Blows Against The Empire
01. Mau Mau (Amerikon) (6:37)
02. The Baby Tree (1:44)
03. Let’s Go Together (4:22)
04. A Child Is Coming (6:18)
05. Sunrise (1:54)
06. Hijack (8:18)
07. Home (0:37)
08. Have You Seen The Stars Tonight (3:43)
09. X-M (1:25)
10. Starship (7:05)
11. Let’s Go Together (Alternate Lyrics) (4:21)
12. Sunrise (Grace’s Acoustic Demo Tk. 8) (1:21)
13. Hijack (Paul’s Acoustic Demo Tk. 5) (7:01)
14. SFX (Jerry Garcia & Mickey Hart) (2:02)
15. Starship (Live) (13:04)
Paul Kantner: guitar, vocals, banjo, bass, producer, writer
Grace Slick: piano, vocals, writer
Peter Kaukonen: lead guitar
Jerry Garcia: guitar, pedal steel guitar, banjo, writer
Joey Covington: drums, writer, congas
Bill Kreutzmann: drums
Jack Casady: bass
Harvey Brooks: bass
David Crosby: vocals, guitar, writer
Graham Nash: vocals, congas, writer
David Freiberg: vocals
Mickey Hart: percussion
Gary Blackman: writer
Marty Balin: writer
Phil Sawyer: writer
Rosalie Sorrels: writer
On which a bunch of hippies steal a spaceship and set off into space in the company of a great soundtrack, while a large handful of rock luminaries enrol as the crew…
-"Where do we go from here? Chaos or community?"
"Time to get up...and hear Paul Kantner's new album 'Blows Against The Empire'. Huh maybe I'll go back to sleep..." (Radio Advert)
Or maybe the reality of this album is the dream; it certainly makes more sense than 'our' so-called real world does - more logical, more plausible, more hopeful than the doomed frustrations of this tiny globe and insignificant race. You see, 'Blows Against The Empire' is quite unlike any other album I have ever heard, a parallel universe tales where hippies never died and where capitalism never won, with a bunch of counter-culturalists given not just Haight Ashbury but the unlimited confines of the universe to play with. A rare sci-fi concept album, it follows the journey of a bunch of hippies as they hi-jack a starship intended to spread mankind's greedy money-grabbing capitalist ways out into the galaxy and use it for their own ends, spreading a new race of happy and free humans out across the stars who no longer have to adapt to society's rules. Refusing to let mankind mess up another planet like they had the Earth, the hippies of the future seize the chance to create a Woodstock in space and go out to find a new world and start a new life based on – to quote – ‘free minds, free bodies, free dope, free music’. The first side of the album tells the story of the group of misfits’ first stirrings of revolution back on Earth – something that Kantner seems to feel is similar to the future punk movement if the opening track is anything to go by but like the Airplane it’s a movement based on peace as well as anger – dreaming of the freedom they might have if they manage to steal the starship. The second side then tells the tale of the youths actually breaking into a military stronghold and stealing said vehicle, setting off on their own adventure of love and laughter. So appetising does Kantner and co make it seem that you half want to walk through the speakers and join them. It's all as if so oh so many other albums had been thrown together into a concrete mixer and turned into a single plausible story picking up on all the themes we keep returning back to on this website: the ideas of with all their themes of freedom, injustice, rebellion, being true to yourself and fighting a system that wants to hold you back from fulfilling your destiny.
What's more, the solution seems logical: with the 1960s about to turn into the 1970s - a whole new decade that was intended to build on and finish the good work of the most progressive decade in mankind's evolution for centuries - the world could so easily have gone this far, with a nearly-plausible back story of the starship being built 'ever since 1980' and taking off into the sky 'ever since 1990'. Kantner even has a plausible back-story that mankind was always intended from the first to do something like this to fins his inner destiny, that man has always managed to adapt and outsmart his situations and oppressors from the beginning (the first track features the ignored and squashed underfoot early mammals stealing eggs from the nests of dinosaurs to populate their own cause; in this album 'we' are the eggs snatched from under the noses of dinosaurs, little humans designed to do what the system always told us to do who learnt a new way of life thanks to albums like this). The link between singers and audience is one of the things that is just so great about this album - one of the many booklets included with the initial release includes an advert for all the 'vacancies' needed aboard ship and tells us to be 'ready' for when the call-up day comes (The band were after ‘Experts in explosives, wave mechanics, lazer technics, atomic physics, labrian tantronics, telepaths, craftsmen, poets and especially people who don’t know where they’re at’ by the way, so you might well be on the list somewhere too; sadly we've missed the 'embarkation date' of 1999 by quite a few years, but hey these things are always running late aren't they? I'm still packed and ready and I'll be ready to call on you too when the time comes!)
