Episode 158: “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane

A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
Episode 158: "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane
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Jefferson Airplane

Episode one hundred and fifty-eight of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “White Rabbit”, Jefferson Airplane, and the rise of the San Francisco sound. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a twenty-three-minute bonus episode available, on “Omaha” by Moby Grape.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

Erratum

I refer to Back to Methuselah by Robert Heinlein. This is of course a play by George Bernard Shaw. What I meant to say was Methuselah’s Children.

Resources

I hope to upload a Mixcloud tomorrow, and will edit it in, but have had some problems with the site today.

Jefferson Airplane’s first four studio albums, plus a 1968 live album, can be found in this box set.

I’ve referred to three main books here. Got a Revolution!: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane by Jeff Tamarkin is written with the co-operation of the band members, but still finds room to criticise them. Jefferson Airplane On Track by Richard Molesworth is a song-by-song guide to the band’s music. And Been So Long: My Life and Music by Jorma Kaukonen is Kaukonen’s autobiography.

Some information on Skip Spence and Matthew Katz also comes from What’s Big and Purple and Lives in the Ocean?: The Moby Grape Story, by Cam Cobb, which I also used for this week’s bonus.

Patreon

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Transcript

Before I start, I need to confess an important and hugely embarrassing error in this episode. I’ve only ever seen Marty Balin’s name written down, never heard it spoken, and only after recording the episode, during the editing process, did I discover I mispronounce it throughout. It’s usually an advantage for the podcast that I get my information from books rather than TV documentaries and the like, because they contain far more information, but occasionally it causes problems like that. My apologies.

Also a brief note that this episode contains some mentions of racism, antisemitism, drug and alcohol abuse, and gun violence.

One of the themes we’ve looked at in recent episodes is the way the centre of the musical world — at least the musical world as it was regarded by the people who thought of themselves as hip in the mid-sixties — was changing in 1967. Up to this point, for a few years there had been two clear centres of the rock and pop music worlds. In the UK, there was London, and any British band who meant anything had to base themselves there. And in the US, at some point around 1963, the centre of the music industry had moved West. Up to then it had largely been based in New York, and there was still a thriving industry there as of the mid sixties. But increasingly the records that mattered, that everyone in the country had been listening to, had come out of LA

Soul music was, of course, still coming primarily from Detroit and from the Country-Soul triangle in Tennessee and Alabama, but when it came to the new brand of electric-guitar rock that was taking over the airwaves, LA was, up until the first few months of 1967, the only city that was competing with London, and was the place to be.

But as we heard in the episode on “San Francisco”, with the Monterey Pop Festival all that started to change. While the business part of the music business remained centred in LA, and would largely remain so, LA was no longer the hip place to be. Almost overnight, jangly guitars, harmonies, and Brian Jones hairstyles were out, and feedback, extended solos, and droopy moustaches were in. The place to be was no longer LA, but a few hundred miles North, in San Francisco — something that the LA bands were not all entirely happy about:

[Excerpt: The Mothers of Invention, “Who Needs the Peace Corps?”]

In truth, the San Francisco music scene, unlike many of the scenes we’ve looked at so far in this series, had rather a limited impact on the wider world of music. Bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company were all both massively commercially successful and highly regarded by critics, but unlike many of the other bands we’ve looked at before and will look at in future, they didn’t have much of an influence on the bands that would come after them, musically at least.

Possibly this is because the music from the San Francisco scene was always primarily that — music created by and for a specific group of people, and inextricable from its context. The San Francisco musicians were defining themselves by their geographical location, their peers, and the situation they were in, and their music was so specifically of the place and time that to attempt to copy it outside of that context would appear ridiculous, so while many of those bands remain much loved to this day, and many made some great music, it’s very hard to point to ways in which that music influenced later bands.

But what they did influence was the whole of rock music culture. For at least the next thirty years, and arguably to this day, the parameters in which rock musicians worked if they wanted to be taken seriously – their aesthetic and political ideals, their methods of collaboration, the cultural norms around drug use and sexual promiscuity, ideas of artistic freedom and authenticity, the choice of acceptable instruments – in short, what it meant to be a rock musician rather than a pop, jazz, country, or soul artist – all those things were defined by the cultural and behavioural norms of the San Francisco scene between about 1966 and 68. Without the San Francisco scene there’s no Woodstock, no Rolling Stone magazine, no Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, no hippies, no groupies, no rock stars.

So over the next few months we’re going to take several trips to the Bay Area, and look at the bands which, for a brief time, defined the counterculture in America.

The story of Jefferson Airplane — and unlike other bands we’ve looked at recently, like The Pink Floyd and The Buffalo Springfield, they never had a definite article at the start of their name to wither away like a vestigial organ in subsequent years — starts with Marty Balin. Balin was born in Ohio, but was a relatively sickly child — he later talked about being autistic, and seems to have had the chronic illnesses that so often go with neurodivergence — so in the hope that the dry air would be good for his chest his family moved to Arizona. Then when his father couldn’t find work there, they moved further west to San Francisco, in the Haight-Ashbury area, long before that area became the byword for the hippie movement. But it was in LA that he started his music career, and got his surname.

Balin had been named Marty Buchwald as a kid, but when he was nineteen he had accompanied a friend to LA to visit a music publisher, and had ended up singing backing vocals on her demos. While he was there, he had encountered the arranger Jimmy Haskell. Haskell was on his way to becoming one of the most prominent arrangers in the music industry, and in his long career he would go on to do arrangements for Bobby Gentry, Blondie, Steely Dan, Simon and Garfunkel, and many others. But at the time he was best known for his work on Ricky Nelson’s hits:

[Excerpt: Ricky Nelson, “Hello Mary Lou”]

Haskell thought that Marty had the makings of a Ricky Nelson style star, as he was a good-looking young man with a decent voice, and he became a mentor for the young man. Making the kind of records that Haskell arranged was expensive, and so Haskell suggested a deal to him — if Marty’s father would pay for studio time and musicians, Haskell would make a record with him and find him a label to put it out.

Marty’s father did indeed pay for the studio time and the musicians — some of the finest working in LA at the time. The record, released under the name Marty Balin, featured Jack Nitzsche on keyboards, Earl Palmer on drums, Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Red Callender on bass, and Glen Campbell and Barney Kessell on guitars, and came out on Challenge Records, a label owned by Gene Autry:

[Excerpt: Marty Balin, “Nobody But You”]

Neither that, nor Balin’s follow-up single, sold a noticeable amount of copies, and his career as a teen idol was over before it had begun. Instead, as many musicians of his age did, he decided to get into folk music, joining a vocal harmony group called the Town Criers, who patterned themselves after the Weavers, and performed the same kind of material that every other clean-cut folk vocal group was performing at the time — the kind of songs that John Phillips and Steve Stills and Cass Elliot and Van Dyke Parks and the rest were all performing in their own groups at the same time.

