Sunday, January 31, 2016

Jefferson Airplane - 1966 - Takes Off

Jefferson Airplane 
Takes Off 

01. Blues From an Airplane 2:10
02. Let Me In 2:56
03. Bringing Me Down 2:22
04. It's No Secret 2:37
05. Tobacco Road 3:27
06. Come Up the Years 2:30
07. Run Around 2:36
08. Let's Get Together 3:34
09. Don't Slip Away 2:31
10. Chauffeur Blues 2:25
11. And I Like It 3:15

2003 Bonus tracks:
12. Runnin' Round This World (Mono) (Bonus Track) 2:22
13. High Flying Bird (Bonus Track) 2:32
14. It's Alright (Bonus Track) 2:14
15. Go to Her (Early Version) (Bonus Track) 4:06
16. Let Me In (Original Uncensored Version) (Bonus Track) 3:28
17. Run Around (Original Uncensored Version) (Bonus Track) 2:32
18. Chauffeur Blues (Alternate Version) (Bonus Track) 2:46
19. And I Like It (Alternate Version) (Bonus Track) 8:16

Marty Balin: vocals
Signe Toly Anderson: vocals
Paul Kantner: vocals, rhythm guitar
Jorma Kaukonen: lead guitar
Jack Casady: bass
Alexander "Skip" Spence: drums

“Do you know how sad it is to be a man alone? I feel so solitary being in my home, without you don’t know what to do and I don’t where you are” “Where are you? What’s that sound around my heart I feel? Something new, I’m sure the love you’ve given must be real, I know now and I’m sure of how I can be the man I feel” “Oh let me in I want to be there, you shut your door now it ain’t fair, without a word to me, without a look at me, you’ve turned me down without a care...thanks for nothing!” “As I get older the years they get heavy for you, is it any wonder I feel the way that my whole life is through, when I start feeling how strong my love is for you, knowing I’ll be empty wanting your love like I do” “I was born in a dump, my mamma died my daddy got drunk, left me here to die all slow in the middle of tobacco road” “A younger girl keeps hanging around, one of the loveliest I’ve ever found, blowing my mind, stealing my heart, somebody help me ‘fore I fall apart” “Slow down run around, you’re outta site, stay with me and walk instead” “I need more of the times you turned me round” “Love is but a song we sing, either way we die, you can make the mountains ring, hear the angels cry, know the dove is on the wing, l you need not know why, hey people now smile on your brother, get together and love one another right now” “Almost been a year since we‘ve been together, seems so long ago since you drifted away, suddenly the past has fallen in behind us, now all I know is that I want you to stay” “This is my life, I’m satisfied, so watch it babe, don’t try to keep me tied, so why now let me be satisfied, this is my life, this is my way, this is my time, this is my dream and you know I like it!” “Baby look now tell me what you see, is it the same thing you want me to be?, I’ve seen it all happen so often before, please believe when I say its a bore, I need more, I need more, I need more, I need more!”

 Three months younger than ‘Revolver’, four months younger than ‘Pet Sounds’ and two months younger than ‘Face To Face’ and yet recorded before the bulk of any of these, ‘Jefferson Airplane Takes Off!’ is an album that just keeps on giving. The band may be missing Grace Slick (who joins in time for next album ‘Surrealistic Pillow’), they might still feature a few covers in their set and the cover is one lost hangover from the ‘quirky’ covers of the mid-60s, but considering that this is the first ever album by any of the burgeoning San Francisco scene (‘the Liverpool of America’ as its christened on the sleeve; beating The Grateful Dead, Love, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service and dozens of others by a matter of months or even years) this album isn’t half a daring and wayward beast. Sure there’s DNA from earlier genres and the sleeve’s multiple references to folk don’t seem as amiss as they would on any other Airplane records, but nothing ever sounded quite like this album before. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but ‘Takes Off!’ is different, full of songs about death, unhappiness, anger and world politics, a year or sometimes two before these world views became fashionable. Most fans compare this album to ‘Rubber Soul’ and there’s similar sense of waving goodbye to the past and embracing the future all at the same time, a sort of folk-meets-flower power vibe.

That duality is also expressed in the front and back covers. On the front the band are waving, with fixed cheesy grins, dressed in aviation gear (the only picture that will ever make the link between the band name and ‘flying’ that obvious). It looks like the sort of thing Brian Epstein made the Beatles do in 1963 before they all learnt better, even with Marty Balin’s priceless expression mixing boredom and anarchy (bettered only by Pete Townshend’s evil stare on the cover of The Who’s ‘My generation’ the year before). But the back sleeve is a completely different story: under the heading ‘A Jet Age Sound’ the band tell us their philosophy, that all their songs are about ‘love’ and brotherhood in a deep and meaningful sense and are a ,means for ‘communication’ between the 60s generation, plus the observation that they want the music on this record to ‘be like a big hand that grabs you and shakes you’ (according to founder Marty Balin). In 1966 no one, not even Jerry Garcia or The Beatles had quite verbalised all that was new and ‘different’ about the peace and love generation to quite this extent before and throughout the record you’re not quite sure if you want to embrace that newness – or run away from it, screaming.

Jefferson Airplane's progress up to this point had been miraculously speedy. The first of the 'big four' San Franciscan bands to get a recording contract (beating the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service by a year or so each), 'Takes Off' has a similar sound to each of these other debuts - the musical equivalent of baby photos, with certain characteristics we'll come to know and love already formed but others missing. The sound, for instance, is a big shock: the primary instrument after the voices is Paul's acoustic guitar, with Jorma, Jack and Skip only showing flashes of the take-no-prisoners rhythm section they'll become. Like the first 'Dead' album the performances are sometimes a little too fast, like the first Big Brother album are occasionally a little too lightweight and 'cute' and like the first Quicksilver album a little muddled about what on earth this eclectic band are all about. However 'Takes Off' is arguably more accomplished than any of this trio - the Airplane already sound like the Airplane to come, just slightly softer; the performances are played fast through enthusiasm and excitement but aren't that overcooked really and the occasional lightweight moment simply adds to the mixture of sounds, with charming songs like 'Don't Slip Away' and the cover of 'Chauffeur Blues' still better than most of Big Brother's debut. A lot of the 'messages' on this record are ones the band will be singing for years to come: 'Come on people, smile on your brother, everybody get together and love one another right now' 'Something new, what's that sound around my heart I feel?' 'This is my way, this is my time, this is my dream and you know I like it'. This is a band who know largely where they're going and what they're doing, just with slightly less power and with a sound slightly closer to the mainstream that what will come.

