Artist Overview: Jefferson Airplane - Page 2

Part of: Artist Overview
Author: uaoPublished: Jun 22, 2005 at 12:15 am 21 comments

While Jefferson Airplane will remain forever of its own time, it also transcends it; indeed some of the politics expressed on their late 60's/early 70's releases are sounding more relevant now than they have in decades. While the Grateful Dead ultimately proved far more long-lived, popular, and influential in the long run, the Airplane's recorded legacy holds up far better than the Dead's albums from the same era.

Marty Balin, from Cincinnati, OH, was the original founder who pieced the band together one by one. He had moved to the San Francisco Bay area where he began a recording career at the age of 20 with a couple of sides recorded for Challenge records in 1962. The discs went nowhere, and Balin joined a folk group called the Town Criers in 1963. The arrival of the Beatles in 1964 electrified the folk scene both figuratively and literally. Folkies up and down the coast tossed away their acoustics for electrics, and Balin was one of several folk musicians who saw the possibilities in a folk-rock fusion early on.

His time spent with the Town Criers gave him an idea; he'd start a new hybrid folk/rock band and start his own club for them to play in. In 1965, he bought a pizza parlor on Fillmore Street with the help of some investors, and had it converted into a 100-seat dancehall and theater called the Matrix. He then set about poaching members for his band from other clubs in the area.

At a folk club called the Drinking Gourd he encountered 24-year old Paul Kantner; a singer/songwriter native to San Francisco. He invited him to join the band he was forming as rhythm guitarist. Kantner subsequently nominated 25-year old Jorma Kaukonen from Washington D.C. to play lead guitar. Kaukonen had played guitar for bandless new arrival Janis Joplin on a homemade 1964 tape known to bootleggers as "The Typewriter Tape" (the recording has the sound of Kaukonen's sister typing in the background behind the duo).

Jefferson Airplane: Original Lineup 1965

The next ingredient Balin wanted was a female singer with a rich-voiced soprano to play off his hearty tenor. 24-year old Signe Toly, from Seattle, WA possessed a commanding voice, and was recruited. The rhythm section consisted of Bob Harvey on bass and Jerry Peloquin on drums. The name, Jefferson Airplane, was suggested by Kaukonen, as tribute to Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Jefferson Airplane made its public debut on August 13, 1965 at the Matrix. As house band, they played nightly and became a well-honed, sharp act; Kaukonen shining on guitar, and Balin and Toly on vocals. By 1965, folk-rock was in full bloom. The Byrds had topped the charts with "Mr. Tambourine Man", Dylan had gone electric, the Turtles, We Five, and the Beau Brummels had stolen a chunk of the U.S. charts back from the British Invasion bands. Word-of-mouth about Jefferson Airplane made it back to the record companies, who started scouting the band in late 1965. During this time, the band underwent some key retooling. Peloquin was dismissed in favor of Skip Spence, a guitarist from Santa Cruz. Balin hired him as drummer because, as the liner notes on their first album point out, he "looked" like a drummer. Toly married Matrix lighting designer Jerry Anderson, and became Signe Anderson. Harvey was then pushed out in favor of Kaukonen's hometown buddy, 24-year-old Jack Casady.

Jefferson Airplane [Concert Poster] (1967)   Jefferson Airplane {Concert Poster] (1967)

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  • 1 - Lono

    Jun 22, 2005 at 2:36 am

    sweet mother of god, that was a long ass post. I am a huge fan of the Airplane, and have both 'box' sets (2400 Fulton St, and Jefferson Airplane Loves You).

    I have seen them in a few incarnations in the last 10 years. Lesse, there was Paul Kanter solo, then Paul Kantner with Jack Cassady (both played a great bar in Flagstaff that hosted B list national acts). Also saw Paul Kanter, Jack Cassidy, and Marty Balin.

    It's a sad story about Marty. It was his band. He started it, he wrote the songs... the whole deal. However, Grace came in with a couple of huge aces that her brother had written (Somebody to Love and White Rabbit) and the rest is history. The band went to Grace.

    As for the whole Starship era, no I will not discuss that.

  • 2 - Victor Plenty

    Jun 22, 2005 at 5:45 am

    Long, yes, but great work untangling the twisty history of this band, with its many spinoffs and spin-back-ons over the years.