The Town Criers never made any records while they were together, but some archival recordings of them have been released over the decades:

[Excerpt: The Town Criers, “900 Miles”]

The Town Criers split up, and Balin started performing as a solo folkie again. But like all those other then-folk musicians, Balin realised that he had to adapt to the K/T-event level folk music extinction that happened when the Beatles hit America like a meteorite. He had to form a folk-rock group if he wanted to survive — and given that there were no venues for such a group to play in San Francisco, he also had to start a nightclub for them to play in.

He started hanging around the hootenannies in the area, looking for musicians who might form an electric band. The first person he decided on was a performer called Paul Kantner, mainly because he liked his attitude. Kantner had got on stage in front of a particularly drunk, loud, crowd, and performed precisely half a song before deciding he wasn’t going to perform in front of people like that and walking off stage.

Kantner was the only member of the new group to be a San Franciscan — he’d been born and brought up in the city. He’d got into folk music at university, where he’d also met a guitar player named Jorma Kaukonen, who had turned him on to cannabis, and the two had started giving music lessons at a music shop in San Jose. There Kantner had also been responsible for booking acts at a local folk club, where he’d first encountered acts like Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, a jug band which included Jerry Garcia, Pigpen McKernan, and Bob Weir, who would later go on to be the core members of the Grateful Dead:

[Excerpt: Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, “In the Jailhouse Now”]

Kantner had moved around a bit between Northern and Southern California, and had been friendly with two other musicians on the Californian folk scene, David Crosby and Roger McGuinn. When their new group, the Byrds, suddenly became huge, Kantner became aware of the possibility of doing something similar himself, and so when Marty Balin approached him to form a band, he agreed.

On bass, they got in a musician called Bob Harvey, who actually played double bass rather than electric, and who stuck to that for the first few gigs the group played — he had previously been in a band called the Slippery Rock String Band.

On drums, they brought in Jerry Peloquin, who had formerly worked for the police, but now had a day job as an optician. And on vocals, they brought in Signe Toley — who would soon marry and change her name to Signe Anderson, so that’s how I’ll talk about her to avoid confusion.

The group also needed a lead guitarist though — both Balin and Kantner were decent rhythm players and singers, but they needed someone who was a better instrumentalist. They decided to ask Kantner’s old friend Jorma Kaukonen.

Kaukonen was someone who was seriously into what would now be called Americana or roots music. He’d started playing the guitar as a teenager, not like most people of his generation inspired by Elvis or Buddy Holly, but rather after a friend of his had shown him how to play an old Carter Family song, “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy”:

[Excerpt: The Carter Family, “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy”]

Kaukonen had had a far more interesting life than most of the rest of the group. His father had worked for the State Department — and there’s some suggestion he’d worked for the CIA — and the family had travelled all over the world, staying in Pakistan, the Philippines, and Finland. For most of his childhood, he’d gone by the name Jerry, because other kids beat him up for having a foreign name and called him a Nazi, but by the time he turned twenty he was happy enough using his birth name.

Kaukonen wasn’t completely immune to the appeal of rock and roll — he’d formed a rock band, The Triumphs, with his friend Jack Casady when he was a teenager, and he loved Ricky Nelson’s records — but his fate as a folkie had been pretty much sealed when he went to Antioch College. There he met up with a blues guitarist called Ian Buchanan.

Buchanan never had much of a career as a professional, but he had supposedly spent nine years studying with the blues and ragtime guitar legend Rev. Gary Davis, and he was certainly a fine guitarist, as can be heard on his contribution to The Blues Project, the album Elektra put out of white Greenwich Village musicians like John Sebastian and Dave Van Ronk playing old blues songs:

[Excerpt: Ian Buchanan, “The Winding Boy”]

Kaukonen became something of a disciple of Buchanan — he said later that Buchanan probably taught him how to play because he was such a terrible player and Buchanan couldn’t stand to listen to it — as did John Hammond Jr, another student at Antioch at the same time.

After studying at Antioch, Kaukonen started to travel around, including spells in Greenwich Village and in the Philippines, before settling in Santa Clara, where he studied for a sociology degree and became part of a social circle that included Dino Valenti, Jerry Garcia, and Billy Roberts, the credited writer of “Hey Joe”.

He also started performing as a duo with a singer called Janis Joplin. Various of their recordings from this period circulate, mostly recorded at Kaukonen’s home with the sound of his wife typing in the background while the duo rehearse, as on this performance of an old Bessie Smith song:

[Excerpt: Jorma Kaukonen and Janis Joplin, “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out”]

By 1965 Kaukonen saw himself firmly as a folk-blues purist, who would not even think of playing rock and roll music, which he viewed with more than a little contempt. But he allowed himself to be brought along to audition for the new group, and Ken Kesey happened to be there.

Kesey was a novelist who had written two best-selling books, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes A Great Notion, and used the financial independence that gave him to organise a group of friends who called themselves the Merry Pranksters, who drove from coast to coast and back again in a psychedelic-painted bus, before starting a series of events that became known as Acid Tests, parties at which everyone was on LSD, immortalised in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Nobody has ever said why Kesey was there, but he had brought along an Echoplex, a reverb unit one could put a guitar through — and nobody has explained why Kesey, who wasn’t a musician, had an Echoplex to hand. But Kaukonen loved the sound that he could get by putting his guitar through the device, and so for that reason more than any other he decided to become an electric player and join the band, going out and buying a Rickenbacker twelve-string and Vox Treble Booster because that was what Roger McGuinn used.

He would later also get a Guild Thunderbird six-string guitar and a Standel Super Imperial amp, following the same principle of buying the equipment used by other guitarists he liked, as they were what Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin’ Spoonful used. He would use them for all his six-string playing for the next couple of years, only later to discover that the Lovin’ Spoonful despised them and only used them because they had an endorsement deal with the manufacturers.

Kaukonen was also the one who came up with the new group’s name. He and his friends had a running joke where they had “Bluesman names”, things like “Blind Outrage” and “Little Sun Goldfarb”. Kaukonen’s bluesman name, given to him by his friend Steve Talbot, had been Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane, a reference to the 1920s blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson:

[Excerpt: Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Match Box Blues”]

At the band meeting where they were trying to decide on a name, Kaukonen got frustrated at the ridiculous suggestions that were being made, and said “You want a stupid name? Howzabout this… Jefferson Airplane?”

He said in his autobiography “It was one of those rare moments when everyone in the band agreed, and that was that. I think it was the only band meeting that ever allowed me to come away smiling.”

The newly-named Jefferson Airplane started to rehearse at the Matrix Club, the club that Balin had decided to open. This was run with three sound engineer friends, who put in the seed capital for the club. Balin had stock options in the club, which he got by trading a share of the band’s future earnings to his partners, though as the group became bigger he eventually sold his stock in the club back to his business partners.

Before their first public performance, they started working with a manager, Matthew Katz, mostly because Katz had access to a recording of a then-unreleased Bob Dylan song, “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”:

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”]

The group knew that the best way for a folk-rock band to make a name for themselves was to perform a Dylan song nobody else had yet heard, and so they agreed to be managed by Katz.

