude this reunion album would have been a winner.
Alas Grace seems to be treating the album like a last solo album. Thankfully 'Freedom' is closer to the emotional ballads of her masterpiece 'Dreams' than the nonsense of 'Software' or the noise of 'Wrecking Ball', but even so this musical re-make of her own 'El Diablo' (complete with Spanish hand-claps near the end) lacks both passion and fire. On paper this song should be the most Jeffersonian on the album, Grace passing on the wisdom she's learnt from her years in the band - that you shouldn't wait for someone else to come along and teach you how to be 'cool' but to feel the freedom to be yourself. Grace even makes out that she's singing this only to the listener, sympathising with 'out' tears and wondering 'how any of us ever come out sane' in such a crazy world - a trick that's hard to pull off but one that Grace manages well. The fact that Grace is turning the clock back full circle by writing a bluesy song (Hot Tuna should have kept it for their record) would also seem to bode well. But in practice this is a sloppy song that doesn't have enough of a tune to be memorable, one which more than likely only features Grace and a bunch of session musician and is marred by some truly over-blown guitar solo-ing and heavy handed drumming. 'Don't look back 'cause that's just a waste of time' Grace consoles us during the middle of this song, However a little more looking back to the past might have reminded her how the Airplane could and should have approached this song, with Grace sparking off Jack and Jorma and turning a personal private plea for 'freedom' into a singalong band crusade.
At least Marty has the group spirit, with his co-write with Brecht and Cummings on 'Solidarity' a pretty song that if anything is a little too obviously simplistically Airplane. Sounding as if it was written with early Airplane cover 'Get Together' in mind (with one ear on the late 1980s vogue for bombastic musicals), 'Solidarity' is a song about strength in numbers that would have sounded perfectly at home in the set-lists of the Summer of Love era Airplane. Castigating those who rule and 'try to split and fool us', Marty reminds us that people are greater in number than politicians and that we have the power to change the world for the better when meeting in a 'common cause'. Together with a nice punchy chorus that grows in stature (and even features Paul and Grace, briefly), I've certainly heard bands who should know better get away with worse on charity singles down the years. Marty copes well with the song too, although it would again have been nice to have had more of a Jeffersonised style about things (this is, after all, a rallying cry about standing together - which only Marty and - very briefly - Paul and Grace appear on). The trouble is, though, the old Airplane used to be more subtle about this sort of thing. Yes the sentiments are perfectly in keeping with the Airplane ethos of peace and love, but the ponderous 80s backing so isn't in keeping with the method. There's no grit here, no awareness that coming together is unlikely but still worth trying and no sense that this is an invitation only the tone deaf or the heartless could possibly refuse. In 1967 'Won't You Try?' was the Airplane's intoxicating invitation to join them in turning on, turning out and dropping out and they sounded like a band who had all the answers; in 1989 'Solidarity' makes the Airplane sound like on the one hand that they aren't a united band and on the other that they're s disunited band with more hope than sense.
'Madeleine Street' is the album's slow grower, a rare Marty-Paul collaboration (their first since 'St Charles' back in 1976) on which Paul unusually sings lead. Another song about memory, it recounts a trip Paul took to Nicaragua that appears to have taken place after he dropped out of college. 'A little young, a little crazy', Paul is trying hard to look hip, 'talking about Tennessee Williams and trying to be so cool', while embracing this mysterious new world where everyone wants to chat and everyone stays up late - so different to his own regimented military academy upbringing. 'Madeleine Street', then, is a song about learning that you don't have to follow rules and you can't get any more Airplane than that. You also can't get more Paul Kantner-esque than the verse that has the narrator imagining he's sitting next to Marlon Brando and being a real rebel while name-checking his band in the line 'I took an Airplane named desire' for where he travels next. Unlike 'Planes', though, this song feels like it lacks the usual Kantner twist or extra message to make it special and the song ends at least a verse too early. How much more interesting it would have been, for instance, to find out why the trip happened after 'my world came apart' (in reality it was Paul effectively running away from home to become a musician) or exploring the fact that it was here Paul first falls in love (yet already learns that 'love is not for fools' - it's worth pointing out that they didn't have any girls at his school). 'Madeleine Street' sounds as if it's leading somewhere, as if we're hearing Paul re-count the first small steps on a great journey that led to a quarter century (and counting) of high-flying exploration, but instead it's too busy partying to tell us the story properly. At least this sounds like a 'band' song again, with a nice guitar solo (almost certainly played by Jorma this time) and Grace matching her vocals alongside her ex-partner one last time (the song needs more Marty, though). The real star of the show though is Nicky Hopkins playing a last great honky-tonk solo as he keeps the song rooted in a bar. At least the band sound like they're having fun, though.