Utopia has an important part to play in thinking people’s rock music. Most of the albums on this list offer something in the way of escapism, either by ranting and raving at the state of the world in the 1960s/70s/80s/90s/etc (nothing ever changes) and picturing how great it all could be if we worked together or simply by providing music so beautiful, hooks so plentiful and ideas so engrossing that for a blissful 40 minutes you’re encouraged to leave the chaotic world behind you. We'd been here before of course—as early as 1968 Paul Kantner was writing the space-age post-nuclear war saga Wooden Ships with David Crosby and Stephen Stills (this song appeared on both the first CSN album and the Jefferson Airplane album Volunteers) and around the time this album was born Kantner had already delivered several sci-fi songs to his old group (the future setting of When The Earth Moves Again and the self-explanatory Have You Seen The Saucers?, complete with the hint that the American president is hiding their existence from us for his own ends—and this is in the years before Bush got in power and the whole ‘9/11 was invented by aliens who live in the white house/under the twin towers/on the moon’ conspiracy started!) Blows takes these three concepts as its basic approach but takes them out even further—both in space terms and through their scope. This time we don't merely 'see' the saucers or dream of escape from a nuclear war but become the pro-active ones, outwitting a capitalist society too dumb and bureaucratic to miss a starship - and too ignorant of why anyone else would want one. You can so imagine this happening in a few decades' time even now: the idea that someone might want to go into space to spread love rather than colonise planets or out-race your rivals (when we should all be working towards a common goal) is exactly what has happened in our past and no doubt will in our future, only 'this' time there won't be any human hippies left behind to get into trouble for it - they'll just turn round one day and we'll be gone! (Paul never does explain quite how this many similar-minded people come together at the right time but then I've noticed a certain telepathy between like-minded fans of this sort of music and especially Jefferson fans so perhaps it's not that far-fetched after all?)
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth...While most writers are at their best singing about people and individual needs, Paul is always at his best with big ideas and none ever came bigger than 'Blows'. It's also the single most inevitable album of his career, even if it is impressively unlike any other album anyone else ever made, released during a Jefferson Airplane hiatus year where they lost both Marty Balin and Spencer Dryden and recovered from a difficult 1969 full of Woodstock, Altamont and feuding. Paul's mother died when he was young and he was sent away to boarding school at a young age, a military academy that was meant to instruct the young Paul with discipline and morality. Which it did, but not in quite the ways that his teachers ever planned: few musicians have ever been quite as disciplined or as moralistic as Paul, albeit probably not in a way that an authority figure could love. Feeling alone and isolated and often in trouble for refusing to accept the words of his teachers as gospel when his mind had already been 'opened' thanks to both folk music and a collection of science-fiction books he took with him, Paul spent his years dreaming of a better future when this wouldn't happen to him anymore. One of Paul's favourite books was Robert Heinlein's 1941 work 'Methuselah's Children' - a sort of 'California Goldrush' out in space which ends when the colonialists discover another planet where things like gold have no meaning and discover they've been chasing the wrong thing (Paul actually wrote to Heinlein with a few early lyrics for this album, thanking him for his inspiration and admitting how similar some of the plot was; Heinlein took the time to write back, saying that people had been pinching from his work his whole life through but Paul was the first person to admit it!) Rescued when first The Beatles and then the hippie movement came along, Paul was the perfect person to write this album - he'd most likely been thinking along these lines for years and the album is clearly one very close to his heart (there's even a sequel from the 1980s titled 'The Empire Blows Back' in homage to Star Wars!) The moon landings of the year before and the unfortunate jingoistic aspect of the coverage would no doubt also have appealed to Paul - and struck him as being both forward and backward-thinking for our culture all at the same time (the event was so big and so inspiring that there's quite a run of space-themed albums in this period, but 'Blows' is by far the best). The fact that the 1960s were ending - the most progressive period in human evolutionary terms for centuries, oh yes it was - and turning into the unknown of the 1970s is another clue to this album's philosophy, with lines drawn between protests and Vietnam on one side and the summer of love on the other that had never been starker, with Watergate just around the corner (with the hopes that the next decade, which saw so many young hippies come of age, would 'finish the job' of a new era in peace and equality - together with the fear that things would go back to being the way they always were; the unfortunate truth was a mis-mash somewhere between the two). All of which made 'Blows' the single most inevitable album on this list and the record that in many ways Paul was put on this 'planet' to write (you may notice that this is the end of a great prolific run of albums that stretches back to 'After Bathing At Baxters' in 1967; never again will Paul be in quite such charge of the Jefferson craft).