Katz started a pre-publicity blitz, giving out posters, badges, and bumper stickers saying “Jefferson Airplane Loves You” all over San Francisco — and insisting that none of the band members were allowed to say “Hello” when they answered the phone any more, they had to say “Jefferson Airplane Loves You!”

For their early rehearsals and gigs, they were performing almost entirely cover versions of blues and folk songs, things like Fred Neil’s “The Other Side of This Life” and Dino Valenti’s “Get Together” which were the common currency of the early folk-rock movement, and songs by their friends, like one called “Flower Bomb” by David Crosby, which Crosby now denies ever having written. They did start writing the odd song, but at this point they were more focused on performance than on writing.

They also hired a press agent, their friend Bill Thompson. Thompson was friends with the two main music writers at the San Francisco Chronicle, Ralph Gleason, the famous jazz critic, who had recently started also reviewing rock music, and John Wasserman. Thompson got both men to come to the opening night of the Matrix, and both gave the group glowing reviews in the Chronicle.

Record labels started sniffing around the group immediately as a result of this coverage, and according to Katz he managed to get a bidding war started by making sure that when A&R men came to the club there were always two of them from different labels, so they would see the other person and realise they weren’t the only ones interested.

But before signing a record deal they needed to make some personnel changes. The first member to go was Jerry Peloquin, for both musical and personal reasons. Peloquin was used to keeping strict time and the other musicians had a more free-flowing idea of what tempo they should be playing at, but also he had worked for the police while the other members were all taking tons of illegal drugs. The final break with Peloquin came when he did the rest of the group a favour — Paul Kantner’s glasses broke during a rehearsal, and as Peloquin was an optician he offered to take them back to his shop and fix them. When he got back, he found them auditioning replacements for him. He beat Kantner up, and that was the end of Jerry Peloquin in Jefferson Airplane.

His replacement was Skip Spence, who the group had met when he had accompanied three friends to the Matrix, which they were using as a rehearsal room. Spence’s friends went on to be the core members of Quicksilver Messenger Service along with Dino Valenti:

[Excerpt: Quicksilver Messenger Service, “Dino’s Song”]

But Balin decided that Spence looked like a rock star, and told him that he was now Jefferson Airplane’s drummer, despite Spence being a guitarist and singer, not a drummer. But Spence was game, and learned to play the drums.

Next they needed to get rid of Bob Harvey. According to Harvey, the decision to sack him came after David Crosby saw the band rehearsing and said “Nice song, but get rid of the bass player” (along with an expletive before the word bass which I can’t say without incurring the wrath of Apple). Crosby denies ever having said this.

Harvey had started out in the group on double bass, but to show willing he’d switched in his last few gigs to playing an electric bass. When he was sacked by the group, he returned to double bass, and to the Slippery Rock String Band, who released one single in 1967:

[Excerpt: The Slippery Rock String Band, “Tule Fog”]

Harvey’s replacement was Kaukonen’s old friend Jack Casady, who Kaukonen knew was now playing bass, though he’d only ever heard him playing guitar when they’d played together. Casady was rather cautious about joining a rock band, but then Kaukonen told him that the band were getting fifty dollars a week salary each from Katz, and Casady flew over from Washington DC to San Francisco to join the band. For the first few gigs, he used Bob Harvey’s bass, which Harvey was good enough to lend him despite having been sacked from the band.

Unfortunately, right from the start Casady and Kantner didn’t get on. When Casady flew in from Washington, he had a much more clean-cut appearance than the rest of the band — one they’ve described as being nerdy, with short, slicked-back, side-parted hair and a handlebar moustache. Kantner insisted that Casady shave the moustache off, and he responded by shaving only one side, so in profile on one side he looked clean-shaven, while from the other side he looked like he had a full moustache. Kantner also didn’t like Casady’s general attitude, or his playing style, at all — though most critics since this point have pointed to Casady’s bass playing as being the most interesting and distinctive thing about Jefferson Airplane’s style.

This lineup seems to have been the one that travelled to LA to audition for various record companies — a move that immediately brought the group a certain amount of criticism for selling out, both for auditioning for record companies and for going to LA at all, two things that were already anathema on the San Francisco scene. The only audition anyone remembers them having specifically is one for Phil Spector, who according to Kaukonen was waving a gun around during the audition, so he and Casady walked out.

Around this time as well, the group performed at an event billed as “A Tribute to Dr. Strange”, organised by the radical hippie collective Family Dog. Marvel Comics, rather than being the multi-billion-dollar Disney-owned corporate juggernaut it is now, was regarded as a hip, almost underground, company — and around this time they briefly started billing their comics not as comics but as “Marvel Pop Art Productions”. The magical adventures of Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, and in particular the art by far-right libertarian artist Steve Ditko, were regarded as clear parallels to both the occult dabblings and hallucinogen use popular among the hippies, though Ditko had no time for either, following as he did an extreme version of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.

It was at the Tribute to Dr. Strange that Jefferson Airplane performed for the first time with a band named The Great Society, whose lead singer, Grace Slick, would later become very important in Jefferson Airplane’s story:

[Excerpt: The Great Society, “Someone to Love”]

That gig was also the first one where the band and their friends noticed that large chunks of the audience were now dressing up in costumes that were reminiscent of the Old West.

Up to this point, while Katz had been managing the group and paying them fifty dollars a week even on weeks when they didn’t perform, he’d been doing so without a formal contract, in part because the group didn’t trust him much. But now they were starting to get interest from record labels, and in particular RCA Records desperately wanted them.

While RCA had been the label who had signed Elvis Presley, they had otherwise largely ignored rock and roll, considering that since they had the biggest rock star in the world they didn’t need other ones, and concentrating largely on middle-of-the-road acts. But by the mid-sixties Elvis’ star had faded somewhat, and they were desperate to get some of the action for the new music — and unlike the other major American labels, they didn’t have a reciprocal arrangement with a British label that allowed them to release anything by any of the new British stars.

The group were introduced to RCA by Rod McKuen, a songwriter and poet who later became America’s best-selling poet and wrote songs that sold over a hundred million copies. At this point McKuen was in his Jacques Brel phase, recording loose translations of the Belgian songwriter’s songs with McKuen translating the lyrics:

[Excerpt: Rod McKuen, “Seasons in the Sun”]

McKuen thought that Jefferson Airplane might be a useful market for his own songs, and brought the group to RCA.

RCA offered Jefferson Airplane twenty-five thousand dollars to sign with them, and Katz convinced the group that RCA wouldn’t give them this money without them having signed a management contract with him. Kaukonen, Kantner, Spence, and Balin all signed without much hesitation, but Jack Casady didn’t yet sign, as he was the new boy and nobody knew if he was going to be in the band for the long haul.

The other person who refused to sign was Signe Anderson. In her case, she had a much better reason for refusing to sign, as unlike the rest of the band she had actually read the contract, and she found it to be extremely worrying. She did eventually back down on the day of the group’s first recording session, but she later had the contract renegotiated.

