Jefferson Airplane


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Takes Off (1966), 6/10
Surrealistic Pillow (1967), 7/10
After Bathing At Baxter's (1967), 8/10
Crown Of Creation (1968), 7/10
Bless It's Pointed Little Head (1969), 6/10
Volunteers (1969), 8.5/10
Blows Against The Empire (1970), 7/10
Bark (1971), 6/10
Sunfighter (1971), 7/10
Long John Silver (1972), 6/10
Baron Von Tollbooth (1973), 7/10
Links:

Summary.
The Jefferson Airplane were one of the greatest rock bands of all times. They not only embodied the spirit and the sound of the hippy era more than anyone else but also counted on a formidable group of talents, that redefined singing, harmonizing, bass playing and drumming in rock music. Their early singles, Somebody To Love and White Rabbitt, helped establish psychedelic-rock as a musical genre. The music of the Jefferson Airplane were largely self-referential, and their career feels like a documentary of their generation. Surrealistic Pillow (1967) was a manifesto of the hippy generation. After Bathing At Baxter's (1967), one of the greatest artistic achievements of the psychedelic era, was the album that broke loose with the conventions of the song format and the pop arrangement. Volunteers (1969), their supreme masterpiece, fused the backward trend towards a return to the roots (both musical and moral) and the forward trend towards hard-line politics. Blows Against The Empire (1970) was a nostalgic look back to the ideals of the communes and a utopostic tribute to the space age. Sunfighter (1971) is an adult and solemn return to the song format and to nature. Their "marketing appeal" was precisely that they represented (and practiced) a new lifestyle. Unfortunately, few of their albums rank among rock's masterpieces because they were fundamentally limited by a song-oriented format that they rarely challenged (unlike, say, the Grateful Dead). The Jefferson Airplane were partially accepted by the Establishment because they were still living in the world of pop music, because the folk and blues roots were still visible, because the melody was still the center of mass.
(Translated from my original Italian text by Sebastian Radzikowski)

Jefferson Airplane emerged as the band that propelled the acid-rock worldwide phenomenon in 1966, garnering front-page coverage in every major weekly magazine with their initial singles. They conquered the airwaves long before the birth of independent stations and the press, leading one to argue that these outlets were born as a result of Jefferson Airplane's success. Expanding upon ideas pioneered by the Byrds, the band crafted psychedelic music that resonated with the middle class and set the standard for commercial musicians like the Beatles. While other psychedelic rock bands such as The Velvet Underground and The Grateful Dead existed, their unconventional approach to "songs" hindered their exposure. Jefferson Airplane, on the other hand, initially gained acceptance because they still adhered to conventional songwriting. Moreover, their folk and blues roots remained evident, with melody serving as the driving force behind their harmonies. Consequently, Jefferson Airplane became the quintessential symbol of acid rock, the hippie movement, and the enchanting summer of San Francisco.

It's perhaps a form of divine justice that Jefferson Airplane were forgotten while The Grateful Dead and The Velvet Underground were revered as the most influential bands on the music of the following decades. In reality, Jefferson Airplane were not only important as innovators; they were truly great musicians and composers. Their downfall can be attributed to their lyrics, which quickly became anachronistic, reminiscent of hippies with flowers in their hair passing joints in the documentaries of that era. This self-referential approach, arguably autobiographical, served as their "marketing appeal" at the time but became their Achilles' heel in retrospect.

The ensemble formed amidst the creative chaos of the summer of 1965, comprising six culturally and stylistically diverse musicians. Marty Balin, a singer from New York and graphic artist, frequented folk circles and engaged in multiple activities. Paul Kantner, a local student, initially played banjo in a country band and later became a singer and guitarist. Jorma Kaukonen, a nomadic folk guitarist from the East Coast, joined the group. Alexander "Skip" Spence, originally a Canadian guitarist, eventually transitioned to playing the drums. Lastly, Signe Anderson, the singer, and Jack Casady, the bass player, were countrymen and friends of Kaukonen.

On the 17th of October 1965, the six musicians became the leading protagonists of the hippie scene in San Francisco after a show. Bill Thompson and Marty Balin assumed the roles of their managers, following a performance in honor of the esteemed bluesman Blind Lemon at their bar, The Matrix, on August 13th. Despite lacking originality in their sound, as they were essentially simple folk-rock hippies, the bewitching female voice of Anderson served as their sole distinguishing factor. Nevertheless, they found themselves closely associated with the counterculture gurus of the time, as the hippie movement gained popularity. Local record companies, recognizing the commercial potential in exploiting the hippie phenomenon, saw Jefferson Airplane as the potential equivalent of the Beatles in the Bay Area. This led to the birth of their debut album, Takes Off (RCA, 1966), which emerged amidst significant historical events and gained nationwide attention. Although it represented a somewhat naive evolution of folk-rock, Balin, who was undisputedly the leader at the time, composed and sang simple ballads accompanied by vocal choruses, punctuated by relatively straightforward guitar work. Their signature style was characterized by the classic California smile and the success of singles like "It's No Secret," "Don't Slip Away," and "Come Up the Years." Only the epic track "Blues for An Airplane" showcased a unique spirit, while other blues-infused tracks on the album, such as "Bringing Me Down," unleashed a rumbling rhythm and instrumental aggressiveness that clearly expressed their desire to push boundaries. Despite its somewhat limited scope, the album achieved significant national sales success. Consequently, the band's triumph led to many other Bay Area bands securing their first record deals, resulting in an influx of emerging talents that filled San Francisco's nights.

Following their newfound success, the band underwent restructuring due to disagreements with Anderson and Skip Spence. Spence was replaced by jazz drummer Spencer Dryden, a friend of Frank Zappa, while Grace Slick took over Anderson's position as the lead singer.

