Jefferson Airplane

 Jefferson Airplane

 Grace Slick – circa 1967

 “We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent…and young” – ‘We Can Be Together’ (Paul Kantner)

It raises eyebrows.  In the late 1960s the black power salute – a clenched fist at the end of an upthrust arm – is a symbol associated with radical groups of militant African-Americans ready to take a stand against the alleged oppression of the white authorities.  It’s a gesture that raises eyebrows.  In the first half of the twentieth century, Al Jolson is one of America’s most popular singers.  Because many of the songs he sings come from the negro community, Jolson usually performs in ‘blackface’ with dark greasepaint smeared over his white features.  By the ‘enlightened’ standards of the late 1960s, Al Jolson’s performances are looked back on with raised eyebrows.  On 15 December 1968, the U.S. rock band, The Jefferson Airplane, perform their song, ‘Crown Of Creation’ on the television program ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’.  The band’s vocalist performs in blackface and raises a black-gloved fist in the black power salute.  It raises eyebrows…and is one of a number of controversial incidents that leads to the cancellation of the TV show on 9 March 1969.  As may be surmised from the blackface reference, the members of The Jefferson Airplane are white – and that lead vocalist is a woman.  Meet Grace Slick, ladies and gentlemen.

Although Grace Slick may be the most famous (or notorious) member of The Jefferson Airplane, she is not part of that San Francisco band’s original line-up.

The story really begins with Marty Balin (born Martyn Jerel Buchwald, 30 January 1942).  Although born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Marty Balin grows up in California.  A handsome youth, Marty starts out as an actor, then branches into folk music.  This is a gentle, acoustic brand of music with leftist political consciousness woven into the lyrics.  Marty works with a combo known as The Town Criers in 1963 – 1964.

In 1964 Marty Balin sees the film ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964) starring British rock group, The Beatles.  Just as this movie inspires other folk musicians to convert to rock music and form such bands as The Byrds and The Lovin’ Spoonful, Marty Balin is similarly caught up in the notion of forming a rock band.  The first person he turns to is native San Franciscan Paul Kantner (born 12 March 1942).  The pair know each other from San Francisco’s coffee-house circuit of folk clubs where the bespectacled Kantner plays guitar and banjo.  Marty Balin is also acquainted with a female vocalist, Signe Toly (born 15 September 1941), originally from Washington, D.C.  Kantner and Toly are both folkies like Balin, but if Marty Balin intends to revisit his early interest in the rock ‘n’ roll music of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard – not to mention his new guiding light, The Beatles – he needs some rock ‘n’ roll musicians.  Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen (born 23 December 1940) is of Finnish descent.  Like Signe Toly, he is originally from Washington D.C. but is now ‘a locally celebrated guitar picker’ in San Francisco.  The founding line-up is rounded out with bassist Bob Harvey (born 1938) and drummer Jerry Peloquin.

The band’s name, The Jefferson Airplane, is derived from a nickname applied to guitarist Jorma Kaukonen.  A famed blues guitarist from decades past is Blind Lemon Jefferson.  Kaukonen has a wider musical background than some of his new bandmates, playing blues and jazz as well as rock and folk.  So one witty friend mashes together the name of one of the U.S.A.’s greatest Presidents, Thomas Jefferson, and the bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson and refers to Kaukonen as Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane.  The last part of the appellation presumably nods to Jorma Kaukonen’s ‘flights’ of improvisational guitar work.  Since Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane is a bit unwieldy, the band just uses the last two words: Jefferson Airplane.

Bob Harvey and Jerry Peloquin prove not to be suitable for the embryonic band and are quickly replaced.  Jack Casady (born John William Casady, 13 April 1944) is a school friend of Jorma Kaukonen from Washington D.C.  He is lured west to take up the position of bassist in The Jefferson Airplane.  Marty Balin chooses Canadian-born Skip Spence (born Alexander Spence, 18 April 1946 – 16 April 1999) because “he looked like a drummer.”  Even though he is actually a guitarist, Skip Spence takes up the position at the drumkit despite being ‘not particularly at ease in that role.’  Spence is the last to join in mid-1965.

