Biography All Music GuideWikipedia
Group Members: Marty Balin, Jorma Kaukonen, Jorma Kaukonen and Tom Constanten, Various Artists - Relix Records, Jack Casady, Paul Kantner, Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship, Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and David Freiberg, Papa John Creach
All Music Guide:
Jefferson Airplane was the first of the San Francisco psychedelic rock groups of the 1960s to achieve national recognition. Although the Grateful Dead ultimately proved more long-lived and popular, Jefferson Airplane defined the San Francisco sound in the 1960s, with the acid rock guitar playing of Jorma Kaukonen and the soaring twin vocals of Grace Slick and Marty Balin, scoring hit singles and looking out from the covers of national magazines. They epitomized the drug-taking hippie ethos as well as the left-wing, antiwar political movement of their time, and their history was one of controversy along with hit records. Their personal interactions mirrored those times; the group was a collective with shifting alliances, in which leaders emerged and retreated. But for all the turmoil, Jefferson Airplane was remarkably productive between 1965 and 1972. They toured regularly, being the only band to play at all the major '60s rock festivals -- Monterey, Woodstock, even Altamont -- and they released seven studio albums, five of which went gold, plus two live LPs and a million-selling hits collection that chronicled their eight chart singles. Rather than formally breaking up, they mutated into other configurations, Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship, and went on to further success in the 1970s and '80s, before reuniting for an album and tour in 1989.
The initial idea for the group that became Jefferson Airplane came from 23-year-old Marty Balin (born Martyn Jerel Buchwald in Cincinnati, OH, January 30, 1942), a San Francisco-raised singer who had recorded unsuccessfully for Challenge Records in 1962 and been a member of a folk group called the Town Criers in 1963-1964. With the Beatles-led British Invasion of 1964, Balin saw the merging of folk with rock in early 1965 and decided to form a group to play the hybrid style as well as open a club for the group to play in. He interested three investors in converting a pizza restaurant on Fillmore Street into a 100-seat venue called the Matrix, and he began picking potential bandmembers from among the musicians at a folk club called the Drinking Gourd. His first recruit was rhythm guitarist/singer Paul Kantner (born Paul Lorin Kantner in San Francisco, CA, March 17, 1941), who in turn recommended lead guitarist/singer Jorma Kaukonen (born Jorma Ludwik Kaukonen in Washington, D.C., December 23, 1940). Balin, who possessed a keening tenor, wanted a complementary powerful female voice for the group and found it in Signe Toly (born Signe Ann Toly in Seattle, WA, September 15, 1941). The six-piece band was completed by bass player Bob Harvey and drummer Jerry Peloquin. The group's unusual name was suggested by Kaukonen, who had once jokingly been dubbed "Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane" by a friend in reference to the blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Jefferson Airplane made their debut at the Matrix on August 13, 1965, and began performing at the club regularly. They attracted favorable press attention, which -- at a time when folk-rock performers like Sonny & Cher, We Five, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, the Beau Brummels, and the Turtles were all over the charts -- led to record company interest. By September, Jefferson Airplane was being wooed by several labels. At the same time, the band was already undergoing changes. Peloquin was fired and replaced by Skip Spence (born Alexander Lee Spence, Jr. in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, on April 18, 1946; died in Santa Cruz, CA, April 16, 1999). Spence considered himself a guitarist, not a drummer, but he had some drumming experience. Also in September, Signe Toly married Jerry Anderson, who handled lights at the Matrix, becoming known as Signe Anderson. In October, Harvey was fired and replaced by Jack Casady (born John William Casady in Washington, D.C., April 13, 1944), a friend of Kaukonen's. On November 15, 1965, this lineup -- Balin, Kantner, Anderson, Kaukonen, Spence, and Casady -- signed to RCA Victor Records. They had their first recording session in Los Angeles on December 16, and RCA released their debut single, Balin's composition "It's No Secret," in February 1966; it did not chart. Meanwhile, Jefferson Airplane began to appear at more prestigious venues in San Francisco and even to tour outside the Bay Area. In May 1966, Anderson gave birth to a daughter, and caring for the child while performing with the band became a challenge. Meanwhile, Spence became increasingly unreliable as his appetite for drugs increased, and he was replaced in June by session drummer Spencer Dryden (born Spencer Dryden Wheeler in New York, April 7, 1938; died in Petaluma, CA, January 11, 2005). Spence went on to form the band Moby Grape.
Following a second non-charting single, Balin and Kantner's "Come Up the Years," in July, Jefferson Airplane released their debut LP, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, on August 15, 1966, just over a year after the band's debut. The album had modest sales, peaking at only number 128 during 11 weeks on the Billboard chart. (A third single, Balin and Kantner's "Bringing Me Down," was released from the album, but did not chart.) At this point, Anderson's commitment to her family caused her departure from the group. Jefferson Airplane was able to find a strong replacement for her in Grace Slick (born Grace Barnett Wing in or near Chicago, IL, October 30, 1939), the lead singer for the San Francisco rock band the Great Society, which happened to be in the process of breaking up at the same time. Slick joined Jefferson Airplane in mid-October 1966, and by the end of the month was with them in the recording studio. She brought with her two songs from the Great Society repertoire: the rock tune "Somebody to Love," written by her brother-in-law Darby Slick, the Great Society's guitarist, and her own composition, the ballad "White Rabbit," set to a bolero tempo, which used imagery from Alice in Wonderland to discuss the impact of psychedelic drugs. Both songs were recorded for Jefferson Airplane's second album, Surrealistic Pillow.