Slick, originally named Grace Venia and born in Chicago in 1939, personified the feminine hippie style more than any other singer of the era. She embodied the image of a docile, pretty, and mischievous girl, with a radiant smile framed by long black hair. As a restless teenager, she left behind her bourgeois family environment and the San Francisco scene to join guitarist Darby Slick and become the singer of his band, the Great Society, which later became part of Jefferson Airplane's entourage. Notably associated with their hits "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit," Slick's exceptional singing talent established her as the "voice" of her generation. Her voice was simultaneously exuberant, innocent, crystalline, sweet, powerful, and vibrant, yet also possessed an austere mezzo-soprano quality suitable for chamber music. Overall, it exuded charm. Slick came to represent the romantic and erotic idealism of the hippies, which leaned towards angelic rather than lustful, and gentle rather than bold, thus challenging the established dogmas of rock and roll. Her sensual and soaring notes were ideal for singing about the experiences induced by LSD, while her screams carried enough sarcastic fury to serve as revolutionary anthems. Her solemn style gave birth to a new kind of "hymn" that absorbed and transformed sacred and pagan elements. Slick used her voice to portray a public image of an uninhibited and irreverent woman. Her emotional intensity complemented Kantner's oratory and rhetorical fervor, as he advocated for social commitment and an increasingly aggressive and experimental sound. This partnership soon became the band's compositional focal point. Balin gradually lost influence within the group due to his lesser alignment with the hippie ethos, as he attempted to revive his poppy folk and bourgeois upbringing, which contradicted the new style.

On the other hand, Kaukonen and Casady formed the true musical foundation of the group. These virtuosic musicians were capable of enhancing any musical concept put forth by their leaders. Kaukonen's fingerpicking incorporated a wide range of psychedelic techniques, from feedback to blues licks, showcasing his ingenuity that rivaled only Hendrix. Supporting him was Casady, a bassist deserving of a place in the annals of the instrument alongside the great jazz players. Rather than merely marking the rhythm, Casady developed a fluid and melodic style. Completing the ensemble was Spencer Dryden, whose rhythmic discontinuities added to the eclectic and intelligent instrumental section that characterized the band during that time.

The reinvigorated lineup gained momentum with the release of "Somebody To Love" in the spring of 1967. The song perfectly captured the enthusiasm that lingered in the city following the "Human Be-in" event. It featured a strong and driving rhythm, while Slick's raw vocal delivery soared with characteristic glides, nervous accents, melismatic variations, breathtaking highs, and a rebellious attitude. This song marked a departure from the conventions of folk-rock and Merseybeat, the two "electric" genres the band had previously embraced. These innovative ideas were further expanded upon in their subsequent single, "White Rabbit," which was dedicated to Owsley and inspired by Miles Davis' "Sketches Of Spain." The song, similar to its predecessor, elevated the discussion of drugs to the public sphere, infusing it with epic tones. With its dizzying, captivating, and martial quality, Slick explicitly described the sensations procured by "acid".

Their second album, "Surrealistic Pillow" (RCA, 1967), arrived in February of that year and continued to push the boundaries of the rock song format in the name of free love and LSD. The ensemble skillfully absorbed elements of folk, blues, rock, and jazz, but it was the vocal harmonies that truly defined an era. Slick's high and majestic voice, Balin's soft and sunny tone, and Kantner's sharp and neurotic style combined to create something extraordinary. Drawing inspiration from 1950s black vocal groups and other folk-rock bands of the time, their harmonies were a testament to their artistry.

While the instrumental innovations were somewhat less groundbreaking, the guitar clangs of Kaukonen, the elegant and ever-changing rhythms of the rhythm section, and the seemingly "out of tune" counterpoints remained profoundly captivating. Above all, Kaukonen's guitar work ingeniously blended blues-style accompaniment, both pungent and plaintive, with superb spatial solos that served as a perfect complement to Slick's vocals. Despite a certain plasticity in both the voices and the instruments, they were still malleable and adaptable, creating a truly choral sound where each member's unique personality carried equal weight. This cohesive unity resulted in a captivating and charming sound, where the amalgamation of each musician's contributions cultivated something simultaneously personal and striking.

The album contained not only Slick's two vocal masterpieces but also showcased kaleidoscopic and hallucinogenic sounds, particularly evident in the choral impulses of "She Has Funny Cars" and "3/5 Of A Mile In Ten Seconds." "Plastic Fantastic Lover" emerged as a pressing nightmare, with its modern minstrel-like rhythm and lysergic bass and guitar counterpoints. The soft and twilight-like melodies of "Today" and "Coming Back To Me" (by Balin), the expansive country ballad of "My Best Friend" (by Dryden), and the cybernetic and spiritual solos (reminiscent of Fahey) were testaments to the tender and sweet side of folk-rock.

As time passed, San Francisco began to fade, succumbing to the whims of fashion. Flower power transformed into a carnival of masks, as long hair and eccentric attire became the norm. True hippies retreated, defeated, into Haight-Ashbury. Meanwhile, new heroes emerged in Monterey, such as Hendrix and Joplin, eclipsing the heroes of yesteryear like Jack Traylor and Terry Dolan. However, Jefferson Airplane continued to consolidate their position and gain confidence, thanks to Kantner's power move, which encouraged creative exploration, and the technical growth of the group's four natural talents: Slick, Kaukonen, Casady, and Dryden.

Six months after the release of "Surrealistic Pillow," which still adhered to the conventional song structure, Jefferson Airplane unveiled their psychedelic testament, "After Bathing At Baxter's" (RCA, 1967), in December. The album, largely composed by Kantner, marked the disappearance of traditional song structures. Instead, it was divided into five parts, each containing multiple episodes and illuminated by a wider range of musical innovations: more powerful rhythms, freer guitars, mature melodies, and twisted harmonies. Beat and folk-rock were undeniably left in the past.

