Jefferson’s Airplane Fourth studio album, released sometime in September of 1968, continues their expansion of San Francisco folk-flavored psychedelic rock, with a mostly denser, darker and more spontaneous, jam-rock-enriched sound.
Grace Slick scores big again, starting from the instant the needle hits the vinyl with her composition “Lather”, which though inspired by her fellow bandmate, and bedmate, drummer Spencer Dryden, turning thirty, also has been crafted to have a more poignant message about an intellectually disabled adult named Lather:
“Lather was thirty years old today,
They took away all of his toys…
“He looked at me eyes wide and plainly said,
Is it true that I’m no longer young?
And the children call him famous,
what the old men call insane,
And sometimes he’s so nameless,
That he hardly knows which game to play…
Which words to say…
And I should have told him, “No, you’re not old.”
And I should have let him go on…smiling…babywide.”
Another impressive track on this first side is Slick’s rendition of David Crosby’s “Triad” with Crosby on guitar. The Byrds had recorded the work for inclusion on the final Byrds album with Crosby, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and for whatever reasons (conjectured explanations range from the nature of the lyrics to the quality of the song to internal band politics and ego-clashes), the Byrds dropped it’s inclusion. Perhaps this was for the best, as not only was their no hesitation on the Airplane’s part to record this, but Slick on an album of material otherwise written by the band, but the change of the gender of the personna makes the lyrics work out even better.
The rest of the album is generally heavier, rockier and with a more complex sound with the final song covering the nuclear demise of the earth — the Jefferson Airplane are still producing commercially-in-demand and modern, cutting-edge material, with this album having made it as high as the sixth spot on the Billboard album chart.
With a very promising well crafted first album, featuring haunting, distinct, yet harmonious vocals between co-founders George Edwards and classically-trained Dave Michaels, thoughtfully arranged compositions and a sophisticated approach to psychedelic folk-rock that included timpani, harpsichord, piccolo, renaissance recorder, saxophones, clarinet, french horn, tuba, trombone and vibes, H. P. Lovecraft, named after the American horror-fiction writer, recorded their second album in the summer of 1968, releasing it in September of 1968 with no special title, simply called “H P Lovecraft II” with a small “II”as seen in the album cover above.
This second album is more progressive, but due to a demanding concert schedule, the band had little time to prepare, with the result being a less disciplined effort than the first album, but a step forward musically. Like their namesake, the author, H. P. Lovecraft, fortune, or even decent wages, were not to be theirs. The group disbanded in 1969, with a subsequent reformation as simply “Lovecraft” and then again as “Love Craft”, but without the leadership and musical skills of George Edwards and Dave Michaels, the band had a much different sound, lacking that other-worldly, psychedelic, borderline progressive quality of this second album.
“One positive thought produces millions of positive vibrations.” — John Coltrane
Coltrane’s left us fifty years ago on July 27, 1967. He played, improvised, and composed music for a number of essential albums including “Blue Train”, “Bags and Train” with Milt Jackson, “Giant Steps”, “Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane”, “My Favorite Things”, “Live at the Village Vanguard”, “Duke Ellington & John Coltrane”, “Coltrane live at Birdland” with an incomparable version of “Afro Blue”, the one of a kind “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” album, and the classic “A Love Supreme.” Also of note is the June 1965 session (released in 1970) as the album “Transition” with the title track being essential to fans of the music contained in a”Love Supreme.” There is also music recorded in 1967, released years after Coltrane’s death, that could be classified as Free Jazz including “The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording” recorded on April 23, 1967. It’s interesting to compare a 1963 live version of “My Favorite Things” to the 1967 version:
Thank-you, Mr. John Coltrane for the all this incredible music you provided.
Twenty-six year old department store model, Grace Slick, a graduate of Palo Alto High and resident of the Bay area (San Francisco Bay area) after reading an article about one of the local bands, Jefferson Airplane, in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, went to see them live where they played regularly (“The Matrix”, a club on Fillmore Avenue) and was soon inspired to start a band, with her husband, his brother, and three others.
