Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow

Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow
Released February, 1967

I think this album is quite remarkable. Considering it was the band’s second album it sounds so assured and accomplished. With each song they manage to jump from genre to genre without losing any of the record’s cohesion. This is an ‘Album’; not just a collection of random songs. Their debut, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off” was released in 1966, only a year after they had formed. It featured the line-up of guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady, drummer Skip Spence, vocalist Signe Anderson and the singer/guitarists Marty Balin and Paul Kantner, who both wrote most of the group’s original work. Notable for their version of ‘Get Together’, which The Youngbloods would enjoy a hit with in 1969, their first effort was dominated by Balin. This all changed with the arrival of Grace Slick, late of fellow San Franciscan band The Great Society, who was recruited after Anderson left the group. Spence’s increasing drug use turned him into an unreliable band member and he was soon replaced by session drummer Spencer Dryden. Don’t feel too sorry for him though; he formed Moby Grape, who released their own debut in 1967. The new line-up got down to creating their sophomore effort, “Surrealistic Pillow”, which certainly didn’t suffer from Second Album Syndrome.

Slick offered up two songs from The Great Society’s repertoire and it’s hard to imagine them not being Jefferson Airplane songs from the beginning. The first track, ‘Somebody To Love’, was written by her brother-in-law, and former band mate Darby Slick, and would become the group’s first successful single, hitting No.5 on the Billboard 100 (they had released four singles previously that failed to chart). The second track was Slick’s own composition, ‘White Rabbit’, which is one of my favourite songs of all time. Drenched in the narcotic-fuelled imagery of Alice in Wonderland, this is the essential psychedelic rock track, depicting Slick’s own mind-expanding experiences with drugs. Starting with a single, quiet bass line, the song gradually builds to a speaker-shattering climax as Slick’s voice soars above the crashing guitars to the heights of ecstasy. I could easily spend this review analysing the influence this song has had on music and popular culture. ‘White Rabbit’ also entered the Billboard Top 10 giving Jefferson Airplane the success they had been craving. This album would be worth the price of admission for those two tracks alone.

Despite his departure, the group recorded Spence’s ‘My Best Friend’ and the harmonies of Balin, Kantner and Slick make it one of the album’s many highlights. Their voices blend together to create a similar tonal soundscape to The Mamas and The Papas, which accounts for that folky feel permeating their blend of psychedelic rock. It also has one of the best guitar endings of its era. Slick gives parents of the world hope for their child learning the recorder, as her use of it is sublime. She adds a touch folk whimsy to the jaunty ‘How Do You Feel’ and her lines in ‘Coming Back To Me’ are quite haunting. The latter and the Balin/Kantner penned ‘Today’ seem to me like the same event of reconciliation, seen from either lover respectively. As ‘Today’ starts you are lulled by a lovely finger-picked guitar line until the drums kick in, which sound like they have been recorded in a different room! The way the song heightens and the harmonies intensify it could almost be called folk/prog rock. Kaukonen’s wondrous guitar instrumental ‘Embryonic Journey’ is one of the best of its kind. Soaked in reverb, his subtle nuances make you think there is more than one guitar playing. The last note rings out and is followed by the opening bass of ‘White Rabbit’, which typifies the way the band move from folk to psychedelia and back again throughout the album.

Jefferson Airplane were the first band from the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene to gain widespread success. This album was a gateway for others to go through and is a strong part of the music that encapsulated the fabled Summer of Love. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s that special blend of the highly influential AND the endlessly listenable. Go ask Alice.