The pieces on the album could be attributed to their respective authors. Slick, whose personality remained somewhat in the shadows, contributed two masterpieces. One of them was "Rejoice," an ambitious soundtrack project inspired by Joyce's "Ulysses," featuring an Arab clarinet, martial trumpet, and jazz piano accompaniment to support Slick's vocals. The second, "Two Heads," consisted of rhythmic and vocal jolts that built up to a subdued conclusion.

Dryden's contribution, "Small Package Of Value," delved into Zappian chaos, incorporating speeches, screams, dissonances, laughter, various percussions, and brief kitschy keyboard interludes. Casady, Dryden, and Kaukonen collaborated on "Spare Chaynge," a lengthy instrumental digression showcasing a guitar-bass-drums trio—a structure that was gaining popularity in England at the time. This lysergic improvisation transcended the genres of the era, drawing influences from jazz, Pink Floyd, and chamber music, creating music for the mind and otherworldly journeys.

Kantner emerged as the quintessential folk singer of the psychedelic generation with his songs on the album. The powerful "Ballad of You And Me And Pooneil," exploring the theme of a classic love triangle, featured striking vocal contrasts between the impetuous instrumental choir and the hushed whispers of the Kantner-Slick duo. It served as a canonical example of harmonic fantasy, with the voices of the three singers intertwining as rhythmic colors while harmonizing guitars danced around their conflicts. The song also incorporated shining solo passages and impeccable synchronization during improvisation. Another noteworthy track was "Martha," a medieval ballad accompanied by a flute. The song showcased a gallery of female portraits—a recurring theme in the band's repertoire. Kantner also penned gritty and programmatic choral anthems, among which "Won't You Try" and "Saturday Afternoon" stood out. Despite a few moments of inconsistency and an overall overly-emphatic rhetoric, the album marked a significant evolution of the San Francisco style. The abandonment of traditional song structures gave rise to a more complex and complete form, inspired by utopia, love, and the desire for mind-altering substances. The unique personality of each single contributed to a composite and cohesive sound while also opening doors to potential divisions within the complex entity that was Jefferson Airplane. Unfortunately, during this time, anarchy began to take hold within the band.

The complex managed to survive the aftermath of Monterey, becoming a remnant of its former hippie civilization. The Jeffersons sought refuge for six months in the Carousel Ball Room, where the veterans of 1967 congregated, shielded from the clutches of the System. Eventually, Graham caught wind of it, renamed it Fillmore West, and brought an end to one of the last self-managed music experiments. Consequently, the music of this period suffered from exhaustion and disillusionment.

After a period of reflection and contemplation, the group released "Crown Of Creation" (RCA, 1968), which propelled them into national prominence. The album served as a partial return to the spirit of "Surrealistic Pillow." It revisited Balin's compositional contributions, resulting in a shift towards a more pop/folk-oriented direction. Additionally, the songs on the album returned to the conventional three- to four-minute format. However, the album still retained elements of their previous innovations, with the individual tracks falling loosely within similar stylistic threads. As a result, the album was a mixed bag. On one hand, it avoided verbosity, but on the other hand, it limited the creative potential that the album deserved.

Nevertheless, the musicians showcased their mastery of their instruments, reaching the peak of their abilities. Kaukonen delivered energetic and piercing solos, while demonstrating precision and metallic tones in his accompaniments. From a technical standpoint, he stood out above all. Grace Slick, although perhaps slightly underutilized, compensated for it by gaining psychological depth, while losing some of her vocal power.

Despite these achievements, signs of disintegration were evident. Each artist pursued their own individual paths instead of striving for an integrated group sound. Balin contributed tracks like "If You Feel" and "Share A Little Joke," built upon elementary riffs and arranged in accordance with English school conventions. These songs incorporated elements of blues, electric guitar, jazzy rhythms, and aggressive melodies. The popular songs on the album gave the impression of an updated personal style, remaining within a non-committal and easily accessible realm.

Kaukonen indulged in his love for irregular and slightly archaic folk and blues styles in songs like "Ice Cream Phoenix" and "Star Track," featuring trendy distorted solos. Dryden added another miniature cosmic/psychedelic composition to the mix, this time with gothic effects in "Chushingura." The grandiose oratorical anthem "Crown Of Creation," as customary, encompassed epic choral and instrumental turmoil, accompanied by profound lyrics that foreshadowed Kantner's fantasy-scientific fascinations.

Grace Slick exhibited a mischievous and captivating brilliance in her ambitious interpretation of Joyce's text, "Lather," a tender folk parable about disillusionment sung in a hushed voice against a noisy backdrop and eccentric arrangement, particularly in terms of the vocals. Her vocals were equally impressive in the gritty "Greasy Heart," standing alongside her masterpieces "White Rabbit" and "Rejoice," displaying a rawer and more angular quality. Grace Slick undeniably embodied the mythical voice of the Bay Area, captivating an entire disillusioned generation.

David Crosby, having been expelled from the Byrds, sought refuge in San Francisco and offered Slick an "acoustic" apocryphal suggestion: "Triad," a ballad of subtle psychological refinement exploring the theme of a love triangle. Its harmonies were remarkable. Lastly, "House AtPooneil Corners" merged the various personalities within the band, culminating in a visionary closing track with yearnings for infinity. It progressed through rhythmic anomalies, solemn chants, distortions, and martial progressions.

"Bless It's Pointed Little Head" (1969), an EP, served as a live documentation of the band's concerts and tours during that period. Amidst the expected classics, two previously unreleased lengthy tracks shone brightly. "The Other Side Of The Life" stood out as an instrumental blues-rock piece dominated by guitar and bass acrobatics, while "Bear Melt" was a heartfelt tribute by Grace Slick to Arthur Owsley. The latter showcased the remarkable harmony between Slick's vocals and the three spirited instrumentalists. It blended blues with extensive sections of free improvisation. The spiritual journey of the "dirty woman" traversed magical realms, alternating between revitalization and suffocation, ascending from cosmic heights only to dissolve into a lysergic trance. In the background, unassuming conversations quickly devolved into a frenzied rush within her mind. Slick's "White Rabbit" and Kaukonen's "Embryonic Journey" uncovered complementary facets of the same coin, forming a lullaby for wanderers in wonderland.