Fans are split as to whether Jorma did his songs for this album better as acoustic solo spots or as here in electric form with a 'full band' (though sadly not the Airplane - Jack may be the only other member on this song). Personally I'd take Jorma acoustic most times, but 'Ice Age' does suit the electric crunch of his double-tracked guitar quite nicely (there's a great guitar solo, albeit one more in the Hot Tuna bluesy-controlled style rather than the Airplane psychedelic-unhinged tradition) and his vocal is a little more committed here too (it's just a shame about the percussion). As with so many of Jorma's 1980s songs, which move further away from the 'happy and hopeful' Jefferson trip than ever, he feels stalked by something, with some intangible danger shadowing him and making him think about his own mortality. We never hear what the 'news' is that starts Jorma off thinking this way, but the second and third verses suggest it's something political as Kaukanen reflects that as politicians tend to be older than most people they don't care about leaving the planet behind in a good state for the younger crowd, while craving 'immortality' and re-shaping people's ideas of what they actually did ('They're sewing up the past with shining sutures' as Jorma characteristically poetically puts it). For the rest of us, meanwhile, we have no such hold on immortality and 'live our lives as slaves' following the rules of the powers that be while we 'race on to the grave'. Jorma never uses the term 'ice age' anywhere in the lyric, but he's clearly hinting at a colder, less humane period for humanity, which makes a lot of sense given the context of this song being written in 1989 with the likes of Reagan and Thatcher and the cold war seemingly unmoveable. It's great to hear the Airplane tackling something a little edgier and darker like this song, but Jorma's been out of the Airplane for so long he's forgotten how to work his talents around theirs and ends up with a song that sounds like a slightly less passionate version of his solo version without any real band interaction at all bar Jack (mixed horribly low).
'Summer Of Love' is the album's second near-classic, a sweet and loveable ballad from Marty. Though it sounds at one with all his traditional love songs of yesteryear it's a romance not about a person but a time-period as Marty makes those of us already sick at being too young for the Airplane the first time round even sicker by making the 1960s sound as magical as can be. Marty is proud enough to declare that he was 'a part of it' and even prouder to claim that he 'believes in all the music' even nineteen years after he quit the band, even adding 'it's still playing!' The real heartbeat of the song though comes at the end, when Marty gets as close as he can to paraphrasing Paul's 'Wild Thyme' but sighs on the line that he expected it to be 'just a beginning' before declaring that the days aren't really dead because 'the spirit lives on in you and me'. Though Marty's tune is pretty special too, slow and languid and memorable in a way none of the rest of the album's tunes are, you have to say that both performance and production again really fluff a halfway decent song. The slow tempo, the icky synths and an unusually ropey harmony vocal from Grace alongside Marty's lead place a song that's trying so hard to look back to the summer of love firmly in the summer of 1989. Though it's hard not to doubt Marty means it when he sings 'I want to do it all again!' the Airplane sound uncomfortably old and middle-aged here, a world away from the sort of adventurous anything-goes roots Marty is trying to salute here. I still stand by the thought that as a song this is one of the best on the album though, even if ironically enough it's reuniting with the Airplane that almost kills it (Marty's solo re-recording on 1991's 'Better Generation' is far better, while Paul and Marty-era Jefferson Starship later did the song pretty well too on a run of live CDs where the song went from the-one-nobody-liked to the-one-everybody-loved almost overnight). The summer of love really was something special - it's just a shame that it's spirit is a memory here not a way of life and the resulting recording is one you sense most Airplane fans of years gone by would have scoffed at openly, for better or worse. Still, a fitting last Airplane song by Marty, as a writer at least.