Not that Paul is the only figure on this album. In keeping with the hippie themes of sharing and brotherhood the first use of the ';Jefferson Starship' credit on an album is really the ad hoc 'Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra' loose configuration of San Franciscan musicians who helped each other out on a pool of records across 1970 and 1971. The fact that the other three albums made like this (Jerry Garcia's 'Garcia', David Crosby's 'If Only I Could Remember My Name' and Graham Nash's 'Songs For Beginners') are all key albums should tell you much about how great these players were: members of the CSNY (that's Nash you can hear counting the band in during the instrumental break in ''Hi*Jack'), Grateful Dead, Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service and of course the Jefferson Airplane families all helping each other out with words, music, ideas, performances, squiggles for each other's album booklets and even in this album's case the engineering (according to one story the engineer failed to show up the day the second side was due to be mixed so Graham Nash did it himself whilst stoned, fading in and out of the 'starship taking off' noises already provided by Airplane stalwart Phil Sawyer - both sides of the record are a real feat of engineering and production values, especially Sawyer's atmospheric sound effects). These are all the last gasp efforts by the San Franciscan movement to put their lifestyle and ambitions into words and the last moment in time in which they could truly believe in a brave new future for everyone who wanted it, before a new generation took over and re-wrote the rules about whatever we were supposed to yearn for in their utopias.
However, this is very much Paul’s vision - with great support from his then-romantic partner as well as bandmate Grace Slick. The pair were expecting the first child either of them had had - a daughter named China, born in 1971 - and she's another key influence on this album despite not even being born yet (and despite her daddy guessing her gender wrong in 'A Child Is Coming'). There are lots of fleeting imageries of children across this album, the 'next generation' of eggs being snatched from the dinosaurs who can go on to build on what their parents achieved (or not, if they were glam rock fans) and a whole song about how 'A Child Is Coming', a charming three-way between Paul, Grace and guest David Crosby in which they refuse to 'hand' their child over to 'Uncle Sam' 'for the files in his number's game', instead keeping her birth a secret and allowing her to become the first human figure to be born totally free on side two, without any restrictions as to who he or she could be (this might well be the same heroine who crops up in a lot of later Paul compositions grown up, named 'Lightnin' Rose' on the 'Nuclear Furniture' album of 1984; Crosby turns up again on the gorgeous ballad 'Have You Seen The Stars Tonite?') At the time the world was half-seriously holding its breath: with that combination of genes and an upbringing best described as 'unconventional' what would little China and all the other little Chinas being born to hippie parents around the world grow into? China will play even more of a role in her parents' work when she's born (the proud yet worried parents of Paul and Grace's next album 'Sunfighter') although as it happens she won't become quite the counter-cultural revolutionary as hopes for/feared (instead she becomes an MTV DJ before leading a comparatively 'normal' life and even takes a degree in Christian Theology - not what you'd have expected from the life planned for her here and on the next few albums).
Though Paul and Grace's relationship as romantic partners will barely past the point of China growing out of nappies, the pair are as ever the perfect musical couple here and bring out the best in each other time and time again. Kantner’s dogmatic politics never sound as brave or as convincing again as they do on this album (every argument as to why this new hippie colony should fall apart is dealt with and defended somewhere in these lyrics), but they're supported by Grace's more personal take on this world journey. While Paul depicts the hippies as a block of people moving together and jots out the reasons why, Grace fills in the gaps: the reason the pair are so excited at having a baby on the way and on her startling side two opening solo piece 'Sunrise' explaining just why the hippies need to escape now ('Two thousand years of your God damned glory!!!' she sings to the pillars of authority as the narrators view both a physical and a metaphorical sunrise out in space - though which sun is never made clear). Musically too Grace’s choppy piano fills are also at their best on this album, dominating these recordings which, uniquely for the Airplane/Starship, place more emphasis on acoustic piano and guitar than they do on electric instruments (there are no drums on this record either bar the first track, a curio not shared by any other album on this list except—erm—If Only I Could Remember My Name again). Without many electric guitars and hardly any drums, you would be forgiven for thinking that Kantner and co are getting a bit soft. Not a bit of it: this album also features the loudest bass you will ever hear: The Airplane’s Jack Casady’s make these acoustic recordings sound HUGE, with his playing dissolving into glorious swirling feedback every few minutes or so.