Given that the band hadn't even existed a year earlier and was still in flux a few months before the first recording session, this is impressive stuff. While Marty and Paul had been trying to get a group off the ground for years - Balin even co-buying and renovating a disused pizza restaurant so that he could convert into a club named 'The Matrix' and get into music by 'becoming' the house band - everybody else was largely new to this, either folky friends of Paul or strangers spotted by Marty at a club. Signe was the first to sign up, spotted by Marty at a nearby 'rival' club The Drinking Gourd singing along to the music. Jorma followed after a chance meeting with his old buddy Paul (appalled at the idea of folk musicians turning he electric he said 'no' several times before being persuaded to see an early line-up and realized the band had better equipment than he had as a solo act so threw his lot in with them!)  Skip joined next, Marty seeing him at the Matrix and realizing that his unkempt blonde rock and roll look was exactly what he wanted for his band - in his excitement accomplished Skip didn't have the heart to tell his new boss that he'd never actually played the drums before (though with true Skip willing he gives it a good go it all the same - actually for such a newbie player Skip's the musician revelation of the set, simple and sturdy but more than in control of the Jefferson monster straining at the leash to get out. Though replaced soon after the album's release by Spencer Dryden, one of the great unsung heroes of 1960s percussionists - a bored Skip simply taking off for a holiday just when he was needed the most and finding himself turfed out the band - Spence more than holds his own and his songwriting is already as accomplished as Marty's. His departure is the band's loss and Moby Grape's gain, where Skip reverts back to being a guitarist - although you sense that Skip's future LSD-induced breakdown might have come even quicker had he stayed a part of the madder and more intense Airplane rock scene). Finally the original Airplane bassist wasn't really working out so Jorma suggested an old pal of his from years ago and gave Jack a call to come over. From the second Casady plugged his bass in and played ten times louder than his predecessor the first template for the Airplane sound is born. Yes the band badly misses Grace and Spencer from the classic days (great as both are, neither Signe nor Skip have quite the range), but you know what? The Airplane could and did function perfectly well without either of them. While sequel 'Surrealistic Pillow' is clearly a march forward in oh so many ways, I'd love to have heard a second album by this line-up with the extra confidence behind them - if not quite as magnificent without the hit singles Grace brought to the band and the more inventive drumming then on this evidence it would still have been pretty darn great. Far from being a mere 'test flight', 'Takes Off' already sounds like the real deal and is perhaps the most under-rated album in the entire Jefferson family (although you could make a case for 'After Bathing At Baxters' 'Dragonfly' 'Spitfire' and 'Nuclear Furniture', neglected gems all four).

The band themselves sound very different to anything that has gone before, if not quite up to the killer songs about peace (there was always that contradiction about the Airplane) that are to come later. Marty Balin is the star here, just as he is on ‘Surrealistic Pillow’, re-writing the pop and ballads of the 60s and giving them a definitive psychedelic twist, updating the multi-generational themes of boy meets girl for the umpteempth time and yet still managing to make them sound new and enticing. It’s hard to remember now, after so many years of seeing Grace Slick as the lead singer of the band (to the point where the Monterey Pop Festival film cuts Marty out entirely and films Grace mouthing to his singing), just how integral Balin was to the band he founded. It was ‘his’ club, ‘The Matrix’, where the band were formed, Marty who picked the musicians and most of the songs and – despite his lack of instruments – very much Balin who was the driving force behind the band’s sound. He’s also the driving force in all the promotion for the album as the sleeve-notes make clear, doing his bit to promote and explain the San Franciscan peace movement a full year before reporters discover |Jerry Garcia is the world’s most eloquent hippie. His sudden fall from ‘grace’, as it were, doesn’t kick in until ‘Baxters’ album three – and by album five Marty’s gone, fed up of the divisions in ‘his’ band and unable to find the leg room to get his material over (until his sudden re-invention of himself as an MOR balladeer with Jefferson Starship anyway). That end result seems incredible after listening to this album, one where almost every vocal and almost every passage of the album that grips you belongs to Marty. Along with the extraordinary sequence of Balin songs on ‘Pillow’, this is a remarkable run of songwriting and it’s sad that we don’t really get to hear more from this talent again properly.

It’s Marty’s charisma that leads the band here, with Paul Kantner not yet the force he would be in a few years’ time (interestingly the back sleeve rte-counts how ‘scared’ he was recording his first vocal – not a sign of ‘Baron Von Tollbooth’ as the band affectionately called him that he showed too often) and a singer by the name of Signe Anderson depping for Grace Slick. She’s much folkier than Grace, a cross between her and Pentangle’s Jacqui McShee and her vocals have often come in for criticism for fans who are best used to Grace’s work with the airplane – but, for these times, she’s the perfect stepping stone, further mixing the genres of folk, blues and space-age rock. Old friends guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Cassady are the powerhouse of the band in this period, with lead guitar parts much quirkier and bass parts much louder than anything heard on record before. Considering he’s never played the drums before – and will go back to being a guitarist after quitting the band in 1967 – legendary acid casualty Skip Spence sounds remarkably good – and, having played his outrageously out-there ‘Oar’ solo album the other day - remarkably together. Considering that both Signe and Skip will be long gone by album number two and that the band are still missing miss Slick as their lead foil and anarchist cause celebre, the Airplane are still remarkably bonded on this album and very close indeed to the sound that’s going to spawn their sprawling career into Jefferson Starship and beyond. Even if the Airplane don’t quite reach the stars yet, they very much are reaching for them even in this early period, causing quite a few upsets along the way.