    One rather minor change I would suggest concerning a couple of abbreviations I don't immediately recognize. Perhaps "AOR" and "MOR" have obvious meanings for people who read a lot of music criticism, but I lack knowledge of their meaning and did not see them defined anywhere in the article.

    Aside from that very minor quibble, all I can say is: rock on, uao.

  • 3 - Jake Brake

    Jun 22, 2005 at 7:35 am

    It's kind of misleading and unfair to novices and the uninformed to split hairs and say the Jefferson Airplane was the only band to play Monterey, Woodstock and Altamont.
    While this is literally true - the Dead did not "play" �.. .ltamont - Altamont remains a painful and important part of the Dead's history.
    The Airplane is a terrific band. It adds nothing to their extraordinary legacy except confusion to position them as the only band to "play" those three events.

  • 4 - uao

    Jun 22, 2005 at 8:42 am

    Thanks for the thoughts on this. I realize this is an insanely long post for Blogcritics, but their history is so long and convoluted I wanted to try to fit it all into one piece.

    As for the abbreviations, AOR means "Album Oriented Rock" which was a 70's-80's term that refers to commercial classic rock, and MOR means "Middle of the Road" which can also be called pop-rock; it is somewhere between pop and rock.

    Regarding the three festivals, I mentioned it only because it seemed an interesting trivia point, and because it is a gauge of the band's indispensibility in the late 60's. I realize the Dead doesn't like to remember Altamont (they were the ones who suggested to the Stones that Hell's Angels would make good security guards), but it is a significant piece of rock history, and Altamont had a direct impact on the Airplane's subsequent biography.

    But yes, the Dead was also present at all three festivals. The only real rivals (in a friendly sense) the Airplane had were the Dead.

    As for Jefferson Starship, many Airplane fans can't stand them. I confess a fondness for their first two albums, but even a fanatic like me can't defend the Mickey Thomas ones; it's a completely different band. I include them here mainly to provide the complete story; if I ever need to edit this piece, I'll probably cut off the story with the Airplane's last show.

    At any rate, thanks for the feedback; it's always appreciated.

  • 5 - uao

    Jun 22, 2005 at 9:30 am

    Jake-- I did add a parenthetical clarification to that line; re-reading it, I realize how it might have mislead. Thanks!

  • 6 - uao

    Jun 22, 2005 at 9:55 am

    One other thought:

    I really could have made a long post, if I had included some arcana I left out as being of no interest to anyone but maniacal fanatics. To wit:

    Hot Tuna albums, Jorma albums, Slick's solo albums, Balin's solo albums, Creach's solo albums, Grunt records by extended "family" members. Many of these albums featured various Airplane members.

    There was The Planet Earth Rock And Roll Orchestra, a lousy 1984 sequel to Blows Against The Empire recorded by then-current JS with guest musicians, like the first one.

    Kantner, Kaukonen, Balin, and Casady appeared at the 1991 Hall of Fame induction; Slick and Dryden were absent.

    Kantner had an acoustic band called Wooden Ships, which sometimes featured Balin, in the wilderness years between the '89 Airplane reunion and the launch of Jefferson Starship: The Next Generation (as Kantner dubs it); they never recorded.

    Marty Balin took part in two very strange albums: B.F. Bodacious, released in the early 70's, a one-shot of assorted musicians. I've seldom seen it and never heard it; it has the reputation of being awful. He also took part in a multi-artist concept album/rock opera/planned stage extravaganza Rock Justice, which vanished without a trace in 1979.

    A tip of the hat also should go out to Diana Mangano, who has filled Grace Slick's slot in Jefferson Starship: TNG for over a decade, and does a tough job well.

    *okay, I'll stop now. When obsessives become fans...

  • 7 - Eric Olsen

    Jun 22, 2005 at 11:13 am

    great great job and it couldn't have been done as well at any shorter length. I basically agree with your conclusions, forgot how many good tunes on Red Octopus. I like the later Airplane best, other than the two Slick hits: more rocking and Jorma pushing his agenda a little harder. Their songwriting was variable, but whose isn't?