Jack Casady also signed the contract right at the start of the first session — or at least, he thought he’d signed the contract then. He certainly signed *something*, without having read it. But much later, during a court case involving the band’s longstanding legal disputes with Katz, it was revealed that the signature on the contract wasn’t Casady’s, and was badly forged. What he actually *did* sign that day has never been revealed, to him or to anyone else.

Katz also signed all the group as songwriters to his own publishing company, telling them that they legally needed to sign with him if they wanted to make records, and also claimed to RCA that he had power of attorney for the band, which they say they never gave him — though to be fair to Katz, given the band members’ habit of signing things without reading or understanding them, it doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that they did.

The producer chosen for the group’s first album was Tommy Oliver, a friend of Katz’s who had previously been an arranger on some of Doris Day’s records, and whose next major act after finishing the Jefferson Airplane album was Trombones Unlimited, who released records like “Holiday for Trombones”:

[Excerpt: Trombones Unlimited, “Holiday For Trombones”]

The group weren’t particularly thrilled with this choice, but were happier with their engineer, Dave Hassinger, who had worked on records like “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, and had a far better understanding of the kind of music the group were making.

They spent about three months recording their first album, even while continually being attacked as sellouts. The album is not considered their best work, though it does contain “Blues From an Airplane”, a collaboration between Spence and Balin:

[Excerpt: Jefferson Airplane, “Blues From an Airplane”]

Even before the album came out, though, things were starting to change for the group. Firstly, they started playing bigger venues — their home base went from being the Matrix club to the Fillmore, a large auditorium run by the promoter Bill Graham. They also started to get an international reputation. The British singer-songwriter Donovan released a track called “The Fat Angel” which namechecked the group:

[Excerpt: Donovan, “The Fat Angel”]

The group also needed a new drummer. Skip Spence decided to go on holiday to Mexico without telling the rest of the band. There had already been some friction with Spence, as he was very eager to become a guitarist and songwriter, and the band already had three songwriting guitarists and didn’t really see why they needed a fourth. They sacked Spence, who went on to form Moby Grape, who were also managed by Katz:

[Excerpt: Moby Grape, “Omaha”]

For his replacement they brought in Spencer Dryden, who was a Hollywood brat like their friend David Crosby — in Dryden’s case he was Charlie Chaplin’s nephew, and his father worked as Chaplin’s assistant.

The story normally goes that the great session drummer Earl Palmer recommended Dryden to the group, but it’s also the case that Dryden had been in a band, the Heartbeats, with Tommy Oliver and the great blues guitarist Roy Buchanan, so it may well be that Oliver had recommended him.

Dryden had been primarily a jazz musician, playing with people like the West Coast jazz legend Charles Lloyd, though like most jazzers he would slum it on occasion by playing rock and roll music to pay the bills. But then he’d seen an early performance by the Mothers of Invention, and realised that rock music could have a serious artistic purpose too. He’d joined a band called The Ashes, who had released one single, the Jackie DeShannon song “Is There Anything I Can Do?” in December 1965:

[Excerpt: The Ashes, “Is There Anything I Can Do?”]

The Ashes split up once Dryden left the group to join Jefferson Airplane, but they soon reformed without him as The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, who hooked up with Gary Usher and released several albums of psychedelic sunshine pop.

Dryden played his first gig with the group at a Republican Party event on June the sixth, 1966. But by the time Dryden had joined, other problems had become apparent. The group were already feeling like it had been a big mistake to accede to Katz’s demands to sign a formal contract with him, and Balin in particular was getting annoyed that he wouldn’t let the band see their finances. All the money was getting paid to Katz, who then doled out money to the band when they asked for it, and they had no idea if he was actually paying them what they were owed or not.

The group’s first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, finally came out in September, and it was a comparative flop. It sold well in San Francisco itself, selling around ten thousand copies in the area, but sold basically nothing anywhere else in the country — the group’s local reputation hadn’t extended outside their own immediate scene. It didn’t help that the album was pulled and reissued, as RCA censored the initial version of the album because of objections to the lyrics. The song “Runnin’ Round This World” was pulled off the album altogether for containing the word “trips”, while in “Let Me In” they had to rerecord two lines — “I gotta get in, you know where” was altered to “You shut the door now it ain’t fair” and “Don’t tell me you want money” became “Don’t tell me it’s so funny”. Similarly in “Run Around” the phrase “as you lay under me” became “as you stay here by me”.

Things were also becoming difficult for Anderson. She had had a baby in May and was not only unhappy with having to tour while she had a small child, she was also the band member who was most vocally opposed to Katz. Added to that, her husband did not get on well at all with the group, and she felt trapped between her marriage and her bandmates. Reports differ as to whether she quit the band or was fired, but after a disastrous appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival, one way or another she was out of the band.

Her replacement was already waiting in the wings. Grace Slick, the lead singer of the Great Society, had been inspired by going to one of the early Jefferson Airplane gigs. She later said “I went to see Jefferson Airplane at the Matrix, and they were making more money in a day than I made in a week. They only worked for two or three hours a night, and they got to hang out. I thought ‘This looks a lot better than what I’m doing.’ I knew I could more or less carry a tune, and I figured if they could do it I could.”

She was married at the time to a film student named Jerry Slick, and indeed she had done the music for his final project at film school, a film called “Everybody Hits Their Brother Once”, which sadly I can’t find online. She was also having an affair with Jerry’s brother Darby, though as the Slicks were in an open marriage this wasn’t particularly untoward.

The three of them, with a couple of other musicians, had formed The Great Society, named as a joke about President Johnson’s programme of the same name. The Great Society was the name Johnson had given to his whole programme of domestic reforms, including civil rights for Black people, the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts, and more. While those projects were broadly popular among the younger generation, Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam had made him so personally unpopular that even his progressive domestic programme was regarded with suspicion and contempt.

The Great Society had set themselves up as local rivals to Jefferson Airplane — where Jefferson Airplane had buttons saying “Jefferson Airplane Loves You!” the Great Society put out buttons saying “The Great Society Really Doesn’t Like You Much At All”.

They signed to Autumn Records, and recorded a song that Darby Slick had written, titled “Someone to Love” — though the song would later be retitled “Somebody to Love”:

[Excerpt: The Great Society, “Someone to Love”]

That track was produced by Sly Stone, who at the time was working as a producer for Autumn Records. The Great Society, though, didn’t like working with Stone, because he insisted on them doing forty-five takes to try to sound professional, as none of them were particularly competent musicians. Grace Slick later said “Sly could play any instrument known to man. He could have just made the record himself, except for the singers. It was kind of degrading in a way” — and on another occasion she said that he *did* end up playing all the instruments on the finished record.