Record label RCA were, in 1966, very much the friend rather than the enemy. After all no other record company had yet approached the growing San Francisco ‘love-in’ scene and it’s to their credit that they chose the relatively polished Airplane over the still-congealing Grateful Dead and the covers-led Love. It’s to the Airplane’s credit, too, that their reputation had grown in just a year to the point where a major record label was knocking at their door. But that’s where the mutual admiration society largely ended. RCA were horrified by the ‘first’ version of this record, one that included original uncensored versions of the runaway song ‘Run Around’ and the double entendre filled ‘Let Me In’ and demanded that these two songs be altered and that a third, ‘Runnin’ Round This World’ be dropped altogether on reasons of ‘taste’ (the latter contained such morally subversive words as ‘trips’ – well, it was 1966 when this sort of thing was new). They were all but ready to drop the Airplane as quickly as they’d found them until the sudden unexpected success of follow-up album ‘Surrealistic Pillow’, still regarded fondly as one of the best albums of the flower power era (after which the band were too big to get rid of, with the Airplane gleefully delivering the anarchistic ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ which broke every taboo under the sun). Nowadays it’s hard to work out what all the fuss is about. Sure ‘World’ is a drugs record, but only to the initiate rather than the general public – certainly compared to, say, The Small Faces ‘here Comes The Nice’ or the Airplane’s own ‘White Rabbit’ the following year it now sounds very tame indeed. The other two songs too seem a strange thing to get so hot under the collar about – the few fans who bought the record on its original release probably didn’t notice anything subversive anyway (the line ‘lay under me’ on ‘Run Around’ passes by before you really take it in – and the double entendres on ‘Let Me In’ were probably treated as a metaphor for ‘love’ at the timer, with its talk of doors and keys). Having your second single banned and two songs on your first LP changed did much for the Airplane’s credibility, if little for their sales and caused no end of chaos back in the office of RCA.

At first RCA decided to put their latest inexperienced signing into a studio with old hand Dave Hassinger. A veteran of the 1950s, Hassinger is most famous in for suffering a nervous breakdown after a week’s recording with The Grateful Dead but seemed to get on surprisingly well with the fiery Airplane. Despite having just a four-track machine to work on (and a control desk that Jorma remembered later as having ‘just three knobs for left, right and centre’) the band successfully manage to get their ‘live’ sound across: the sheer fury of the guitar-and-bass interplay and the charisma of the band’s three singers. There are virtually no overdubs on this album (a glockenspiel on ‘Come Up The Years’ is the only thing the band remember adding), but unlike many one-take-and-some-mistakes albums around (especially in the early 60s) ‘Takes Off’ still sounds rounded and whole, without the need for any major additions, very much the ‘individuals playing as one’ concept Marty puts across in the sleevenotes. Perhaps the major reason for this is the band’s clear vision: yes the three cover versions slow down the album a bit, but the nine group originals here (and more on the CD re-issue) show a band with fire, guts and passion, all wanting a better future and deeper music, a million miles away from the power struggles of later line-ups.

There’s just two things stopping this album from being heralded as the best Airplane albums on the block. Firstly, Signe is great, perfect for this line-up of the band even, but she’s no Grace Slick either in presence or on songwriting. Miss Anderson, who left the band in late 1966 when she learned she was pregnant, shouldn’t feel too bad about that: no other band ever produced a female singer as brave and charismatic as Grace Slick anyway (with the possible exception of Big Brother and the Holding Company). As a result, Marty’s doing most of the work here and the sexual chemistry that so made this band – first between Marty and Grace, later Paul and Grace – is either imagined or inferred. The other is the lack of the standout cover ‘High Flying Bird’, an old folk favourite done by just about anybody who was anybody in the 60s but was arguably done best by the Airplane. The Grace Slick line-up sing it the best live on-stage in the late 60s, but even here, in this early version, Signe Anderson has finally found her voice, throwing off her shackles on a song about death and freedom and liberty and mourning, all subjects pretty much new to rock and roll back then. It’s by far the best on the CD re-issue of ‘Takes Off’, with a power and majesty few of their records match, recorded in the band’s second ever session on December 18th 1965. So why on earth isn’t it on the album, especially given that RCA took ‘Runnin’ Round This World’ off the LP at the last minute.

In fact, as a CD ‘Takes Off’ glitters far more brightly than it did back in the day. Even though the band are clearly just running through their early live concert track selections over and over, there’s a world of difference between the earlier alternate versions of songs included as bonus tracks and what ended up on the LP. ‘And I Like It’ was always slow and brooding, but on its earlier take it was slowed to a crawl and far more dramatic, more like an Otis Redding power ballad than an Airplane slow song. A first attempt at the abandoned ‘Got To Her’ (later re-recorded during the ‘Surrealistic’ sessions with Grace on second lead rather than Signe) and the similar ‘It’s Alright’ are both fine, energetic pop songs that have all the magic of its better known cousins from this period. ‘Chauffeur Blues’ might be about the worst thing on the record but even that sounds better in an early, wilder version that’s less staid than the finished product. And hearing the two ‘censored’ songs in their ‘proper’ versions makes perfect sense. RCA may have done the band some terrible wrongs in 1966-67, with their fumbling attempts to protect social mores that were about to fall anyway, but they’ve done the band proud since especially on this re-issue.

Overall ‘Takes Off!’ sits in a funny place in the Airplane canon. Most fans think of it as one of the greatest debut albums of all time, which it is – offering the sort of revolutionary, line-drawn-in-sand type vibes of ‘Please Please Me’ ‘My Generation’ or ‘Definitely Maybe’. But they also think of it as a pale predecessor of what’s to come, as a lesser ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ (if you’re a new fan who likes the hits) or ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ (if you’re an old fan like me who thinks Jefferson Airplane and the word ‘hits’ should never belong in the same sentence), which is also a pretty fair way of looking at it too. For some reason the Airplane never really got their true deserts amongst the psychedelic scene, perhaps because none of them died young (like Jimi Hendrix and co) or split up at the peak of their powers (like Cream), had a great revival and overcame personal problems (like the Beach Boys) or won awards for longevity (like the Dead). But you don’t need a good death or talking point or revival or period without break-ups to make your claim for greatness and the Airplane offer one of the most exhilarating rides of them all. If you’re new to the band and still a little wary of the drug-fueled opuses and concept albums to come then may I recommend this humble little debut album, the perfect starting point for fans who want to enjoy all the things that made this band great without losing complete sight of all the things they replaced when they came along in 1966.