Whilst some reviewers do 'get' this album and what is was meant to do, few people seem to realise how beautiful this album is. Paul isn't known for his melodies but all are first class on this album and each track takes the album in a very different direction: 'Mau Mau Amerikon' is more punk than any Sex Pistols LP, baiting Nixon and haranguing the band's 'elders' for their blind restrictive ways ('Whatever you think of us is totally irrelevent, both to us now and to you - we are the present, we are the future, you are the past, so pay your dues and get out of the way!) While some psychedelia albums try to soften the blow of what the strange young teenagers are up to and that it's not that different, really, this track goes for the jugular with the scariest line for mums and dads ever: 'Because we're not the way you used to be when you were very young - we're something new!' However Paul contradicts himself straight away with the inclusion of a folk song written when he was a mere child in 'The Baby Tree'. Thereafter the new-look Jefferson sound that will dominant their work for some years to come arrives: Grace's swirling block piano chords, Paul's strummed guitar and something over the top: usually a heavy Jack Casady bass, occasionally a twirling Jerry Garcia banjo part, sometimes a Bill Kreutzmann drum part, infrequently nothing at all. Like many hippie albums, this one is often dismissed as having sloppy playing, but actually its one of the most complex albums of them all, with the same typical lengthy complex suites so well used by the Jeffersons down the years but this time played by musicians from several different bands; 'the touch of madrigal in the half-joyous, half-scary round of voices on 'A Child Is Coming', the howl of feedback pulsing around 'Sunrise', the rollercoaster ride of the eight-0minute 'Hi*Jack' and the seven minute 'Starship' and even the deliberately sloppy yet oh-so-exciting barely concealed aggression of 'Mau Mau' are amongst the greatest musical moments of the Jefferson story. Whilst 'Blows' is intellectually first-class, perhaps the greatest thing about it is how beautiful it all is, ‘light years’ away from the old crunching Airplane sound and replacing the more usual electric crunch for a sweet acoustic vibe (with lashings of feedback-induced bass playing to give the album its bite and edge). A truly one-off collaboration between punk rock five years too early and prog rock a couple of years too late, Blows Against The Empire sounds like nothing else you will ever hear. Why the music world didn't hear this album, fall in love with it and make copies of it for the next year at least (like all great, truly groundbreaking works) I'll never know: this is a record with the clean-sweep broom of 'Sgt Peppers', the autobiographical intensity of 'Pet Sounds', the complex involved plot of 'Tommy', the quiet hidden beauty of 'The Village Green Preservation Society' and the other-worldly brilliance of 'Crosby, Stills and Nash' writ large. Society should have crumbled - instead it barely seemed to notice.
Well, almost. 'Blows' has become something of a cult favourite amongst fans and even at the time was celebrated as being 'nearly' as good as the last Airplane album 'Volunteers', now regarded as one of their very best (although in my humble opinion it's too scattershot and at times heavy-going to match the natural bounce and creativity of this LP). The album also won Paul plaudits outside the usual areas too: 'Blows' is the only album to date ever nominated for the annual Hugo Science Fiction award in 1971, in the 'best dramatic presentation' category; it's surely only snobbery against rock and roll that it didn't win (in fact nobody did win the category that year which is a little weird; Paul was up against the film 'Colossus', the film 'Hauser's Memory', the film 'No Blade Of Grass' and the wonderfully named play 'Don't Crush The Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers!')
