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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