RCA did not release either of them as the advance single from the album, opting instead for the departed Spence's "My Best Friend" in January 1967; it became the group's fourth single to miss the charts. Surrealistic Pillow followed in February. It debuted in the charts the last week of March, and its progress was speeded by the release of "Somebody to Love," the first Jefferson Airplane single to feature Grace Slick as lead vocalist. By early May, both the album and single were in the Top 40 of their respective charts; a month later, both were in the Top Ten. With that, RCA released "White Rabbit" as a single, and it too reached the Top Ten. Surrealistic Pillow became Jefferson Airplane's first gold album in July.
Meanwhile, the band, which, naturally, had attracted national media attention (much of it focusing on Slick's photogenic looks), began recording a new album and continued to tour. On June 17, 1967, they performed at the Monterey International Pop Festival, which was celebrated for introducing many of the new San Francisco rock bands (as well as the Jimi Hendrix Experience) and launching the "Summer of Love" that the season was touted to be in 1967. Jefferson Airplane's performance was filmed and recorded. Two songs from their show, "High Flying Bird" and "Today," were featured in the documentary film Monterey Pop, released in 1968. The concert recording was heavily bootlegged and over the years has turned up on numerous gray-market releases as well.
The nature of Jefferson Airplane's commercial breakthrough, and the nature of the band itself, restricted their commercial appeal thereafter. AM Top 40 radio, in particular, became wary of a group that had scored a hit with a song widely derided for its drug references, and Jefferson Airplane never again enjoyed the kind of widespread radio support they would have needed to score more Top Ten hits. At the same time, the group did not think of itself as a hitmaking machine, and its recordings were becoming more adventurous. Kantner's "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil," the band's new single released in August, featured him as lead singer with Slick and Balin harmonizing. It reached number 42 on the strength of the band's prominence, but they never again crossed the halfway mark in the Hot 100. At the same time, the rise of FM radio, attracted to longer cuts and the kind of experimental work the group was starting to do, gave them a new way of exposing their music. Nevertheless, their third album, After Bathing at Baxter's, its songs arranged into lengthy suites, was not as successful as Surrealistic Pillow when it appeared on November 27, 1967, reaching the Top 20 but failing to go gold. Also notable was the diminished participation of Marty Balin, who co-wrote only one song, and now was being marginalized in the group he had founded.
After Kantner's "Watch Her Ride," released as a single from After Bathing at Baxter's, stalled at number 61, RCA released a new Jefferson Airplane single written and sung by Slick in the spring of 1968. But radio was even more resistant, and "Greasy Heart" stopped at number 98. It was included in the band's fourth album, Crown of Creation, released in August. The title track got to number 64 as a single, and the LP, which featured more concise, less experimental tracks than After Bathing at Baxter's, marked a resurgence in the group's commercial success, reaching the Top Ten and eventually going gold. Jefferson Airplane's live appeal was chronicled on the concert album Bless Its Pointed Little Head, released in February 1969. In August, the group appeared at the Woodstock festival, and it was featured on the million-selling triple-LP soundtrack album to the resulting film in 1970, though it did not appear onscreen in the version initially released. The band's fifth studio album, Volunteers, appeared in October 1969 as its title song became a minor singles chart entry. Volunteers stopped short of the Top Ten, but it went gold in three months. On December 6, 1969, the band played at the Rolling Stones' disastrous Altamont free concert in California, its performance (complete with Balin's beating at the hands of Hell's Angels) captured in the 1970 documentary film Gimme Shelter.
Jefferson Airplane released one more single, the non-charting marijuana anthem "Mexico," in 1970 in its familiar configuration, but the turn of the 1970s brought great changes in the group. Already, Kaukonen and Casady, with assorted sidemen, had begun to play separately as Hot Tuna while maintaining their membership in Jefferson Airplane; they had recorded shows the previous September for a self-titled debut album issued in May 1970. Spencer Dryden was fired early in the year and replaced by drummer Joey Covington (born Joseph Michno in East Conemaugh, PA, June 27, 1945; died in Palm Springs, CA, June 4, 2013). At shows performed in October 1970, violinist Papa John Creach, who had been performing with Hot Tuna, first played with Jefferson Airplane. Creach (born John Henry Creach in Beaver Falls, PA, May 18, 1917; died February 22, 1994) was a journeyman musician decades older than any of the other members of Jefferson Airplane, and his recruitment was evidence of the ways in which the band's approach was changing. An even more radical change was the departure of Marty Balin, who left the band at the end of the fall tour in November. (His resignation was formally announced in April 1971.)
Jefferson Airplane did not have a new album ready for release in 1970, and RCA filled the gap with a compilation, sarcastically dubbed The Worst of Jefferson Airplane and released in November. The album went gold quickly and was later certified platinum. Issued on its heels was Paul Kantner's debut solo album, Blows Against the Empire, featuring most of the members of Jefferson Airplane as well as various other musical friends. Due to that long list of sidemen and the album's science fiction theme about a group of hippies hijacking a spaceship, Kantner co-billed the disc to "Jefferson Starship." As yet, there was no such entity, but Kantner would use the name for a real band later.
Having completed their recording commitment to RCA, Jefferson Airplane shopped for a new label, but was wooed back when RCA offered them their own imprint, Grunt Records. Grunt bowed with the release of the sixth Jefferson Airplane studio album, Bark, in August 1971. The album stopped just short of the Top Ten and quickly went gold. Covington, Casady, and Kaukonen's "Pretty as You Feel," later issued as a single, gave the band its final placing in the Hot 100 at number 60 early in 1972. Grunt issued albums by bandmembers including Creach and Hot Tuna, as well as discs by friends, but Jefferson Airplane remained its most successful act.