The Jefferson Airplane make their live debut on 13 August 1965 at the Matrix Club in San Francisco ‘playing electrified blues and folk covers, plus a few originals.’  The Matrix Club becomes a regular stop for the band as they build an audience.  It has particular significance for vocalist Signe Toly.  She falls in love with the club’s lighting director, Jerry Anderson.  They marry in 1965 and she performs under the name Signe Toly Anderson.

As The Jefferson Airplane begins its ascent, so does the San Francisco music scene.  A band called The Charlatans are arguably the first of this new flock of San Francisco bands, predating The Jefferson Airplane.  The Charlatans are soon joined not only by Marty Balin’s band of misfits, but other groups like The Grateful Dead, The Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother And The Holding Company, and Country Joe And The Fish.  Like The Jefferson Airplane, most of these musicians are folkies turned rockers.  They might sound a bit clumsy at first, but the local audiences value spirit over technique.  A big part of the San Francisco scene is the sense of community.  Youths across America are moving to the city by the bay.  Disillusioned with commerce and authority, they are drop-outs.  Wishing to avoid the beginning of America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam, they are pacifists.  Interested in mind-expanding drugs, they are chemical cowboys.  Long-haired, bearded, somewhat unkempt, they are the successors to the beatniks of the late 1950s – early 1960s.  Attired in tie-dyed t-shirts, headbands and second-hand store bargains, they are the flower children.  Added together, these elements comprise a counter culture, an alternative community to straight-laced, conservative America.  The Jefferson Airplane are one of the standard-bearers for this movement.

Bill Graham, a new promoter on the San Francisco scene, opens a venue called the Fillmore Auditorium.  The Jefferson Airplane are one of the first acts he books to appear there.  This leads to the band scoring a recording contract with RCA.  They are the first of the new San Francisco bands to sign with a major record label.

The Jefferson’s Airplane’s first single, Marty Balin’s ‘It’s No Secret’, is released in February 1966.  The song maintains a galloping pace as Marty asserts “Everybody knows how I feel” and assures the object of his affections of “How strong my love is for you.”  This song is included on the group’s first LP.

The debut album, ‘Jefferson Airplane Takes Off’ (1966) (US no. 128), is released in August.  This set includes the ominous electric folk of ‘Blues From An Airplane’, a track co-written by Marty Balin and Skip Spence.  Although the album arouses interest, this first effort is ‘only marginally representative’ of what the band becomes.

In the wake of the debut album, The Jefferson Airplane undergoes two line-up changes.  Skip Spence decides to leave.  He goes on to form his own group, Moby Grape, where he is vocalist and guitarist instead of being stuck behind the drumkit.  His replacement in The Jefferson Airplane is Spencer Dryden (7 April 1938 – 11 January 2005), who has a pedigree in playing jazz.  Secondly, Signe Toly Anderson is now heavily pregnant, making touring difficult.  She also wants to take time out to have her baby.  The band decides to let her go and fills her position by hiring Grace Slick.

Grace Slick (born 30 October 1939) is the key element that transforms The Jefferson Airplane.  She is born Grace Barnett Wing in Evanston, Illinois.  She is of Norwegian and Swedish descent.  She is the daughter of Ivan W. Wing and Virginia Barnett.  “My mother was a singer,” Grace recalls, but also remembers her parents as Republicans and conservatives.  In other words, they were aligned with the right-wing of the American political landscape.  The family moves to San Francisco in the early 1950s.  Grace attends Palo Alto High School and then goes on to Finch College in New York in 1957 – 1958, switching to the University of Miami in Florida for 1958 – 1959.  When she returns to San Francisco, Grace Wing is somewhat different.  “I’ve always been just a little bit to the left of a Sandinista,” she later says with a chuckle, comparing herself to the left-wing Nicaraguan revolutionaries of 1979 to 1981.  “And I’ve been that way since I was about 21.”  In 1961, Grace Wing marries Gerald ‘Jerry’ Slick.  Grace puts her new husband through college by working as a fashion model.  As The Jefferson Airplane are setting out, Grace and Jerry Slick are also forming a band, The Great Society, with Jerry’s brother, Darby Slick.  The Great Society are often the support act for The Jefferson Airplane.  Allegedly, when the circumstances permit, Paul Kantner of The Jefferson Airplane goes along to The Great Society’s separate gigs just so he can hear Grace sing.  With The Great Society winding down, Grace Slick is free to accept the invitation to join The Jefferson Airplane.  She makes her debut with her new musical collaborators at the Fillmore in San Francisco on 14 October 1966.

