What can you say about an album that boasts two of the best songs—not just of 1967—but of the entire 60s decade? An album that took San Francisco’s psychedelic “turn on, tune in, drop out” philosophy to the rest of America and indeed the world and has been garnering five-star reviews ever since?
Grace Slick (born Grace Barnett Wing) had been in a band called The Great Society with her brother-in-law, Darby Slick. They’d achieved some success on the local scene and released one single, a song penned by Darby called “Someone to love”. But Ms Slick—young, radiant and possessed of magnificent vocal chords—left the band for another from the local ‘Frisco scene, Jefferson Airplane.
Jefferson Airplane were readying themselves for their second album, and Grace contributed two songs from her Great Society days. One of these, the first Airplane release to feature the new girl on vocals, was the second single from Surrealistic Pillow and did what no previous offerings had managed. It sold records. Lots of records. That song was a re-arranged (and slightly re-titled) version of Darby’s single: “Somebody to love”. It hit the US Top 10 and Jefferson Airplane, er, took off.
Photograph 1967 by Jim Marshall from the book Trust: Photographs of Jim Marshall (Omnibus Press)
And rightly so. “Somebody to love” is a prismatic spray of soaring anima. Although grounded in basic pop-song structures, lift is achieved via jangly guitar, a powerful garage rhythm of smashed drums and manic bassline, and a tasty fade-out guitar solo at the end. But the vocals! Grace just nails the song. Pierces both heart and sex with a powerful sensuality and confidence that even peer Janis Joplin struggled to match. Slick is no blues belter, she’s a rock diva with a voice brooking no argument. She wails, she declaims; notes bend, words flex. She may be crying for somebody to love, but not just anybody will do.
Your eyes, I say your eyes may look like his
Yeah, but in your head baby, I’m afraid you don’t know where it is
Then thrill to the power of the repetition/variation of the lyrical hook:
Don’t you want somebody to love
Don’t you need somebody to love
Wouldn’t you love somebody to love
You better find somebody to love
Guess what the next single was? Yep, the other song Grace Slick brought to her new band. This time it was her own composition, the startling non-pop song “White Rabbit”. A counter culture paean to mind expansion, this extraordinary two-and-a-half minute tab of acid uses a bolero template beginning with bass and snare, rising in ascending steps to a mind-blowing climax. And it is a rare rock lyric that is actually worth diving into:
One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you, don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall
And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call
And call Alice, when she was just small
When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know
When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the red queen’s off her head
Remember what the Dormouse said:
Feed your head,
Feed your head
There is no chorus, no lyrical hook (because no words are repeated), just a swirling kaleidoscope of Alice In Wonderland images erupting from an LSD rabbit hole.
But Surrealistic Pillow has eleven songs, not two. And Jefferson Airplane had five other members who weren’t Grace Slick. All but one of the other songs (Skip Spence’s “My best friend”) were written by band members Marty Balin (three songs), Paul Kantner (two), Jorma Kaukonen (one) or combinations of these chaps (two songs).
Although there is a sonic cohesion across the album (mainly down to the guitar sounds produced by six-stringers Kaukonen, Balin and Kantner), the songs show great variety.
Opener “She has funny cars” leaps jangling down a guitar staircase to a stop-time middle section and a riff that is pure Monkees. For a feel of the vocals on this one, think Sonia Kristina of Curved Air. The multiple ideas and rhythms in this three-minute song tell you from the off this is a band with scant regard for pop traditions, a group bursting with restless creativity.
Following the rousing “Somebody to love” comes the afore-mentioned “My best friend”, whose sweet vocal harmonies remind me of The Mamas and The Papas (in a good way). “Today” is delicate and reflective; a ballad with folk overtones that still manages to suggest kaftans and incense. Side one closes with Balin’s ballad “Comin’ back to me”, featuring and uncredited Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on acoustic guitar. There’s a touch of David Crosby about this one.
The second side opens with the automotive “3/5 of a mile in 10 seconds”, a number honed by live performance to a rockin’ hot rod of a song. Brilliant.
Next up is the enigmatically titled “D.C.B.A. – 25”. Illumination (of a kind) was shed on this piece by Paul Kantner in an interview with Rolling Stone. After revealing that the alphabetic component is nothing more sinister than the song’s chords, Kantner explained the numbers as “a reference to LSD-25. It’s basically an LSD-inspired romp through consciousness. I can’t even remember the words at this point.”
Cutting to the chase, “Embryonic journey” is a gorgeous acoustic guitar instrumental clocking in at 1:50 and after “White rabbit”, the LP closes with “Plastic Fantastic Lover”, another of Marty Balin’s pieces that chucks around brilliant electric guitar wails while Grace declaims a lyric entirely untouched by peace beads or group hugs.
Her neon mouth with a bleeding talk smile
Is nothing but electric sign
You could say she has an individual style
She’s a part of a colorful time
Super-sealed lady, chrome-color clothes
You wear ’cause you have no other
But I suppose no one knows
You’re my plastic fantastic lover
With a concise album length of just under thirty-four minutes, Jefferson Airplane’s second LP is a gem that still sparkles, half a century after its February 1967 release.
In this year-long occasional series on the music of 1967 (it has its own category, beneath the ALBUM FOCUS umbrella on the right) we’ll cover lots of artists playing myriad styles and it goes without saying that everyone will respond differently (just as they did at the time). But if you are after essentials, Surrealistic Pillow fits the bill as snugly and colourfully as a paisley pillowcase.
Jefferson Airplane - Surrealistic Pillow Label: RCA Victor Released: February 1967 Duration: 33:50