In 1968, momentous events rocked the world of the youth, from the May protests in Paris to the riots at the Chicago Convention. Communal idealism succumbed to the rhetoric of revolution, and the metaphysics of love gave way to urban conflict. Sacred texts of Eastern religions were replaced by revolutionary booklets, and the music that once fought for utopia now served political purposes. Jefferson Airplane aligned themselves with the new directives of the Movement, venturing beyond the confines of San Francisco to engage with the broader and more tumultuous American landscape. Their dreamlike language rendered them more suitable for the realm of the epic rather than that of news or satire. Their ideology remained somewhat ambiguous, primarily urging the fight for a better America. They chose to reevaluate the adult hippie ideology by refusing to renounce the mythology of love and drugs, which evidently merged with the demands of revolution.

"Volunteers" (RCA, 1969), the album born out of this revolutionary spirit, marked the official transition from utopia to politics. It stood as a pivotal moment when the ensemble achieved the ultimate fusion of music and life. Every aspect of the era, from propaganda slogans and war anthems to news reports, was seamlessly integrated. The album fully encapsulated the mood of a generation. The spirit with which the Jeffersons embraced the 1970s arose from the juxtaposition of various sentiments: fleeting remnants of communal utopia intermingled with a sense of weariness and a subsequent longing for tranquility. Simultaneously, a fervent desire to change the world and take to the streets, chanting slogans with clenched fists, permeated everyone. Musically, these diverse tendencies manifested as a revival of tradition (rural civilizations, nature, peace, etc.) and a more aggressive sound.

The album featured significant and decisive collaborations from notable names, including pianist Nicky Hopkins, percussionist Joey Covington, guitarist Jerry Garcia, and David Crosby in the role of a spiritual advisor. Jefferson Airplane had evolved beyond being a mere rock band; they had become a point of reference for the Bay Area's elite musicians, attracting both free-spirited nomads who operated outside the record companies' ledgers and members of other musical families.

Much of the album gravitated towards the revival of traditionalism and embraced values of the past, evoking an enigmatic atmosphere. "Good Shepherd" emerged as a tender and wistful folk ballad, offering a redemptive vision of religious intensity, enveloped by a dreamlike backdrop of violins and guitars that exuded scents of churches and prairies. "Meadowlands" served as a keyboard fanfare for a funeral, creating a haunting ambiance of eternal and desperate melancholy. Further delving into the recovery of roots, the album showcased the rustic and domestic cheerfulness of "The Farm" (Kantner) and the inebriated and choral "A Song For All Seasons" (Dryden), both country-rock songs. Additionally, Kaukonen's yearning mysticism in "Turn My Life Down" added to the mix. This track almost served as an act of redemption to atone for the transgressions of "Embryonic Travel."

"We Can Be Together," the post-Chicago anthem, resounded as a proud declaration of war by the "outlaws of America" determined to "break down the walls." It stood as a choral anthem bolstered by Kaukonen's distorted guitar and Hopkins' piano, intensifying the melodic impact. On the other end of the spectrum, "Volunteers" fervently uttered the watchword of "revolution," propelled by the rapid march rhythm of the "American volunteers." These two choral pieces, both penned by Kantner, diverged starkly in nature—the first being rhythmic and captivating, while the second exuded aggression and drama. This shift marked the abandonment of pacifist ideology and embraced the methods of intense struggle.

Grace Slick, a fairy and witch transcending the ordinary, lured Hopkins and Kaukonen into one of her legendary flights with "Hey Fredrick." In this extensive propitiatory ritual, the pianist and guitarist showcased their virtuosity, leaving a lasting impression with martial progressions that elevated Slick's fervent gospel into an enthralling and emotive hymn. The instrumental coda unfolded as an improvised blues-rock jam. The miracle repeated itself in "Eskimo Blue Day," where Slick's voice coiled and returned to its starting point, stretching austere and majestic alongside the rhythmic piano march and enchanting flute. David Crosby contributed another gem to his friends: "Wooden Ships." Refined and dreamlike, akin to his fairy tales, it made use of all instruments, from piano to violin, and harmonized multiple voices while maintaining a crystalline balance. It narrated an escape on black ships to a modern promised land, where each vessel became an ark carrying survivors from atomic catastrophe. The long ocean crossing unfolded through the rising and falling of voices, mirroring the motion of waves and the majestic sway of sails over vast expanses of water and horizons. Grace Slick's cry of hope resounded more tender and ferocious than ever. "Wooden Ships," with its blend of apocalyptic themes and dreamlike sonic landscape, embodied the culmination of the message behind "Volunteers." It seemed to suggest that beyond the nation's struggles, there always existed an individual with an insatiable yearning to find a personal corner in the universe where no flag needed to be fought for.

Following the summer of 1969, the formation of Jefferson Airplane underwent changes: Covington replaced Dryden on drums, Balin departed, and the elder black violinist Papa John Creach made his appearance. The subsequent record gave off an erroneous impression, as the group was far from unified. In fact, the remaining "volunteers" split into two pairs: Kantner and Slick embarked on a project with other acid-rock luminaries titled "Blows Against the Empire" (RCA, 1970), while Kaukonen and Casady formed the Hot Tuna.