One final point about the outpouring of creativity across this album: I have never seen album packaging so covered with creative energy and an outpouring of ideas. Ever since 'Baxters' the Airplanes had made a point of having a hand in creating their own artwork but few are quite as jam-packed with doodles, poems and scribbled half-thoughts as this record's inner booklet and even the original inner sleeve came covered in scribbles, every single bit of space used. Everything here was created by somebody in between takes (mainly Grace judging by the hand-writing) and as well as illustrating what's here the drawings and doodles are fascinating for illustrating what isn't. That bit of poetry you hear Paul reciting as the Starship takes off during the sound-effect-heaven piece 'X((^"$^()&*&%£$^M'? It's here in full: '30,000 light years from the planet of my birth, 3000 years to the future, the poets of the Earth have re-arranged my birth to fit it to the planetary sculpture!' There's also what appears to be a Grace-written 'cut verse' from 'A Child Is Coming' : I won't carry the Government's child, I want to see his young head rising from the water chamber warm with love, to the clear air, light bright and getting higher, rain forest born, born desert warm, no processed child in hiding, it's none of the Government's business who comes to or from my baby!' 'Have You Seen The Stars Tonite?' features this extra snippet in Paul's hand: 'Let the children lead you, let the children feel you, let the children be you, whatever happens to Tim Leary will happen to America, become your own Woodstock!' Also this untitled Grace piece from the front of the booklet (which must have left fans scratching their heads when it wasn't used in the opening song): 'I'm goin' down and if I don't come back tie all my dope on a wire wheeled track, and give them to the man who'll have them back, from my life...take my hand, it's an avalanche, it'll worry your mind but take a chance, take off your tie but don't leave the dance, of your life' (some of these lines will end up in 'Walkin' from Paul, Grace and David Freiberg's 1973 song 'Walkin'). Plus this by Paul from the inner sleeve: 'I'm a communist, I'm a democrat, I'm a Presbyterian aristocrat, I'm a blackrobe Catholic birth control cat, I'm the chinese guard in the prison yard, and the panther man in black and tan, I can carry anybody's party card, I Am HUMAN!' Elsewhere we get oodles of doodles, mainly by Grace: the back cover sketch of Paul's head made out of flowers, of Paul next to a 'wild plant growth' switch, of a moody looking Garcia with banjo, of Crosby with long hair blowing in the breeze, of an 'egg snatcher', a baby tree, an evil looking teddy bear with a skull ('Pooneil'?), of Paul Grace and a baby's head joined together, of Grace riding a dinosaur, of a moon shining down on a winged serpent, of a face with a lizard for an eye. This is one of the albums that was clearly talked about more than just in the studio - it's a record that exists beyond the margins of a humble slab of vinyl or a compact disc, it's creative seeds overflowing long after the recording sessions have ended for the day. Despite all this, the album cover is actually very traditional, a Russian drawing of a human battling various mythological creatures which Paul loved which fits the 'humans are the same all over, but so are the politicians which is why we never get on' philosophy of the album (the illustration is credited to 'CCCP'# on the sleeve, the Russian name for the USSR). Not available on CD until its release in 2005, the re-issue makes up for the long wait courtesy of two booklets re-creating the myriad extra drawings and paintings on the original vinyl release (plus several juicy demos and outtakes plus a rare live Airplane performance of Starship some two months before the album's release that seems to go on for hours and several repeats!)
As a science-fiction fan, I love this album. As a music fan I love this album. As a Jefferson Airplane fanatic I adore this album. 'Blows' won't appeal to everyone - there are no pop singles to rival 'White Rabbit' or 'Somebody To Love' and nothing quite as creatively out-there as 'The Ballad Of You and Me and Pooneil' or 'Crown Of Creation'. But no other Jefferson-family record offers quite so much of a vision or a hope or a longing; in fact no other record in my collection quite sums up the 1960s experience, of the rule-breaking, injustice and burning optimism that decade represented, as this album which is like all the experiences of the last few years transformed into a new work that pointed both backwards and forwardsSuch is this album’s spirit and bravery, its somehow no surprise to learn that Kantner and Slick thought they were visited by a UFO hovering above their San Francisco house shortly after the album came out, the two of them mentally willing it not to go near any Government property in case they shot it down (characteristically Kantner now thinks it was a plane acting strangely, Slick isn’t so sure). It's 'our' fault, not the fault of this record, that the longed for triumphant future hoped for on this record failed to come to pass. However such is the brilliance of the imagery across this record, such is the passion and talent with which it is conveyed and so infectious is the idea that this is mankind's real destiny, not the cold war/terrorism/greed of the future eras that we came to have instead, that I still can't believe the events of this record won't happen. So I will make a pact with you, dear readers - save me a place on that Starship who ever gets there first and I will make sure this record is packed and ready to bring along so that we can at last find our true vocation somewhere out there in the stars.