You may have noticed, if you’ve read much of this blog, that I have a particular fondness for opening tracks on LPs: generally speaking they’re loud, proud statements of intent that, whether o not they sum up the whole album, get things off to a rattlingly powerful start. That always seems to go double for debut albums: The Beatles with ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, The Hollies with ‘Talkin’ Bout You’, The Stones’ ‘Route 66’: none of these tracks are as polished or perfect as the band’s main output but they signal a lot about where the band creators are going to go – and why they’re going to be around for a long time. That’s true here with ‘Blues From An Airplane’ as well: this thrashing blues-rock hybrid may not be the most sophisticated piece the Airplane ever wrote but it has huge emotional impact, ratcheting the tension up to an almost unbearable moment within a few short minutes. A short and simple song about neglect in love and worry over whether a lover is being truthful, the fact the band have named it after themselves makes it sound more of a sociological statement, a kind of ‘Theme For The Monkees’ to show how disillusioned and anguished the band are with then-modern day living.
This is a song wonderfully ahead of its time, not so much a blues as funk, arranged to assault our senses with ghostly band harmonies and Jack Casady’s bass (which sounds deeply out of place and loud in the mix, like a creepy horror movie) that make us unsettled. The song also leaps about from section to section, suddenly settling on the unlikeliest of chord changes so that we’re never quite sure where we’re going, until finally climaxing on a chorus whose chorus (‘Come, make me happy, like I’ve never been before’) appears to offer absolution, only to take yet another uncomfortable downturn with the line (‘Have you ever known a heart that needed you more?’) This is desperation in song, similar to ‘My Generation’ in the way the narrator uses himself as a metaphor for his whole generation having doubts about everything that came before and can only be free by rejecting society and embracing the newness of life, ending with the line ‘I can be the man I feel’. The song was co-written by Marty Balin and drummer Skip Spence, both of whom are going to be acid casualties to some extent (though thankfully not for long in the former case) and the pair really get to grips with this song’s eerie feeling, where a sudden surprising lack of trust causes the narrator’s world to fall apart. Of all the songs on the album, this opening track is the most different and the most original, pointing ahead to the sonic adventures to come and is staggeringly ahead of its time for March 1966. We know The Byrds’ David Crosby was a big early fan of the Airplane (he and Stephen Stills will go on to collaborate with Paul Kantner on ‘Wooden Ships’ in 1969) – I wonder if he’d given the band a copy of The Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’, taped in January 1966 but not released till Easter this year, after this song was recorded, because the two are very similar, as adventurous and far-out as music got without breaking entirely free from the mother ship of recognisable sounds. One of the very best Airplane songs of all and the highlight of the entire album – even the backing track of ‘Blues From An Airplane’, included on the CD unlisted as the last ‘hidden’ track, makes for an exhilarating wild ride.
Jorma’s the star of next track ‘Let Me n’, Paul Kantner’s first track for the band whose simple folky chord structure and familiar moaning about a cold and heartless girl is transformed by the band arrangement. I’d go so far as to call Kaukanen’s playing on this album the best anybody had got on record by 1966, loose and reckless and wild but still inherently tuneful, and it’s at it’s best on this track. The solo towards the end of the song especially makes this so-so song about a wayward girl (‘let me in honey, I don’t know what’s so funny’) sound like the end of the world. Jack’s bass rumblings – especially the zooms between the verses – are fantastic too, adding to the chaotic-but-controlled sound of the recording, with Kantner’s own acoustic chord slashing setting much of the tone. The whole song builds up to a head of steam by the end before reaching Kantner’s pay off line ‘thanks for nothing!’ The song was, memorably, banned for one too many sexual entendres too many but is actually pretty risqué for the time throughout: even the ‘let me in’ title is pushing it’s luck by 1966 standards though Paul sings it more as a naive innocent than the lecherous man the censors clearly heard.  Marty mentions in the sleeve notes how uncomfortable and shy Paul was singing this vocal, his first in a professional recording studio and sadly it shows: Kantner never had the most natural of voices and yet when he hits his stride with his political songs later in the decade there’s no one finer or more expressive – here sadly he sounds like the shy 24-year-old kid he was back then, even if he quickly warms up to the song by the last verse. A powerhouse of a band performance, when taken together with the last track it gives this album a one-two punch that’s amongst the most daring things put onto record up to that time. Astonishing.
Alas the album slowly falls down from here. ‘Bringing Me Down’ isn’t a bad song but its one that owes more to the past than the future, unlike the other songs here. The most ‘Merseybeat’ song the band ever did, this features an unusually conventional time signature for the Airplane (who like most San Franciscan bands generally favoured something complex and unorthodox) and simple words that, yet again, are about being let down by a girl. An early Balin-Kantner collaboration, this song does gain from yet another strong band performance that sees the debut of the band’s three-part harmony style which is quite effective. There’s one too many early songwriting mistakes here for comfort, though, such as the clumsy chorus which has far too many words and seems to fizzle out of tune before the end (‘Staying out all night, get out of sight, don’t hang around, you’re bringing me down!’) Jorma’s mix of Merseybeat, surf and psychedelia in the solo is worth a listen though and this is only the third time the Airplane have ever been in a studio too, so it’s forgiven.
‘It’s No Secret’ is a second retro rocker, one that must have sounded out of place in 1966 never mind now in among the sonic adventures we know the band will go on to enjoy. I prefer this song though because it’s a lot of fun and is played with a real conviction, with Marty on terrific form hollering about how he’s so excited he wants the world to know about his new love. It’s the middle eight though that breaks new ground, suggesting that in his haste the narrator doesn’t care that his girl doesn’t feel the same way and that the love affair is doomed to failure: ‘When I start feeling how strong my love is for you, knowing I’ll be empty wanting your love like I do’ The excitement is infectious, not least because this – the fourth track on the album – is the first not to be a weepie about a doomed love affair and I wish the band had recorded more simple, happy affairs like this because they’re well suited to the task. The band will turn in some terrific live versions of this song down the years when they give this song a much heavier, rockier feel, especially in the Grace Slick era, but here the magic is apparent already and Signe Anderson’s sensitive harmony vocal is superb, her highlight during her short time with the band. Interestingly, the song was written with another legend in mind – Otis Redding, who was interested in the song and would presumably have sung it with the ‘heavier’ style of the band in concert – but alas the great man died before he got a chance. Instead the band elected to release it as their first single – the fact that it flopped is, you sense, more to do with the fact it was by a brand new band with a brand new sound a record company who didn’t quite know what to do with it, rather than the fault of the song itself. Simple, but undeniably effective, ‘It’s No Secret’ is a major stepping stone between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’, spirited and sassy.
A cover of ‘Tobacco Road’ rounded off the first side of the album and whilst not up to, say, Lou Rawls’ soulful version or The Nashville Teens’ hit with it in 1964 it has its moments and shows how eclectic the influences in the band were. The band probably picked it because of its under-dog sentiments (‘I was born in a dump, my mommy died and my daddy got drunk...’), even though the band were – comparatively speaking – born into about the wealthiest circumstances of all San Francisco scene bands. (Grace Slick isn’t in the band yet but she came from a very rich family indeed). Marty’s a great actor, though, and fully believable as the down-trodden narrator trying to make a name for himself and loving and loathing his home-town in equal measure. The band change the arrangement by adding some tasteful and distinctive guitar-work to the opening and a three-part counterpart harmony that only occasionally has all three voices in agreement (for most of the song it sounds more like a discussion between a split personality). Less effective than the band’s own originals (they will never do a cover again as the Airplane past their second album), this is nevertheless a fascinating insight into a band developing before our ears, trying on styles to see if they’ll fit – and by and large this one does, whatever style the end result might be (psychedelic soul?)
‘Come Up The Years’ is probably the sweetest and most romantic song here – and one of the most controversial too. Marty and Paul sing with such innocence that it’s hard to realize that the words are actually about an under-age girl the narrator fancies something rotten. The song is all about wish fulfillment, that the narrator really doesn’t want to break ‘the law’ and knows he ought to leave well alone – but that true love keeps pulling him back for more. More of a lament than a battle cry, this is an intriguing song that might sound pretty tame now but was revolutionary in the 1960s, back when Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ was still only 11 years old and still a banned book in most places. Listen out for the line ‘the things she’s doing keep turning me on’ – a very early use of a word that was back then only really used by underground drug takers (this may even be where the ever-alert Lennon and McCartney learned the phrase for their song ‘A Day In The Life’ – the latter, in particular, was a big fan of the Airplane). Yet for all its trail-blazing and hip dialogue, this isn’t the shocking song you might expect it to be – it’s more of a song about a loss of innocence, of the frustration that you have to pick and choose your friends and partners because of what others will say, complete with an overdubbed childlike glockenspiel part that sounds deliberately out of place among the older, rockier sounds of the rest of the record. Ultimately the narrator ends the record still wishing and hoping but knowing that their love affair will never be. (As a post-script, assuming the imaginary girl is 15 or so in 1966 then she’d be 60 now and probably a grandmother! How times change...)