In the early '70s, the members of Jefferson Airplane became increasingly preoccupied by their side projects. Hot Tuna, having issued a second live album, First Pull Up, Then Pull Down, in the spring of 1971, put out their first studio effort, Burgers, in February 1972. Kantner and Slick, who had become a couple and had a child, China Kantner (who went on to be an MTV VJ in her teens), issued a duo album, Sunfighter, in December 1971. In April 1972, Covington left the band and was replaced by veteran drummer John Barbata (born in Passaic, NJ, April 1, 1945), formerly a member of the Turtles and a backup musician for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The group then recorded its seventh studio album, Long John Silver, which was issued in the summer of 1972. It reached the Top 20 and went gold within six months. For the accompanying tour, they added singer/multi-instrumentalist David Freiberg (born in Boston, MA, August 24, 1938), formerly a member of the San Francisco rock band Quicksilver Messenger Service, to provide the male lead vocals formerly sung by Balin.
The tour concluded at the Winterland ballroom in San Francisco on September 22, 1972, in effect marking the end of Jefferson Airplane, although no formal announcement was ever made. Kaukonen and Casady went back to performing as Hot Tuna. Kantner, Slick, and Freiberg recorded a trio album, Baron von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun, issued in the spring of 1973 and featuring the rest of Jefferson Airplane as side musicians. Slick's debut solo album, Manhole, issued in early 1974, also featured many of the same performers. Kantner and Slick then organized a new band along the same lines as Jefferson Airplane, but without Kaukonen and Casady, and called it Jefferson Starship. Meanwhile, a second Jefferson Airplane live album drawn from the 1972 tour, Thirty Seconds Over Winterland, was issued in the spring of 1973. Early Flight, a collection of stray tracks, appeared in the spring of 1974. Grunt issued the compilation Flight Log (1966-1976) at the start of 1977, filling the two LPs with tracks by Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, and various other spinoff acts. 2400 Fulton Street: An Anthology, named after the address of a house owned by the band in the 1960s, was a two-disc set released in 1987. All of these albums sold well enough to reach the charts.
The various members of Jefferson Airplane went through various solo efforts and group affiliations in the 1970s and '80s, plus considerable litigation with an old manager and each other. This was all cleared up by the late '80s, however, and in 1989 Kantner, Slick, Kaukonen, and Casady (who, with manager Bill Thompson, still owned the rights to use the name Jefferson Airplane) brought in Balin (who had sold out his share in the group in 1971) and reunited as Jefferson Airplane for a tour and album. The tour, which ran from August 18 to October 7, was well received; the album, Jefferson Airplane, released by Epic Records, was only a modest success. After that, the band again became inactive. Slick retired. Kaukonen and Casady resumed performing as Hot Tuna. Kantner eventually resurrected the Jefferson Starship name, sometimes including Balin and even occasionally Slick, and playing Jefferson Airplane songs. RCA continued to release archival recordings, its most interesting issues being the 1992 box set Jefferson Airplane Loves You and the 1998 concert recording Live at the Fillmore East.
Jefferson Airplane was an American rock band formed in San Francisco, California, in 1965. A pioneer of counterculture-era psychedelic rock, the group was the first band from the San Francisco scene to achieve international mainstream success. They performed at the three most famous American rock festivals of the 1960s—Monterey (1967), Woodstock (1969) and Altamont (1969)—as well as headlined the first Isle of Wight Festival (1968). Their 1967 record Surrealistic Pillow is regarded as one of the key recordings of the "Summer of Love". Two hits from that album, "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit", are among Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time".
The membership of Jefferson Airplane remained stable from 1967 to early 1970. During that period, they enjoyed success as "album" artists. Between 1967 and 1972 they scored a run of eight consecutive Top 20 albums in the USA, with both Surrealistic Pillow and Crown of Creation making the Top 10. Despite a lack of top ten singles following their initial success, many of their singles still managed to make minor chart positions in the singles chart due in part to the growing influence of FM radio, which played many rock songs that AM radio did not. Successor bands to Jefferson Airplane include Jefferson Starship and Starship; spinoffs include Hot Tuna and KBC Band. Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996."Blogcritics Music – Artist Overview – Jefferson Airplane". Blogcritics.org. Retrieved 2011-10-02. "Billy Altman". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2011-10-02. Bruce Elder, allmusic.com rollingstone.com
ContentsHistory1.1 1965–66: formation and early career1.2 19671.2.1 Commercial breakthrough1.2.2 Change of direction1.3 1968–691.4 1970–72: decline and dissolution1.5 Reunion and recent events
1965–66: formation and early career
In 1962, 20-year-old Marty Balin recorded two singles for Challenge Records, neither of which was successful. Balin then joined a folk group called The Town Criers from 1963 to 1964. After the Beatles-led British invasion of 1964, Balin was inspired by the success of the Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel in merging folk with rock to form a group in 1965 that would follow that lead. With a group of investors, Balin purchased a former pizza parlor on Fillmore Street, which he converted to a music club, the Matrix, and began searching for members for his group.
Balin met folk musician Paul Kantner at another local club, The Drinking Gourd. Kantner, a native San Franciscan, had started out performing on the Bay Area folk circuit in the early 1960s, alongside fellow folkies Jerry Garcia, David Crosby and Janis Joplin. Kantner has cited folk groups like the Kingston Trio and the Weavers as strong early influences. He briefly moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1964 to work in a folk duo with future Airplane/Starship member David Freiberg (who subsequently joined Quicksilver Messenger Service).
Balin and Kantner then recruited other musicians to form the house band at the Matrix. After hearing female vocalist Signe Toly Anderson at the Drinking Gourd, Balin invited her to be the group's co-lead singer. Anderson sang with the band for a year and performed on their first album before departing in October 1966 after the birth of her first child.