Kantner's record was released in the late 1970s and was credited to Jefferson Starship. Composed mainly by him, but with massive interventions by his wife, with two touches of class by David Crosby and scattered contributions by the guests who were really many (Garcia, Kreutzman, Hart of the Dead; Kaukonen, Casady, Covington of the Jefferson; David Freiberg of Quicksilver ; Crosby and Nash). It explored the direction hinted at by Wooden Ships, the imaginary journey towards a modern Utopia, the escape from reality in search of a deserted island on which to a more just humanity was reside. (Note that in 1969 the physicist Gerard O'Neill at Princeton University had envisioned a human colony in outer space). It is the spiritual testament of San Francisco, a natural oasis in search of another oasis, this time social.

The Movement was in a state of collapse, with Rubin and Hoffman seeking solace in agricultural communes, and numerous prominent leaders finding themselves behind bars. Within these communes, there was a surge of interest in oriental meditative philosophies and visionary lysergic religions, more prevalent than ever before. The crisis faced by the Movement marked an ultimate defeat for revolutionary ideologies in terms of practical application. Consequently, this failure resulted in a widespread rejection of society itself, rather than a direct confrontation with it.

Blows Against The Empire was the conscience of this refusal, a conscience still secretly in love with utopia, and attracted by the cosmic immensities that teased everyone's dreams after landing on the Moon. Utopia and realism came together in the fairy tale of the spaceship on which the chosen ones would embark for an extra-terrestrial island not yet subjected to the System.

The disc was a science-fiction and psychedelic-cosmic rock work, a paraphrase of the Bible, the Odyssey and the revolutionary brochures. There were three key messages: one of method, the presence of many guests, the sense of collective prayer, of an oath among the followers of a sect, which transcended belonging to this or that complex; one of content, the childish and bloody texts, which inveigh against the world, which despise human civilization, and which instead preach escape, preach to "open that door" (Mau Mau), gigioneggiano in the prophecy of the island where the children fell from the trees (The Baby Tree), mainly in Homeric tones recount the adventures of the heroes along the fantastic itinerary: the farewell song of the Argonauts (Let's Go Together), Slick's pregnancy as an auspicious event, a divine sign of the duty of repopulate the new earth (A Child Is Coming), the dawn of departure (Sunrise), the spaceship and its seven thousand passengers shouting their motto "free minds! free bodies! free drugs! free music!" (Hi Jack), the journey to the stars (Have You Seen The Stars Tonite); and finally abandoned the ark that shrinks in the horizon of the firmaments (Starship); and a third message, sonorous, since the climate of the parable is maintained through a free collective creativity, from which comes a cosmic, existential and dreamlike music out of any pre-established genre, among other things a harsh and modern style that definitively abandoned the fragile harmonies of the West Coast to align with the progressive sounds that haunted Detroit and London, taking advantage of the great confusion of talents and instruments.

Kantner's record, credited to Jefferson Starship, was released in the late 1970s. While primarily composed by him, it received significant contributions from his wife. Additionally, there were notable touches by David Crosby and scattered contributions from various guests, including Garcia, Kreutzman, and Hart of the Dead; Kaukonen, Casady, and Covington of the Jefferson; and David Freiberg of Quicksilver, Crosby, and Nash. The album explored the direction hinted at by "Wooden Ships," envisioning a journey towards a modern Utopia and an escape from reality in search of a deserted island where a more just humanity could reside. (It's worth noting that in 1969, physicist Gerard O'Neill at Princeton University had conceived of a human colony in outer space.) It serves as the spiritual testament of San Francisco, a natural oasis in search of another oasis, this time of a social nature.

During this time, the Movement was crumbling, with Rubin and Hoffman seeking refuge in agricultural communes and many historical leaders finding themselves in prison. In these communes, oriental meditative philosophies and visionary lysergic religions gained prominence. The crisis of the Movement represented the definitive failure of revolutionary ideologies in terms of practical implementation, leading to a rejection of society rather than a challenge to it.

"Blows Against The Empire" embodied this rejection, still harboring a secret love for utopia and being drawn to the cosmic vastness that captivated everyone's dreams after the Moon landing. Utopia and realism merged in the fairy tale of a spaceship carrying the chosen ones to an extra-terrestrial island that had not yet succumbed to the System.

The album was a work of science fiction, psychedelic-cosmic rock, and a fusion of biblical, Homeric, and revolutionary influences. Three key messages permeated the album: method, reflected in the presence of numerous guest musicians and the sense of collective prayer akin to an oath among followers of a sect, transcending affiliation to any particular group; content, conveyed through childlike and provocative lyrics that railed against the world and scorned human civilization, instead preaching escape and urging to "open that door" (Mau Mau), prophesying the island where children fell from trees (The Baby Tree), recounting the heroes' adventures in Homeric tones (Let's Go Together), considering Slick's pregnancy as an auspicious event and divine sign to repopulate the new earth (A Child Is Coming), capturing the dawn of departure (Sunrise), depicting the spaceship and its seven thousand passengers shouting their motto "free minds! free bodies! free drugs! free music!" (Hi Jack), embarking on the journey to the stars (Have You Seen The Stars Tonite), and ultimately leaving the shrinking ark behind on the horizon of the firmaments (Starship); and lastly, a sonorous message as the parable's atmosphere is upheld through free collective creativity, resulting in a cosmic, existential, and dreamlike music that defies genre categorization. Moreover, the album embraces a harsh and modern style, departing from the delicate harmonies of the West Coast to align with the progressive sounds emanating from Detroit and London, capitalizing on the abundant talent and instrumentation of the time.

The scope of the album was truly monumental, encapsulating the role played by rock music in twentieth-century culture, both musically and otherwise. It embodied the collectivization of musical work, the functional use of lyrics, the amalgamation of styles, and the celebration of creativity.