‘Run Around’ is a second Balin-Kantner collaboration and the second song to be banned in its original form. In fact the two banned lines ‘you’re outtasite – walk with me and spend the night’ and the even more out there flower power line ‘we roll round the music, blinded by colours, come flashing from flowers that spray as you lay under me!’ are the best parts of the song as originally heard, wonderful poetic psychedelic images that when matched with music that seems to be building to a sudden emotional climax sounds fantastic now some 49 years on. At the time, though, this was a million miles past the point where the censors felt comfortable and daringness personified, even though they’re just two lines on a very simple and almost humble song that unlike everything else on this album seems to be almost begging us not to pay it attention. The change in lyrics (‘ you stay near me!’) is a fair compromise, keeping most of the hallucinogenic literature in a song that’s obviously another early songwriting effort, a mix of Dylan and Beatles that again crams far too many words into each verse. There are some other memorable lines too: the girl ‘running her hands round my brain’ (suggesting the ‘girl’ is actually a drug), the narrator needing ‘more of the times when you turned me round’ (hmm, could be either way but probably a drug) and the pair of lovers ‘dancing out into space’ (yep, definitely a drug then). Lyrically this is probably the most complex track on the album – but the music isn’t up to the same pioneering standard (perhaps in an effort to get it past the censors in the first place), with only Casady’s powerful and angry bass offers anything out of the ordinary here, acting as sort of growly counterpoint to all that fun and sunshine catching the ear. Still, this song is impressive for a band so young, even if it is harder to love than some of the others on this album. 
Next a cover of Dino Valenti’s ‘Let’s Get Together’, which must surely be the most copied inter-war song by the hippie crowd. A staggeringly ahead of its time song, the song seems to be advocating peace (likely) and free love (less so), with a call to arms to brotherhood and the idea that this generation just has to get it together and build a new world together. Interestingly David Crosby latched onto this song as early as 1964 – it can be heard on some of the many pre-Byrds recording collections – some two years before the flower power movement got into full swing. The band may well have learned it from Crosby, although it was doing the rounds of the folk clubs of LA in the early 60s a lot too. Jefferson Airplane’s cover version is sadly a little disappointing despite the song’s very natural sentiments, sounding like an uncomfortable mix of naive and knowing on the vocal front. Despite being bigger hippies than most musicians the Airplane nearly always had an ‘edge’ to them, a fiery temper that often flew at the mistakes of elder generations or the shortcomings of their own and ‘Let’s Get Together’ is probably the only Airplane track that doesn’t have any real edge to it at all (some Starship songs follow this pattern, but never the Airplane). Again, this is another song from the album that worked much better live (again, especially when Grace Slick comes out to play) and the band are clearly feeling their way round the studio, but it is saved by some nice harmonies (no one barring The Beach Boys, Hollies and Mamas and Papas were recording tricky complex harmonies like these back in 1966 and they remain quite staggering to listen to now) and another impressive Kaukonen guitar solo. Still, this is the track on the album that most fans tend to skip nowadays.
‘Don’t Slip Away’ is the third in the trilogy of retro rockers, this time from Balin and Skip Spence and unsurprisingly given the credits this is a song largely built on rhythm and some impressive chord changes that really have a swing to them. Marty can always be relied upon to write a deep but catchy set of lyrics, though, and this album features one of his best, with a rumination on how easily some things can fall out of our grasp even if we really want them. There are some classy lines here about how the narrator’s lover can ‘give more love than you’re showing’) which were unusual and ahead of their time, but the melody line does leave a little to be desires, seemingly always finding itself back at the same point no matter what direction the song launches itself in. Yet again, this song is transformed live when the song makes more out of its twin assets (Casady’s angry swarming bass, quite unlike anything any band had recorded up to that time) and Kaukonen’s angry bluesy riff) and sounds a little limp here, without the same powerhouse of noise as on some other tracks. An uncomfortable mix of thoughtful folk and all out rock, it is perhaps the least impressive group original on the record, if still away ahead of most things around at the time.
‘Chauffeur Blues’ is Signe Anderson’s pick of cover version for the album and her one unadulterated lead vocal for the band. It’s not up to anything Grace will do, but unlike some fans I’m impressed by this cover – probably the best of the three on the record. The sudden attack of soul, but sung by a white girl back in the days when only really Aretha Franklin and (at a pinch) Diana Ross had broken through in that genre, makes for a welcome change on the album and Signe was a good singer, even if she lets her ‘roots’ show more than Grace with her deep-throated cackle and vibrato-held notes. (Interestingly, I’ve just looked up research for another song and come across the fact the band chose this song from an album by Miriam Makeba, Paul Simon’s future collaborator on ‘Graceland’, a third singer I should have remembered to mention). Perhaps the biggest comparison is that Signe sounds like a talented teenager acting older than her years yet still learning her trade – whereas Grace is all woman and fully formed by the time she arrives in the band clutching ‘Somebody To Love’ under her arm. The band turn in another strong performance, especially Jack and Jorma who spark off each other really well on this recording, although whoever plays the tambourine (Marty?) needs to give it a rest (has there ever been a record with this much tambourine on it? Only The Monkees’ ‘Headquarters’ springs to mind). This song is pretty risqué for the day too, despite being a few years old by that time, with Signe’s narrator calling for a ‘man’ to ‘drive’ her places ‘where she wants to go’. Incidentally, I prefer the outtake of this track – included as a bonus track on the CD – to the finished version, as its slower bluesy tempo makes it sound much more thoughtful and puts more emphasis on Signe’s marvellous voice.
The album’s second side has been slowly falling apart, then, but ends on a high note with ‘And I Like It’, another of the Airplane’s early milestones with Marty on particularly great form. The song, by Balin and Kaukanen, starts as a slow and bluesy number with Marty’s narrator telling us how happy he is with his life the way it is before transforming into an angry urgent rocker that rejects in song everything that came before and how he identifies with everything ‘his’ generation are up to. The lines ‘this is my way, this is my life, this is my time, this is my dream’ may well be an update of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, here transmogrified so that it relates to all youngsters of every colour and gender who want peace. For all of its famous peace-and-flowers vibe, I’ve always been fascinated by how few genuinely hopeful hippie songs there are around: as far as I can tell in my circles there’s only The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’, The Dead’s ‘Golden Road’, The Small Faces’ ‘Itchycoo Park’ (actually a sarcastic spoof of psychedelia) and this track where you can actually listen and believe that peace is round the corner: that’s small fry compared to, say, ‘A Day In The Life’ ‘Strawberry Fields’ ‘I Am The Walrus’ ‘St Stephen’ ‘Somebody To Love’ ‘White Rabbit’ (etc – there’s many millions more) where the peace movement actually begins to sound like a battleground.
Even this song isn’t without its troubles and tribulations: there’s a terrific churning middle eight that’s the highlight of the song where the narrator ‘wakes up’ to find himself still stuck with the same ‘straights’ in charge, addressing his girl who seems to be having doubts about his lifestyle. In one amazing verse (‘Look around and tell me what you see, is it the same thing you want me to be? I’ve seen it happen so wrong before, please believe me when I say its a bore, I need more!’) Marty manages to challenge the way every generation past, damning the wars and ego-trips of past generations and saying that their restrictive lifestyle is not good enough for him or his brethren. The final repeat of the first verse sounds suddenly triumphant rather than merely hopeful, with Marty confident that these ‘dreams’ of his generation are too important to be side-tracked by money, wars, peer pressure and fashion – the kind of things that ruined all past attempts by the young to revolutionize society. The fact that time will sadly prove the band wrong on so many scores (Vietnam, Watergate and – yuk- glam rock) should in no way affect our view of this song, recorded back in a time when all things were possible. And you know what? I wouldn’t just have liked it, I’d have loved it. Again, the CD issue includes a slower alternate version of the song but this time it merely shows up the holes in the song, slowing down the pace to a crawl until the listener loses interest. Plus Marty isn’t anything like the magnetic presence he is on the finished version. Still, in either version, this is a towering song, no less than one of the greatest unsung songs of the psychedelic movement.
Overall, then, ‘Takes Off!’ is an inconsistent album, like many a debut album, one that reveals so many backward steps it makes the pioneering sounds at times on the album sounds even more staggering. But as the first bona fide San Franciscan hippie album, ‘Takes Off!’ is a milestone of popular musical culture and every so often, particularly on the first and last tracks, it lives up to that promise of changing the world and making it a better place. In between the churning rollercoaster of self-doubt of ‘Blues From An Airplane’ and the glorious optimism of ‘And I Like It’ the audience is taken on a trip like few other albums have ever taken us before and – if you came or are planning to come to these Airplane albums in order – then I promise your life will never be the same again. Few bands took on as many ‘bad guys’ wielding power as The Airplane – and continued the fight long after they become something of an institution (sure things go wrong in the Jefferson Starship and especially Starship years but they kept up the fight longer than most) and, mainly thanks to Marty Balin, few debut albums captivate as much as this one. I can see why ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ became the ‘hit’ album as it offers a much more palatable mixture of the old and new with two top ten hits to boot; I also know that this album will never replace ‘Baxters’ or ‘Blows Against The Empire’ in my affections because those two albums really do change the landscape irreparably after their release, no matter how few people actually bought them. But this is the first album, back when these ideas were new, never done by any San Franciscan band before, and there were record companies to fight and reputations to gain and followers to seek out in addition to changing the world. The fact that band got as far as they did with their master-plan first time round is, in hindsight, amazing. A wonderful, turbulent, truculent album longing for peace but unwilling to back down from confrontation, this album is where the hippie movement really ‘took off!’