Kantner next recruited an old friend, blues guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Originally from Washington, D.C., Kaukonen had moved to California in the early 1960s and met Kantner while at Santa Clara University in 1962. Kaukonen was invited to jam with the new band and although initially reluctant to join he was won over after playing his guitar through a tape delay device that was part of the sound system used by Ken Kesey for his Acid Test parties. Drummer Jerry Peloquin and acoustic bassist Bob Harvey completed the original lineup.
The origin of the group's name is disputed. "Jefferson airplane" is slang for a used paper match splint to hold a marijuana joint that is too short to hold without burning the fingers – an improvised roach clip. A popular conjecture suggests this was the origin of the band's name, but band member Jorma Kaukonen has denied this and stated that the name was invented by his friend Steve Talbot as a parody of blues names such as Blind Lemon Jefferson. A 2007 press release quoted Kaukonen as saying:
"I had this friend [Talbot] in Berkeley who came up with funny names for people," explains Kaukonen. "His name for me was Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane (for blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson). When the guys were looking for band names and nobody could come up with something, I remember saying, 'You want a silly band name? I got a silly band name for you!'"
The group made its first public appearance as Jefferson Airplane at the opening night of The Matrix on August 13, 1965. The band expanded from its folk roots, drawing inspiration from the Beatles, the Byrds and the Lovin' Spoonful, and gradually developed a more pop-oriented electric sound.
A few weeks after the group was formed, Jerry Peloquin departed, in part because of his disdain for the others' drug use. Although he was not a drummer, singer-guitarist Skip Spence (who later founded Moby Grape) was then invited to replace Peloquin. In October 1965, after the other members decided that Bob Harvey's bass playing was not up to par, he was replaced by guitarist-bassist Jack Casady, an old friend of Kaukonen from Washington, D.C., Casady played his first gig with the Airplane at a college concert in Berkeley, California, two weeks after he arrived in San Francisco.
The group's performing skills improved rapidly and they soon gained a strong following in and around San Francisco, aided by reviews from veteran music journalist Ralph J. Gleason, the jazz critic of the San Francisco Chronicle who, after seeing them at the Matrix in late 1965, proclaimed them "one of the best bands ever". Gleason's support raised the band's profile considerably, and within three months their manager Matthew Katz was fielding offers from recording companies, although they had yet to perform outside the Bay Area.
Two significant early concerts featuring the Airplane were held in late 1965. The first was the historic dance at the Longshoremen's Hall in San Francisco on October 16, 1965, the first of many "happenings" in the Bay Area, where Gleason first saw them perform. At this concert they were supported by a local folk-rock group, the Great Society, which featured Grace Slick as lead singer and it was here that Kantner met Slick for the first time. A few weeks later, on November 6, they headlined a benefit concert for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the first of many promotions by rising Bay Area entrepreneur Bill Graham, who later became the band's manager.
In November 1965, Jefferson Airplane signed a recording contract with RCA Victor, which included an unheard-of advance of US$25,000. Prior to this, they had recorded a demo for Columbia Records of "The Other Side Of This Life" with Bob Harvey on bass, which was immediately shelved by the label. On December 10, 1965, the Airplane played at the first Bill Graham-promoted show at the Fillmore Auditorium, supported by the Great Society and others. The Airplane also appeared at numerous Family Dog shows promoted by Chet Helms at the Avalon Ballroom.
The group's first single was Balin's "It's No Secret" (a tune he wrote with Otis Redding in mind); the B-side was "Runnin' Round The World", the song that led to the band's first clash with RCA, over the lyric "The nights I've spent with you have been fantastic trips". After their debut LP was completed in March 1966, Skip Spence quit the band and he was eventually replaced by Spencer Dryden, who played his first show with the Airplane at the Berkeley Folk Festival on July 4, 1966. Dryden had previously played with a Los Angeles group called the Ashes, who later became the Peanut Butter Conspiracy.
Original manager Matthew Katz was fired in August, sparking a long-running legal battle that continued until 1987, and Balin's friend and roommate Bill Thompson was installed as road manager and temporary band manager. It was Thompson, a friend and staunch supporter of the band and a former Chronicle staffer, who had convinced reviewers Ralph Gleason and John Wasserman to see the band at the Longshoreman's Hall. Thanks to Gleason's influence, Thompson was able to book the group for appearances at the Berkeley Folk Festival and at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
The group's debut LP Jefferson Airplane Takes Off was released in September 1966. The folk-music-influenced album included John D. Loudermilk's "Tobacco Road" and Dino Valente's "Let's Get Together", as well as original ballads "It's No Secret" and "Come Up the Years". Despite the fact that the group had neither performed outside the Bay Area nor appeared on TV, the album garnered considerable attention in the United States and sold well enough to earn a gold record award. RCA initially pressed only 15,000 copies, but it sold more than 10,000 in San Francisco alone, prompting the label to reprint it. For the re-pressing, the company deleted "Runnin' Round This World" (which had appeared on early mono pressings), because executives objected to the word "trip" in the lyrics. For similar reasons, RCA also substituted altered versions for two other tracks: "Let Me In", changing the line "you shut your door; you know where" to "you shut your door; now it ain't fair." In the same song, they also switched the lyric "Don't tell me you want money" to "Don't tell me it ain't funny". "Run Around" was also edited, changing the line "flowers that sway as you lay under me" to "flowers that sway as you stay here by me". The original pressings of the LP featuring "Runnin' 'Round The World" and the uncensored versions of "Let Me In" and "Run Around" are now worth thousands of dollars on the collectors' market.
Signe Anderson gave birth to her daughter in May 1966, and in October she announced her departure from the band. Her final gig with the Airplane took place at the Fillmore on October 15, 1966. The following night, her replacement Grace Slick made her first appearance. Slick was already well known to the band—she had attended the Airplane's debut gig at the Matrix in 1965 and her previous group, the Great Society, had often supported the Airplane in concert.