This is one of those albums that defines an era. That era being the latter part of the 60s with its ‘Summer of Love’, psychedelic rock, hippies, Woodstock and as little regard for authority as possible. You should give it at least one listen just for that reason alone. It also spawned a couple of chart hits in ‘Somebody to Love’ and the bizarre yet awesome tale of Alice in Wonderland on ‘White Rabbit’, both of these tracks being the strongest two on the album. “Surrealistic Pillow” had both commercial and critical success with Rolling Stone magazine ranking it #146 in their “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list. To begin with I wasn’t too sure about this album. First impressions noted a whole heap of Drug Fuelled Nonsense. Usually that’s enough to put me off but this album was a little different… the more I listened the more I liked it. I was really surprised that it had such a folky element as I wasn’t aware they had their roots in folk. The songs are well structured, if not a little weird, but in a weird in a good way. The dual female/male vocals really work. The lyrics are, well, evidently written in the late 60s! They are pretty standard for their time and are up there in term of stupidity with The Band and The Byrds. It annoyed me but not as much as those two bands. Maybe because I like the music better on this album? Overall I listened to “Surrealistic Pillow” about 8 or 9 times and as I’ve already said I liked it more with each listen. I’ll definitely be listening to it again. Jefferson Airplane, I’m not actually sure which parallel dimension you transported me to whilst listening to this album, but I’m glad I went there.

I enjoyed “Surrealistic Pillow” a lot more this time round than the first time I listened to it all those years ago. Though I found an interesting dichotomy, for myself anyway. I definitely enjoyed the tracks sung by Marty Balin much more than the ones by Grace Slick. I feel like Balin’s tracks were light hearted and a bit fun, where as Slick’s songs were much more dark and severe. She only sings lead vocals on two tracks, and coincidentally, they were the ones written by her brother in law, and by Grace herself… ‘Somebody To Love’ and ‘White Rabbit’ seemed a bit more depressing to me, and, particularly with ‘White Rabbit’, I had this strange feeling like she was telling me off, like I’d done something wrong… I guess that’s why I felt like those two weren’t my favourites on the album. I know I’ll be in trouble with the other guys, because I’ll bet they’ve all raved about how great ‘White Rabbit’ is! There are some excellent counterpunches to those two songs though. ‘My Best Friend’ is a light, happy song that seems an interesting choice to have directly after ‘Somebody To Love’.
‘Plastic Fantastic Lover’ is another great one. More for the music than the content. I’m sure the lyrics about technology taking over were relevant in the 60s, but given that I was taken over by technology a long time ago, I can’t relate. My favourite was ‘3/5 Of A Mile in 10 Seconds’. It’s a proper rock song, and to me it stands head and shoulders above the rest of the album. Is it about young hippies leaving their oppressed lives and making their way to San Francisco? I don’t know. Oh, and just by the by, all the verses in that song are limericks.

Finally, an album that I actually liked listening to over and over again! For me, music has to move me, take me to a place, and “Surrealistic Pillow” did just that. Listening to this album conjured feelings of nostalgia, engulfed me in a warm sonic blanket akin to the feeling of sunshine on your skin on a sunny winter afternoon. It’s just the right blend of folk and rock and features great dynamics, from the soft and tender ‘Today’, to the rockin’ ‘Somebody to Love’. It’s all backed up with a tight band, soaring guitar solos, and great clean 2 and 3 part harmonies . My favourite track was number 7, ‘D.C.B.A -28’; it’s pure psychedelia  at its best and I almost felt the room blur and spin around me, that’s what I’m talking about- music that literally takes you to a place!  ‘Embryonic Journey’ was a close second, a pretty instrumental piece featuring the lush guitar stylings of Jorma Kaukonen. We’ve listened to some pretty out there stuff doing this project, and some albums have had me wondering how they could have been so popular, but listening to “Surrealistic Pillow” leaves no doubt in my mind as to why it gained such popularity.  Apparently the band didn’t particularly like the finished product, feeling that it was too polished to represent their true sound, but I concede that this polished finish was what allowed it to break through the pop charts. Top-Ten tracks like the folk-rock fusion ‘Somebody to Love’ and the hallucinatory ‘White Rabbit’ have come to be synonymous with the sound of the late 60’s and cemented Jefferson Airplane as one of the most famous and successful American acts of the 60’s. Ethereal, folky and upbeat, “Surrealistic Pillow” has been one of my favourite albums of the 60’s and has certainly earned a permanent spot on my ipod!

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