'The Wheel' is Paul's final track released under the Airplane name and though as a song it's not a fitting way to say goodbye, it's ambition is certainly in keeping with Kantner spirit as he tries to pull off a complex six minute song full of twists and turns and embracing multiple styles at once that still somehow ends up sounding pure Kantner. The song, subtitled 'for Nora' in the lyric booklet, seems to refer to Nicaraguan guerrilla fighter Nora Astorger who left a peaceful family home in Italy to rise up against who she saw as the oppressors of her homeland, The Samoza, who had brutally reason to power and claimed martial law (allegedly with some help from Ronald Reagan arm deals; Paul had already written the KBC Band song 'Mariel' for her so the fit seems ever more likely). Nora seems in the song like a typical Kantner heroine to go alongside 'Martha' and 'Lightning Rose' - the heroine who sorts out mankind's problems by being noble and just and fighting for peace. Except that Astorger's story doesn't really follow these lines; she's on record as saying that 'armed struggle was the only solution and that a rifle couldn't be met with a flower'. General 'El Perro', one of the major leaders of the Samoza, was supposedly murdered by her when a kidnapping plot went wrong, while she often dressed in military fatigues to get her message across to others. She did, at least, end up a respected politician and Nicaragua's representative at the United Nations when the Samoza lost power in the mid-1980s. Paul may have been particularly impressed with her tenacity in a long-running court case against the United States whereby she proved that their role in the takeover of Nicaragua was 'illegal', her last victory before her death in 1988 - a year before this song was written.
As usual, though, Kantner is more interested in the bright possible future of peace than mulling over the darkness of the recent past and 'The Wheel' is much more about how Nora represented hope for the future than anything specific about her story. Kantner sees life a series of cycles, a big wheel turning as in so many other songs, and vows that a better one must surely be in store after so many years of bloodshed, 'some climbing aboard' to help the wheel of change turn faster. A second verse goes very Jefferson Starship as Kantner is given a return visit by the 'spirit of the mountain' and gets all cosmic with a 'lighthouse keeper' and a 'seer of visions', which probably wouldn't have meant a lot to Astorger and couldn't have been more different to her feral existence on the run from the 'law' for so many years, but clearly means something to Paul. There are some good lines near the end of the song though, as Paul tells us 'dreams don't die...unless you let them and watch them die in fury!' Like many a Kantner epic, though, this is less a 'song' and more a collection of disparate parts that don't really fit together. The 'we can be one world' chorus seems clumsy and again a little too obviously Airplane-like, while - ironically for a song about the inevitability of change - the song seems to get stuck there, returning to this most simplistic part time and time again. Jorma slots in the best guitar solo on the record, all flying fingers and rage, but once again the listener is more likely to be distracted by the heavy-handed drumming and the less than harmonious harmonies. Many of the best parts of the song are also not Paul's at all but taken from Nicaraguan poet Margaret Randall's thoughts and quotes from Nora's life (a lifelong voracious reader, this marks the first time Paul got a song using this method since 'Crown Of Creation' in 1968, although once again Paul has leapt so much further ahead in his thoughts, using the book as a launching pad rather than turning it into a song, so that the few people who've read the book and heard this song have probably never seen a connection - till now, anyway, though the odds of someone reading this site as well are infinitely lower than that still!)