Slick's recruitment proved pivotal to the Airplane's commercial breakthrough—she possessed a powerful and supple contralto voice that complemented Balin's and was well-suited to the group's amplified psychedelic music, and, a former model, her good looks and stage presence greatly enhanced the group's live impact. “White Rabbit” was written by Grace Slick while she was still with The Great Society. The first album Slick recorded with Jefferson Airplane was Surrealistic Pillow, and Slick provided two songs from her previous group: her own “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”, written by her brother-in-law Darby Slick. Both songs became breakout successes for Jefferson Airplane and have ever since been associated with that band.
The Great Society had recorded an early version of "Somebody to Love" (under the title "Someone to Love") as the B-side of their only single, "Free Advice", produced by Sylvester Stewart (soon to become famous as Sly Stone). It reportedly took more than 50 takes to achieve a satisfactory rendition. The Great Society decided to split up in late 1966 and played its last show on September 11. Soon after, Slick was asked to join Jefferson Airplane by Jack Casady (whose musicianship was a major influence on her decision) and her Great Society contract was bought out for $750.
In December 1966, Jefferson Airplane was featured in a Newsweek article about the booming San Francisco music scene, one of the first in a welter of similar media reports that prompted a massive influx of young people to the city and contributed to the commercialization of the hippie culture.
Around the beginning of 1967 Bill Graham took over from Bill Thompson as manager. In January the group made their first visit to the East Coast. On January 14, alongside the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane headlined the now-legendary "Human Be-In", the famous all-day "happening" in Golden Gate Park, one of the key events leading up to the "Summer of Love".
During this period the band gained their first international recognition when rising British pop star Donovan, who saw them during his stint on the U.S. West Coast in early 1966, mentioned the Airplane in his song "The Fat Angel", which subsequently appeared on his Sunshine Superman LP.
The group's second LP, Surrealistic Pillow, recorded in Los Angeles with producer Rick Jarrard in only thirteen days at a cost of $8,000, launched the Airplane to international fame. Released in February 1967, the LP entered the Billboard 200 album chart on March 25 and remained there for over a year, peaking at No. 3. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. The name "Surrealistic Pillow" was suggested by the album's "shadow producer", Jerry Garcia, when he mentioned that, as a whole, the album sounded "as Surrealistic as a pillow is soft". Although RCA Victor would not acknowledge Garcia's considerable contributions to the album with a "Producer" credit, he is listed in the album's credits as "spiritual advisor".
In addition to the group's two best-known tracks, "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love", the album featured "My Best Friend" by former drummer Skip Spence, Balin's driving blues-rock songs "Plastic Fantastic Lover" and "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds", and the atmospheric Balin-Kantner ballad "Today". A reminder of their earlier folk incarnation was Kaukonen's solo acoustic guitar tour de force, "Embryonic Journey" (his first composition), which referenced contemporary acoustic guitar masters such as John Fahey and helped to establish the popular genre exemplified by acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke.
The first single from the album, Spence's "My Best Friend", failed to chart, but the next two singles rocketed the group to prominence. Both "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" became major U.S. hits, the former reaching No. 5 and the latter No. 8 on the Billboard singles chart. By late 1967 the Airplane were national and international stars and had become one of the hottest groups in America. Grace Slick biographer Barbara Rowes called the album "a declaration of independence from the establishment [-] What Airplane originated was a romanticism for the electronic age. Unlike the highly homogenized harmonies of the Beach Boys, Airplane never strived for a synthesis of its divergent sensibilities. Through [-] each song, there remain strains of the individual styles of the musicians [creating] unusual breadth and original interplay within each structure".
This phase of the Airplane's career peaked with their famous performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967. Monterey showcased leading bands from several major music "scenes" including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the United Kingdom, and the resulting TV and film coverage gave national (and international) exposure to groups that had previously had only regional fame. Two songs from the Airplane's set were subsequently included in the D. A. Pennebaker film documentary of the event.
The Airplane also benefited greatly from appearances on national network TV shows such as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on NBC and The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. The Airplane's famous appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour performing "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" was videotaped in color and augmented by developments in video techniques. It has been frequently re-screened and is notable for its pioneering use of the Chroma key process to simulate the Airplane's psychedelic light show.
Change of direction
After Surrealistic Pillow, the group's music underwent a significant transformation. Key influences on the group's new direction were the popularity and success of Jimi Hendrix and the British supergroup Cream, which prompted the Airplane (like many other groups) to adopt a "heavier" sound and to place a greater emphasis on improvisation. The band's third LP, After Bathing at Baxter's, was released on November 27, 1967, and eventually peaked in the charts at No. 17. Its famous cover, drawn by renowned artist and cartoonist Ron Cobb depicts a Heath Robinson-inspired flying machine (constructed around an idealised version of a typical Haight-Ashbury district house) soaring above the chaos of American commercial culture.
Recorded over a period of more than four months, with little input from nominal producer Al Schmitt, the new album demonstrated the group's growing engagement with psychedelic rock. Where the previous LP had consisted entirely of "standard-length" pop songs, Baxter's was dominated by long multi-part suites, while "A Small Package of Value Will Come To You Shortly" was a musique concrete style audio collage inspired by Frank Zappa's avant-garde work on side four of Freak Out! Baxter's also marked the ascendency of Kantner and Slick as the band's chief composers and the concurrent decline in the influence and involvement of founder Marty Balin. The other members, gravitating toward a harder-edged style, openly criticized Balin for his ballad-oriented compositions. Balin was also reportedly becoming increasingly disenchanted with the "star trips" and inflated egos generated by the band's runaway commercial success.
