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Online feedback from people who share my passion for music has got me thinking. Was there ever a more intense musical moment in history than the late 1960s? It was a confluence of many currents – musical, political, sociological, philosophical, technological … even biological if you count the contraceptive pill and, er, other medicaments – and there was one band who, more than any other, channelled that heady zeitgeist. Even their name straddled past and present, yoking a slave-owning founding-father with the newest and fastest form of transport.
Jefferson Airplane took off in the folk clubs of San Francisco, fuelled up mid-air with jazzed-tinged blues-rock and went stratospheric when Grace Slick brought her extraordinary voice and two hit songs – her brother’s Somebody To Love and her own exotic concoction White Rabbit, a provocative blend of children’s literature and psychedelic knowingness.
The surprise success of the Surrealistic Pillow album put them in the driving seat and a grateful production company gave them free rein in the studio for their next album, After Bathing At Baxter’s. Its wild and cheerfully uncommercial excesses, hated by the suits but loved by Airplane freaks, allowed them to develop adventurous three-way vocal harmonies – as here in Won’t You Try, still sounding good at Woodstock three years later.
Next up was the more disciplined Crown of Creation album, still my own favourite by a short head, but a TV appearance where Grace ‘blacks up’ to sing the title track highlights their volatile and rebellious unpredictability undimmed by success. And just listen to those resonant words, rock long since freed by Bob Dylan to say something worthwhile – something we’d come to expect by 1968.
This social relevance continued and even extended on the Volunteers album, whose opening track We Can Be Together blends war-weary alienation and communitarian idealism in an almost perfect apotheosis of those slightly unhinged times. Another track Wooden Ships imagines a dystopian future of hippie exile from a broken society, a theme that its co-writer Paul Kantner (the others being Stephen Stills and David Crosby) was soon to revisit in his magnificent sci-fi concept album Blows Against The Empire – solo, that is, with valuable help from several Airplane, CSNY and Dead members.
If you’ve never heard Blows and fancy some beautifully performed and still exhilarating rock music that evokes those tempestuous times, do yourself a big favour and listen to it straight through. I won’t spoil it by telling you the plot – but the album was nominated for a Hugo award, normally reserved for sci-fi novels. Side One – huh, remember sides? – begins with an acapella chant which establishes a powerful sense of historical disenchantment, conjuring a comparison of the troubled present with the paranoia of 17th Century religious persecution across the so-called civilised world..
Hide, witch, hide / The good folks come to burn thee / Their keen enjoyment hid behind / A Gothic mask of duty
A track from around halfway through the album – Sunrise – goes back way beyond the Witchfinder General to the root of the problem. Two thousand years, sings Grace Slick with passion, two thousand years of your goddam glory … No shrinking violet, she, and many of us loved her and her band for their brave and uncompromising critique of ‘straight’ society and its many hypocrisies.
But the album is much more than a call to arms. At the heart of its elaborate central metaphor is also a glorious celebration of human potentiality. Neither that burning idealism nor its musical realisation has dated for one second and listening to this magical album can give us the experience of stepping outside time to values which are eternal. And there’s nothing anti-religious about that.