“Someone to Love” was put out as a promo record, but never released to the general public, and nor were any of the Great Society’s other recordings for Autumn Records released. Their contract expired and they were let go, at which point they were about to sign to Mercury Records, but then Darby Slick and another member decided to go off to India for a while. Grace’s marriage to Jerry was falling apart, though they would stay legally married for several years, and the Great Society looked like it was at an end, so when Grace got the offer to join Jefferson Airplane to replace Signe Anderson, she jumped at the chance.

At first, she was purely a harmony singer — she didn’t take over any of the lead vocal parts that Anderson had previously sung, as she had a very different vocal style, and instead she just sang the harmony parts that Anderson had sung on songs with other lead vocalists. But two months after the album they were back in the studio again, recording their second album, and Slick sang lead on several songs there.

As well as the new lineup, there was another important change in the studio. They were still working with Dave Hassinger, but they had a new producer, Rick Jarrard.

Jarrard was at one point a member of the folk group The Wellingtons, who did the theme tune for “Gilligan’s Island”, though I can’t find anything to say whether or not he was in the group when they recorded that track:

[Excerpt: The Wellingtons, “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island”]

Jarrard had also been in the similar folk group The Greenwood County Singers, where as we heard in the episode on “Heroes and Villains” he replaced Van Dyke Parks. He’d also released a few singles under his own name, including a version of Parks’ “High Coin”:

[Excerpt: Rick Jarrard, “High Coin”]

While Jarrard had similar musical roots to those of Jefferson Airplane’s members, and would go on to produce records by people like Harry Nilsson and The Family Tree, he wasn’t any more liked by the band than their previous producer had been. So much so, that a few of the band members have claimed that while Jarrard is the credited producer, much of the work that one would normally expect to be done by a producer was actually done by their friend Jerry Garcia, who according to the band members gave them a lot of arranging and structural advice, and was present in the studio and played guitar on several tracks.

Jarrard, on the other hand, said categorically “I never met Jerry Garcia. I produced that album from start to finish, never heard from Jerry Garcia, never talked to Jerry Garcia. He was not involved creatively on that album at all.”

According to the band, though, it was Garcia who had the idea of almost doubling the speed of the retitled “Somebody to Love”, turning it into an uptempo rocker:

[Excerpt: Jefferson Airplane, “Somebody to Love”]

And one thing everyone is agreed on is that it was Garcia who came up with the album title, when after listening to some of the recordings he said “That’s as surrealistic as a pillow!”

It was while they were working on the album that was eventually titled Surrealistic Pillow that they finally broke with Katz as their manager, bringing Bill Thompson in as a temporary replacement. Or at least, it was then that they tried to break with Katz. Katz sued the group over their contract, and won. Then they appealed, and they won. Then Katz appealed the appeal, and the Superior Court insisted that if he wanted to appeal the ruling, he had to put up a bond for the fifty thousand dollars the group said he owed them. He didn’t, so in 1970, four years after they sacked him as their manager, the appeal was dismissed.

Katz appealed the dismissal, and won that appeal, and the case dragged on for another three years, at which point Katz dragged RCA Records into the lawsuit. As a result of being dragged into the mess, RCA decided to stop paying the group their songwriting royalties from record sales directly, and instead put the money into an escrow account. The claims and counterclaims and appeals *finally* ended in 1987, twenty years after the lawsuits had started and fourteen years after the band had stopped receiving their songwriting royalties. In the end, the group won on almost every point, and finally received one point three million dollars in back royalties and seven hundred thousand dollars in interest that had accrued, while Katz got a small token payment.

Early in 1967, when the sessions for Surrealistic Pillow had finished, but before the album was released, Newsweek did a big story on the San Francisco scene, which drew national attention to the bands there, and the first big event of what would come to be called the hippie scene, the Human Be-In, happened in Golden Gate Park in January. As the group’s audience was expanding rapidly, they asked Bill Graham to be their manager, as he was the most business-minded of the people around the group.

The first single from the album, “My Best Friend”, a song written by Skip Spence before he quit the band, came out in January 1967 and had no more success than their earlier recordings had, and didn’t make the Hot 100. The album came out in February, and was still no higher than number 137 on the charts in March, when the second single, “Somebody to Love”, was released:

[Excerpt: Jefferson Airplane, “Somebody to Love”]

That entered the charts at the start of April, and by June it had made number five. The single’s success also pushed its parent album up to number three by August, just behind the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Monkees’ Headquarters.

The success of the single also led to the group being asked to do commercials for Levis jeans:

[Excerpt: Jefferson Airplane, “Levis commercial”]

That once again got them accused of selling out. Abbie Hoffman, the leader of the Yippies, wrote to the Village Voice about the commercials, saying “It summarized for me all the doubts I have about the hippie philosophy. I realise they are just doing their ‘thing’, but while the Jefferson Airplane grooves with its thing, over 100 workers in the Levi Strauss plant on the Tennessee-Georgia border are doing their thing, which consists of being on strike to protest deplorable working conditions.”

The third single from the album, “White Rabbit”, came out on the twenty-fourth of June, the day before the Beatles recorded “All You Need is Love”, nine days after the release of “See Emily Play”, and a week after the group played the Monterey Pop Festival, to give you some idea of how compressed a time period we’ve been in recently.

We talked in the last episode about how there’s a big difference between American and British psychedelia at this point in time, because the political nature of the American counterculture was determined by the fact that so many people were being sent off to die in Vietnam. Of all the San Francisco bands, though, Jefferson Airplane were by far the least political — they were into the culture part of the counterculture, but would often and repeatedly disavow any deeper political meaning in their songs. In early 1968, for example, in a press conference, they said “Don’t ask us anything about politics. We don’t know anything about it. And what we did know, we just forgot.”

So it’s perhaps not surprising that of all the American groups, they were the one that was most similar to the British psychedelic groups in their influences, and in particular their frequent references to children’s fantasy literature.

“White Rabbit” was a perfect example of this. It had started out as “White Rabbit Blues”, a song that Slick had written influenced by Alice in Wonderland, and originally performed by the Great Society:

[Excerpt: The Great Society, “White Rabbit”]

Slick explained the lyrics, and their association between childhood fantasy stories and drugs, later by saying “It’s an interesting song but it didn’t do what I wanted it to. What I was trying to say was that between the ages of zero and five the information and the input you get is almost indelible. In other words, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. And the parents read us these books, like Alice in Wonderland where she gets high, tall, and she takes mushrooms, a hookah, pills, alcohol. And then there’s The Wizard of Oz, where they fall into a field of poppies and when they wake up they see Oz. And then there’s Peter Pan, where if you sprinkle white dust on you, you could fly. And then you wonder why we do it? Well, what did you read to me?”

While the lyrical inspiration for the track was from Alice in Wonderland, the musical inspiration is less obvious. Slick has on multiple occasions said that the idea for the music came from listening to Miles Davis’ album “Sketches of Spain”, and in particular to Davis’ version of — and I apologise for almost certainly mangling the Spanish pronunciation badly here — “Concierto de Aranjuez”, though I see little musical resemblance to it myself.

