FEED YOUR HEAD

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.

grace-and-janis

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

jefferson-airplane-somebody-to-love-rca-victor-2

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.

Surrealistic Pillow Jefferson Airplane

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 1967

Jefferson Airplane - Surrealistic Pillow

Label: RCA Victor

Released: February 1967

Duration: 33:50

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40 comments

  1. Oh, and I picked up a used SURREALISTIC PILLOW copy just last Fall, too. Great one to highlight, Bruce.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Michael. Really enjoyed diving into this one again.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t listened to Jefferson Airplane in a long while. I almost forgot what a great album this one was. Thanks for the reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My pleasure. And yours when you dust it off for a spin!

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  3. I’ve always had a soft spot for Grace Slick – she always sounds like she’s singing in BOLD and in CAPITALS. I’m a sucker for her solo LP with the magician on the cover – Dreams?

    Anyhoo, this is the sort of thing that got played a lot by the adults when I was a kid and although I only know the singles I bet I could sing along with most of it. I always think that Kantner was a brilliant guitarist, very underrated guy I think.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a great line about Ms Slick singing in bold. Don’t know her solo material at all. In fact I didn’t upgrade from Airplane to Starship.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My dad used to play the first couple of Jefferson Starship LPs a lot, quite trippy rockers … then they dropped the Jefferson and it all got horrific.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. “But Surrealistic Pillow has eleven songs, not two. And Jefferson Airplane had five other members who weren’t Grace Slick. ” Haha I was waiting for you to say this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. AAAAGH! I’ve become predictable!

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  5. Also, awesome post! I have Somebody To Love in my head now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Phew. Mission accomplished.

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  6. Love this album, this was one of the first records I gave my son when he bought a turntable. The cover is special too. 1967 was a great year; looking forward to the series.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I believe this was my very first 1967 album, probably around ’77. It is still my favorite Airplane — and I like a lot of Airplane — and I am still in love with Grace Slick (or at least the idea of Grace Slick). I dig all of the songs here and would find it hard to cite a consistent favorite, but Balin’s “Today” definitely has found its way onto the most VotF-produced mixtapes of any of them and is the one that most aches inside me when I hear it in that way that ballads “with folk overtones that still … suggest kaftans and incense” can. (Perfect!)

    Plastic Fantastic piece, VC.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you VotF. As you know, I often baulk at writing about ‘classics’ but the ’67 project kind of prods the process (if that doesn’t sound too, er, silly).

      Slightly embarrassed revelation: I hadn’t really clocked Grace’s charms until I watched the full Woodstock movie (a decade or so after the event!). And immediately found myself in a ‘Pictures of Lily’ scenario. The idea of Grace, indeed.

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      1. For what it is worth, my favorite “Picture of Gracie”:

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Sorry, VC. Please delete the above double-post mistake , and then this mistake!

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  8. I prefer the more melodic, harmonious sounds of ’60s L.A. than San Fran, but “Surrealistic Pillow” is one of Haight-Ashbury’s best. My fave tune is “D.C.B. A. -25.” I’ve always been a sucker for soft psych.

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    1. Interested in that distinction, GreenPete. What would a favourite 1967 LA album be?

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      1. Thanks for asking, but I could get carried away! At the top would be the first Doors album (2nd album almost as good) and Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.” The first three albums by Love. The early Byrds records, especially “Tambourine Man.” The first Mamas and Papas album. Beyond these classics, there’s Turtles, Leaves, Springfield, Herb Alpert, and the flower psych of Strawberry Alarm Clock…and Zappa, although not exactly ear candy, what a genius he was. The S.F. sound was distinct and exuberant, but more “down home hippie.” Lots of folks say “West Coast,” but L.A. and S.F. were very different, although each great in its own way. Enjoyed your great review, and thanks for listening!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s a wonderful list. Part of my curiosity was that–as someone not even from North America, let alone the West Coast–I have never really logged distinctions between LA and SF sounds. Your little list really does demonstrate your point beautifully. Thanks a lot.