The classic Jefferson Airplane line-up is now assembled.  The six members of the group basically split into two halves.  Grace Slick, Marty Balin and Paul Kantner are the pilots.  Each of them writes and sings, swapping the spotlight between them.  Marty Balin founded the group and his sweet voice and accessible tunes are still an important feature of their act.  Grace Slick though is revolutionary.  She sings with a tight ‘icy fury’ like some rock version of a Valkyrie.  In many ways, Grace Slick is the first modern ‘rock chick’.  She is not some compliant girl-next-door; she is a fully independent woman.  Paul Kantner’s deep voice falls somewhere between the extremes of Balin and Slick.  Collectively, they sing ‘at the interval of a fifth, a folk harmony style that gives a hollow, austere sound unlike the sweet “close” harmony of singing in thirds.’  The other half of the band, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden, are the engine.  Kaukonen is an inventive guitarist and the dominant musical voice in the band.  Jack Casady plays with a supple dexterity, his long-time friendship with Kaukonen allowing him to keep pace with the guitarist.  Spencer Dryden’s jazz chops likewise stand him in good stead for the angular turns the arrangements require at times.  All together, this is a potent combination.

The Jefferson Airplane’s second album, ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ (1967) (US no. 3), is issued in April and comes to be one of the definitive works of ‘the summer of love.’  It is the group’s greatest achievement.  This disc features two songs Grace Slick brings with her from her days in The Great Society.  ‘Somebody To Love’ (US no. 5) is co-written by Grace, Jerry and Darby Slick.  “When the truth is found to be lies / And all the joy within you dies / Don’t you want somebody to love?” asks Grace.  Marty Balin echoes her voice and the song is pushed forth in a catchy rock arrangement showing no trace of their folk music background.  Even better is Grace Slick’s ‘White Rabbit’ (US no. 8), the best Jefferson Airplane song.  “I was born in the year of the rabbit [according to Chinese astrology],” Grace Slick begins to explain in an interview.  But, of course, the real inspiration is Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’ (1865) in whose pages Alice follows a white rabbit into Wonderland.  “The story of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ is very much how I experienced things,” Grace claims.  “She grew up in rigid Victorian England but she arrives in Wonderland and suddenly it’s nuts.”  The song’s author draws the comparison to her own experiences in San Francisco’s counter culture.  The song is a haunting bolero, set to a marching rhythm.  “One pill makes you larger / And one pill makes you small / And the ones that mother gives you / Don’t do anything at all,” sings Grace Slick, blending Carroll’s whimsy with the altered reality of the drug culture.  The song increases in intensity as she sings, “And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom / And your mind is moving low.”  At the climax, all that’s left is to cry “Remember what the dormouse said: / ‘Feed your head’!”  Marty Balin is also well-represented with ‘3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds’ which sounds like an accurate reading of Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar speed.  “Take me to a circus tent / Where I can easily pay my rent / And all the other freaks all share my cares,” sounds like the story of all the dropouts arriving in the ‘Wonderland’ of San Francisco.  Marty also offers the loose energy of ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover’ and the gentle tambourine-tapping of ‘Today’.  The album is ‘a hallucinatory distillation of folk-blues vocals, garage-rock guitar and crisp pop songwriting.’

The Jefferson Airplane are one of the bands at the Monterey Pop Festival held on 16 -18 June 1967.  Held at Monterey, California, this is perhaps the first major rock festival and functions like a gathering of the counter culture tribes.

The next album for The Jefferson Airplane, ‘After Bathing At Baxter’s’ (1967) (US no. 17), is an even more psychedelic and experimental outing.  Jorma Kaukonen contributes the electric rave-up, ‘The Last Wall Of The Castle’ that preaches “Understanding is a virtue” and features an explosive guitar solo.  Paul Kantner composes three-quarters of this album, released in November, while Marty Balin is reduced to a half-credit on one song.  Kantner justifies this by explaining that he is the only one in the band who can write on the road and The Jefferson Airplane is doing a lot of touring at this point.  Perhaps the best of Kantner’s numbers here is ‘Watch Her Ride’ (US no. 61): “All I see is you / All I feel is you for me / And I would really like to watch you ride / And always feel you by my side.”  This disc also includes the nine-minute Kaukonen / Casady / Dryden jam ‘Spayre Change’; Grace Slick’s riff on author James Joyce, ‘Rejoyce’; and ‘You, Me And Pooneil’ (US no. 42).

