Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship

Jefferson Airplane:
Surrealistic Pillow
After Bathing At Baxter's
Crown Of Creation
Bless Its Pointed Little Head
Volunteers
Jefferson Starship:
Dragon Fly
Red Octopus
Spitfire
Freedom At Point Zero
Modern Times


Surrealistic Pillow (RCA Victor '67) Rating: A
I'm going to skip the first album from the Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, because this is the first album with the classic lineup of Marty Balin and Grace Slick on lead vocals, the stellar tandem of Jack Casady on bass and Jorma Kaukonen on lead guitar, Paul Kantner on rhythm guitar, and Spencer Dryden on drums. This is also quite simply the band's most famous and most important album, in large part due to its two era-defining "Summer Of Love" hits "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit," both dominated by Slick though Balin is the lead singer on the majority of the album (though many of the songs feature impressive harmonies on which Slick's vocals are essential). Though this album's reputation is as a psychedelic classic, much of the material here is in a mellower folk rock vein that has more in common with the early Byrds than the early Grateful Dead (to name the other most famous San Francisco band of the era, whose guitarist Jerry Garcia may or may not have performed on this album). In truth, some of these songs are a bit boring, but I find catchy, pretty folk tunes like "My Best Friend" and "How Do You Feel" to be utterly charming, and Kaukonen's acoustic guitar piece "Embryonic Journey" is a pretty showcase of an underrated performer. Elsewhere, I really enjoy hard-hitting psychedelic rockers such as "She Has Funny Cars," "Plastic Fantastic Lover," and especially "3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds," which you've also probably heard before even if you don't recognize its title (this is the one whose chorus goes "you know I love you baby, yes I do"). Of course, it's the two all-time classic singles that most people remember this album (and indeed this band) by. "Somebody To Love" is such an acknowledged classic that it seems almost pointless to talk about it, but suffice it to say that it still sounds exciting to me, especially the part where Slick holds that long note ("love.....") before Jorma adds some acidic guitar. If anything "White Rabbit" even ups the ante, what with Slick's peerless vocal, Dryden's memorably militant drums, those likely drug fueled Alice in Wonderland lyrics, and of course its dramatic buildup that culminates with the "feed your head" climax at the end of the song. One listen to these songs and it's instantly 1967 again (regardless of your age), but though those songs and much of this album is decidedly dated to that year, they also have a timeless appeal simply by virtue of being great songs, and despite some definite flaws (dopey flower power lyrics and sometimes unfocused or lethargic music) Surrealistic Pillow is still a great album.

After Bathing At Baxter's (RCA Victor '67) Rating: A-
This follow up album is more "far out" and psychedelic, harder rocking, and less consistent than Surrealistic Pillow. Since the album was much less accessible, it was also much less successful at the time, though it's now acknowledged as a psychedelic classic, albeit an underground classic. This album is ostensibly comprised of five different "suites," and Kantner and (to a lesser extent) Slick handled the bulk of the songwriting and lead singing as Balin's role is greatly reduced, though again their excellent three-part harmonies are often out in full force. Some of these songs are seriously rocking, as Kaukonen's role is also significantly increased while Dryden puts in an impressive performance (for his part, Casady simply remains one of the best bass players in all of rock). The album begins with the Kantner single "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil," which is very good if not very commercial, while Dryden's "A Small Package of Value Will Come to You, Shortly" is a short but skippable sound collage. "Young Sunday Girl Blues" is Balin's most notable contribution to the album, before Kantner takes over with a pair of strong songs: "Martha" is a haunting Kantner/Slick duet with more Kaukonen guitar soloing, and "Wild Thyme" is a comparatively catchy rocker. Kaukonen's "The Last Wall of the Castle" is a wild rocker, while Slick's "Rejoyce" is overly pretentious but still interesting. "Watch Her Ride" is another comparatively accessible Kantner rocker, while "Spare Chaynge" (these guys are worse spellers than Prince!) is an indulgent 9-minute instrumental that starts slowly but gains steam and builds into a nice groover. Again, like the album itself, the song is indulgent and pretentious but is also flat-out different and interesting, and "Two Heads" continues with a solid Slick rocker before Kantner's "Won't You Try / Saturday Afternoon" ends the album with another ambitious but surprisingly catchy rocker. On the whole, you can't talk about this album without referencing the era during which it was recorded (the "Summer Of Love") or the drug ("LSD") that fueled much of its creativity, but though this album is definitely dated to that era, and though it's a bit hit and miss at times, After Bathing At Baxter's was another great album that I actually listen to more than Surrealistic Pillow.