  • 8 - Eric Olsen

    Jun 22, 2005 at 11:16 am

    here were some quick thoughts on Volunteers, with a quote or two from producer Al Schmitt

  • 9 - godoggo

    Jun 22, 2005 at 4:37 pm

    I used to see Papa John pretty much every year at the Watts Towers Music festival (which isn't so great anymore since they moved it out of the park into that crappy little concrete ampitheater that was built, it's been superceded by the Central Avenue Festival as the area's big event, but I seem to be digressing) and the old man always put on a great show. I didn't know about the Airplane connection at the time, and still haven't heard anything he did with them. I'm a little curious.

  • 10 - godoggo

    Jun 22, 2005 at 4:39 pm

    Meaning Creach of course. Not the pizza guy, or the other one.

  • 11 - Hazy Dave

    Jul 13, 2005 at 1:16 pm

    Not that it matters, but that group Balin participated in after the Airplane was called "Bodacious DF". I haven't listened to that LP in 20 years, and, yeah, as I recall, you'e not missing anything. I remember reading that the "DF" stands for "dopey fuck", but I don't know if Marty said that or if it was just a Lester Bangs extrapolation.

  • 12 - Bob Harvey

    May 13, 2006 at 4:15 pm

    Original JEFFERSON AIRPLANE/HOLY MACKERAL bassist Bob Harvey and SPACESEED/SUPERCZAR/JONES AVE. Guitarist,bassist,mandolinist Brian Fowler collide to form SAN FRANCISCO BLUE. This album Hurting For People is a eclectic mix or newgrass and Psychedelic folk music released by the band in April 2005. Pick one up while available sure to be a collectors item.

    San Francisco/Georgia Blue discography

    1. Idiots Vision 2000
    2. Live Cartersville 2004
    3. Hurting For People 2005
    4. Seeds of Revolution 2005
    Pick these cd's up while available.

    San Francisco Blue: The 9 studio song album "Hurting For People" clocks in at 43 minutes and has a myriad of instruments mandolin,gtr,auto-harp, Acoustic bass,violin. This album's title cut written by Bob Harvey,Skip Spence and Brian Fowler.This album will be available in April 2005 so make sure you get a copy. The first Pressing is 200 copies.The cd has Spaceseed/Superczar drummer Hank Tart, and Jones Ave.'s Dr. David Wisdo.

    HURTING FOR PEOPLE (3:52) performed by Bob Harvey & Brian Fowler
    Bob Harvey : Vocals, acoustic guitar
    Brian Fowler : Mandolin, electric bass

    Bob Harvey:

    In August of 1965, Matthew Katz, the manager, took Jefferson Airplane to Los Angeles to audition for several labels. He got us rooms at the Palms, a secluded lodge in the Hollywood hills. Skip Spence and I had a room together. We spent that first night getting high and writing a song called "Hurting For People".

    I wrote the lyrics in my journal, and have hung on to them for 39 years, but the melody was never recorded and was lost in the mists of time, so when I decided to use it for the latest Moby Grape tribute album, I got together with Brian Fowler and we put new music to the lyrics. the one part of Skip's melody that I could remember was to the line, "love is just reaching out while someone else is reaching in". It fit perfectly with the new chord structure.

  • 13 - Wolfmoon

    Jul 15, 2006 at 2:19 pm

    Interesting tidbit, if you look at Airplaines preformance on the Ed Sull. show when they did "Somebody to love", if you look close, Grace is singing into a powercord, you can actually see the two prongs. Kinda funny.

  • 14 - Geoff Dean

    Jul 16, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    Great article, uao! Thanks! I've always been and still am a pretty huge Airplane fan. But not a Kantner fan (more on why later), and I've always been saddened by the media hype that grew from Grace, leaving Marty underservedly in the shadows, to which he seems to have retreated entirely over the last thirty-six years or so. Great talent, mostly lost, dammit! As to Kantner, he's a thief. He stole lyrics. I well remember, at college in the late '60s, reading John Wyndham's Re-Birth (or The Chrysalids) while listening to Crown of Creation - and falling out of my chair when the lines I was reading were also being sung by Kantner. The whole song is taken from a page or two of this great SF book, but no credit was ever given. Ditto The Ballad of You, Me and Pooneil and The House at Pooneil Corners, from AA Milne of course - here the plagiarism is a little more obvious and upfront, but again no recognition given to the original author. I wouldn't be surprised if much of Kantner's other work was similarly stolen; I haven't done a plagiarism search on his lyrics, but I bet it could be done. If in fact JA did have a competition for worst songwriter in the band, no doubt Kantner should have won that title. It saddens me that so many other great musicians and songwriters in the Bay Area have worked and played with him over the years. And having said all that, JA (at least Marty's end of it) is still among the greatest.