“One sweet Lady has passed on,” Jefferson Airplane cofounder Marty Balin posted as the news broke. “I imagine that she and Paul woke up in heaven and said ‘Hey what are you doing here? Let’s start a band.'”
Anderson sang on the first Jefferson Airplane album, “Takes Off.” The album included her best-known song, “Chauffeur Blues.”
The singer, a new mother, found the road intolerable and decided to leave Jefferson Airplane in late 1966. Her final performances were at the Fillmore on Oct. 15 of that year. Grace Slick took over as female singer the following night. Anderson’s farewell gig was released to CD in 2010.
Anderson returned to Portland, Oregon, where she sang in the big band headed by Carl Smith. Anderson, a cancer survivor, also worked in a department store. She made occasional guest appearances with versions of the Jefferson Starship and with (Airplane spinoff) Hot Tuna.
Anderson credited the Airplane’s success with its members’ musical educations. “We all were very knowledgeable music-wise,” she told KGON radio in 2011. “We could all read music. We all knew the classics, we knew blues, we knew folk music — we had a lot of groundwork first.”
Airplane bassist Jack Casady wrote on Facebook that he’d been in touch with Anderson this past week when she moved from her home to a hospice. “She was a real sweetheart with a terrific contralto voice coming from a solid folk background,” he recalled. “Listen to how she made the three part harmonies of ‘JA Takes Off’ (first album) sound so thick … her wonderful tone between Paul’s and Marty’s.”