'Common Market Madrigal' is Grace's best song on the album, if only because it's the one that most resembles her traditional style. A pretty song that makes good use of her unique block-chord piano playing style for one last hurrah, sadly it's caught between genuine inspiration (the opening) and the sort of pop song that gave Starship a bad name. In typical Slick style, she takes the ideas that the others are writing (with this song mirroring the hope of 'The Wheel' and 'Solidarity' in particular) but humanises it, making the new formation of a 'common market' a backdrop to a personal tale of travel and hope that would have been harder without it, rather than talking about huge numbers enjoying the benefits. Grace doesn't actually mention the common market anywhere but the title and if anything the song sounds olde worlde, Grace singing about travelling through 'ancient lands' and imagining 'enchanted princesses' and 'fairytales' she's only ever known from books before now. Travel is clearly broadening the mind of her two un-named characters, even if they only seem to have eyes for each other for much of the song, but as with so many songs on this album there's no real 'message' here, no sudden realisation or resolution that the Jeffersons of old would have added in for definite. The performance too is a little unsteady as chances are only Grace appears again and the track calls out for Paul and Marty's harmonies, though this song also features easily Grace's best singing of the album. Still, even if 'Madrigal' (it isn't a madrigal by the way - there's more here than just vocals for a start and no mention of religion, although there is a slight Baroque feel about the track) isn't the best song Grace ever came up with it's good to hear here at least partly up to her best before she waves us goodbye.
One song on the album many fans seemed to enjoy was the Marty-sung Steve Porcaro track 'True Love', also released as the album's flop second single, though for the life of me I'm not quite sure. Noisy pop that would sound identical to Starship had Marty sung it more like Mickey Thomas, it's the closest Jefferson anything ever come to sounding like a Eurovision act complete with oh-so-predictable key change, over-drippy lyrics ('True love' is the sort you don't recognise until it 'creeps up on you') and the musical equivalent of 1980s shoulder-pads with the synths sticking out more than ever. To be fair at least there's a catchy riff underneath all this and Marty and Grace deliver far more passion than the song actually deserves and had this song been the Eurovision winner in 1989 for a new act I wouldn't have minded too much (though I still say Nathalie Paque should have won for France that year with her 8th placing 'I Stole Life' over Riga's irritating 'Rock Me' for Yugoslavia). But this is the Airplane. They never did predictable and the only cover songs they ever did in their heyday were fashionably unfashionable - Biblical gospels or songs David Crosby's various bands had rejected for being 'too weird and controversial'. Even Jefferson Starship never got quite this pop-hit by numbers and would have found something a little off-beat to throw in there. 'True Love' is a good song and if Marty had stuck it on a solo album I'd have been tapping my feet with the best of them. But up to standard on the one and only Jefferson Airplane reunion album, their last will and testament to the world and their first music of any kind in seventeen years? I don't think so.
Similarly 'Upfront Blues' is an indulgence too far and one the younger, less polite edition of the Airplane would normally have requested Jorma to drop early on (or perhaps not given 'Wild Turkey's placing on 'Bark'...) Chances are only Jack, Jorma and new drummer Kenny (finally given a song that suits his louder, relentless style - he sounds pretty darn good here) appear on the track, which is really a bluesy Hot Tuna Jam rather than a 'proper' Airplane song. 'Embryonic Journey' it ain't, although at least the first opening roar is impressive as Jorma slowly whips the trio into shape and then adds a second guitar part which bounces off the first. Unfortunately what sounds like it's going to be a killer opening to a song ends up being the whole song and runs out of ideas long before the seemingly hasty 2:02 playing time.
'Now Is The Time' is another Grace song that sounds as if she wrote it for Starship, complete with gritty grungy guitar posing (almost certainly not by Jorma) and heavy contrasts between a laidback verse and an urgent pop chorus. It's good to hear Grace swapping lines with Marty (they still sound more natural together than Grace and Mickey ever did) and there are some nice Jeffersony lines about how 'life is a dance' with each of us born 'with our own song to sing'. However, that's about all - some nice ideas (and some not so nice ones: check out the couplet 'Now is the time, the time it is right, we've got no reason to wait - let's do it tonight!') drowned out by a clumsy OTT backing track and more feeling that the Airplane of old wouldn't have even contemplated doing a track like this in their first career. Sure the band couldn't turn up and just sound like it was 1967 all over again (though oddly, yet typically, most of the reviews of this album made that accusation anyway), but no fan - including the three or four who statistically must have loved this period of music in general - wanted them to sound quite as '1989' as this. Sadly 'now is the time' - and it really shouldn't be.