  • 15 - uao

    Jul 16, 2006 at 3:43 pm

    Hey thanks for the kind words and fascinating post, Geoff.

    Balin really was a great talent. It's kind of sad that he's mostly remembered (if at all) by non Airplane fanatics for "Hearts". "Folkie" and "Soul" are two words that never go together. But Balin was one of the rarest of species: a folkie with soul.

    As for the Kantner info...

    I certainly don't know the man, and wouldn't want to say anything bad about him myself; although the Airplane was Balin's bird, it wouldn't have been the Airplane without Kantner.

    As for stealing lyrics; I don't like it when I see it, but in the 1960's it happened a lot. Some thefts were outrageous, robbing songs from living musicians, like "Whole Lotta Love". Some were more subtle, like the Beatles using the Tebetian Book of the Dead for "Tomorrow Never Knows".

    "Crown of Creation" is a great little sci-fi tune, and hearing that it had its roots in an uncredited sci-fi book disappoints me, but doesn't surprise me.

    Certainly in the later days of the first-generation Jefferson Starship, it became apparant that writing original material wasn't Kantner's strong suit.

    I agree with your assessment of Kantner ranking 4th among the songwriters in the band.

    But I don't want to be too hard on the guy; the Airplane means too much to me. And I was on his side when he fueded with Mickey Thomas...

    At any rate, thanks for the fascinating post, I really appreciate it.

  • 16 - cri

    Jul 31, 2006 at 12:40 pm

    Jefferson my life!!!thank you to axist!!!

  • 17 - scotty

    Oct 16, 2006 at 8:33 pm

    blows against the empire was stellar, that's where we blew through the atmosphere and made it out here into the colonies. too bad you missed the exit.

  • 18 - Bill Danford

    Jan 21, 2007 at 4:13 am

    There were "three" albums that took me to the first initial actual glimpses of what "psychedic rock" meant as the summer of 1967 unfolded. "The Doors", "Electric Music for the Mind and Body", by Country Joe and the Fish, and foremost, Jefferson Airplane's "Surrealistic Pillow". So much passion; so much raw vocal power....Kaukonen's leads; Balin/Slick fearlessly vocally in love throughout....the album was "dripping" with acid...nothing touched it. It WAS and ALWAYS WILL BE...California, 1966/1967, coming straight out of that small moment in time like a flash of bright silver light. Sure...."Seargent Pepper's" then took what was left of my brain, and transported it to the other side of the universe; and it still might be there, for all I know...but that's a whole nother trip. Of course, the Byrds did mind damage as well, as did many other bands that year. Hendrix. (Phew!) Big Brother. Too many to name. But the Airplane's "Pillow" injected love into my soul that summer; a very strong love, that I like to think has lasted....and I haven't gotten over it since. It's still a classic monster of an LP, straight from the Haight. Geezers like me who toked and tripped to it on the sun-soaked beaches of Southern California back in the day, will always hear those harmonies and guitar notes resonate....forever. B.D.

  • 19 - uao

    Jul 04, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    For the Fourth of July, I'll bum my favorite band just once. I always thought that in some ways, JA epitomized the 4th of July...

    Best wishes to those who might remember me; I've just had to do other things than blog for awhile.

    I'll be a better blogger when I get back to it ;-)
    ...oh, and god bless bitttorrent; I finally got a replacement for Planet Earth Rock 'n' Roll Orchestra, which I think has been out of print since 1984...

  • 20 - uao

    Jul 04, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    "bump" not "bum" Always was a lousy typist; where's Kaukonen's ex when you need her?

  • 21 - JC Mosquito

    Jul 04, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    Hi, uao - I most certainly do remember you - I always enjoyed your articles and wondered where you'd got off to. Do what you need to do - just like my old friend Vern Halen - he went into what's likely a long retirement and left me this job as his parting gift. He says Hello and best wishes, and he wouldn't at all be surprised if you're back reviewing and writing on BC soon.


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