Airplane lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen wrote on his blog: “Signe was one of the strongest people I have ever met. She was our den mother in the early days of the Airplane … a voice of reason on more occasions than one … an important member of our dysfunctional little family.”

Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest sister…

Rest in Peace

Signe Toly Anderson
(September 15, 1941 - January 28, 2016)

Paul Kantner, Grace Slick & David Freiberg - 1973 - Baron Von Tollbooth & The Chrome Nun

Paul Kantner, Grace Slick & David Freiberg
Baron Von Tollbooth & The Chrome Nun

01. Ballad of the Chrome Nun
02. Fat
03. Flowers of the Night
04. Walkin'
05. Your Mind Has Left Your Body
06. Across the Board
07. Harp Tree Lament
08. White Boy (Transcaucasian Airmachine Blues)
09. Fishman
10. Sketches of China

Paul Kantner – vocals on all tracks except "Across the Board" and "Fishman", rhythm guitar on all tracks except "Across the Board" and "Fishman", glass harmonica on "Harp Tree Lament" and "White Boy"
Grace Slick – vocals, piano on all tracks except "Ballad of the Chrome Nun", "Flowers of the Night", and "Harp Tree Lament"
David Freiberg – vocals on all tracks except "Across the Board" and "Fishman", piano on "Ballad of the Chrome Nun", "Harp Tree Lament", keyboards on all other tracks except "Walkin'" and "Fishman"
John Barbata – drums, percussion
Chris Ethridge – bass on all tracks except "Your Mind Has Left Your Body", "White Boy", and "Fishman"
Jerry Garcia – guitar on all tracks except "Flowers of the Night", "Your Mind Has Left Your Body", and "Harp Tree Lament", steel guitar on "Ballad of the Chrome Nun" and "Your Mind Has Left Your Body", banjo on "Walkin'"
Craig Chaquico – lead guitar on "Ballad of the Chrome Nun", "Flowers of the Night", and "Fishman"
David Crosby – vocals on "The Ballad of the Chrome Nun"
Jack Traylor – acoustic guitar on "Flowers of the Night", vocals on "Flowers of the Night", "White Boy", and "Sketches of China"
Jack Casady – bass on "Your Mind Has Left Your Body", "White Boy", and "Fishman"
The Pointer Sisters – vocals on "Fat"
Papa John Creach – electric violin on "Walkin'"
Mickey Hart – gongs on "Your Mind Has Left Your Body" and "Sketches of China", water phones on "Your Mind Has Left Your Body"
Jorma Kaukonen – lead guitar on "Your Mind Has Left Your Body"

'Oh the baron and the nun and the gardener should be friends. Oh the baron and the nun and the gardener should be friends. One likes to act militarily, one likes to pray with me, the other likes to plant a tree, and all of them believe that's the way to be free, so there's no reason why we can't all be friends.'

Not for the first or last time on this site, you can blame David Crosby. All anybody ever seems to want to know about this third spin-off joint project from the Jefferson Airplane/Starship members made in-between bands is how it got its name. Crosby liked giving his friends nicknames (Stills was 'Captain Manyhands' and Nash 'Willie', while Young was called lots of things, not many of them to his face) and Paul and Grace were two of his closest and dearest friends. So let's get this out the way first: Paul is 'Baron Von Tollbooth', Crosby jovially mocking his alleged 'German' ancestry and regimented, occasionally uptight smile (in a previous life where hippies didn't exist Kantner might have made a fine military leader, albeit only if he believed in the right of the cause - which given the stupid reasons most of our wars have been fought in historical memory means he probably wouldn't). While Grace is the 'Chrome Nun' - streamlined, focussed, dedicated (in a previous life where belief was the norm Grace would have made a fine Christian figure, though probably something less chaste than a nun - think Boadicea on acid). As for poor David Freiberg, the third named-member of the party, he's such a new boy he doesn't even get a nickname, which is a great shame and rather sets the tone for the way the fine singer/bassist/keyboardist from Quicksilver Messenger Service will be treated throughout his bumpy thirteen year ride with the Jeffersons. He deserves a nickname of his own, though, so how about 'Mr Topiary' (a reference not just to his impressively thick crop of hair - which he still has to this day - but to the fact that both of his 'contributions' to this album concern gardening). So here we have the nun, the baron and the gardener - what could these three possibly have in common? (And what could possibly go wrong?!)