[Excerpt: Miles Davis, “Concierto de Aranjuez”]

She has also, though, talked about how the song was influenced by Ravel’s “Bolero”, and in particular the way the piece keeps building in intensity, starting softly and slowly building up, rather than having the dynamic peaks and troughs of most music. And that is definitely a connection I can hear in the music:

[Excerpt: Ravel, “Bolero”]

Jefferson Airplane’s version of “White Rabbit”, like their version of “Somebody to Love”, was far more professional, far — and apologies for the pun — slicker than The Great Society’s version. It’s also much shorter. The version by The Great Society has a four and a half minute instrumental intro before Slick’s vocal enters. By contrast, the version on Surrealistic Pillow comes in at under two and a half minutes in total, and is a tight pop song:

[Excerpt: Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”]

Jack Casady has more recently said that the group originally recorded the song more or less as a lark, because they assumed that all the drug references would mean that RCA would make them remove the song from the album — after all, they’d cut a song from the earlier album because it had a reference to a trip, so how could they possibly allow a song like “White Rabbit” with its lyrics about pills and mushrooms? But it was left on the album, and ended up making the top ten on the pop charts, peaking at number eight:

[Excerpt: Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”]

In an interview last year, Slick said she still largely lives off the royalties from writing that one song. It would be the last hit single Jefferson Airplane would ever have.

Marty Balin later said “Fame changes your life. It’s a bit like prison. It ruined the band. Everybody became rich and selfish and self-centred and couldn’t care about the band. That was pretty much the end of it all. After that it was just working and living the high life and watching the band destroy itself, living on its laurels.”

They started work on their third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s, in May 1967, while “Somebody to Love” was still climbing the charts. This time, the album was produced by Al Schmitt. Unlike the two previous producers, Schmitt was a fan of the band, and decided the best thing to do was to just let them do their own thing without interfering. The album took months to record, rather than the weeks that Surrealistic Pillow had taken, and cost almost ten times as much money to record.

In part the time it took was because of the promotional work the band had to do. Bill Graham was sending them all over the country to perform, which they didn’t appreciate. The group complained to Graham in business meetings, saying they wanted to only play in big cities where there were lots of hippies. Graham pointed out in turn that if they wanted to keep having any kind of success, they needed to play places other than San Francisco, LA, New York, and Chicago, because in fact most of the population of the US didn’t live in those four cities. They grudgingly took his point.

But there were other arguments all the time as well. They argued about whether Graham should be taking his cut from the net or the gross. They argued about Graham trying to push for the next single to be another Grace Slick lead vocal — they felt like he was trying to make them into just Grace Slick’s backing band, while he thought it made sense to follow up two big hits with more singles with the same vocalist. There was also a lawsuit from Balin’s former partners in the Matrix, who remembered that bit in the contract about having a share in the group’s income and sued for six hundred thousand dollars — that was settled out of court three years later.

And there were interpersonal squabbles too. Some of these were about the music — Dryden didn’t like the fact that Kaukonen’s guitar solos were getting longer and longer, and Balin only contributed one song to the new album because all the other band members made fun of him for writing short, poppy, love songs rather than extended psychedelic jams — but also the group had become basically two rival factions. On one side were Kaukonen and Casady, the old friends and virtuoso instrumentalists, who wanted to extend the instrumental sections of the songs more to show off their playing.

On the other side were Grace Slick and Spencer Dryden, the two oldest members of the group by age, but the most recent people to join. They were also unusual in the San Francisco scene for having alcohol as their drug of choice — drinking was thought of by most of the hippies as being a bit classless, but they were both alcoholics. They were also sleeping together, and generally on the side of shorter, less exploratory, songs.

Kantner, who was attracted to Slick, usually ended up siding with her and Dryden, and this left Balin the odd man out in the middle. He later said “I got disgusted with all the ego trips, and the band was so stoned that I couldn’t even talk to them. Everybody was in their little shell”.

While they were still working on the album, they released the first single from it, Kantner’s “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil”. The “Pooneil” in the song was a figure that combined two of Kantner’s influences: the Greenwich Village singer-songwriter Fred Neil, the writer of “Everybody’s Talkin'” and “Dolphins”; and Winnie the Pooh. The song contained several lines taken from A.A. Milne’s children’s stories:

[Excerpt: Jefferson Airplane, “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil”]

That only made number forty-two on the charts. It was the last Jefferson Airplane single to make the top fifty.

At a gig in Bakersfield they got arrested for inciting a riot, because they encouraged the crowd to dance, even though local by-laws said that nobody under sixteen was allowed to dance, and then they nearly got arrested again after Kantner’s behaviour on the private plane they’d chartered to get them back to San Francisco that night. Kantner had been chain-smoking, and this annoyed the pilot, who asked Kantner to put his cigarette out, so Kantner opened the door of the plane mid-flight and threw the lit cigarette out.

They’d chartered that plane because they wanted to make sure they got to see a new group, Cream, who were playing the Fillmore:

[Excerpt: Cream, “Strange Brew”]

After seeing that, the divisions in the band were even wider — Kaukonen and Casady now *knew* that what the band needed was to do long, extended, instrumental jams. Cream were the future, two-minute pop songs were the past.

Though they weren’t completely averse to two-minute pop songs. The group were recording at RCA studios at the same time as the Monkees, and members of the two groups would often jam together. The idea of selling out might have been anathema to their *audience*, but the band members themselves didn’t care about things like that.

Indeed, at one point the group returned from a gig to the mansion they were renting and found squatters had moved in and were using their private pool — so they shot at the water. The squatters quickly moved on. As Dryden put it “We all — Paul, Jorma, Grace, and myself — had guns. We weren’t hippies. Hippies were the people that lived on the streets down in Haight-Ashbury. We were basically musicians and art school kids. We were into guns and machinery”

After Bathing at Baxter’s only went to number seventeen on the charts, not a bad position but a flop compared to their previous album, and Bill Graham in particular took this as more proof that he had been right when for the last few months he’d been attacking the group as self-indulgent.

Eventually, Slick and Dryden decided that either Bill Graham was going as their manager, or they were going. Slick even went so far as to try to negotiate a solo deal with Elektra Records — as the voice on the hits, everyone was telling her she was the only one who mattered anyway. David Anderle, who was working for the label, agreed a deal with her, but Jac Holzman refused to authorise the deal, saying “Judy Collins doesn’t get that much money, why should Grace Slick?”

The group did fire Graham, and went one further and tried to become his competitors. They teamed up with the Grateful Dead to open a new venue, the Carousel Ballroom, to compete with the Fillmore, but after a few months they realised they were no good at running a venue and sold it to Graham. Graham, who was apparently unhappy with the fact that the people living around the Fillmore were largely Black given that the bands he booked appealed to mostly white audiences, closed the original Fillmore, renamed the Carousel the Fillmore West, and opened up a second venue in New York, the Fillmore East.