Baxter's also marked the end of the Airplane's brief run of success on the singles chart. While both "White Rabbit" and "Somebody To Love" were U.S. Top 10 hits, "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil", peaked at No. 43 and "Watch Her Ride" stalled at No. 61, though both were listed as being in the top forty in Cash Box. None of the band's subsequent singles made it into the Top 40 and several did not chart at all. AM Top 40 radio, in particular, became wary of a group that had scored a hit with a song that contained thinly-veiled drug references and whose singles were often deemed too controversial, so Jefferson Airplane never again enjoyed the kind of widespread radio support they would have needed to score more Top Ten hits.
In February 1968, manager Bill Graham was fired after Grace Slick delivered an "either he goes or I go" ultimatum. Bill Thompson took over as permanent manager and set about consolidating the group's financial security, establishing Icebag Corp. to oversee the band's publishing interests and purchasing a 20-room mansion at 2400 Fulton Street across from Golden Gate Park near the Haight-Ashbury, which became the band's office and communal residence. Bill Laudner was hired as road manager.
In mid-1968, the group was photographed for a Life magazine story on "The New Rock", appearing on the cover of the June 28, 1968 edition. They undertook their first major tour of Europe in August–September 1968, playing alongside the Doors in the Netherlands, England, Germany, and Sweden. In a notorious incident at a concert in Amsterdam, while the Airplane was performing "Plastic Fantastic Lover", Doors singer Jim Morrison, under the influence of a combination of drugs fans had given him, appeared on stage and began dancing "like a pinwheel". As the group played faster and faster, Morrison spun around wildly until he finally fell senseless on the stage at Marty Balin's feet. Morrison was unable to perform his set with the Doors and was hospitalized while keyboardist Ray Manzarek was forced to sing all the vocals. It was also during this tour that Slick and Morrison allegedly engaged in a brief sexual relationship, described in Slick's 1998 autobiography.
Jefferson Airplane's fourth LP, Crown of Creation (released in September 1968), was a commercial success, peaking at No. 6 on the album chart. Grace Slick's "Lather", which opens the album, is said to be about her affair with drummer Spencer Dryden and his 30th birthday. "Triad", a David Crosby piece, had been rejected by the Byrds because they deemed its subject matter (a ménage à trois) to be too "hot". Slick's searing sexual and social-commentary anthem "Greasy Heart" was released as a single in March 1968. A few tracks recorded for the LP were left off the album but later included as bonus tracks, including the Grace Slick/Frank Zappa collaboration "Would You Like A Snack?"
The Airplane's appearance on The Smothers Brothers in the fall of that year caused a minor stir when Grace Slick appeared in blackface (she claimed she simply wanted to wear all the makeup she saw in her dressing room) and raised her fist in the Black Panther Party's salute after singing "Crown of Creation".
In February 1969 RCA released the live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head, which was culled from late 1968 live concert performances at the Fillmore West on October 24–26 and the Fillmore East on November 28–30. It became the Airplane's fourth Top 20 album, peaking at No. 17.
In April 1969, sessions began for their next album, Volunteers, using new 16-track facilities at the Wally Heider Studio in San Francisco. This proved to be the last album by the "classic" lineup of the group. The album's release was delayed when the band ran into conflict with their label over the content of songs such as "We Can Be Together" and "Uncle Sam Blues" and the planned title of the album, Volunteers of Amerika. "Volunteers of Amerika" is a corruption of the Volunteers of America charity; the term being in vogue in 1969 as an ironic expression of dissatisfaction with America; however the charity objected so the name was shortened to Volunteers.
In August 1969, a few days after the band headlined at a free concert in New York's Central Park, they performed in what Grace Slick called an early "morning maniac music" slot at the Woodstock festival, for which the group was joined by noted British session keyboard player Nicky Hopkins. When interviewed about Woodstock by Jeff Tamarkin in 1992, Paul Kantner still recalled it with fondness, whereas Grace Slick and Spencer Dryden had less than rosy memories.
Immediately after their Woodstock performance, the band appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and played a few songs. Other guests on that same episode were David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Joni Mitchell. The new album was finally released in the United States in November 1969 with the title shortened to Volunteers. The song "Uncle Sam Blues" did not appear but was later released on the eponymous Hot Tuna album. Volunteers continued the Airplane's run of Top 20 LPs, peaking at No. 13 and going gold early in 1970. It was their most political venture, showcasing the group's vocal opposition to the Vietnam War and documenting their reaction to the changing political atmosphere in the United States. The best-known tracks include "Volunteers", "We Can Be Together", "Good Shepherd", and the post-apocalyptic "Wooden Ships", which Paul Kantner co-wrote with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, and Crosby, Stills & Nash also recorded on their debut album.
RCA raised objections to the phrase "up against the wall, motherfucker" in the lyrics of Kantner's "We Can Be Together", but the group managed to prevent it from being censored on the album, pointing out that RCA had already allowed the offending word to be included on the cast album of the rock musical Hair. In addition, the song had the line "in order to survive, we steal, cheat, lie, forge, fuck, hide, and deal", which was also kept on the album (and which they sang on broadcast TV during their appearance on the Dick Cavett show). For the single versions of "We Can Be Together", "motherfucker" was changed to a long, drawn out "Ma", and "fuck" was changed to "fred". These edits were reflected in the printed lyrics that accompanied the album.
In December, the Airplane played at the Altamont Free Concert at Altamont Speedway in California, thus becoming the only band to perform at all three of the iconic rock festivals of the 1960s—Altamont, Monterey Pop, and Woodstock. Headlined by the Rolling Stones, the concert was marred by violence. Marty Balin was knocked out during a scuffle with Hells Angels members who had been hired to act as "security". The event became notorious for the "Gimme Shelter Incident": the fatal stabbing of black teenager Meredith Hunter in front of the stage by Hells Angels "guards" after he pulled out a revolver during the Stones' performance. This incident was the centerpiece of the documentary film Gimme Shelter.