Either way, back on Earth, Mau Mau (Amerikon) is the sound of Kantner inventing punk rock six years early, a sort of space-age My Generation with snappy, brash guitar and pounding drums married to a seven-minute rant about how the youngsters are taking over from the old ‘empire’ crowd. There are lots of songs from the 60s about how youngsters are going to live life differently to the ‘war’ generation, but few are as loud or as provocative as this track, which really does give the feel of the claustrophobic earth-bound characters who find their new ideas silenced at every turn. The track starts with a slightly wonky a capella verse comparing the burning of witches in the medieval ages to the modern hippies censored and silenced by Nixon’s government who might be threats to ‘normal’ society. The song then opens up into the bare-bones sound of Peter Kaukonen (brother of Airplane guitarist Jorma) and his similarly spiky guitar (it must be in the genes) and new Airplane member Joey Covington’s thrashing drums. Comparing the empty and open ‘countryside’ with the dark and paranoid-infested ‘towns’ inhabited by their rulers, Kantner (rightly as history will show) imagines that the restless youngsters will get mighty flighty when it comes to the late 70s and 80s, when the empire is painted as being at its height. Listen out for the couplet about ‘egg snatchers’, a David Crosby idea that he uses in much of his writing too. The ‘dinosaurs’ of our past thought they could control all the annoying little ‘humans’ sneaking round them because they were big and strong and could squash them without really noticing. However the ‘humans’ fight back by stealing the dinosaur eggs one by one and converting them to their ‘human’ cause, winning the evolutionary war not out of brawn or numbers but out of simple persuasion of each individual who in turn pass on the message to their friends and offspring until the humans have enough numbers to control society and the dinosaurs are extinct. As many of you reading this archive list will be fellow ‘eggs’, snatched out of the clutches of the more mainstream society, I’m sure you’ll agree what a brave song and what a brave album this is, a true reminder of the hippie ‘gameplan’ of the late 60s that once the youngsters were grown up and in power in the 70s everything would change, creating a big, bright and beautiful new world so perfect everyone would want to be a part of it. Alas, this gameplan didn’t even begin to work out as intended and, like the ideas behind it, this song has an interesting opening that is in part ruined by what—as things will turn out—most post-60s music will be like: noisy, attention-seeking and argumentative. The album gets a bit brighter once it heads into space, but even this track has a grungy zest for life and a spontaneity that works well when set against its flowering, brightly produced cousins on the album’s second side.
The Baby Tree is pretty poor all round though, sadly, being a short cover of an old folk tune sung by Kantner in noticeably poor vocal form (he sounds great when double-tracked on the rest of the album, but here he sounds like your dad trying to do his ‘turn’ at a drunken Christmas party). The song by Rosalie Sorrells is a rather offbeat and surprisingly anti-hippie song given its inclusion on this most peaceful and peace-making of albums. The narrator tells us of a magical tree that lives in a distant garden, one where babies are grown and the mothers and fathers choose which ones they want to adopt—there are so many that only babies that smile get chosen (err, what happens to all the poor unfortunate ones that cry? This is, after all, a natural response for babies to make, especially when dangling off 10-foot-tall branches about to fall if nobody ‘picks’ them in time). Kantner rather skips over this worrying aspect of the song, which is unusual for such a forthright and dynamic equality-praising chap. Without much of a tune and only a banjo accompaniment to lift it out of the doldrums, the song has to rely on charm – something the song might manage on first hearing, thanks to the odd witty lyric - but struggles to do from then on in, even though this song is ridiculously short.
Alright, so far so ordinary, but its from track three that the album flowers into something special, creating a mellow sound that’s unique to this album and mainly driven by the ghostliness of Slick’s shimmering piano, the ship’s engine that soon becomes the driving force of the band. Let’s Go Together is about the meeting of souls who have all arrived together in one place to steal the starship and all find out for the first time that the others are ‘just like me’. The stakes are raised by a sudden key change a minute or so in (after the first verse when the track gradually grinds to a halt before starting over again) and a breathless lengthy instrumental that pitches the duel brightness of Kantner’s guitar and Slick’s piano against the ominous rumblings of Kantner’s very Airplanish-bass playing, the perfect approximation of Jack Casady’s style. Listen out too for one of Kantner’s occasional mentions of his favourite childhood stories –Winnie The Pooh by AA Milne – which in the Jefferson Airplane days constituted a magical, imaginative world but in this case refers to a childhood companion and possible guardian spirit watching over the narrator from this imaginative world (he plays a larger role in the original version of the song, added as a bonus track on the 35th anniversary CD re-issue of Blows). Laying out their ideals for their new world in space, the followers prepare to take off, but first there’s a little bit of trouble about what Uncle Sam and the American government have to say about that.