‘Crown of Creation’ (1968) (US no. 6) is issued in September.  The title track, ‘Crown Of Creation’ (US no. 64), is a Paul Kantner composition that has ‘some quite breathtaking ensemble vocalising’ and contends that the subject (humanity itself?) is the highpoint of natural development.  (This is also the song Grace Slick performs on TV in blackface in December.)  Grace Slick’s ‘Lather’ is one of the band’s weirder moments.  It’s an ode to a 30 year old whose peers are either working in banks or driving tanks, “But wait, old Lather’s productive, you know / He produces the finest of sound / Putting drumsticks on either side of his nose / And snorting the best licks in town.”  Slightly more conventional is her ‘Greasy Heart’ (US no. 98), which is almost funky while also showcasing some guitar and talking of a “Woman with a greasy heart / Automatic man.”  Also included on this album is ‘Triad’, a song written by David Crosby.  It was rejected by Crosby’s former band, The Byrds, because its subject is a ménage-a-trois, but the fearless Jefferson Airplane don’t baulk at the sexually adventurous material.

In 1969 Paul Kantner and Grace Slick become a couple.  Grace’s divorce from Jerry Slick is not finalised until 1971.  Kantner’s fascination with Grace is clear from when he attended Great Society gigs and it seems likely that ‘Watch Her Ride’ is written about her.

On 16 May 1969 bassist Jack Casady is arrested in New Orleans’ Royal Orleans Hotel for possession of marijuana.  He receives a suspended sentence of two and a half years.

The Jefferson Airplane perform at the Woodstock Music Festival held in upstate New York over 15 – 17 August 1969.  This gathering is the high-point of the counter culture, so it is fitting that The Jefferson Airplane, one of the acts most identified with the hippie ethos, are present.

‘Volunteers’ (1969) (US no. 13, UK no. 34), released in November, is ‘The Airplane’s most overtly political venture.’  Marty Balin is limited to co-writing the title track, ‘Volunteers’ (US no. 65), with Grace Slick.  This is a stirring chant of “Got a revolution / Got to revolution” where it is claimed that “Our generation got soul.”  Paul Kantner’s ‘We Can Be Together’ sounds almost patriotic despite proclamations that “We are all outlaws in the eyes of America” and “We are forces of chaos and anarchy.”  Grace Slick evidently enjoys belting out this song’s declaration of “Up against the wall motherf***ers” to the forces of authority.  The song ‘Wooden Ships’ also shows up on the debut album by Crosby, Stills And Nash, David Crosby’s post-Byrds outfit, since it is co-written by Kantner, Crosby and Stephen Stills.  It is a gentler piece featuring piano and acoustic guitar.  There is also room for weirdness like Grace Slick’s ‘Eskimo Blue Day’ and Paul Kantner’s ‘The Farm’, a rural number with mice, bunnies and a toad named Lightning.

Just as The Jefferson Airplane appeared at Woodstock, the utopian high of the hippie era, they are also present at what is, arguably, the death-knell of that era.  They are one of the support acts at The Rolling Stones free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway on 6 December 1969 where the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, acting as security, get out of hand and a black youth is fatally stabbed.

Tricia Nixon, daughter of U.S. President Richard Nixon, hosts a tea party at the White House on 24 April 1970 for alumni of Finch College.  As may be recalled, Grace Slick attended Finch College, so she is dutifully invited.  The singer shows up with Abby Hoffman as an escort.  Hoffman is a well-known radical and currently on trial for conspiring to instigate a riot at the 1968 Democratic Party political convention in Chicago.  Unsurprisingly, Slick and Hoffman are turned away at the gate.  Grace Slick’s threat to introduce Ms Nixon to tea laced with the mind-expanding drug L.S.D. goes unfulfilled.

On 16 May 1970 Marty Balin is arrested for marijuana possession and contributing to the delinquency of minors.  When police raid his hotel room in Bloomington, Minnesota, Balin, his friend Terry Cost, and Jefferson Airplane soundman Gary O’Dell are found with the drugs and ‘several girls aged 12 to 17.’  Balin’s appeal against a sentence of one year’s hard labour is successful, but he still has to pay a one hundred dollar fine.