Crown Of Creation (RCA Victor '68) Rating: B+
This one is somewhere in between Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing At Baxter's, as it's generally mellower than the latter album but it still has some psychedelic rocking out, which isn't as "out there" as most of Baxter's. This is a good album on which the band's main instrumentalists (Casady and Kaukonen) in particular excel, but the songs on the whole are less memorable here than on the prior two albums and the band's democratic tendencies work against them (Balin has more of a presence here but I wish Slick sung more leads). The first three songs are mellow: "Lather" is a delicate folk ballad sung by Slick that's of course has some psychedelic touches too, "In Time" is agreeably dream-like with some nice guitar soloing too, and "Triad" is the David Crosby written song that rather infamously caused his unamicable departure from the Byrds when they refused to record it. I can see why they didn't want to record it, the thought of David Crosby in a ménage a trois is rather gross, but a young Grace is another story...actually I find this version to be musically boring and lyrically silly as well, but most of the rest of the album sees the band perking up, albeit with somewhat inconsistent results. Still, Casady and Kaukonen (heavy on the wah wah) prop up even the lesser efforts (except for the dreadful but mercifully short "Chushingura") with their terrific playing, and I really like "If You Feel" (a great Balin-penned guitar track), the haunting title track (one of their signature songs, written by Kantner who based the lyrics on the science fiction novel The Chrysalids by John Wyndham), and the Grace Slick rocker "Greasy Heart." The epic finale "The House At Pooneil Corners" has its apocalyptic strengths as well, though it was more a grower track for me. Actually, this was a grower album for me on the whole, as I needed several listens before some of these songs started to sink in. I'm still waiting for some of the others to latch on, and maybe they never will, but the band's impeccable chemistry (both playing and singing) makes for another enjoyable full-length effort.

Bless Its Pointed Little Head (RCA Victor '69, '03) Rating: A-
Like most of their San Francisco peers such as the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Jefferson Airplane was a live act first and foremost, and their sound was much different (more expansive and much harder rocking) live than in the studio. Though a bit skimpy for a live album at 53 minutes (65 on the 2003 reissue which tacks on three songs), Bless Its Pointed Little Head, which captures performances at the Fillmore East and West in the fall of 1968, is essential to understanding what these guys (and gal) were about. For one thing, it seriously rocks, Kaukonen and Casady unsurprisingly being the standout musicians, while Balin takes most of the lead vocals this time. Expansive versions of Airplane originals such as "3/5 Of A Mile in 10 Seconds," "It's No Secret" (from Jefferson Airplane Takes Off), "Plastic Fantastic Lover," and of course "Somebody To Love" sound really good here (though I definitely prefer the classic studio version of the latter song; it would've been nice to have had "White Rabbit" here as well). The band also impressively covers Donovan ("Fat Angel," which is mostly mellow but also has some nice buildups), B.B. King ("Rock Me Baby," which presages Kaukonen and Casady's more traditional straight blues work in Hot Tuna), and Fred Neil ("The Other Side Of This Life," my favorite song here as some of its instrumental sections are thrilling). The 11-minute closing jam "Bear Melt" is a bit hit and (mostly) miss, and maybe some instrumental sections could be tidied up a bit elsewhere as well, but by and large Bless Its Pointed Head does a really good job of showing what a good live band the Jefferson Airplane was in their late '60s heyday.