1970–72: decline and dissolution
Spencer Dryden was dismissed from the band in February 1970 by a unanimous vote of the other members. He felt burned out by four years on the "acid merry-go-round" and was deeply disillusioned by the events of Altamont, which, he later recalled, "did not look like a bunch of happy hippies in streaming colors. It looked more like sepia-toned Hieronymus Bosch". He took time off and later returned to music in 1972 as a drummer for New Riders of the Purple Sage. Dryden was replaced by Joey Covington, an L.A. musician who had played with Hot Tuna throughout 1969 and had already performed select engagements with the Airplane that year as a second drummer.
Touring continued throughout 1970, but the group's only new recording that year was the single "Have You Seen the Saucers?" b/w "Mexico". "Mexico" was an attack on President Richard Nixon's Operation Intercept, which had been implemented to curtail the flow of marijuana into the United States. "Have You Seen the Saucers" marked the beginning of a science-fiction theme that Kantner explored in Blows Against the Empire, his first solo album, released in 1970, and with many of his songs in the 1970s and 1980s. Jefferson Airplane ended 1970 with their traditional Thanksgiving Day engagement at the Fillmore East (the final performance of the short-lived Kantner/Balin/Slick/Kaukonen/Casady/Creach/Covington line-up) and the release of their first compilation album, The Worst of Jefferson Airplane, which continued their unbroken run of chart success, reaching No. 12 on the Billboard album chart.
1971 was a year of major upheaval for Jefferson Airplane. Grace Slick and Paul Kantner had begun a relationship during 1970, and on January 25, 1971, their daughter China Wing Kantner ("Wing" was Slick's maiden name) was born. Slick's divorce from her first husband had come through shortly before this, but she and Kantner agreed that they did not wish to marry.
In March 1971, Marty Balin officially left the band after disassociating himself from the group following the fall 1970 tour. Although he had remained part of the band's live performances after the band's creative direction shifted from the brooding love songs that he specialized in, an emerging drinking problem—compounded by the evolution of the polarized Kantner/Slick and Kaukonen/Casady cliques—had finally left him the odd man out. Following the traumatic death of his friend Janis Joplin, he began to pursue a healthier lifestyle; Balin's study of yoga and abstention from drugs and alcohol further distanced him from the other members of the group, whose drug intake continued unabated. This further complicated the recording of their long-overdue follow-up to Volunteers. Balin had recently completed several new songs, including "Emergency" and the elongated R&B-infused "You Wear Your Dresses Too Short", both of which later appeared on archival releases.
On May 13, 1971, Grace Slick was injured in a near-fatal automobile crash when her car slammed into a wall in a tunnel near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The accident happened while she was drag racing with Jorma Kaukonen; both were driving at over 100 miles per hour, and Kaukonen claims that he "saved her life" by pulling her from the car. Slick's recuperation took a few months, forcing the Airplane to curtail their concert and touring commitments. In the meantime, Slick recorded a comic song about this incident, "Never Argue With A German If You're Tired", which appeared on Bark.
The band still managed studio dates during 1971. Their next LP was Bark, which was issued in September 1971 with cover art depicting a dead fish wrapped in an A&P-style grocery bag. It was both the final album owed to RCA under the band's existing contract and the inaugural release on the band's Grunt Records vanity label. Manager Bill Thompson had struck a deal with RCA to allow Jefferson Airplane to run Grunt Records as they saw fit, but still use RCA's distribution.
The single "Pretty As You Feel", excerpted from a longer jam on the LP with lead vocals by Joey Covington, its composer, was the last Jefferson Airplane single to place on the US singles chart, peaking at No. 60. The album rose to No. 11, higher than Volunteers.
Even after the departure of Balin, major creative and personal divisions persisted between Slick and Kantner on the one side and Kaukonen and Casady on the other. (Jorma Kaukonen's song "Third Week In The Chelsea", from Bark, chronicles the thoughts he himself was having about leaving the band.) These problems were exacerbated by escalating drug use—especially Slick's alcoholism—which caused the Airplane to become increasingly unreliable in their live commitments and led to some chaotic situations at concerts.
The band held together long enough to record one more LP, entitled Long John Silver, begun in April 1972 and released in July. By this time the various members were also engaged with their various solo projects. Hot Tuna, for instance, had released a second (electric) LP during 1971, First Pull Up, Then Pull Down, which proved even more successful than its predecessor. Though still a nominal member of the band, Joey Covington had immersed himself in the production of his own album with Peter Kaukonen and Black Kangaroo on Grunt; consequently, John Barbata (formerly of the Turtles and CSNY) played on most of the album and continued on for the promotional tour that followed. The Long John Silver LP is notable for its cover, which folded out into a humidor, which the inner photo depicted as storing cigars (which may have been filled with marijuana). The album rose to No. 20.
With the formal departure of Covington and addition of Kantner's old friend David Freiberg on vocals, Jefferson Airplane began a tour to promote the Long John Silver LP in the summer of 1972, their first concerts in over a year. This tour included a major free concert in Central Park that drew more than 50,000 people. They returned to the West Coast in September, playing concerts in San Diego, Hollywood, and Albuquerque. The tour culminated in two shows at Winterland in San Francisco (September 21–22), both of which were recorded. At the end of the second show the group was joined on stage by Marty Balin, who sang lead vocals on "Volunteers" and the final song, "You Wear Your Dresses Too Short". Though no official announcement was ever released, the Winterland shows were the last live performances by Jefferson Airplane until their reunion in 1989. Jefferson Airplane's second live album, Thirty Seconds Over Winterland, was released in April 1973.