The opening track, "Mau Mau," delivered a harsh indictment, sharply marked by the violent and choral style reminiscent of "Volunteers" (a provocative nod to the Fugs and the wild energy of MC5). On the other hand, "The Baby Tree" offered a sweet and surreal acoustic ballad. "Let's Go Together" became the anthem of free minds, featuring a coral interplay of voices and an epic piano accompaniment led by Grace Slick's commanding vocals. "Child Is Coming" showcased Crosby's radiant smile, brimming with joy at the outset and ending with a contraction of fear. Grace Slick's ethereal backing vocals, intertwined with guitars and piano, created a dreamlike atmosphere accompanied by a blinding white light, inducing a state of ecstasy and invoking mantras. "Sunrise" awakened the world with Grace Slick's characteristic phantasmagoric flights, both severe and persuasive. The departure of the spaceship in "Hi Jack" exuded a whirlwind of enthusiasm, with pulsating, quivering, and crawling music. Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner crafted wondrous embryonic journeys that evoked a mixture of anxious fear and hope. "Have You Seen The Stars" featured heroic piano passages and spatial guitar effects (courtesy of Nicky Hopkins and Jerry Garcia) that painted a galactic landscape, observing the ark's rocking motion amidst the cosmic twilight and the silence of distant lights. "Home" and "XM" served as short, noisy interludes connecting the pieces on the second side.

As the ark sailed among the planets, the cosmic navigators greeted each new discovery with shouts of joy. "Starship" marked the final roundabout, a breathtaking race where everyone held hands, gradually fading into the abyss of eternity.

"Blows Against The Empire" represented the pinnacle of the group's musical and human journey. Shortly thereafter, Jefferson Airplane established their own label, Grunt, and Grace Slick and Paul Kantner welcomed their daughter, China, into the world. The couple purchased a three-hundred-thousand-dollar piece of land. The band, now without Marty Balin and Spencer Dryden but with the addition of Joey Covington and Papa John Creach, registered "Bark." Concurrently, Slick, Kantner, and the Bay Area community prepared another manifesto album, while Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady divided their time between Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna.

By 1971, Jefferson Airplane seemed on the brink of disintegration, surviving more out of respect for their legacy than conviction. The challenge of uniting the diverse personalities became increasingly difficult, and the members' numerous private activities weakened their collective pursuit of revolution and a better world, highlighting the ephemeral and ambiguous nature of their generation's dreams.

Once again, the spirit of San Francisco reveals itself: within the youth movement, there was an atmosphere of confusion, with only a few steadfast hardliners unable to stem the tide of deserters returning, more or less openly, to bourgeois lifestyles.

"Bark" (1971) emerged as a reflection of this mood—a messy album lacking a cohesive concept, comprising elegant and pleasing songs that showcased a strong rhythmic return, reminiscent of an updated version of "Crown Of Creation." Three distinct bands coexisted within the Jeffersons: Grace Slick's backing group, Kantner's politically charged rock band, the nascent Starship, and Kaukonen's Hot Tuna alter ego. The Jeffersons represented one of the most striking cases of rock schizophrenia.

Aside from "Thunk," a short, absurd song composed exclusively for male voices by Covington, the album was divided among Kantner, Slick, and Kaukonen, with the latter making notable strides. Kaukonen, always displaying elegance in his instrumental prowess, exhibited his craftsmanship in various chord progressions. He authored the discontented "Feel So Good," offering an antiquarian perspective from Hot Tuna's repertoire (semi-nasal vocals, tight rhythm, and a dry guitar solo). Then there was the laid-back "Pretty As You Feel," featuring bluesy violin, strings, and a choir evoking a night-club atmosphere. The jazz duet "Wild Turkey," accompanied by John Creach's mischievous violin, embarked on a high-tension, embryonic journey that solidified Kaukonen's reputation as one of the greatest rock guitarists. Lastly, the subdued gospel-rock track "Third Week In Chelsea" delighted listeners with its refined blend of mixed voices, harmonica, and acoustic guitar.

Grace Slick contributed three songs to the album: "Crazy Miranda," a ferocious tale with a dense instrumental backdrop and another solitary flight; "Law Man," a powerful rant belted out with heroic airs and a martial stride, featuring melismatic cries and a proud yet sinister inflection of the good old days; and "Never Argue With A German," an eccentric and exotic backfire, with an eerie funeral-like atmosphere accompanied by German verses on an alienating hum, reminiscent of Brecht and Stockhausen, emitting a melancholic aura akin to Montmartre fumes.

However, the standout tracks belonged to Paul Kantner. "When The Earth Moves Again" served as yet another choral prophecy of revolution, incorporating the heroic pace of anthems like "Volunteers" and the visionary approach displayed in "Blows Against The Empire." "Rock And Roll Island" was a frenetic and visceral piece, with voices climbing over one another at breakneck speed. And "War Movie," a political fantasy, depicted a dream of insurrection over an imposing collective crescendo, which served as a counterpart to the former track.

One couldn't help but notice that Paul Kantner seemed to have aged with his dreams, devoid of any hope. Slick, with her vocal struggles post-throat operation, appeared distracted, lackluster, often exaggerated, hurried, and shallow—hysterical like a busy housewife with a thousand tasks at hand, or pompous like a failed and vain intellectual in search of posthumous glory. Meanwhile, Kaukonen seemed to have transformed into an invisible, intangible, yet ever-present sprite.

The uncertainties and partial disengagement evident in "Bark" also manifested in Kantner and Slick's new concept album, "Sunfighter" (Grunt, 1971). While the cosmic sense present in "Blows Against The Empire" remained, there was a stronger emphasis on nature, overshadowing ideological commitment. The album featured collaborations with Kantner's usual acolytes and boasted diverse arrangements and orchestration (including oriental, Latin, and electronic influences).

