Sunday, January 08, 2017

Jefferson Airplane Comes Down

BARK (1971) and LONG JOHN SILVER (1972)

Jefferson Airplane is one of my favourite ‘60s American rock bands. The ‘60s seem to be the era when British rock bands were in the ascendancy, far superior to and much more interesting than their American counterparts. Beatles, Stones, Kinks, The Who, Cream, Led Zeppelin, you name ‘em.  It is only from about 1969 that the new generation of hot US bands starting poking their heads out above the parapets before raging full on in the early Seventies.

From about 1966 American rock kicked into a different gear with the advent and rise to power and influence of the San Francisco bands who soon conquered the hip awareness of first the USA and then the world. Initially the bands were pretty much part of the broader American pop music tradition in that they signed to major labels and wanted to, and were expected to, write and release hit singles. The difference with the old pop traditions was that many of the musicians came from musicianly backgrounds in folk and jazz and were far more conscious of being artists and members of a counter culture than their more pop oriented predecessors. The San Francisco bands were among the first, if not the first, whose premise for existence was that they were making music to please and satisfy themselves and not so much to please a fan base. If the fans came along and dug the sounds, it was a bonus. Frist prize was to cultivate and maintain an artistic integrity that was the wellspring of the creativity.

The founding members of the Airplane were influenced by folk and blues. Jack Casady even had a jazz background. after the low-key debut with Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,   (1966) and once Grace Slick joined, the Airplane began expanding their musical and artistic vision. The band was equally happy to record love songs as it was to record political songs. Jefferson Airplane made intricate music with unique call and response vocals and had some hit singles that placed them on the commercial map and carried them for several years after the hits were no longer that important and the music and politics became more difficult and challenging.

The path the group took from Jefferson Airplane Takes Off through to Long John Silver (1972) is a good example of the evolution of rock bands (the ones that prized artistic integrity quite highly) during the era and the restless search for change and innovation and progression in the music though the product was not necessarily always as successful as the musicians would have hoped to achieve.

The band’s debut is a mix of folk rock and their interpretation of the blues. With Surrealistic Pillow (1967) and After Bathing At Baxter’s (1967) the music became more ambitious, with added weirdness, though the first album of these two is the one with the big hits, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” and contains some of the most popular tunes the band ever recorded, that remained on set lists for years to come.

A hits compilation called The Worst Of Jefferson Airplane and After Bathing At Baxter’s were the first two Airplane albums I ever bought and they were excellent introductions to the variety found in the oeuvre. The compilation concentrated, for obvious reasons, on the glory days of the ‘60s, but also included “Have You Seen The Saucers” and “Milk Train” from the very last years of the band’s existence as Jefferson Airplane.

Interestingly, after I googled the compilation album, I saw that the American version of it had both a different front cover and a different track listing to the record I bought in South Africa. Must be down to the vagaries of international marketing.

Over time I bought the various mid-period albums on CD, including a couple of “Greatest Hits” and “Live” compilations until I finally got hold of a box set packaging the four studio albums, from Takes Off to Crown of Creation (1968), with replica cardboard record sleeves and all manner of bonus tracks. This was my introduction to the debut which almost sounded like a different band, partly because Grace Slick did not sing on it and partly because the blues and folk influences are so much more prominent than the later more psychedelically infuse albums.

I found it strange that Volunteers (1969), the most overtly and militantly political album of the band’s career, had been left out of the box set. In due course, I bought it as an individual album.

There are two official live albums from the six-year life span of Jefferson Airplane: the single LP Bless Its Pointed Little Head (1969), with the best of the early tunes, and the double album Thirty Seconds Over Winterland (1973) from the late period Airplane. Although there are several budget price albums of live material culled from the early part of the Airplane’s career, I have never come across Thirty Seconds Over Winterland on record or CD.

Probably two years, perhaps three, after I bought that first box set I came across a three CD box set of the last three Airplane studio albums, Volunteers, Bark (1971) and Long John Silver (1972). The first album of the trio is the last recorded by the “classic” line-up and the third one is the last album before the band became Jefferson Starship and embarked on a somewhat different career as a highly commercial ‘70s mainstream rock band. morphing into the AOR Starship in the ‘80s.  

By the release of Bark there had been a change in the membership of the band. Balln, previously the main co-vocalist with Grace Slick and an important songwriter for the band, had departed and took with him his vital creative input without which the band’s once gleaming edge dulled.

The band kicked out drummer Spencer Dryden and replaced him with Joey Covington, who set the tone for the bigger rock sound of the next decade. A new instrumental voice was added: Papa John Creach, a violin player who’d been working with Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady in Hot Tuna.