1970 is a transitional year for The Jefferson Airplane.  Drummer Spencer Dryden exits and founder Marty Balin also departs, demonstrating ‘the dominance of the Slick and Kantner at the expense of Balin.’  Grace Slick falls pregnant with Paul Kantner’s child, necessitating a curtailing of the band’s performing schedule.  Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady form a side project called Hot Tuna.  This starts out as an ‘electric blues country band’ featuring veteran fiddle player Papa John Creach (born John Henry Creach, 5 May 1917 – 22 February 1994) and drummer Joey Covington (born 27 June 1945).  Hot Tuna will, in future, sometimes open the show for The Jefferson Airplane proper.  Over time, Hot Tuna alters into an ‘early heavy metal band.’  Paul Kantner has his own side project, Jefferson Starship.  A science-fiction fan, Kantner records ‘Blows Against The Empire’ (1970) and attributes it to Paul Kantner And Jefferson Starship.  Alongside usual confederates Slick, Kaukonen and Casady, this album has contributions from Kenny Stavropolous (drums), Harvey Brooks (bass) and Phil Sawyer (sound affects) as well as famous guests David Crosby and Graham Nash (from Crosby, Stills And Nash) and Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart (two members of The Grateful Dead).

In October 1970 the pregnant Grace Slick tells the press that she intends to name her child god.  “No last name, no capital G.  And he can change his name when he feels like it.”  As it turns out, she and Paul Kantner become the parents of a baby girl they name China Wing Kantner (born 25 January 1971).

When The Jefferson Airplane reconvenes in 1971, Joey Covington and Papa John Creach from Hot Tuna are added to the group.  Recording is delayed when Grace Slick has a car accident on 13 May 1971, smashing her Mercedes into a concrete wall near San Francisco’s famed Golden Gate Bridge.

‘Bark’ (1971) (US no. 11, UK no. 42) is released in September on The Jefferson Airplane’s self-created record label, Grunt, a subsidiary of RCA.  Paul Kantner’s ‘When The Earth Moves Again’ is a pompous, stately piece that makes use of Papa John Creach’s solo violin.  Kantner also contributes a rave-up called ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Island’.  Outclassing them both is Grace Slick’s ‘Law Man’.  “Well, I’m afraid you just walked in here at the wrong time / You know my old man’s gun has never been fired but there’s a first time,” she warns the officer, before admitting “You look a lot younger than me / And I’d hate to shoot a baby.”  Jorma Kaukonen’s caustic guitar sounds as dangerous as the singer.  ‘Bark’ is not very well regarded.  Both it and the follow-up, ‘Long John Silver’ (1972) (US no. 20, UK no. 30) released in July, are said to show ‘similar degrees of flaccidity and self-indulgence.’  The latter disc includes Paul Kantner’s ‘Alexander The Medium’ (i.e. not Alexander the Great, rather than a song about a clairvoyant).  The title track, ‘Long John Silver’ (US no. 102), is issued as a single.

The Jefferson Airplane display a continuing gift for getting into trouble with the authorities.  A show in Akron, Ohio, on 21 August 1972 is subject to a bomb-threat.  This puts the police on edge and when some concert-goers toss rocks at the cops, the officers respond with tear gas.  From the stage, bassist Jack Casady objects and is arrested.  When Grace Slick and Paul Kantner try to ensure their colleague’s welfare, Grace is sprayed with mace and Paul Kantner has his ‘head slammed to the floor.’

David Frieberg (born 24 August 1938), from fellow San Franciscan band Quicksilver Messenger Service, is added to Jefferson Airplane in 1973 to provide vocals and bass.

Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady decide to concentrate on Hot Tuna and absent themselves from The Jefferson Airplane later in 1973.  The duo is unavailable when a tour is planned for 1974.

The decision is made to modify the band’s name from now on to Jefferson Starship, the label Paul Kantner previously used for ‘Blows Against The Empire’ in 1970.  The new line-up consists of Paul Kantner (vocals, guitar), Grace Slick (vocals), David Frieberg (vocals, bass), Craig Chaquico (guitar), Peter Kaukonen (guitar), Pete Sears (bass), John Barbata (drums) (born 1 April 1945) and Papa John Creach (fiddle).  This formation begins its first tour under The Jefferson Starship banner on 19 March 1974.  They issue ‘Dragon Fly’ (1974) (US no. 11) in September, which includes ‘Ride The Tiger’ (US no. 84) and ‘Caroline’, a Paul Kantner tune to which Marty Balin provides vocals and lyrics.  Marty appears on stage with his old confederates at the Winterland venue in San Francisco on 21 November 1974 and says, “These guys are great.  The energy is back.”