Volunteers (RCA Victor '69) Rating: A
Although definitely dated like all Jefferson Airplane albums, Volunteers is my favorite studio album by them along with Surrealistic Pillow. Notable for its highly political anti-war and ecologically aware lyrics, the album musically is notable for the ample contributions of session ace Nicky Hopkins on piano, plus songs such as "The Farm" (featuring Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar) and "A Song For All Seasons" are actually country; this isn't the band's best style but these songs do have a certain charm. Elsewhere, opening and closing tracks "We Can Be Together" (controversial for its "motherfucker" lyrics) and "Volunteers" are two excellent sing along anthems that are cut from the same cloth, and their version of the traditional "Good Shepherd," arranged and sung by Kaukonen, is another strong entry that Kaukonen himself accurately described as "psychedelic folk rock." Not everything here is first-rate, the minute-long "Meadowlands" in particular being the very definition of filler, but a pair of epic-scale tracks also help make this album a must-have. Their apocalyptic version of "Wooden Ships" in my opinion easily eclipses the CSN original due to their haunting vocals (particularly from Grace) and Kaukonen's outstanding guitar playing, which also serves as the highlight of the excellent 9-minute "Hey Fredrick." Anyway, the band (and Kaukonen in particular) were really at the top of their game on this stellar album, which was fittingly released as the '60s were coming to a close. Unfortunately, after a couple more underwhelming efforts (Bark in 1971 and Long John Silver in 1972) without Balin and Dryden the Jefferson Airplane crashed, but from the rubble a more modern Jefferson Starship eventually emerged.

Dragon Fly (Grunt/RCA '74) Rating: A-
The first official Jefferson Starship album after the Jefferson Airplane splintered and after several albums were released by leaders Paul Kantner and Grace Slick (the most notable being Blows Against The Empire in 1970), Dragon Fly was a very good and quite underrated first attempt. It starts with the excellent hard rocking single "Ride The Tiger," on which impressive new guitarist Craig Chaquico (then only 20) excels with several blazing guitar runs, before "That's For Sure" delivers breezy soft rock; this song builds nicely towards the end even if it could be more memorable on the whole. "Be Young You," on which piano and Papa John Creach's electric violin are the primary instruments, is a soaring ballad that's a solid showcase for Slick's powerhouse vocals, before Marty Balin (not yet an official Jefferson Starship band member) drops in for his epic ballad "Caroline," which has some cringe-worthy lyrics but is still an impressive highlight on the whole, helped by some more high quality guitar playing. "Devil's Den," on which Pete Sears' bass and the violin again stand out, is a solid fast-paced groover (it helps that I could listen to Grace Slick sing the phone book), before "Come To Life" provides a decent twangy rocker that sometimes musically veers a tad too closely to the Four Tops' "I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey)." Finishing with a flourish, "All Fly Away" is a really nice mid-tempo semi-ballad with haunting harmonies and more impressive violin/guitar embellishments (it's "dragon fly away" lyrics also likely gave this album its title), while "Hyperdrive" is epic ballad time again, this time with Grace on dramatic lead vocals as Chaquico provides soulful guitar playing and Creach and Sears (on organ) add a truly majestic ambiance to the track. Just a great ending to a consistently enjoyable album that seems to have fallen through the cracks over time, despite the fact that it was fairly successful at the time of its release (#11 on the U.S. Billboard charts). To speak in general terms again, obviously the band's sci-fi lyrical themes are a far cry from the hippy ideals of the Jefferson Airplane, and prominent use of piano and violin also distinguishes them sound-wise from your typical four-piece rock band. That said, the Jefferson Starship was a more typically straightforward rock band than the Jefferson Airplane ever was, even if personnel-wise the only real changes were replacing the bass player and lead guitarist (plus Balin is largely absent here as Kantner takes the majority of the lead vocals). This may hurt their stock originality-wise, but the quality of the songwriting and performances on this album elevates it well above the ordinary.

Red Octopus (Grunt/RCA '75) Rating: A-
Today the Jefferson Starship seem to be overlooked in general, but back in 1975 this album was a #1 U.S. hit, largely on the back of "Miracles," a gorgeous, sensuous Marty Balin #1 hit ballad with great vocals (lead and harmonies), keyboards, and even a nice sax solo. The single was edited down but I prefer the near 7-minute album version here, and far from a hits plus filler affair Red Octopus is a diverse, consistently satisfying collection, even if none of the other songs approach "Miracles" in quality and on the whole I probably slightly prefer Dragon Fly. This album, with the same lineup as previously but with Balin back as a full time member, finds the band generally embracing a very '70s "soft rock" sound that's more Fleetwood Mac than Jefferson Airplane, though there are some heavier tracks and impressive instrumental jams as well. The album starts strongly with "Fast Buck Freddie," a singable, briskly paced pop rock number on which Creach's violin adds a certain uniqueness. After "Miracles" comes "Git Fiddler," the first of two groove-based instrumentals and a funky Creach showcase, and the first instance of the band trying to bring together a hybrid style that works better than you might think; another example of this is "I Want To See Another World," a strangely effective hard rock waltz. "Al Garimasu (There Is Love)" is another big epic Grace Slick ballad that's a definite highlight for me, in large part due to impressive performances from Chaquico and drummer John Barbata, while "Sweeter Than Honey" is solidly hard rocking but hardly a standout. Much better to me is "Play On Love," a tuneful Slick-sung soft rocker with swirling Hammond organ and more prominent violin playing from Papa Creach (this would be the considerably older musician's last album with the band but boy did he go out on a high note). "Tumblin'" is a gentle piano ballad (with violin too of course) sung by Balin and featuring some soulful Chaquico guitar, while "Sandalphon" is the other instrumental; this one takes a while to get going but when it does I dig its bustling groove, not to mention more swirling organ and melodic guitar solos. Anyway, last but certainly not least is "There Will Be Love," another melodic, well-crafted soft rocker most notable for its excellent vocal harmonies and Chaquico's smooth guitar soloing. As you can tell by some of the song titles, lyrically the band is more apt to sing simple love songs rather than revel in sci-fi mysticism or extol hippy ideologies here, and though musically this may not be the most exciting album, it is consistently ear pleasing and a clear high point in the careers of all involved.

Spitfire (Grunt/RCA '76) Rating: B+
With Creach gone but the rest of the lineup intact, Jefferson Starship came back with another strong outing on Spitfire, which wasn't quite the smashing success that Red Octopus had been (in part because its songs are a little less memorable on the whole) but which did brisk business at the time just the same. More importantly, even though you rarely if ever hear this album mentioned anymore, most of this more progressive and rocking album still sounds very good today. The funky, simple "Crusin'," sung by Balin and packing some serious guitar heat, is certainly a lighthearted, fun opener, and "Dance With the Dragon" shows off the group's multiple singers and the underrated Chaquico's impressive riffs and solos. Slick's "Hot Water" (a co-write with Sears) is also funky and a bit hookier, with powerful lead vocals as per usual from Grace and more guitar solos that hit the right pleasure points. The most impressive song on the album to me is the dreamy, ambitious epic "St. Charles," a real overlooked gem of progressive-minded '70s rock and one of the best Jefferson Airplane/Starship song's ever, and the also-progressive, multi-part "Song To The Sun" is another grandly mystical winner primarily from Kantner. The album gets grounded again with "With Your Love," which is essentially a less impressive sequel to "Miracles" from Balin but which was another seductive soft rock hit (#12 U.S.) just the same, with moody late night keyboards from David Freiberg and more strong vocals. Speaking of, Grace really soars on the lush, dramatic love ballad "Switchblade," which despite being a ballad manages to include both Moog synth and guitar solos! That's one thing I like about this band, how each member (including Sears and Freiberg who play a multitude of instruments on the album) is allowed to shine. Of course, the band's democratic tendencies has its drawbacks too, as Barbata's boogie-based "Big City" is an obvious filler track, before the curtain closes with "Love Lovely Love," a smooth Balin-led semi-ballad with more striking vocals and guitar solos. So that's Spitfire for you, another fine album from a fine band. It may be a tad less focused, consistent, and cohesive than Red Octopus, but really it's of a similar quality to that album and the preceding Dragon Fly, as it essentially completed an impressive initially trilogy under the rebranded Jefferson Starship moniker.

Freedom At Point Zero (Grunt/RCA '79) Rating: B+
After the disappointing Earth album, Slick, Balin, and Barbata left the band, and the next incarnation of the Jefferson Starship would prove markedly different. Recruiting high-pitched singer Mickey Thomas (previously best known for singing Elvin Bishop's hit "Fooled Around and Fell In Love") and the excellent if much-travelled drummer Anysley Dunbar (most recently in Journey), the slickly produced (by Ron Nevison as is his style) Freedom At Point Zero sees the Jefferson Starship refashioned as an AOR band that can rock pretty damn hard at times. The first and best song here is "Jane," the high point of the Mickey Thomas era and a fantastic hard rock song, period. This dramatic track has a classic keyboard/guitar riff combo, wailing guitar solos, and some poppy hooks too, and though it lacks the epochal cultural relevance of "Somebody To Love" or "White Rabbit," it's just as great a song, in my humble opinion (or close to them, in any event). Without getting into a song-by-song breakdown like I've done elsewhere, I'll note that Thomas' high-pitched vocals are definitely something of an acquired taste, that there's a cheesiness at times (again the slick production doesn't always help in this regard) that's definitely a detriment, and some well placed sax solos (by Steve Schuster) add a certain unexpected uniqueness to some of these songs, much like Creach's violin had done a few albums back. On the whole, this is a consistently entertaining album, with other high points being the mystical epic power ballad "Awakenings" and the hard rocking title track. "Rock Music" is another keeper that along with "Jane" is the lone song here you're likely to hear on "classic rock radio" (and very infrequently at that these days), though it's blatant commerciality was something of a red flag as to what would come later ("We Built This City" = UGH). Anyway, on the whole this was an impressive change in direction for the band, as an influx of new talent (plus the ever-underrated Chaquico is at his raging best throughout) enabled the Jefferson Starship to completely change their style and gain a whole new audience, one that was more likely into Journey than the Jefferson Airplane.

Modern Times (Grunt/RCA ‘81) Rating: A-
The Mickey Thomas era of Jefferson Starship wasn't exactly embraced by AOR hating professional critics, but we can't help what we like, right? I find this album (popular then but actually hard to find now) to be extremely enjoyable, as it's basically a harder rocking, more consistent improvement on the also-fine Freedom At Point Zero. This album re-introduces Grace Slick into the mix but primarily as a backing vocalist (where she absolutely shines), and Thomas also delivers strong performances that I'm less likely to be annoyed by than on the prior album. These songs are catchy and hard rocking, with Dunbar and Chaquico in particular putting in great instrumental performances. The first side in particular is pretty spectacular, starting with the album's best-known song with the uplifting, anthemic minor hit "Find Your Way Back," which like "Jane" has a great synth/guitar riff combo and is also supremely catchy. Even better in my book is the atmospheric, hard-hitting mid-tempo rocker "Stranger," a dynamic Thomas/Slick duet which also got some radio airplay back in the day though you're highly unlikely to hear it today (as an aside, I've always thought that Grace looked great in the video and I thoroughly enjoyed Thomas' '70s porn 'stache as well!). Also notable for Dunbar's big drum beat, the song builds to an exciting climax that culminates with a killer guitar solo. The memorable pop rocker "Wild Eyes (Angel)" continues with a very good album track, and the dark, intense epic "Save Your Love" is another scorcher, with memorable harmonies and arguably Chaquico's greatest guitar solo ever. Side two is less memorable and has a couple of problematic tracks (the cheesy "Mary" and the flat-out strange "Alien"), but the title track and "Free" are other solid album tracks whose riffs and harmonies are particularly notable, while "Stairway To Cleveland" ends the proceedings with a foul mouthed rebuff of their harsh critics which I can't help but enjoy (perhaps in part because I'm not one of them!). Anyway, on the whole this is a seriously underrated album, one whose bright synths and production touches dates it to the early '80s but whose catchy, hard rocking music still sounds damn good to me. Alas, after this album, which I really liked as a youngster and obviously still do, I kinda lost interest in the Jefferson Starship, though 1984's Nuclear Furniture had some good songs as well. Once Paul Kantner left the band and they became the far more pop oriented and far less interesting (that's putting it kindly) Starship I totally lost interest, though it was hard to escape massive #1 radio hits such as "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," "Sara" (both not bad for what they are, actually) and the utterly wretched "We Built This City." However, the sins of Starship can be forgiven when one remembers how much good music the two Jefferson... groups produced.

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