Reunion and recent events
In 1989, Jefferson Airplane reunited—including founder Marty Balin, but without drummer Spencer Dryden—for a tour and album. The self-titled album was released by Columbia Records to modest sales but the accompanying tour was considered a success.
In 1996, Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with Balin, Casady, Dryden, Kantner and Kaukonen attending as well as performing. Grace Slick was absent, as she was unable to travel for medical reasons. In 2004, the film Fly Jefferson Airplane (directed by Bob Sarles) was released on DVD. It covers the years 1965–1972 and includes then-recent interviews with band members and thirteen complete songs.
Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady will perform a set at the 2015 Lockn' Festival to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Jefferson Airplane. They will be joined by G. E. Smith, Rachael Price, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams."Blogcritics Music – Artist Overview – Jefferson Airplane". Blogcritics.org. Retrieved 2011-10-02. All Music Guide Biography Jefferson Airplane by William Ruhlmann A Child's Garden of Grass, Margolis & Clorfene 1970 Jorma Kaukonen biography Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 41 – The Acid Test: Psychedelics and a sub-culture emerge in San Francisco." (audio). Pop Chronicles. Digital.library.unt.edu. Retrieved 2011-04-29. "Fillmore History". The Fillmore. Archived from the original on 5 May 2006. Retrieved 13 June 2011. Tamarkin, Jeff, ed. (2003). Got a revolution!:the turublent flight of Jefferson Airplane. Atria. p. 113. ISBN 0-671-03403-0. Retrieved April 30, 2011. Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 224. ISBN 0-214-20512-6. Barbara Rowes, Grace Slick, p.74 Doubleday, 1980 "Somebody To Love/White Rabbit Jefferson Airplane". YouTube. 2007-02-01. Retrieved 2011-10-02. Ruhlmann, William. "Yahoo! Music – Jefferson Airplane biography". Music.yahoo.com. Retrieved 2011-10-02. The Doors: Live in Europe 1968 (1991) Tamarkin, Jeff (2003). Got a revolution!: the turbulent flight of Jefferson Airplane. Atria Books. p. 197. Retrieved 6 December 2011. Allen, Gavin (18 November 2009). "Paul Kantner talks Woodstock, Jefferson Starship and smashed cars". South Wales Echo. Retrieved 5 December 2010. The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons. Daphne Productions, Inc. 2005. "Interview: Paul Kantner". Music-Illumanati.com. 25 April 2010. Retrieved 5 December 2010. Jeff Tamarkin. Got A Revolution! New York: Atria Books, 2003. Page 216. "Names In The News". Tri City Herald. 26 January 1971. Retrieved 5 December 2010. "Daughter Born To Pop Singer". The Day. 26 January 1971. Retrieved 5 December 2010. Jeff Tamarkin. Got A Revolution! New York: Atria Books, 2003. Pages 239–240. AllMusic.com Hinckley, David (19 January 1996). "This is Dedicated to the Women We Love...". New York Daily News. Retrieved 6 December 2010. "Fly Jefferson Airplane". Internet Movie Database. 2004. Retrieved December 27, 2010. http://www.locknfestival.com/news/2015/03/20/jorma-and-jack-celebrate-50-years-of-jefferson-airplane/
Side projects and spin-off bandsMain articles: Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship
During 1969 Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen launched their side project, a return to their blues roots, which they eventually dubbed Hot Tuna. This began as a duo, with the pair performing short sets before the main Airplane concert, but over the ensuing months other members of the Airplane (most notably Marty Balin) and outside musicians (including future Airplane drummer Joey Covington) often sat in for Hot Tuna performances.
During late 1969 Casady and Kaukonen recorded an all-acoustic blues album, which was released in the spring of 1970. This initial Hot Tuna album was remarkably successful, reaching No. 30 on the U.S. album chart. Over the next two years, Hot Tuna began to occupy more and more of Casady's and Kaukonen's time, contributing to the growing divisions within Jefferson Airplane that came to a head in 1972.
The Hot Tuna project also led to the addition of a new band member. Covington had met veteran jazz-blues violinist Papa John Creach in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s; he invited Creach to sit in with the Airplane for a concert at Winterland in San Francisco on October 5, 1970. As a result, Creach was immediately invited to join Hot Tuna and became a permanent member of the Airplane in time for their fall tour. The Winterland concert also marked a turning point of another kind for the Airplane—it was a memorial for their old friend Janis Joplin, who had died in Los Angeles from a heroin overdose the previous day. Because of her death, her close friend Marty Balin refused to perform with the band that night.
During this period, Paul Kantner had been working on his first solo album, a science fiction-themed project recorded with members of the Airplane and other friends. It was released in October 1970 under the title Blows Against The Empire, and credited to "Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship". This "prototype" version of Jefferson Starship included David Crosby and Graham Nash, Grateful Dead members Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart, and Airplane members Grace Slick, Joey Covington, and Jack Casady. Blows Against the Empire was the first rock album nominated for the Hugo science fiction award. Kantner and Slick also recorded additional solo albums in the early 1970s.
In 1974, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick formally launched Jefferson Starship with the album Dragon Fly. Marty Balin co-wrote and sang on one song, "Caroline", and had officially joined the group by the time of their 1975 follow-up Red Octopus. Aside from these principal members, the band consisted of David Freiberg (keyboards, bass), Craig Chaquico (lead guitar), Pete Sears (bass, keyboards), John Barbata (drums) and Papa John Creach (electric violin). After the acrimonious events that resulted in Jefferson Starship's 1984 breakup, Kantner reunited with Balin and Jack Casady in 1985 to form the KBC Band. They released their only album, KBC Band, in 1987 on Arista Records. On March 4, 1988, during a Hot Tuna San Francisco gig at the Fillmore (with Paul Kantner, as well as Papa John Creach joining in) Grace Slick made a cameo appearance.