The divisions in the band were getting worse — Kaukonen and Casady were taking more and more speed, which was making them play longer and faster instrumental solos whether or not the rest of the band wanted them to, and Dryden, whose hands often bled from trying to play along with them, definitely did not want them to.

But the group soldiered on and recorded their fourth album, Crown of Creation. This album contained several songs that were influenced by science fiction novels. The most famous of these was inspired by the right-libertarian author Robert Heinlein, who was hugely influential on the counterculture. Jefferson Airplane’s friends the Monkees had already recorded a song based on Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer, an unintentionally disturbing novel about a thirty-year-old man who falls in love with a twelve-year-old girl, and who uses a combination of time travel and cryogenic freezing to make their ages closer together so he can marry her:

[Excerpt: The Monkees, “The Door Into Summer”]

Now Jefferson Airplane were recording a song based on Heinlein’s most famous novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. Stranger in a Strange Land has dated badly, thanks to its casual homophobia and rape-apologia, but at the time it was hugely popular in hippie circles for its advocacy of free love and group marriages — so popular that a religion, the Church of All Worlds, based itself on the book.

David Crosby had taken inspiration from it and written “Triad”, a song asking two women if they’ll enter into a polygamous relationship with him, and recorded it with the Byrds:

[Excerpt: The Byrds, “Triad”]

But the other members of the Byrds disliked the song, and it was left unreleased for decades. As Crosby was friendly with Jefferson Airplane, and as members of the band were themselves advocates of open relationships, they recorded their own version with Slick singing lead:

[Excerpt: Jefferson Airplane, “Triad”]

The other song on the album influenced by science fiction was the title track, Paul Kantner’s “Crown of Creation”. This song was inspired by The Chrysalids, a novel by the British writer John Wyndham. The Chrysalids is one of Wyndham’s most influential novels, a post-apocalyptic story about young children who are born with mutant superpowers and have to hide them from their parents as they will be killed if they’re discovered. The novel is often thought to have inspired Marvel Comics’ X-Men, and while there’s an unpleasant eugenic taste to its ending, with the idea that two species can’t survive in the same ecological niche and the younger, “superior”, species must outcompete the old, that idea also had a lot of influence in the counterculture, as well as being a popular one in science fiction. Kantner’s song took whole lines from The Chrysalids, much as he had earlier done with A.A. Milne:

[Excerpt: Jefferson Airplane, “Crown of Creation”]

The Crown of Creation album was in some ways a return to the more focused songwriting of Surrealistic Pillow, although the sessions weren’t without their experiments. Slick and Dryden collaborated with Frank Zappa and members of the Mothers of Invention on an avant-garde track called “Would You Like a Snack?” (not the same song as the later Zappa song of the same name) which was intended for the album, though went unreleased until a CD box set decades later:

[Excerpt: Grace Slick and Frank Zappa, “Would You Like a Snack?”]

But the finished album was generally considered less self-indulgent than After Bathing at Baxter’s, and did better on the charts as a result. It reached number six, becoming their second and last top ten album, helped by the group’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in September 1968, a month after it came out. That appearance was actually organised by Colonel Tom Parker, who suggested them to Sullivan as a favour to RCA Records.

But another TV appearance at the time was less successful. They appeared on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, one of the most popular TV shows among the young, hip, audience that the group needed to appeal to, but Slick appeared in blackface. She’s later said that there was no political intent behind this, and that she was just trying the different makeup she found in the dressing room as a purely aesthetic thing, but that doesn’t really explain the Black power salute she gives at one point.

Slick was increasingly obnoxious on stage, as her drinking was getting worse and her relationship with Dryden was starting to break down. Just before the Smothers Brothers appearance she was accused at a benefit for the Whitney Museum of having called the audience “filthy Jews”, though she has always said that what she actually said was “filthy jewels”, and she was talking about the ostentatious jewellery some of the audience were wearing.

The group struggled through a performance at Altamont — an event we will talk about in a future episode, so I won’t go into it here, except to say that it was a horrifying experience for everyone involved — and performed at Woodstock, before releasing their fifth studio album, Volunteers, in 1969:

[Excerpt: Jefferson Airplane, “Volunteers”]

That album made the top twenty, but was the last album by the classic lineup of the band. By this point Spencer Dryden and Grace Slick had broken up, with Slick starting to date Kantner, and Dryden was also disappointed at the group’s musical direction, and left. Balin also left, feeling sidelined in the group. They released several more albums with varying lineups, including at various points their old friend David Frieberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service, the violinist Papa John Creach, and the former drummer of the Turtles, Johnny Barbata. But as of 1970 the group’s members had already started working on two side projects — an acoustic band called Hot Tuna, led by Kaukonen and Casady, which sometimes also featured Balin, and a project called Paul Kantner’s Jefferson Starship, which also featured Slick and had recorded an album, Blows Against the Empire, the second side of which was based on the Robert Heinlein novel Back to Methuselah, and which became one of the first albums ever nominated for science fiction’s Hugo Awards:

[Excerpt: Jefferson Starship, “Have You Seen The Stars Tonite”]

That album featured contributions from David Crosby and members of the Grateful Dead, as well as Casady on two tracks, but  in 1974 when Kaukonen and Casady quit Jefferson Airplane to make Hot Tuna their full-time band, Kantner, Slick, and Frieberg turned Jefferson Starship into a full band. Over the next decade, Jefferson Starship had a lot of moderate-sized hits, with a varying lineup that at one time or another saw several members, including Slick, go and return, and saw Marty Balin back with them for a while. In 1984, Kantner left the group, and sued them to stop them using the Jefferson Starship name. A settlement was reached in which none of Kantner, Slick, Kaukonen, or Casady could use the words “Jefferson” or “Airplane” in their band-names without the permission of all the others, and the remaining members of Jefferson Starship renamed their band just Starship — and had three number one singles in the late eighties with Slick on lead, becoming far more commercially successful than their precursor bands had ever been:

[Excerpt: Starship, “We Built This City on Rock & Roll”]

Slick left Starship in 1989, and there was a brief Jefferson Airplane reunion tour, with all the classic members but Dryden, but then Slick decided that she was getting too old to perform rock and roll music, and decided to retire from music and become a painter, something she’s stuck to for more than thirty years.

Kantner and Balin formed a new Jefferson Starship, called Jefferson Starship: The Next Generation, but Kantner died in January 2016, coincidentally on the same day as Signe Anderson, who had occasionally guested with her old bandmates in the new version of the band. Balin, who had quit the reunited Jefferson Starship due to health reasons, died two years later. Dryden had died in 2005.

Currently, there are three bands touring that descend directly from Jefferson Airplane. Hot Tuna still continue to perform, there’s a version of Starship that tours featuring one original member, Mickey Thomas, and the reunited Jefferson Starship still tour, led by David Frieberg. Grace Slick has given the latter group her blessing, and even co-wrote one song on their most recent album, released in 2020, though she still doesn’t perform any more.