The album commenced with Slick's "Silver Spoon," a lengthy, hard-hitting, and heroic declamation set against an obsessive rhythm punctuated by Creach's violin. It marked a return to her finest oratorical form, delivering an icy voice from the Bay Area pulpit. Kantner's signature manifesto, "Sunfighter," relied on choral and fiatistic support, proclaiming the album's theme in its heroic refrain—there was no need to escape from Earth; rather, its natural wonders needed rediscovery. This same message resonated in "Look At The Wood," a short sylvan ballad set to the rhythm of a woodland dance. On the other hand, "When I Was A Boy" was a tense, fast-paced song filled with loud screams, featuring suspenseful undertones and encompassing elements of crescendo gospel, choral slogans, and flamenco jingles. It delved into the dark side of nature and the evil that lurks within its folds, punctuated by a piercing cry from the singer that momentarily seemed to transcend time, signaling a decisive charge.

"Milion," with its oriental and nostalgic essence, and "China," Grace Slick's intense hymn to life and tender maternal dedication, represented the melancholic world of San Francisco—a tapestry woven with memories and domestic affections. The epic dirge of "Earth Mother," punctuated by the cadence of a rural dance, served as a manifesto for a new philosophy: an attachment to life and the earth, a trust in the great forces that govern the human adventure, despite everything. Closing the album, "Holding Together" completed the heroic trilogy of hymns that emphasized the power of unity and collective action, transcending any ideological shifts. Once again, it was Hopkins' plan to sustain the march.

Perhaps the most evocative moments on the album were the short interludes, mostly instrumental. In "Diana," presented in two parts, one experienced a dreamlike delusion and a flock of water bubbles—an enchanting glimpse into the secret void. "Universal Copernican Mumbles" unraveled the hatches of the abyss, revealing the silent depths. And then there was "Titanic," a haunting soundtrack to the infamous sinking of the ship, with the pulsating heartbeat of the ocean, the desperate cries for help, the tumultuous chaos, and the tranquil stillness of the waves. These tender brushstrokes, rather than the sensational tributes, illuminated the new religion of nature.

The subsequent album, "Long John Silver," released in the summer of 1972, displayed clear signs of crisis. The Kantners had converted to Christianity, delving into their mission of reclaiming the positive values of the old world. However, the record was marred by a hysterical clamor, perhaps an attempt to align with the burgeoning heavy metal sound of the time, and by obscure-mystical lyrics that conformed to the trend set by the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar." Kaukonen, Casady, and Creach engaged in a competition to shout louder within the general chaos, only serving to weigh down the sound and dull the martial stride that had brought them success.

The uncertainties and partial disengagement evident in "Bark" were also inherent in Kantner and Slick's subsequent concept album, "Sunfighter" (Grunt, 1971). It exuded a profound connection to nature, surpassing the cosmic realm explored in "Blows Against The Empire." Through moments of tranquility and contemplation, the album erased the remnants of ideological commitment. With the collaboration of their trusted accomplice, the arrangements on the album showcased an unconventional blend of orchestration, encompassing various styles such as oriental, Latin, and electronic.

Sunfighter, like its predecessors, was an episodic album lacking a unified theme. The Jeffersons no longer had a specific message to convey; their historical mission had come to an end.

"Baron Von Tollbooth & The Chrome Nun" (1973) marked a significant resurgence for the Kantner spouses. The album harkened back to an earlier era, abandoning the pompous frenzy of "Long John Silver" and reclaiming the gentle and solemn sound of their masterpieces. While not a manifesto like their previous two albums, notable guests still made appearances, including Crosby, Garcia, Kaukonen, Casady, Freiberg, Creach, Traylor, and two new recruits: drummer John Barbata (formerly of Turtle) and 18-year-old guitarist Craig Chaquico. The only true novelty was the addition of Freiberg's mellotron, subtly enhancing the background to underscore visions and moods.

Grace Slick's presence remained dominant as she calmly sought to rediscover herself—the enchanting girlish voice that would occasionally emerge among the notes, soaring in spectacular lysergic flights. On "Fat" and "Across The Board," the queen of the Bay Area unleashed her newfound aerial prowess, harmonized by the Pointer Sisters or stretching out in introspective solitude, reaching dizzying heights. Yet, tradition persisted with the solemn stride of the piano accompanying her. In "Fishman," her ethereal voice floated lightly atop the guitar's fingertips, weightless and graceful, twirling and eventually settling into powerful gusts of primal gospel. The song soon entangled her in increasingly urgent spirals, ascending ever higher.

The remainder of the album exhibited a lyrical yet scattered nature. Diverse themes coexisted, such as "Your Mind Has Left Your Body," a cosmic parade of psychedelic wonders evoking the sensation of a journey in rhythmic stasis, accompanied by extended vocal passages. Kantner's "Walkin'" showcased a lanky rural ambiance, employing choir, banjo, and violin. "Flowers Of The Night" (by Traylor) embarked on an epic excursion into the revolutionary traditions of past centuries, a funereal evocation of illustrious ghosts with subversive morals. Freiberg contributed the angry funky-soul cadences of "Ballad Of The Chrome Nun" and the celestial melancholy of "Harp Tree Lament," a choral refrain combining the tenderness of late-night inebriation with the hijacked sorrow of defeated veterans.

The album's two highlights were two additional compositions by Kantner. "White Boy" emerged as a thumping and dramatic parable, an announcement on racism that felt lost and rediscovered in cold deserts resonating solely with Grace Slick's mournful cry. The atmospheric tension was constructed through skillful sound and vocal interplay, culminating in a ghostly progression of instrumental interventions, ultimately launched by the congas into a final crescendo. Prefaced by gong strikes, Slick's mischievous voice and an epic thread of mellotron, "Sketches Of China" served as the concluding anthem—a solemn melody dissolving through multiple vocal layers, climaxing in a tragic choral moment.