A Child Is Coming is a lovely acoustic song about how if things go according to plan the new era of children won’t have to fight in pointless wars or be ruled by a ‘big brother’ state. Kantner, Grace Slick and a Tibetan Monk-ish sounding David Crosby sing three-way lead on the opening part of the song, a jolly campfire singalong celebrating the pregnancy of one of their fold (Most fans assume it’s about Slick and Kantner’s baby China, but even though the thought might well have been on both singer’s minds China wasn’t actually born till 1973 and therefore conceived after this album came out; that’s her appearing on the front cover of the duo’s follow-up album Sunfighter two years after Blows came out). After 90 seconds an ominous funeral-paced keyboard riff comes in, changing the atmosphere completely as all three singers wrap several phrases over each other’s singing in a sort of space-age version of a Medieval round. All three are superb on this song and are joined by some edge-of-your-seat bass playing from the Airplane’s Jack Casady which is so loud, powerful and unconventional, it really does sound like the black hole of earth sucking its inhabitants back into it’s evil web. A sudden pitched whistle from the bass at the six-minute mark then changes everything, sending the listener back out into space again, with the crew finally escaping the gravity of Earth in every meaning of the word.
Side two starts with Grace’s call to arms Sunrise, detailing again how the young crowd heading out into infinity and beyond were finally going to realise the dreams of ‘2000 years’ worth of ordinary people, tired of being shackled by the ties given them on earth by the ‘empire’. Grace’s short song matches Kantner’s vision of the album like a glove and hearing her voice singing over the top of seven layers of over-dubbed feedback, mainly provided by Jack Casady’s bass, is a sound to remember.
Hi*Jack is the first of two long sprawling songs on the second side of the album, with tricky piano riffs rebounding off an acoustic guitar lick (both of these long songs were mixed by an un-credited Graham Nash by the way; its curious that this bass-heavy vocal band didn’t use his high harmonies more on this album). The song details just why the youngsters have been growing restless, adding momentum through each of the song’s many verses and imploring the listener to believe how much better life will be in space now that mankind can be ‘free’ to go his own spiritual way. HiJack features some of the album’s better lyrics (make that any album’s better lyrics) and runs pretty smoothly, considering its made up of four or five songs stuck together in true Kantner epic mould. Part of the lyric refers back to the death of JFK (‘How I remember the 23rd of November’ - in 1963 for those who don’t know, the same day Dr Who was meant to air its first episode), reflecting how the assassination of a young new leader helped sew the seeds for Kantner and his Klan, giving them hope that the youngsters born into wartime could change the old world’s ways when they grew up, regardless of the decidedly mixed bag of results the president really left as the legacy from his three years in office (in extremely condensed and general terms, Kennedy was almost as bad as Bush had been 1960-62, heightening the Cold War with high-profile ’mistakes’ like the Cuban Missile Crisis which was born more out of poor research and misunderstandings with Russia than true bravery, however much spin the White House staff put on the event—however JFK’s courageous and unprecedented-for-presidents pro-Civil Rights work throughout 1963 shows what a great president he could have been once he settled into his role). The ‘Witch hunters’ from the album’s opening song return, quickly scooping up the young, ‘trying to turn them on to their poison’, sewing the seeds of mistrust among the population. The gorgeous middle eight gives us an alternative, however: reflecting once again on the no-holds-barred outlook on life in the future in contrast to the population’s past on Earth, here we have babies ‘wandering through the cities of the universe’ and 7000 lost souls sailing out ‘past the sun’. This is where our destiny lies says Kantner, sending the spaceship off towards the sun, picturing it as a fiery metaphor for all the burning creativity that gets lost within people’s souls and seeing the Earth behind us as a tiny circle, locking its inhabitants up into a tight little ball. Look out too for Kantner’s second favourite motif after his AA Milne fixation, days of the week – if the empire rule our ‘weekdays’ then the Jefferson Airplane represent ‘Saturdays’ (see After Bathing At Baxters, no 15 on the list) and Kantner’s latest vision takes place on a ‘Sunday’ (ie the day traditionally linked to homelife and spiritual matters).
The song then segues into the next track courtesy of a barrage of space-age sound effects presumably relating to the Earth we’ve left behind (the track is named Home). Unsurprisingly, this makes for a scary ride, with some of the many scary sounds relating to frightening advances on Earth cut up and spliced together to sound tense and threatening. (These include genuine sound effects mixed with the Grateful Dead’s Micky Hart’s percussion work at its most experimental and Garcia’s pedal-steel slowed down and speeded up to sound truly alien, plus dialogue extracts from the original 1950s film of War Of The Worlds apparently, but you can’t hear them too well on record).