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  9. 1967 series off to a, er, flyer. I don’t listen to Airplane half as much as I should. Blame that on the record player (haven’t ‘upgraded’ to records yet, I’m afraid – lots of Starship on my travels, but no Airplane). Was thinking last year that I needed to rectify that, so thanks for the reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As you know, J, we’re not quite as fanatical about excluding the lil’ silver discs here (cf. some Welsh blogs), so I’m happy to report that the CD in the feature photo for this post has rather tasty bonus tracks, particularly the mono versions of the singles.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sounds like a splendid reissue. I’m not against CDs, I just don’t tend to listen to them all that often. I find the whole ritual of the record listening really, eh, balances me, I guess. I feel settled…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Likewise, J. Ain’t it nice?

          Liked by 1 person

        2. It is. I tend to pay more attention when the records are on… even the kiddo likes some record listening!

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Inculcate ’em young. That’s the spirit.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow, I have never seen that picture of Grace and Janis before — it’s amazing. Surrealistic Pillow is an album I haven’t thought about in a long time. It got regular play in our college apartment after we all graduated from the dorms in our junior year. Nice to think about it again — some great tunes on that one. Thanks for taking us all back. – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Taking us all back’ (sometimes for the first time) is exactly what the ’67 series is all about (though I hope to throw in a few less well known titles). Chuffed you are enjoying the trip, Marty.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I really enjoyed this well-written review (I’ll definitely be taking notes). I hadn’t considered that “Coming Back to Me” has a David Crosby sort of feel, but I can definitely hear that now. Is this the first in your 1967 series? I’m reviewing as many ’67 albums as I can, and I’d love to read your takes as well–I loved seeing where we agreed and disagreed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it (and the variance!).
      This is only the second in the ’67 series (which will be occasional – much tho’ I love the era/year, you can have too much of a good thing) and there is a Category (top of the page, RHS) for 1967.

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  12. Fantastic post all around, Bruce, including that stack of pink LP covers at the top coordinating so nicely with Surrealistic Pillow itself. I’m with Marty in never having seen that fantastic shot of Grace and Janis together; those chicks aren’t to be messed with. (I can call them chicks since I’m one myself!). And you were very wise not to have boarded the Starship. I have unsettling memories of White Rabbit. When I was in middle school (this would be around 1971-72, or thereabouts), my class was assigned a book called Go Ask Alice, about a teenage girl who developed a drug habit and ultimately died of an overdose. Learning that the book took its title from the song, I sought the latter out….can’t remember where I found it…one of my older sibs must have had the album. I do, though, remember that the song struck me as being very eerie, which I’m sure was colored by what happened in the book. But I do love Somebody To Love. Slick just owns it. Interesting that Queen came out with their own song called Somebody To Love about a decade later, and it has a completely different feel…gospel-tinged and joyous, while the JA version just flat out kicks a–.

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  13. Nice link, JDB. I remember the book (though I did not read it). It was published in 1971, confirming your memory as an accurate timepiece, and I even recall some controversy around its’ subject matter.
    By the way, if you ever move to Melbourne (I think you’d enjoy it here – like Boston but rather bigger) I’ll let you into a top secret: you’re allowed to say asp (just don’t wear one as a fashion accessory).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Meant to say that I look forward to seeing what other 1967 releases you focus on down the road. It was a stellar year, to be sure…

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Thanks to you all I just spent 20 min googling Jefferson Airplane and Grace Slick pictures, I am not sure this was a good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now, for the full wistful sadness for lost youth experience, spin ‘Pictures of Lily’. Enjoy.

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  15. Great piece. Airplane never really translated to Britain that well. I suspect we weren’t ready for the likes of Grace Slick for another 10 years, but I got to them via the live album ‘Bless it’s little pointed head’ which relied heavily on ‘Surrealistic pillow’. Let’s not forget that Marty Balin was the only person to emerge from Altamont with any credibility when he got decked by the Hells Angels for daring to protect some fans! Now let’s have some Country Joe and the Fish !

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    1. Very glad you enjoyed it. I can picture the cover of ‘Bless’ but have never heard it. Sixties live albums are a pretty mixed bag, though you comment makes me curious to hear this one.

      As for Country Joe, “Electric Music for the Mind and Body” is on the list. It was released in May ’67, you know. (Hint).

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      1. Cheers seriously check out pointed it’s pretty raw. Actually to be honest I haven’t listened to it for years because t it sounded good 20 years ago

        Liked by 1 person

  16. […] Jefferson Airplane—Surrealistic Pillow […]

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