Even when not in the forefront, Slick's gospel progressions left an indelible mark on the album. Though she may have lost some of the power of her early days, she had honed her technique to perfection, mastering the art of crescendo. Her singing would start softly, propelled by an epic cadence that aimed to create suspense. Vowels elongated, ascending octave after octave, refrain after refrain, until reaching the pinnacle of her highest cry. Through this elemental technique, which elevated the ecclesiastical singing of gospel and Protestant ceremonies, Slick succeeded in crafting the heroic atmospheres for which the ensemble had become renowned.

In 1974 Kantner and Slick, closing the open lineup of Baron Von Tallbooth, formed a new band, the Jefferson Starship, with Barbata (drums), Chaquico (guitar), Freiberg (bass), Creach (violin), Pete Sears (piano) and the rediscovered Balin (also back from a poor solo rehearsal, Bodacious). Within this line-up, the "Mexican" Chaquico, the last of the great visionary guitars of the Bay Area, carved out an ever wider space, even if the lysergic / exotic touch of Kaukonen is missing.

Kantner declared that he no longer wanted to sing the revolution, but rather wanted to sing the evolution. Eternally attached to his utopias, the old leader launched a space-rock halfway between soft and funky, managing if only to systematically enter the sales charts (thanks to the salability of Balin's songs). Within the group Slick progressively lost ground, consoling himself with squalid solo records, increasingly depressing experiments of pretentious exoticism.

The first Dragon Fly (RCA, 1974) contained the proud Ride The Tiger, worthy of the anthems and dazzling flights of yore. The arrangement were very accurate, soft and crystalline: the hard violin by Creach, the neat and petulant guitar by Chaquico, the now velvety and hammering keyboards by Sears, a synthesizer thread and the legendary vocal harmonies of the leaders.

Red Octopus (Grunt, 1975) repeated, with less imagination, but with the added seductive power of Balin's songs, back in the limelight with the airy cocktail-jazz ballad Miracles, Balin's biggest hit and a of their most sophisticated songs, in a lake of choirs and strings, of clinking keyboards. The powerful, meaty vocalism of Slick plays in Play On Love, and above all in the gritty Fast Buck Freddie, a country-blues all in one breath with a galloping finish. Starship repeats the style invented ten years earlier, updating it according to trends. The sales skyrocket: in mid-1975 they are in first place in the 45 and 33 rpm charts.

With Spitfire (1976) Kantner expires, however, in entertainment music, with string sections and soul choirs, saving himself only in the crystalline oasis of St. Charles, a classic calligraphy by Balin-Kantner-Slick, with a cosmic-mantra opening and the entire portfolio of choirs, solo flights, piano punctuation and orchestral backgrounds.

On the following Earth (1978) the relaxed and warm country ballad Count On Me stands out, another apex of the new course. After this record a big crisis torments the group, who lose in one fell swoop Balin, Barbata, and above all Grace Slick. The legendary singer (now married to a boy thirteen years younger than her), destroyed by drugs and alcohol, after losing her charisma also loses her job.

The Jefferson Starship of Freedom At Point Zero (1979) and Modern Times (1980) have a unique master, Paul Kantner, winner of a fierce elimination fight, but the songs were written by the new ones (Chaquico and Sears), the grandchildren born when the spaceship were already on its way. The historical balance, which saw Grace Slick in the control room (image and spokesperson of the group), Paul Kantner in charge of the material (even where not attributed), Casady and Kaukonen in the role of luxury wingmen harnessed by the artistic diktat of the garments, and completely skipped.

When Slick decided to rejoin the ranks, there was already a new singer, Mickey Thomas, and on No Way Out (1984), We Built This City (1985), Sara (1986) and Rock And Roll Is Good Time Music (1986) ), Nothing Is Gonna Stop Us (1987), the great hits of maturity, he is the first voice. The period albums, Nuclear Furniture (RCA, 1984), Knee Deep In The Hoopla (RCA, 1985) and No Protection (RCA, 1987) are simple frames for the hits. Starship is now one of the most popular bands in the world. Kantner, Balin and Casady, seized by remorse, instead do penance with a complex, even if the lysergic / exotic touch of Kaukonen is missing.

Gold (Grunt, 1979) is an anthology of the Jefferson Starship hits.


(Original English text by Piero Scaruffi) (Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Grace Slick recorded two more solo albums: Dreams (1980), another philosophical concept with sophisticated arrangements (El Diablo, Let It Go), and Welcome To The Wrecking Ball (1981), a terrible record that seems to highlight a both mental and physical collapse.

Kantner continued the saga of Blows Against The Empire with Planet Heart R'n'R Orchestra (1983).

Kantner, Slick, Casady, Kaukonen and Balin reformed the Jefferson Airplane for a come-back album, Jefferson Airplane (Epic, 1989). The times have changed, but the members keep their different personalities, as proven by Kantner's utopian Planes, Kaukonen's skewed Ice Age, Slick's touching Common Market Madrigal and Balin's poppy Summer Of Love.

The Starship that released Love Among The Cannibals (RCA, 1989) was a an obnoxious commercial outfit led by singer Mickey Thomas and guitarist Craig Chaquico (Slick having retired for good).

Marty Balin returned with the album Better Generation (GWE, 1992), while Craig Chaquico launched his solo career.

The live album Deep Space Virgin Sky (Intersound, 1995) marks the return of Jefferson Airplane (Kantner, Balin, Casady) with Darby Gould imitating Grace Slick.

Kaukonen's turn came with Too Many Years (Relix, 1999), a collection of rootsy songs that rarely (HYpnotation Blues) do justice to his stunning psychedelic technique. The follow-up Blue Country Heart (Columbia, 2002) is even more traditional.

Grace Slick lives happily retired from music. While still occasionally in trouble with the law (most recently in 1994), she turned to new age philosophy and published her memoirs in 1998.

Kaukonen recorded classy blues albums such as Blue Country Heart (2002) and Stars In My Crown (2007).

Kantner died at 74 in 2016. Balin died in 2018 at the age of 76.

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