Jefferson Airplane’s period in the commercial spotlight was brief — they had charting singles for only a matter of months, and while they had top twenty albums for a few years after their peak, they really only mattered to the wider world during that brief period of the Summer of Love. But precisely because their period of success was so short, their music is indelibly associated with that time. To this day there’s nothing as evocative of summer 1967 as “White Rabbit”, even for those of us who weren’t born then. And while Grace Slick had her problems, as I’ve made very clear in this episode, she inspired a whole generation of women who went on to be singers themselves, as one of the first prominent women to sing lead with an electric rock band. And when she got tired of doing that, she stopped, and got on with her other artistic pursuits, without feeling the need to go back and revisit the past for ever diminishing returns.

One might only wish that some of her male peers had followed her example.

12 thoughts on “Episode 158: “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane

    1. David Vawter

      They also incited a riot in Germany when a drunk Grace Slick started throwing out Nazi salutes to the crowd. So funny that they will be remembered more for “We Built This City” (which is a terrible song but also not, thanks to great production and Bernie Taupin). Another terrific episode.

  1. Scott A Sandvik

    I’m in the middle of the episode and loving it! Just another pronunciation point: I’ve always heard that Matthew Katz’s last name is pronounced so that it rhymes with the word “dates”.

  2. Bruce

    Let’s remember that the San Francisco Jam bands inspired breaking out of the 2:45 min. 55 single and was the climate for FM album oriented broadcasts.

  3. Arturo Sánchez

    Hey Andrew, although it may seem a stretch to you, upon reflection it is conceivable that Grace Slick was on point in namechecking Sketches of Spain and, by extension, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez as inspiration for White Rabbit to the following extent: I imagine that she wanted White Rabbit to be evocative of a haunting Spanish/Flamenco/Middle Eastern feel. The way she suggests this in her singing is by intoning the melismatic turns on the words “and”, “do”, “know”, “has”, which I have indicated with ellipses at the end of the following fragments:

    One pill makes you larger and…

    And the ones that mother gives you don’t do…

    And if you go chasing rabbits and you know…

    Tell ’em a houkah smoking caterpillar has…

    To this, perhaps, limited extent, she is mimicking the sixteenth note (semiquaver) triplets that actually do appear in abundance in the Adagio of the Concierto. I don’t want to overstate this, but to me, at least, she makes a convincing case.

    Apart from all this, as one who had been around listening on Top 40 radio to many of the songs and artists when they first came out that you have showcased, I continue to be impressed by the depth and breadth of your highly researched commentary and insightful background you deliver. The perspective you provide, even when sometimes going out on a limb, is heads and shoulders above most contemporary podcast takes on past masters. Thanks for what you do!

    1. Andrew Hickey

      There are episode playlists on Mixcloud at http://mixcloud.com/andrewhickey , and I link the individual ones in the blog posts for the individual episodes. Not every episode has a playlist, as Mixcloud has limits on how many songs by the same artist you can include, and some of the ones that are there may be region-locked and not available in every country, but you should be able to find at least eighty or so of them there.

      1. Phoef Sutton

        Thank you so much for your response! The podcast has helped me get through some hard times with my health. It’s truly been a life-line for me!

  4. John Ewing

    Hi,
    Love the podcast. And I appreciate how much time you must spend writing and recording it. But I must say I was slightly disappointed in this epidode. It was very obvious that you do not care much for the Jeffereson Airplane’s music and do not put much value in their substantial contributions to rock music. From the mispronunciation of Marty’s name (the lead singer and founding member), to the quip at the end about how the members shoud have followed Grace’s lead and retired a long time ago. You failed to mention their November 19th, 1968, midtown Manhattan rooftop performance (preceeding the Beatles by 2 1/2 months) and the Jefferson Startship’s 1975 hit Miracles which peeked in the US at #3 on the Billboard top 100.
    I know this is just your opinion, which you are fully entitled to. But such strong (and negative) ones concerning a band that you don’t even know the lead singers name, seems a bit over reaching.
    That said, keep up the good work.

    1. David Vawter

      Have to say I didn’t hear any negativity coming through in the podcast. Just a recitation of the facts told in an engaging way. But since you mentioned it, “Miracles” is about as far from the spirit of “White Rabbit” as you can possibly get. That song is smoochy (not to say cheesy) MOR; more like a Quaalude than a hit of LSD. 😉 And who cares that they played on someone’s roof? Bands have been doing that for as long as there have been roofs. I think Mr Hickey got “the Airplane’s” relative stature in the history of rock music about right.

    2. Andrew Hickey

      The “quip” at the end made no reference at all to her fellow band members, but was a more general comment.
      I explained the mistake with Balin’s name at the beginning. And I expressed literally *no* negative opinions about the band in this episode. None. Go back and check.
      I didn’t “fail” to mention those things. They weren’t important to the story I’m telling. Performing on a rooftop isn’t an important thing to mention. Yes, they did it before the Beatles, but the Beatles’ performance isn’t important because it was on a rooftop, but because it was their last live performance and it was filmed. People had performed on rooftops before Jefferson Airplane — for example Roberto Carlos did so a year before Jefferson Airplane. And similarly I don’t tend to mention all the late-career hits by *any* artists I cover. If you look at any artist I have covered in a single episode, I tend to cover their period of greatest influence in great detail, and then skip very briefly through their later career, missing out a *lot* of stuff.
      You’ve decided, based on the fact that I mispronounced Marty Balin’s name — something which, yes, is an error, but as I explained comes from having read multiple books on the band but not heard his name pronounced much (though after the podcast I realised I had heard it mentioned briefly in some live recordings), and which I apologise for right at the beginning — that I have “strong (and negative)” opinions, and have then decided to attribute them to me based on nothing I’ve said, but on things you imagined I said. And then you decided that you “must say” that.
      I don’t mind people criticising things I’ve actually said, but if you’re going to argue with an imaginary version of me you’ve made up in your own head, would you mind keeping me out of it?

      1. John Ewing

        Andrew,
        I’m sorry to have insulted you. I did not mean to get your back up, but I should have expected it given the general tone of my message. I appreciate that you addressed the Marty Balin name mispronunciation up front. I brought it up, not to admonish, but as an example of how your knowledge of this band may be of a less than passionate, and more of a scholarly nature.
        I guess the final sentence (which in your podcasts is usually important) left me with the feeling that you think the band over stayed their welcome. But I acknowledge the word “peers” in retrospect doesn’t necessarily refer just to her band mates, but rock musicians in general.
        I understand the historical importance of the Beatles rooftop performance (being their last). But the Airplane’s performance (originally part of Jean-Luc Godard’s “One A.M.” film project and its intended connection to Eldridge Cleaver and Tom Hayden) is not of zero historical consequence either. I think a brief mention would have added some context. As well as a possible segue to expand upon the group’s (or at least Kantner and Slick’s) radical politics.
        But listen, you do a great job. I am an avid listener and certainly did not intend to insult you. Since I obviously did, please accept my apology. If I have more comments in the future I will not be so cavalier in my wording.
        Thanks,
        -john

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