After the expression of such sentiments, it is no surprise that Marty Balin is officially part of the band again for ‘Red Octopus’ (1975) (US no. 1).  His song, ‘Miracles’ (US no. 3), is the album’s biggest hit.  Jefferson Starship is a little more streamlined on this outing though with Peter Kaukonen out of the picture.

Paul Kantner’s romantic relationship with Grace Slick ends in 1975.  Despite the couple having a daughter, China, they never marry.

Papa John Creach’s services have been dispensed with by the time of ‘Spitfire’ (1976) (US no. 3, UK no. 30).  This album yields the single ‘With Your Love’ (US no. 12).

In 1976 Grace Slick marries Skip Johnston, a lighting director for The Jefferson Starship’s stage shows who becomes her personal manager.

‘Earth’ (1978) (US no. 5) introduces Steve Shuster on saxophone.  The album includes ‘Count On Me’ (US no. 8), ‘Runaway’ (US no. 12), ‘Crazy Feelin’’ (US no. 54) and ‘Light The Sky On Fire’ (US no. 66).

Following this album, first Grace Slick, then Marty Balin and John Barbata all leave the group.  Grace’s departure occurs on 19 June 1978, two days after being unable to go onstage at a gig in Germany because she is ‘in the midst of a long bout with alcoholism.’  Paul Kantner is left to reorganise the band.  He adopts an approach closer to heavy metal or corporate rock.  Mickey Thomas, best known for providing the vocals on Elvin Bishop’s 1976 hit ‘Fooled Around And Fell In Love’ (US no. 3), becomes the new vocalist in Jefferson Starship on 12 April 1979.  Aynsley Dunbar, a former sideman to British guitar virtuoso Jeff Beck, takes over on drums.

‘Freedom At Point Zero’ (1979) (US no. 10, UK no. 22) is the first album by either The Jefferson Airplane or The Jefferson Starship to have no female vocals.  It includes ‘Jane’ (US no. 14, UK no. 21), a pummelling hard rock song that ranks among the better efforts in the latter part of the group’s career.

‘Modern Times’ (1981) (US no. 26) is recorded without saxophonist Steve Shuster who has departed the group’s ranks.  Grace Slick is back in the fold, but is only present on some tracks since the recording was nearly completed before her return.

‘Winds Of Change’ (1983) (US no. 26) has Grace Slick more firmly on board ‘having resolved her bout with alcohol and various personal problems.’  It also sees Don Baldwin replace Aynsley Dunbar on drums.  ‘Nuclear Furniture’ (1984) (US no. 28) adds keyboards player Peter Wolf.

At this point, Paul Kantner, the only person present on every Jefferson Airplane / Jefferson Starship album, leaves the band.  It seems he takes the Jefferson prefix with him because the group modifies its name to, simply, Starship.  David Frieberg also exits.

Starship consists of Mickey Thomas (vocals), Grace Slick (vocals), Craig Chaquico (guitar), Peter Wolf (keyboards), Pete Sears (bass) and Don Baldwin (drums).  Their first single, ‘We Built This City’ (US no. 1, UK no. 12), proves to be one of the biggest hits by any version of the band.  Presumably, it refers to San Francisco when it claims “We built this city on rock ‘n’ roll.”  Mickey Thomas and Grace Slick share the vocals on the song.  It is written by keyboardist Peter Wolf, Bernie Taupin (pop star Elton John’s usual lyricist), Dennis Lambert and Martin Page.  The album, ‘Knee Deep In The Hoopla’ (1985) (US no. 7), takes its name from another line in the song.  The reference roughly means drowning in hyperbole.  ‘Sara’ (US no. 1, UK no. 66), a song featuring Mickey Thomas as vocalist, is another success from this album.

Starship sheds Pete Sears for the follow-up, ‘No Protection’ (1987) (US no. 12, UK no. 26).  This disc also scores commercially with the singles ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1) and ‘It’s Not Over (Til It’s Over)’ (US no. 9, UK no. 86).