I’d already heard two tracks off each of those last two Airplane albums some time ago and the bonus materials on the Volunteers CD was a bunch of live tracks recorded around the time that album was released, or maybe a bit later. These live tracks indicate that the Airplane had already mutated into a middle-of-the-road heavy band, on stage, by the turn of the decade, even if Volunteers still sounded like the original, experimental Airplane. The disconcerting effect of exposure to the live tracks was that of listening to a Jefferson Airplane cover band rather to the real thing.

As it happened, I had that 3-CD box set for the better part of two years before I got around to spinning Bark and Long John Silver. I’d listened to Volunteers quite a bit, because it was on my iPod from before, but there was a kind of block to getting to grips with the last two albums, probably, I suspect because I was not all that keen on hearing the evidence, tendered by many a reviewer, that by the final years of its existence, the Airplane had run out of airspace and was heading for a crash landing. 

I did not want to have the same experience as I’d had with the Cream Live at the Albert Hall 2005 album where the three original members reunited and played the old hits without much of a spark and then, in the interviews on the DVD, tried to put the spin on the dullness of the concert by trying to sell us on the concept of the Cream of 2005 being as good and simply different to the Cream of, say, 1967. That was a load of bollocks. The Cream of 2005 may have been far more proficient on their instruments and may have been down many more musical avenues and deviations but none of that made their performances any more exciting or visceral than, for example, the farewell concert at the Albert Hall in 1968.

The bundling of the trio of late period Airplane albums gives us the benefit of experiencing the transition from the original Airplane of the ‘60s to the new (not necessarily improved) Airplane with a rather dull, standard, expertly played rock sound.

Volunteers is recognisably an old-school Jefferson Airplane album albeit one that is more militant and somewhat tougher in style than its predecessors. The intermingled vocals of Grace Slick and Marty Balin are still present and correct as is the lightness of touch of the musicians that seemed to desert them, or was perhaps deliberately abandoned, in the Seventies.

Bark truly does not sound anything much like the Jefferson Airplane I love.  Somehow the tunes and the playing seem just so ordinary and workmanlike. Apart from opening track, “When The Earth Moves Again,” there is nothing distinctive on show. This is what happens when professionals start writing songs because they have an album to record and not because they are inspired to write for the sake of writing. Marty Balin’s songs and vocals are sorely missed. Joey Covington sings a couple of songs, and if singing drummers are not a novelty anymore, he is kind of in the Ringo Starr category when it comes to expressiveness.  There is a similar distressing leadenness and lack of vigour in Paul Kanter’s tunes and vocals. There is just a general flatness and lack of zest about Bark, that the best of the Airplane’s work had always had.

It is perhaps a demonstration of the rapid progression of rock music, or of the musicians in the serious bands, that there is such a vast gulf between Jefferson Airplane Takes Off and Bark, between an exuberant debut by a young band still to make its mark and the 7th album from the same band in as many years, with less fresh enthusiasm and more of the acceptance of the responsibilities of a serious rock musician. In 1965 Jefferson Airplane flew off into uncharted territory and learnt along the way. By 1970 the band was a group of veterans of a scene they had help start and had outgrown, and had become respected national figures on the rock scene, almost elder statesmen.

Most of the San Francisco bands had moved on from their own beginnings and had changed their music bit by bit over time.

The Grateful Dead was about to embark on some of the best music of their career with American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, both of which also represented maturity and several steps away from the early blues-infused psychedelia. It was therefore natural that the Airplane would change too.  After 6 years together a band becomes a career and a business and the corporation, even a hippie corporation, must maintain its commercial viability by rebranding the product every now and then. It is just such a pity, in contrast to the Dead’s very successful rebranding, that the Airplane became less adventurous and more conservatively mature instead of using the freedom of being established to kick out the jams with even more ferocity.  By the release of Bark the band members were in their late Twenties or early Thirties, probably had families, and were no longer the naïve counterculture tyros they were when the band was formed.

From the opening, title cut onwards it is very clear that Long John Silver is a much harder rocking record than Bark. Grace Slick is in fine, powerful voice and the band plays the toughest it’s ever done. The enervation of the previous album is gone and is replaced by a vigour and brio that is almost joyful to behold. The band sounds inspired and motivated and they must have brought the best material at hand to this record, which is why the album comes across as a powerful statement of longevity. Whether the band knew this album would be the swansong of the Airplane, I do not know but they could hardly have chosen to go out on a higher note.

Neither of these reissues of Bark or Long John Silver has any bonus materials of previously unreleased tracks, which is the case with all the other albums in the series.  This is curious. Surely there must be some studio outtakes or some live versions of the album tracks that could have been made available?

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