'Too Many Years' is Jorma's exit and thankfully a stronger goodbye than his partners get. By far his best song on the album, it's a typically Jorma song about regret and loss that had it not originally appeared on an all-acoustic solo album would have been the 'quiet, reflective' one on a Hot Tuna album in between the blues and rock. Jorma opens the door to an ex partner and his mind instantly turns to 'danger' mode, while their body language would appear to outsiders to 'be the way of strangers'. But Jorma's narrator doesn't want things to end like this; he's cared for her too long to say goodbye so coolly and finds that the pair rather enjoy their goodbye chat, with a chance to say things they never got round to saying safe in the knowledge they might never meet again. He even feels part of what made him fall for her in the first place, but in keeping with this album's theme he feels it more as a memory. Jorma's best verse comes right at the end when he says that both of them were in the partnership were in it for the right reasons, but he naively thought 'living together was simply a matter of caring' and found marriage far more complicated than he ever realised. Always the pessimist in a band of eternal optimists, there's no happy ending in this song the way that there would have been in Paul's, Marty's or Grace's and that seems about right, with Jorma trying to learn from his mistakes rather than declaring he'll do better next time. Jorma sings the song well and his playing is as exquisite as always (it's currently a shoot-out between Jorma and Stephen Stills for 'the best AAA acoustic guitarist' in the finals of the weird championships being held in my head, with Jerry Garcia an honorary bronze), but he actually did this song better on 'Too Hot To Handle' without the usual sessions musician distractions going on behind him. Once again Jack is probably the only other Airplaner to appear on this song.
The album ends in slightly underwhelming fashion with 'Panda', with the band leaving it to Grace to see out their career. Many fans like this song which at least has much of the old Jefferson spirit; the band were always big on their animals (most famously with 'White Rabbits' in the Airplane days and with tigers and dragons in the Starship era) and the idea of an environmental protest song seems so obvious Airplaney it's strange to think that this is their one and only. The difficulty is that, like many Grace songs of recent vintage, it's all so forgettable, with Grace clearly writing the words first and setting them to rather bland music that rises and falls without ever really going anywhere (she'd spent most of the Jefferson Starship years as a lyricist anyway). The lyrics are better, but Grace still sounds more earnest than genuinely inspired as she sings such clichéd lines as 'When will the killing end? When we see the light?' Inevitably though the song starts off gentle and slow and almost interesting, the session musician excesses soon over-topple the song into a parody of itself, a Stock-Aitken-Waterman pop song that's lost sight of the message it was trying to offer. Paul pops up on the vocal briefly, but otherwise chances are Grace is alone for the final Airplane recording on their final album. The band that once started in such dramatic fashion with the opening gutsy chords of 'Blues From An Airplane' that sounded so different and so real has ended up going out on a damp squib that could have been by anyone and - though heartfelt - comes across sounding fake.
'Jefferson Airplane' the album is, then, a sad way to bring the curtain down on such an extraordinary career - too 80s by far for long-term 60s fans and too loosely dipped in hippie manifesto to win over a trendy audience (nice try with the 'hip' cover guys, but the band are also all too clearly showing their age there too). The band simply weren't ready to work together again - too many rifts unhealed, too many songs that needed to be written and too many questions about what their sound was and whether it was worth returning to. The idea, though, was surely a worthy one and had the band waited just that little bit longer to see the end of all law suits, build up a rapport, audition a more suitable drummer and wait for the 1990s (when bands like the Airplane become hip once more) then this album could well have worked, with 'Planes' and 'Summer Of Love' a strong core to build a whole new career on. Alas it was not to be and the reunion album takes away just that little bit from who the Airplane were and what they could be. Few reunion albums could ever have lived up to that though - and if 'Jefferson Airplane' the album is too bland by half, that's only because we're measuring it against 'Jefferson Airplane' the group, the one who did eleven impossible things before breakfast and came as close as any band can to changing the world.
Other Jefferson-style articles from this website you might be interested in perusing: