Genre: Space Rock, Psychedelic Rock
Preceded by: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
Followed by: More (1969)
Related to: not available yet
Before: a psychedelic rock band fronted by Syd Barett, having released a couple of successful singles and a more than decent debut album. After: an ambitious rock act, featuring David Gilmour and packed with ever growing ambitions. Struggling with exuberance before, turning vinyl into gold afterwards and threatened to end up in its own shadow towards the end. This is a key album, the only album with Barett as well as Gilmour, a personal favorite, but above all: a beautiful Floyd album, merging great melodies with foggy instrumental parts without drowning in its own sound. As if the title could already foresee what would happen during the early seventies, this would remain the best preserved secret of the band.
Although Roger Waters went to the same high school as Syd Barett, and although Gilmour was hanging around in his neighborhood, he laid down the ground works for Pink Floyd together with Nick Mason and Richard Wright after they met (1962) at the school of architecture. Together with three other guys they played in a band named ‘Sigma 6’. As was made clear later, Waters was already not such a great fan of schools back then and he dropped out after one year, just like Mason. Wright apparently just didn’t show any interest at all in architecture and switched to the London College of Music. Not a bad decision at all, as was also made clear later.
The three of them initially kept playing together, till they are joined by Syd Barett (1964) after the departure of some other members. The younger childhood friend from Waters had meanwhile become an art student, fascinated by work from The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Barett’s star within the band quickly rises, as singer as well as lead guitarist, and when the band starts to grow towards its definite form, it changes its name to The Pink Floyd Sound in 1965. The Sound is dropped the next year and the four of them start performing in London’s underground clubs, where their long instrumental improvisations (avoiding to repeat themselves with their limited repertoire) were supported by surreal light effects. It was told that this new band played psychedelic music, which was not at all generally appreciated. Luckily for them, 1967 was within reach.
The rock scene turned upside down right from the start of this year by the massive booming of psychedelic bands, and on the very day the Monterey Pop Festival kicks off on the American West Coast, Pink Floyd releases its second (after ‘Arnold Layne’) single: ‘See Emily Play’. The debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn follows in August, being successful in their home country. The support tour in the US however is no success at all, due to many practical troubles and the mental downfall of Barett, set in already during the recordings of Piper. Nevertheless, the band would ultimately play at San Francisco’s famous Winterland in November, after Janis Joplin with Big Brother & The Holding Company.
On their return in the UK in December, Barett’s state of mind has further deteriorated and the band decides to add a fifth band member in case Barett can no longer perform properly: David Gilmour. He would initially become the second guitarist while Barett would stay connected with the band as non-performing songwriter, Brian Wilson-style. However, Barett left the band permanently in March and the four of them remained. Lots of material for the second album was already recorded at that point, resulting in A Saucerful of Secrets being the only Floyd-album with Waters, Gilmour, Mason, Wright ánd Barett.
With Barett gone as the bands main songwriter, the time had come for Waters to take things over. As this new Supreme Being he opens the album with ‘Let There Be More Light’. This track immediately draws your attention to the album, with an opening bass riff that originated from ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ but sounds (especially with the adding of the threatening organ in the background) like an anachronistic piece of techno music from the late sixties. However, when the drums fall in, you know you’re somewhere up high, lost in the cosmos and in the middle of this ultimate space rock song. The lyrics and music reveal that Waters is still inspired by Barett (and, apparently, some concept album by The Beatles; For there revealed in glowing robes – Was Lucy in the sky?) during his early songwriting, while new member Gilmour is also introduced. He takes on the lead vocals during the chorus and more important, he plays his first Floyd solo towards the end of the song, in that characteristic style we would get used to later on.
It’s up to the other new songwriter next, Richard Wright, presenting a song that was an outtake from Piper: ‘Remember a Day’. As we are used from him, the lyrics mainly deal with childhood memories, but because of the albums’ context it feels like we’re looking down from above to witness those young children playing. Might sound mellow or even poppy at first, but as a matter of fact it’s a real showcase for the drums (ironically played by producer Norman Smith instead of Mason on this track), giving this song a haunting groove from the moment they set in. That’s why Wright basically doesn’t need any guitars here, with Gilmour also being absent (Barett would have played acoustic and slide guitar but it’s barely noticeable). Great song.
The third song was the first one that was recorded for the album: ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’. This is the only Floyd song on which all five members play, although the guitars are quite overruled by drums and organ again. However, there’s only one guy completely defining this song: writer Roger Waters. Of course there’s the awesome bass playing, proving that it’s possible to create an entire song with this instrument as long as the guy who plays it is haughty enough to believe it. But the secret power of this song is without any doubt Water’s threatening whispering, in a style Thom Yorke would later apply to some Radiohead songs.
It’s followed by another Waters song, closing side one: ‘Corporal Clegg’. As the title already might presume, it’s also his first of many song dealing with war (inspired by Waters’ father, who died during World War II). The lyrics tell about this Corporal Clegg, a soldier suffering from shell-shock and losing his leg, while the music drenches the song in sarcasm by using a kazoo (played by Gilmour and once invented by… Thaddeus Von Clegg) in the second part. And in fact, apart from the solo on the opening track, this is the first song on which the guitar really shines.
Side two opens with the title track, a twelve minutes lasting instrumental that was compiled from several separate pieces, composed by Waters, Wright, Gilmour and Mason. According to Waters, it’s the musical translation of a battlefield, including the setup, the actual battle, the view of the dead afterwards and, in the end, the mourning. Again, it are the drums and the piano (+organ) that claim the leading role here. Nick Mason even shows that the drums can perfectly take over the role of the guitar when it comes down to soloing, if this instrument is played brilliantly. Meanwhile, Wright pounds the keys out of his piano with his fists, as can be seen on the legendary Pompeii recording. Some minutes later he switches to his church organ, and creates this mystical atmosphere on a part that might be considered a dress rehearsal for ‘Echoes’. To sum up: listening this song evokes more subterranean imagery than successively watching the entire Indiana Jones collection.
Over to Wright’s second contribution then, lyrically not differing very much from the first one. If one track must be called the least one on this album, it must perhaps be ‘See-Saw’. It sounds kind of peaceful all along and surely can help you falling asleep quietly, and maybe that’s why it was called ‘The Most Boring Song I’ve Ever Heard Bar Two’ on the recording sheet. Throughout the entire song you can ask yourself whether if it’s a charming dream or a sad condolence.
The final secret to discover is ‘Jugband Blues’, the only song out there written and sung by Barett. It was already recorded before Floyd’s trip to the US and Barett must already have known that he would soon (have to) leave the band. The Salvation Army band was added on his insistence, and initially he just wanted them to play whatever they wanted, independent from the rest of the group. Was he maybe inspired by Dylan’s opening track on Blonde on Blonde or is it a little naïve to presume that there still was some memory left at that point? Whatever the answer might be, if there was ever made a song that literally translates somebody’s mental state of mind into music, it must be this one, displaying total schizophrenia between lyrics and instrumentation. That’s why it deserves its spot on this album as a worthy clincher, with Barett seeming to drench his goodbye speech to the group in black humor and irony: I don’t care if the sun don’t shine, I’ll do my loving in the winter.
Altough Barett is represented by only one song on A Saucerful of Secrets, his songwriting still echoed in the first experiments of Waters and Wright. In this way they didn’t break completely with the band’s roots, something that would more or less happen on following albums. This new approach is already announced by the title track, which was a collaboration between the four members who would form the band from now on. That band would exceed their limits in many ways during the following years, but on almost every next album you can find something that points back to A Saucerful of Secrets. Enjoy.
Genre: Psychedelic Rock, Acid Rock
Preceded by: Surrealistic Pillow (1967)
Followed by: Crown of Creation (1968)
Related to: not available yet
A wild time it sure must have been, those final years of the sixties. In mainstream culture those wild times are mostly associated with Woodstock, but this event in fact took place two years after the one and only year that can fully identify itself with the declared ideals of peace, love and music. 1967, a year that has meanwhile acquired a glorious reputation in pop music’s historiography. A year about which, when you didn’t witness it yourself, you can only fantasize and presume. It helps of course to actually read this history to give shape to these thoughts, but a picture, or in this case ‘a sound’ is worth a thousand words. No other band succeeds better to offer you this sound than the one described here, so hop on the Jefferson Airplane one more time and lets fly to 1967.
It’s a wild time, I’m doing things that haven’t got a name yet. Another lyric from ‘Wild Tyme (H)’, fifth track on Airplane’s third studio album: After Bathing at Baxter’s. It’s January14th 1967 (ten days after The Doors opened pop music’s bumper year with their debut album) and people around San Francisco are gathering in the Golden Gate Park. To change faces, to question everything about their environment (especially authority) and to do new things. To raise consciousness in the first place, encouraged by performing poets, psychology professors and bestselling novelists and supported by underground chemists. The music is provided by local bands like Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead. We’re flying a first time over the crowd with this track from Paul Kantner. Together with Grace Slick and Marty Balin he fills in the fantastic vocal harmonies here, all three chased by Jorma Kaukonen’s (soloing) guitar. It all builds up to this great apotheosis: And it’s new, and it’s new, and it’s oh, so new! I see changes, changes, all around me are changes!
February 1967, the Airplane releases its second studio album: Surrealistic Pillow . Although it were the two songs that female vocalist Grace Slick brought along to her new band that launched this album to great success, Marty Balin was the principal songwriter on this breaktrough album. He founded the band two years before by gathering some talented fellow folk musicians around him, but here on Baxter’s there’s only one song of his signature left: the beautiful ‘Young Girl Sunday Blues’. Echoes of Pillow still can be heard on this song, as it might remind of ‘3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds’. Interesting about this track is the combination of the totally laid-back lyrics (‘I walk beside you laughing and I’m high, don’t try to touch me with words’) with another great uptempo guitar performance by Kaukonen. Balin is vocally backed by Kantner here, while Slick is left out. Again, this song builds up to a liberating conclusion: Ah! Come into my mind, let yourself wander free and easy.
The dwindling role of Balin within the group indicates a new trail the band started to follow after Pillow, with Paul Kantner impersonating this definite conversion from the bands folk roots to harder and pure psychedelic rock. Of course this evolution was caused by some developments in the music scene, as Hendrix turned the world upside down with his blasting debut album in May while a growing number of people were travelling to San Francisco to plunge themselves into the psychedelic subculture and the proclaimed ‘Summer of Love’. This summer reaches its peak at June 16th(two weeks after The Beatles introduce Sgt. Pepper’s to the world from over the ocean), when the three day Monterey Pop Festival kicks off.
Airplane performs as headliner on the second day, and closes its set with ‘The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil’, one of Kantner songs and the opener of Baxter’s. The title refers to two sources of inspiration for Kantner, that is A.A. Milne’s books of Winnie the Pooh and folk artist Fred Neil. Some of the lyrics are borrowed from Milne’s poetry, whose childhood images are mixed with delicate questions like ‘Will the moon still hang in the sky when I’m high, when I die?’. This results in an anthem where the fabulous harmonies (from Paul, Marty, Grace and Jorma) are once more combined with a catchy guitar riff, even adding a bass solo here. It directly flows over (the album is classified into five suites but is in fact one big psychedelic medley) to ‘A Small Package of Value Will Come to You, Shortly’, a track from drummer Spencer Dryden. It’s some kind of audio collage that reminds of Frank Zappa’s work and it shows that it’s possible to limit such collections of sounds to exactly 100 seconds, contrary to what John Lennon would do one year later.
Three more songs from Kantner are to be found on this album. First there’s ‘Martha’, which is definitely my personal favorite. It’s a ballad with combined acoustic and electric guitars, on which Kantner himself takes the lead vocals. The soothing way in which he does this, makes this song being the closest to the bands original folk roots. The song was written about a girl named Martha Wax, who must have been a teenage runaway/groupie of the band in those days. The instrumentals are less pronounced than other tracks, moving the spotlight to Kantner’s poetic excesses like: ‘Martha she keeps her heart in a broken clock and it’s waiting there for me’, supported by Slick on backing vocals. Second there’s ‘Watch Her Ride’, perhaps his least on this album. The lyrics never reach the level of ‘Martha’ and also musically this song is not that great, despite the, again, nice harmonies. So it’s kind of strange that this track was chosen as the first single of the album (without much success), although it shows at the same time that the group had turned into an album band now.
So what about Grace Slick’s songs, couldn’t she deliver another hit single like she did with ‘White Rabbit’ earlier? Not really, although ‘Two Heads’ will stick in your ears the longest when listening the album the first couple of times. Her voice reaches the same level as on those earlier hit singles, while some kind of mystical atmosphere is added this time by eastern sounds. The lyrics make use of stream of consciousness image-forming, just like her other song here. This one’s her best on the album and is called ‘rejoyce’. Did she honour Lewis Caroll earlier, now it’s time for an ode to James Joyce’s Ulysses, making use of her strong and enchanting voice again. While Jack Casady outshines here with a fast moving bass line (also noticed by Hendrix, asking him to play bass on ‘Voodoo Chile’ the following year), Slick questions societal norms in her typical prosaic way.
Unfortunately, those songs might be considered the endpoint of this trend within the band, that continued to search for louder songs on latter albums. This direction is already announced on Baxter’s with ‘The Last Wall of the Castle’, a Kaukonen song on which he takes the lead vocals for the first time. Although the lyrics are not that elevated, this is a real showcase for Kaukonen on the electric guitar. We ended up in August meanwhile, and the influence of Cream (playing at San Francisco’s Fillmore West at that time, releasing Disraeli Gears later that year) clearly can be heard on this track. Kaukonen also co-wrote ‘Spare Chaynge’ with Cassady and Dryden, a long instrumental that somehow was heralding what was going to happen with this tremendous band as Kantner, Balin and Slick are totally absent here.
It’s November 1967. The Summer of Love is officially declared over one month earlier with the ‘Death of the Hippie’ ceremony in Haight-Ashbury. After Bathing at Baxter’s is now released by Jefferson Airplane as the musical chronicle of this memorable year. Just like the peace and love-generation, the band started to disintegrate slowly after 1967. Kaukonen and Casady proceeded with their blues rock project Hot Tuna, Balin became dissatisfied with the direction the band was evolving and Dryden ended up burned out by acid and disillusioned by the events of Altamont. The band would however deliver two more good albums, Crown of Creation and Volunteers, before totally disintegrating in many dubious spin-offs.
Let’s end like the album does, as there’s still one song undiscussed here: ‘Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon’. During this closing duo track, Paul Kantner looks back at the day when it all started, with the Human Be-In in January. Being a serene song, the stage is offered to the enchanting harmonies one last time. We enter the plane and return to the Golden Gate Park to conclude our flight:
Yellow clouds rising in the lune; acid incense and balloons
People dancing everywhere; love is shouting I don’t care
Genre: Blues Rock, Psychedelic Rock
Preceded by: –
Followed by: Outsideinside (1968)
Fortunately for the development of music in all its variation, especially the heavier genres, there were always bands out there that asked themselves if things couldn’t be played a little louder. Blue Cheer certainly was such a band.
It’s 1968 and a big part of the music scene was embracing the progress technology had made with regard to improving amplifiers and electric guitars. Especially the possibility to significantly amplify the sound of the bass guitar made it possible for bands to play as loud as possible without losing the sound of the bass. This was the deciding development that notorious blues rock artists like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix were waiting for to form their own power trios, consisting of guitar, bass and drums. Bands like Led Zeppelin and The Who in fact used the same concept, adding a seperate singer. 1967 subsequently brought us Hendrix’ Are You Experienced?, 1969 Led Zeppelin’s debut album and 1968 had Blue Cheer’s impressive debut: Vincebus Eruptum.
Just like those two acts, Blue Cheer reinterpreted old blues songs and took them to higher and louder levels using loads of amplifiers. Hendrix ofcourse added the psychedelic influences that were characteristic for those times. With Blue Cheer being located in San Francisco and being called after a kind of LSD (at its turn called after a washing product), it may not be surprising that those influences are also present on their debut. If you’re looking for extensive improvisation, hyperamplification and lots of distortion, this is the album that definitely should be in your record collection. No other band of that time in my opinion had the raw intensity and energy of Blue Cheer, making them blow up their complete equipment the first time they tried to record this album.
Blue Cheer was founded in 1966 with the original line up consisting of Dickie Peterson on bass (which he played since the age of 13) and vocals, Leigh Stephens on guitar (ranked 98 on Rolling Stones’ 100 greatest guitarists of all time) and Eric Albronda on drums. Albronda was subsequently replaced by Paul Whaley and the band recruited some extra members on guitar, keyboards and harmonica. But, according to the myth, they brought the band down to a power trio after witnessing Hendrix’ mind blowing performance with his Experience at Monterey. So Dickie Peterson, Leigh Stephens and Paul Whaley remained as the line-up for the first album, consisting of 6 songs with a total length of about half an hour. But don’t worry, just turn the record over again.
The LP starts with the bands only real hit, a cover of Eddie Cochran’s blues song ‘Summertime Blues’. This must be the ultimate example of transforming a classic blues song into blues rock, played that hard that it’s drawing the outlines of hard rock. The first part of the song combines an extremely pounding rhythm section with a crying guitar, immediately giving you the opportunity to test your own sound equipment. The riff in the middle of the song reminds of Hendrix’ ‘Foxy Lady’, after which the guitar becomes a rollercoaster, steadily taking off and at its peak crushing down at high speed. This version beats The Who’s interpretation of the song hands down if it comes down to muscular strength and roughness.
An even greater blues classic follows quickly, when B.B. King’s ‘Rock Me Baby’ sets in. Also covered amongst others by Otis Redding (a great idol of singer Peterson), this song sticks to the typical blues sound of the guitar with another pumping combo of bass and drums adding the rock here. If not already taken place, everthing goes mental on the third track, Dickie Peterson’s self-proclaimed drug anthem ‘Doctor Please’. Peterson experienced a lot of funny feelings in his head at the time and sings about them after a rough intro of Paul Whaley. The song is about 8 minutes long and offers you the best definition of the term ‘power trio’. The energy drips out of your speakers when guitar solos, kicking drums, the screaming voice of Peterson and heavy bass sounds keep interchanging before exploding together now and then. This also reminds of later stoner rock from bands like Kyuss.
The next song, ‘Out of Focus’, lasts four minutes but was written in ten minutes according to Peterson. This song also has some psychedelic lyrics about angels in mystic dreams, propelled by a haunting guitar riff from Stephens. The roughness of the instruments and Petersons howling voice on this track marks the difference between Blue Cheer and more polished power trios like Clapton’s Cream. It’s followed by another cover, ‘Parchment Farm’, from jazz and blues pianist Mose Allison. This song offers some space for some extensive jamming just when you think the song has ended, while Peterson sings sightly funny lyrics like “I’ve been sitting over here on Parchment Farm. Ain’t ever done nobody no wrong. All I did was shoot my wife. She was no good! “. ‘Second Time Around’ offers you one last chance to pick up your air guitar, as the riffs are very sweet again. Towards the middle of the song, Paul Whaley throws in a wild drum solo, after which all the remaining distortion and psychedelic effects out there are used to close the album, definitely a personal favorite.
After their debut album, the group was confronted with a lot of personnel changes, with their style developing towards a more commercial sound during the seventies and eighties. Periods of activity and temporary break-ups followed eachother, before breaking up for once and for all in 2009 after the death of Peterson, the only continuing member troughout the years. But Vincebus Eruptum remains an essential album to understand the concept of a power trio. Enjoy.
Genre: Psychedelic Rock, Hard Rock
Preceded by: –
Followed by: Axis: Bold as Love (1967)
Let’s have another walk through the treasure chamber of 1967. Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck were turning guitar players into absolute stars and Clapton was God. But suddenly a black American lands in the UK and asks the white rock scene: Are You Experienced ?
As you know, 1967 can not be seen apart from the uprising of psychedelic rock. Existing blues and folk rock bands began to use new techniques and effects which would later cause the establishment of prog and hard rock. Jimi Hendrix himself can be seen as one of the most important pioneers of this latter genre. Originally being a blues rocker, he incorporated those psychedelic elements to transform his original style to pure hard rock. That’s exactly what makes Are You Experienced such an incredible debut album, containing not only Hendrix’ blues roots, but also psychedelic effects he mastered perfectly thanks to his extreme talent as a guitar player, and the origins of hard rock.
Hendrix (as a guitarist) supported some acts like Little Richard during the mid sixties in the USA, before former Animals bass player Chas Chandler heard Hendrix perform the classic American song ‘Hey Joe’. Chandler soon became his manager and brought him to the UK, for Hendrix being the promised land as it was the native country of The Yardbirds, a band Hendrix greatly admired. Together with Hendrix, the different members of this band would later define the new genre of hard rock, as they were soon to form pioneer bands like Cream (Eric Clapton), The Jeff Beck Group (Jeff Beck) and Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page). So Chandler would arrange a so-called ‘power trio’ (just like Cream) for Hendrix, which formed in October 1966 and consisted besides Hendrix of former jazz drummer Mitch Mitchell and former guitarist Noel Redding, who would from now on play the bass, obviously.
In June 1969 the band would already break up again, after growing tensions between Hendrix and Redding. But during those three years the band released a magnificent trilogy of albums, being Are You Experienced (1967) – Axis: Bold as Love (1967) – Electric Ladyland (1968), all three of them ranked within the top 100 of ‘Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time’. A little more tragic thing about the band is that they were all found dead in their homes or some hotel room. For Hendrix of course this already happened in 1970, Redding was found dead in 2003 and Mitchell was the last man standing after passing away in 2008.
Back to 1967, when their debut was released after already launching three singles: besides ‘Hey Joe’, these were ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary’. This must have contributed to the success of the album (with the singles excluded, opposite to the US version, where some original album tracks like ‘Red House’ were replaced by the singles instead), reaching #2 in the UK behind Sgt. Pepper’s and staying there for 8 months. Let’s have a look at the 11 original tracks.
Like I said there’s blues rock, psychedelic rock and hard rock on this album. Far out the most bluesy song is ‘Red House’, which sounds like the early blues of Robert Johnson, intensified by Hendrix’ guitar. The song was already written by Hendrix before he joined The Experience, and has this typical blues theme of the singer which is left alone by his woman. The same goes in fact for the track ‘Remember’, the other blues rock song on the album.
Best represented is psychedelic rock, making this the most psychedelic Hendrix album. First there are the shorter ‘3 minutes’ songs, with ‘Can You See Me’ (with a noteworthy role for drummer Mitch Mitchell), ‘May This Be Love’ (sounding a little bit like Cream, with a very dreamy voice of Hendrix) and ‘Love or Confusion’. This last one is a personal favorite, with the Airplane-like distorted sounds and the delicious guitar licks and powerful voice of Hendrix. Towards the end of the album are two longer psychedelic masterpieces. ‘Third Stone from the Sun’ (the title referring to earth) is mostly an instrumental one with lots of guitar effects and Hendrix talking like some character from Star Trek. If you play this track on the LP at single speed (45 RPM), you can actually hear what’s been said. The last track on the album, also the title track, is probably my favorite. Supported by his screaming guitar, Jimi invites us on a journey, making this song a true hippie-anthem (with lyrical similarities to The Doors’ ‘Break on Through’, from their own debut album of 1967).
What’s left are those riff-based, real hard rock songs that really turned the music scene upside down. First of all the opening track, the well-known ‘Foxy Lady’. Drifted by the catchy guitar riff and the pounding drum and bass section, this is a perfect start for an album. It’s still covered now and then during live gigs by Paul McCartney, who was a big fan of Hendrix. It’s followed by ‘Manic Depression’, another very Cream-like song with a couple of nice drum solos. Alltogether, this sounds like a stormy kind of waltz, and is supposed to be ‘about a cat wishing he could make love to music’, awesome song. ‘I Don’t Live Today’ is another sweet riff-based song, referring to the chaotic life of Hendrix.
The last song left is ‘Fire’, which really shows the capacity of the total band, not Hendrix alone. For me, the label ‘power trio’ is justified best on this song: it begins with a mighty drumintro and a minimal guitar riff, before exploding into an uptempo hard rock classic, propelled by a schizophrenic drum beat and a very catchy bass line from Redding. No surprise the group often opened their live gigs with this song. It’s a pity we won’t be able to witness those powertrips anymore, but you can make up for it by having this album in your record collection.
Genre: Psychedelic Rock
Preceded by: Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966)
Followed by: After Bathing At Baxter’s (1967)
Related to: not available yet
It must have been like eight years ago or something that I heard the thrilling intro of ‘White Rabbit’ for the first time, on some New Year’s Eve. Some seconds later the enchanting voice of Grace Slick kicked in and I knew I had to get the album this was on. ‘White Rabbit’ remained one of my all time rock favorites year after year till now, and year by year my appreciation for the other songs on the album grew. Our next great album from the magical year 1967 is Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow.
Jefferson Airplane was the only band that played on all three of the notorious hippie festivals in the late sixties. This was not only because of the good looks of Grace Slick on stage, but above all because the band was a true pioneer of psychedelic rock. This genre at his turn played a key role in the evolution of rock history. Before the emerging of psychedelic rock, most rock bands were folk and blues orientated. With it’s new techniques and effects it completely turned the rock scene upside down in the late sixties, paving the way for progressive and hard rock bands. Psychedelic rock derived from a psychedelic subculture, with people like Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley preaching the expansion of consciousness and popularising the use of psychedelic drugs. It found its way into music first through The Byrds in the US and reached its peak in 1967, when it reigned the music scene all over the world. In the UK, The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, Pink Floyd had there album debut with Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and Cream showed the world Disraeli Gears. Meanwhile, Surrealistic Pillow was the defining album in the US.
The band had its roots in the flourishing San Francisco music scene of the mid sixties, where vocalist Marty Balin met fellow folk musicians and guitar players Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen. Influenced by The Beatles and The Byrds, they transformed to a folk rock band with some other temporary band members. Performing in this music scene, they were often supported by fellow folk rock band The Great Society, which featured the female lead singer Grace Slick. Airplane, after releasing their folk rock debut album, was at that very moment transforming into a psychedelic rock band, and Grace Slick’s voice was just the ingredient they needed to make this transformation a big success. This big success was Surrealistic Pillow.
Talked enough, let’s see what’s on it. First of all those two monster hits, ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Somebody To Love’, two songs Grace Slick brought with her. The first one was written by herself, the second by her brother in law and they are both absolute rock classics. ‘White Rabbit’ starts with an awesome bassline, closely followed by the marching drums. Then Grace slides in with the most psychedelic rock prayer ever, taking you to the fantasy world of Lewis Caroll. This is a landmark in its genre, but also one of those true classics that will NEVER bore me. ‘Somebody To Love’ is a much more catchier song, also supporting on the great voice of Slick, especially during the verses.
You can also still hear the roots of this band on several songs, which are a mixture of folk rock and British Invasion influences. A real folk rock gem for example is ‘Today’, a ballad with a very ‘foggy’ intro. But the beauty of the song is the combination of the vocal harmonies between Balin & Slick and the sweet guitar riff that was actually played by Jerry Garcia. The song basically fades into ‘Comin’ Back to Me’, which intro somehow reminds me of ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Another beauty is ‘D.C.B.A.-25’, with a typical Byrds sound (listen to that typical lead guitar and tambourines) and a fantastic canon between Balin and Slick. The British Invasion sounds can be heard on ‘My Best Friend’ (with some Westcoast breeze) and ‘How Do You Feel’, which could actually be The Moody Blues when you leave the tambourine out.
The real psychedelic rock sound is to be found for example on opening track ‘She Has Funny Cars’. It has a delicious jazzy drum intro, followed by a variation of vocal harmonies (verses) and dialogue (chorus), and that typical distorted guitar sound. Also in this categorie are ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover’ (sounding like their psychedelic colleagues of 13th Floor Elevators, nice solo in the end) and ‘3/5 of a Mile in 10 seconds’. This one has bouncing guitars from the start and the combination with the fast drums make this the loudest song on the album and a personal favorite. Talking about favorites, there’s one song that doesn’t fit in any of the previous categories: ‘Embryonic Journey’. Waking up never felt better since I set this song as my alarm clock tone, they should play this instrumental acoustic one in every elevator.
Airplane would release some more psychedelic rock albums in the years following, till the genre died in the early seventies. Pink Floyd’s Syd Barett had gone crazy, Brian Wilson got depressed, The Beatles and Cream broke up and Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix died. Luckily for us, the music is still there and this album is a perfect starting point for discovering psychedelic rock. It’s the variation between psychedelic shots like ‘3/5 of a Mile in 10 seconds’ and fascinating ballads like ‘Today’: this album launches you eight miles high before letting you land peacefully again, right on your surrealistic pillow.