‘Love Among The Cannibals’ (1989) proves to the last album issued under the Starship cognomen.  It’s recorded without Grace Slick or Peter Wolf.  Mickey Thomas, Craig Chaquico and Don Baldwin are joined by Mark Morgan (keyboards) and Brett Bloomfield (bass), but it is the last outing for all five.

In August 1989, the same month in which ‘Love Among The Cannibals’ is released, an album titled simply ‘Jefferson Airplane’ (1989) (US no. 85), is issued.  This is the work of Grace Slick (vocals), Marty Balin (vocals), Paul Kantner (vocals, guitar), Jorma Kaukonen (guitar) and Jack Casady (bass).  In other words the most familiar names in the band’s history are back together.  Though he is a hired hand rather than an official member, Kenny Aronoff (best known for his work with heartland rocker John Mellencamp) plays drums on the album.  Though this back-to-basics line-up seems like a good idea, the combination proves short-lived.

Grace Slick exits the music business completely.

Paul Kantner reactivates The Jefferson Starship brand in 1992 and is joined by Mark ‘Slick’ Aguilar (guitar), Darby Gould (vocals), Tim Gorman (keyboards), Jack Casady (bass) and Prairie Prince (drums).  In 1993 Marty Balin joins in.

Grace Slick’s marriage to Skip Johnston ends in divorce in 1994.

Peter Kaukonen returns to Jefferson Starship in 1994, but leaves again in 1995.  Darby Gould and Tim Gorman also leave in 1995.

Chris Smith (keyboards) joins in time for ‘Windows Of Heaven’ (1998), the first Jefferson Starship album of new material in fourteen years (or nine years if you are inclined to count Jefferson Airplane or Starship albums in the reckoning).

Jack Casady and Marty Balin both call it a day in 2000.  Don Baldwin rejoins as second drummer in 2005.

‘Jefferson’s Tree Of Liberty’ (2008), ten years after the previous Jefferson Starship album, is the work of new recruit Cathy Richardson (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Paul Kantner (vocals, guitar), Jeff ‘Slick’ Aguilar (guitar), Chris Smith (keyboards), Don Baldwin (drums) and Prairie Prince (drums).

It’s a long way from the heady days of San Francisco in the 1960s.  The various incarnations of this act all produced some notable work but the essential core seems to be the four albums from ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ (1967) to ‘Volunteers’ (1969).  During that time, the band were exciting social radicals and musical visionaries.  Other incarnations may have enjoyed greater commercial dividends, but are less historically significant.  Grace Slick’s musical persona in particular threw off the shackles that confined so many earlier female rock stars and established new roles for women in bands for decades to follow.  ‘The [Jefferson] Airplane were San Francisco’s first and finest…They were to San Francisco what The Beatles had been to Liverpool…’  ‘The striking beauty of singer Grace Slick belied a venomous vocal bite; the band’s sublime, three-part harmonies often descended into stoned, on-stage battle cries; and the electrifying runs of bassist Jack Casady and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen poured tripped-out, Eastern-scented oil over the fiery folk-rock veneer of the band’s material.’

Sources:

  1. lyricsfreak.com as at 18 March 2013, 15 September 2014
  2. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 105, 121, 131, 151, 156, 158, 161, 165, 171, 172, 182, 186, 203, 226, 234, 285, 297, 328
  3. allmusic.com, ‘Jefferson Airplane’ by William Ruhlmann as at 18 March 2013
  4. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 117, 118, 119, 160
  5. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘The Sound of San Francisco’ and ‘The Jefferson Airplane’ both by Charles Perry (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 362, 363, 378, 379
  6. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 113
  7. wikipedia.org as at 18 March 2013
  8. limelightagency.com – 2007 Grace Slick interview
  9. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 53, 67
  10. ‘The Jefferson Airplane Collection’ – Sleeve notes by Dennis Turner (BMG Music / Castle Communication PLC, 1988) p. 4
  11. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 92

Song lyrics copyright unavailable with the exceptions of: ‘We Can Be Together’, ‘It’s No Secret’, ‘Watch Her Ride’ and ‘Volunteers’ (all Universal Music Publishing, EMI Music Publishing); and ‘Somebody To Love’ and ‘Greasy Heart’ (both Universal Music Publishing Group)

Last revised 17 September 2014

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