Friday, December 18, 2009

December 18: Jefferson Airplane, "Surrealistic Pillow"

Artist: Jefferson Airplane
Album: Surrealistic Pillow
Year: 1967
Label: RCA

Throughout history, nearly every great social movement can be directly associated with a handful of bands that were able to provide the soundtrack for change. Whether it was Sam Cooke in the early days of the civil rights movement or Woody Guthrie calling for action and equality, there is always some sort of defining sound in every situation. Even in more positive situations, when there is not necessarily a "cause" being rallied against, for all large changes or progressions in society, there is always some sort of "soundtrack." While there were a number of bands, as well as a mentality of an entire generation that emerged from the so-called "Summer Of Love" in 1967, few things from that summer had as much impact as the "arrival" of San Francisco's Jefferson Airplane. Brilliantly bridging the ground between folk music and rock and roll, the tone and sound that the group presented perfectly summed up an entire generation. With some of the most classic sounds of the era, as well as giving the world one of the most important female singers in history, as the 1960's came to a close, Jefferson Airplane were "the" band that stood far above the rest of the psychedelic groups. Decades later, the songs of Jefferson Airplane still find regular radio rotation, and the music is just as powerful and moving as it was more then forty years ago. Though the entire Jefferson Airplane catalog is well worth owning, and it is full of hits throughout their years together, there are few records as impressive, and few records that so perfectly defined a generation as one will find in the groups' sophomore release, 1967's truly indispensable Surrealistic Pillow.

While many will claim that The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the first "full" psychedelic record, the truth of the matter is, Jefferson Airplane had them beaten by more than four months. With Surrealistic Pillow, the group brought onto the world the sound that would make San Francisco's "Haight-Ashbury" district a defining spot for the psychedelic movement for the decades that followed. The album itself features two of the groups' best known songs, and these two tunes also played massive roles in defining the entire counter-culture movement of the time. In many ways, there are few songs that so perfectly sum of the "Summer Of Love" then the iconic song, "Somebody To Love." The song was actually originally recorded by the group Great Society, and was brought to Jefferson Airplane when the drummer and singer from Great Society joined Jefferson Airplane. The song was a massive success, breaking into the top five on the charts, and more than forty years later, it is still "the" song that defines the "hippie" culture. The other half of the definition of the generation comes on Surrealistic Pillow's second side, as the drug influence of the time is brilliantly represented in the albums' second single, "White Rabbit." Few songs have so perfectly discussed drug use without becoming cliché, and the song itself still makes regular appearances in popular culture. Every song on the album is absolutely perfect, yet this is not all that shocking when one inspects exactly "who" made up the musicians of Jefferson Airplane.

Reading like a "who's who" of the psychedelic-rock movement, Jefferson Airplane boasts one of the most stunning lineups of any band in music history. At the top of this list is one of music's most treasured writers and singers, Washington, D.C.'s own Jorma Kaukonen. Having played with everyone from Janis Joplin to CSNY, Kaukonen has written some of the most famous songs in music history, and his guitar style also had a massive influence on other players of the time. Bringing all of the freedom and pro-drug mentality that one could ever need, rhythm guitarist Paul Kanter remains one of the most iconic figures of his generation. As one of the bands' founders, his work on Surrealistic Pillow is beyond that of any of his other work, and the textures he creates are truly stunning. Jefferson Airplane also boasts one of the finest rhythm sections of their generation in the form of Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden. Casady is responsible for great innovations in using distortion on bass, and his exploration into chord progression and movement on bass stand as one of the most important musical steps that the world has ever seen. Dryden joined the band only a few months before the recording of Surrealistic Pillow, yet he brought with him the hit single, "Somebody To Love." While he would later play with bands like The Dinosaurs and NRPS, it is his work with Jefferson Airplane that stands as his finest and most important contributions to music. Surrealistic Pillow is not without controversy, as over the years, the involvement of the iconic Jerry Garcia has come into question. While Garcia receives credit on the album's original liner notes, as well as in later re-releases and box sets, producer Rick Jarrard denies his presence on any of the songs. Regardless of whether he was actually present for the sessions, every song on Surrealistic Pillow is absolutely fantastic, and it is without question one of, if not the most important albums of the generation.

Throughout the album, band founder Marty Balin adds guitar pieces, but his largest contributions come with his vocal work. Writing some of the albums' most rocking songs, as well as designing the album's art, Balin has rarely sounded better then he does on Surrealistic Pillow. His vocals are as strong as ever, as his deep, yet light vocals prove to be nothing short of perfect for every mood that the band attempts to present. The harmonies found on nearly every song are equally fantastic, as the group creates walls of sound like no other band was making at the time. Even with all of Balin's stunning vocal work, there is little question that the most significant change within Jefferson Airplane from their debut record a year earlier was the addition of a female vocalist by the name of Grace Wing, who went by the stage name, Grace Slick. Without question, Slick stands today as one of the most important female musicians in history, and from her very first appearance on record, it was clear that she was a force with which to be reckoned. As the sole writer of "White Rabbit," as well as the co-writer of "Somebody To Love," Slick quickly proved her knack for writing brilliant lyrics, and this talent was one of the few things that equaled her stunning voice. One need look no further then "Somebody To Love" to grasp the power and beauty of Slick's voice, and her more forward, almost unrestrained approach has influenced nearly every female performer that followed.

Finally, one cannot talk about Surrealistic Pillow without at least mentioning the presence of what may be the groups' most beautiful song ever, "Today." Written by Balin and Kanter, the song was created in what Balin says was, " try to meet Tony Bennett. He was recording in the next studio. I admired him, so I thought I'd write him a song." The song is absolutely gorgeous, and while the meeting between the two never occurred, the band put the song on the album anyway. This is also the song where the "Garcia controversy" lives, as it is he who is credited with the songs' repetitive riff. The truth of the matter is, anyone who has ever listened to Garcia's work as a member of The Grateful Dead can instantly hear Garcia's signature tone and playing style, so one must seriously question the validity of Jarrard's denials. From rocking numbers like "Somebody To Love" to completely scaled-back, mellow tunes like "Comin' Back To Me," Jefferson Airplane excels in every musical form. Every song on the album is absolutely perfect in every way, from the music to the lyrics to the tighter, less "wandering" arrangements that plagued many recordings of the so-called "jam bands" of the era. The addition of Grace Slick is a force that cannot be overstated, as it is largely due to her work that the band would become one of the defining groups of the generation, and even on this, her first appearance, she instantly stakes her claim as one of the greatest singers in the history of music. Without question one of the most important records ever made, as well as the album that defined the "San Francisco sound," the records are as stunning, musically flawless, and truly timeless as Jefferson Airplane's monumental 1967 release, Surrealistic Pillow.

Standout tracks: "Somebody To Love," "Today," and "White Rabbit."

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