Out of this noise comes Have You Seen The Star Tonite?, the prettiest and most traditional-sounding song on the album. Composed by Kantner and Crosby together, it follows one of the couples who have embarked on this journey of a life-time, looking at the twinkling stars in the night’s sky and wondering where to go next, celebrating the sudden freedom they have for the first time in their lives. Crosby’s harmony work rivals even his CSN recordings, soaring above the clouds and wrapping cotton wool buds around Kantner and Slick at their most together and harmonious. One of the most gorgeous songs Kantner or Crosby ever wrote, this soothing song is accompanied by Garcia’s spacey pedal steel gurglings, Kantner’s sprightly guitar and Grace’s earthy piano licks. There may be only two verses in this song but the track feels more substantial than that – check out the lyric booklet for another, gulp, six or seven verses of the song that weren’t used.
Cohesion isn’t one of Blows’ strongest points as it is only now we hear the sound of the spaceship actually taking off. The track X(*^$%**&^()(M (shortened to ‘XM’ on the CD booklet as computers can’t actually replicate the gobbledegook hieroglyphics on the album’s original hand-written sleeve) is more sound effects malarkey, with an intriguing lost Kantner verse buried underneath the noise (printed out in full in the ‘key lyrics’ section on the first page: the one starting ‘20,000 light years…’).
Finally heading into space, the excitement spills over into the final track Starship, another epic acoustic guitar-and-piano duet, but this time sounding more like a celebration than a stately warning. The lyrics (interestingly, departed Airplane member Marty Balin and his writing partner Gary Blackman are credited, though Marty sadly doesn’t join the huge list of singers on this album) are full of yet more utopian delights, calling on both the crew and the listener to ‘get back to the things that matter’ while exploring such visual feasts as ‘Hydroponic gardens and forests’ (According to my dictionary, ‘hydroponic’ means ‘cultivating plants by growing them in gravel’, plus a few technical things I can’t understand. Who says music isn’t educational?!?) and ‘glistening lakes in the Jupiter starlight’. The splendour becomes too much for the narrator(s), who come to a sudden climax at the three minute point before realising how much space there still is to explore and bounding off again. Dispensing once more with any ‘rules’, the crew come to the conclusion that being free is ‘the only way to fall’, travelling through space like a ‘comet’, with no fixed plan of where to go or what to do. Ending on the very Airplanish plea ‘Can you believe it? – no more war’, the song suddenly winds down a gear, ending on a final twirl from Slick’s piano and a last gulp from the bass of guesting musician Harvey Brooks (a bassist once mooted to be joining CSN, no less, thanks to his friendship with Stephen Stills). And that is where we leave the Starship crew. Full of the energy, excitement and bouncy charm that runs through this album, this finale is the perfect ending, packing more debate and reasoning about the hippie dream into its seven minutes than most of its participants managed in a whole career.
I defy anyone not to want to join the Starship on its long, meandering flight path after hearing this. Anyone who heard this album the first time around will surely find their eyes watering when they look back and see both the things that have changed since this album’s release - and the things that still haven’t. Blows is a beautiful image of what our era could have been, which is all the more startling now that we know what the 80s-90s and onwards era portrayed here really brought us: terrorist attacks, more wars, continuing third world poverty, global warming and bird flu. Sounds more like the end of a world to me, not the beginning of the brave, new one pictured here. OK so Kantner got the date wrong about when we all escape in the starship, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Keep your eyes peeled. As it says on the record’s back cover, which invites alike-minded souls to write in and join the adventure: “You will not be contacted immediately, just prepare your minds and bodies…” Yes of course this album is hopelessly naïve, full of outdated flower power sentiment and in many ways tied so heavily to the time it was written and recorded that its impossible to swallow completely. If it were released today, Blows would be sneered at by everyone, counterculture or otherwise for its sheer impossibility but, still, for all that, there’s something magical and captivating about the starship’s flight that begs you to take another look, even now in the far more jaded 21st century. Despite the odd drawback here and there (especially the start of side one), you can’t help hoping that in some alternative universe out there, somewhere, some members of mankind are enjoying this wonderful life-affirming trip for real. And, after all, the date of departure may have long since passed but the whole scheme isn’t entirely impossible. Man, that was quite a dream - and it all seemed so real. Please, whoever is up there first, with the aims of spreading the human race out into the universe, save me a seat – I want to see if space is really as good as it sounds here.