This band, “The Great Society”, named after LBJ‘s set of programs to address unjust social conditions, soon opened for other more established Bay Area groups including Jefferson Airplane, and eventually attracted the attention of Columbia Records which offered them a recording contract at about the same time that the Jefferson Airplane was looking to replace their female vocalist, Signe Toly Anderson. Mrs. Anderson, an expecting mother, felt that she could no longer tour with the band and take care of a newborn and so gave notice, informing the public, on October 15, 1966 with words befitting any flower-power child: “I want you all to wear smiles and daisies and box balloons. I love you all. Thank you and goodbye.”
Grace Slick left her band, which not being able to continue without her, disbanded, and she joined Jefferson Airplane, bringing with her two particularly notable songs: the Great Society’s lead guitarist’s medium-tempo song “Someone to Love” and her own drug-inspired composition, “White Rabbit.”
Jefferson Airplane embraced both Grace’s powerful singing and these two tunes, which they re-arranged, maybe not for the better, but certainly with greater commercial appeal.
“Surrealistic Pillow”, Jefferson’s Airplane’s second album and the first album with Grace Slick takes advantage of Grace’s high-energy vocals from the very first track, where her background vocals are of more interest than Marty Balin’s main vocals and perhaps the main melody itself. The second track, is “Somebody to Love”, played with more force and at a faster tempo than the Great Society arrangement.
This album also includes a song that Marty Balin wrote originally for Tony Bennett: “I wrote it to try to meet Tony Bennett. He was recording in the next studio. I admired him, so I thought I’d write him a song. I never got to meet him, but the Airplane ended up doing it.” Jerry Garcia plays guitar on several tracks for this album including the short repetitive electric guitar phrase heard here:
“Today” is followed by the evocative, marijuana-paced (and perhaps marijuana-influenced) Balin composition “Comin’ Back to Me.”
Side 2 starts with “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Second”, more for dancing then listening. “DCBA” is relaxed and with somewhat puzzling lyrics:
“It’s time you walked away and set me free”
“I take great peace in your sitting there Searching for myself, I find a place there.”
and then in the middle of this
“Here in crystal chandelier, I’m home. Too many days, I’ve left unstoned. If you don’t mind happiness Purple-pleasure fields in the sun. Ah, don’t you know I’m runnin’ home. Don’t you know I’m runnin’ home (to a place to you unknown? )”
“How do you feel” is one of those innocuous feel-good songs that would be comfortably at home on an album by The Mamas and Papas or The Association. “Embryonic Journey” is an excellent acoustic guitar instrumental, composed as part of a guitar workshop in Santa Clara by Jorma Kaukonen three years before he was invited to join Jefferson Airplane band by friend and fellow-classmate Paul Kantner.
The penultimate cut of the album, is the standout “White Rabbit”, rearranged musically to be succinct, focused, rhythmic and eerily similar to Ravel’s Bolero. No concessions were made lyrically:
“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: 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 with her head Remember what the dormouse said: ‘Feed your head. Feed your head.'”
I think it is at this point in time, more or less, that the commercial interests of the major music labels became more important than censorship of music with anti-establishment lyrics. During the last eight weeks of summer, it seemed that one could not turn on Southern California AM radio without “Light My Fire” or “White Rabbit” being played at least once in any given hour. As a twelve-year old, I knew something was changing in the world around me as an older culture began to buckle under the weight of newer ideals — even if those ideals were plainly self-indulgent.
“Surrealistic Pillow” ends with a trippy, protypical Haight-Ashbury tune, “Plastic Fantastic Lover”, mocking the ascendancy of the boob tube:
“Her neon mouth with the blinkers-off smile Nothing but an electric sign You could say she has an individual style She’s part of a colorful time.
“Secrecy of lady-chrome-covered clothes You wear cause you have no other But I suppose no one knows You’re my plastic fantastic lover.
“Her rattlin’ cough never shuts off Is nothin’ but a used machine Her aluminum finish, slightly diminished Is the best I ever have seen.
“Cosmetic baby plugged into me I’d never ever find another; I realize no one’s wise To my plastic fantastic lover.
“The electrical dust is starting to rust Her trapezoid thermometer taste; All the red tape is mechanical rape Of the TV program waste.
“Data control and IBM Science is mankind’s brother But all I see is drainin’ me On my plastic fantastic lover.”
Music can transcend time, be a document of its time, or both. “Surrealistic Pillow” is indisputably an important musical document of its time. As as listener, you must decide if it transcends time. For those of us that grew up with this music, it tends to take us back in time, which, I suppose, is as valid way as any to transcend time.