'Lots' is the answer (to both questions). There are songs here about nurturing and growing, songs about keeping the faith that something will work out for the best and an awful lot of people put in front of the firing range. Like many of the Jefferson family albums, this album's overall theme is of searching for peace everywhere - and finding that ultimately peace might only come the hard way. The final part of  the Jefferson mid-trilogy (for Paul and Grace anyway) is in fact, much as you'd expect: a continuation of 'Blows Against The Empire's daring science-fiction epic assault on the powers that be and 'Sunfighter's worry about what kind of world the present is to bring up a baby (some think of these albums as a quartet rather than a trilogy, with Grace's Paul -and-David produced solo album 'Manhole' coming last). Both albums ought to be diametrically opposed (one is fiction and one is fact, after all) but as we've seen already on this site the pair of them fit together pretty neatly as both are really tied up in the present: where America is going, where it went wrong at the end of the 1960s and how the flame for peace and quality needs to be carried (yet again, by force if necessary). In some ways 'Tollbooth' is the 'past' to Blows' 'future' and Sunfighter's 'present', concerned less with what the world might be like in the future or the cross-roads of all the different ways it might follows than in the 'seeds' that can be grown now into something great in the future - and those that were already planted in the past.

However there is something very definite 'missing' from this album: the confidence that one day in the future all will be well, if only we can survive the present. By 1973 holding a world together was looking a bit dodgy seeing as Jefferson Airplane couldn't even make an album together anymore (although both Jack and Jorma both bring their characteristic 'rumble' to 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body') and for all the band's many and vocal followers (and those of bands like them) they weren't numbering enough to vote Nixon out of office, stop the Vietnam war or turn the world into one glorious hippiefest. And while we cover many other bands who had the same dream, the Jeffersons were the ones who sang, rallied and spoke about this movement the most. By 1973 a dream that was looking increasingly desperate album by album is officially no more (Nixon's re-election in 1972 was a sign for many that the 'dream' was well and truly over). Peace, love and particularly flowers are key themes across this record still, but there's no rallying cries of 'gotta revolution!', no songs about uniting together and certainly no utopian futures. Despite what the uniquely OTT cover art that depicts Grace, Paul and David as near Gods presiding over a tiny Earth might tell you (Jefferson covers tend to be either quirky, personal or muted - this self-aggrandising one by artist Drew Sturzan - better known for his film poster work, including the first Star Wars film - comes way out of left field) this album is actual quite small and constrained, with the topics that once covered the whole universe and more restricted largely to what the songwriters see around them (even 'China', a song about a country in the future, was written due to naming their child 'Chynna'). David's contributions are a little different for now, but Paul and Grace aren't trying to change the world here - they're simply trying to save themselves.

While both previous albums had melancholy twinges, they are both largely upbeat albums, where the hippies hijack a starship and find a peaceful utopia or where the pair's newborn baby at least has the chance of growing up without the oppression her parents faced in the 1940s and 1950s. By comparison 'Tollbooth' seems rather more mournful, a 'goodbye' rather than a 'hello', with several sad slow ballads that become increasingly desperate to make the 'hippie dream' of peace and quality a reality. The overall 'sound' of this album is one long drawn out wailing unchanging note: ironically the same sound that used to signify excitement and newness (in Kantner's wonderfully inventive Airplane song 'The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil') now represents a stark, never-changing 'empire' that will never change. It recurs again and again across this album, usually on guitar (Paul) but sometimes by piano (Grace), Organ (David) or pedal steel (a guesting Jerry Garcia), occasionally via sound effect/backwards guitar loop (probably Paul again). This gives the album the feeling of running in slow motion, of a slowly unfolding text that's set in motion so firmly it cannot be changed (only the two Grace Slick songs that open each side back in the days of vinyl are anywhere near 'loud' or 'rock' and even the second of these contains a single organ note more or less throughout).Notably the album ends not with another song about 'holding together' or peace and love but with a fatalistic piece about the strength about another culture altogether ('Sketches Of China'...'Somebody's bound to lead you, sooner or later you're bound to go'). A less narrow-minded and two-faced world power than America had been recently, sure, but far from the utopia of previous Jefferson compositions. Paul and Grace (and David to a lesser extent) aren't quite as sure in the 'dream' anymore but aren't yet as 'unsure' as on the more prog rocky early 'Starship' years (which become increasingly more about myths and legends that concrete changes until Marty and Grace leave and they re-invent themselves as a punk band asking the same questions of society in 1979). That makes for an interesting comparison with the next Jefferson album (passing over 'Manhole' for the moment) 'Dragonfly'. The most upbeat, determined and 'see? We told you so' album of the Jefferson's entire career the main difference between the two is the date: in 1973 Nixon was a re-elected hero of the conservative elders; by 1974 and Watergate he's a disgraced crook that even his biggest supporters feel betrayed by. What a difference a year makes, eh?

Grace is having a particular strong 1973 - so much so that she'll have another album (a solo- well so the credits say, 'Manhole' is really just another Grace/Paul/David record on which her Slickness doesn't even appear on the final track!) out just eight months later. The birth of China and motherhood has really inspired her (just as the pregnancy seemed to inspire Paul) and far from soften her she turns in some of her most direct, angry songs across this album (for pretty much the last time - her songs will gradually get gentler during the Starship years). All of her favourite targets are here: Christianity ('The Ballad Of The Chrome Nun'), sex ('Across The Board'), people who have to be the same ('Fishman') and the rich and powerful who abuse that power in the name of greed ('Fat'). All that's missing from that little list is 'drugs' (and that's been covered quite nicely by Paul on 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body'). Like 'Sunfighter' though, these targets sound 'real' and heartfelt, rather than detached philosophical debates (as per 'Long John Silver') and 'Across The Board' in particular is one of her best songs, a sequel of sorts to 'Silver Spoon' in which she turns taunting into an art form. Paul has less to do and his three solo songs for the album come at a similarly languid, slow motion pace - always a favourite writing style of his but particularly notable here without any 'Mau Mau (Amerikon)'s or 'Sunfighter's to break up the tempo). None of them are among Paul's best (he seems to be going through a bit of writer's block across 1972-75), but all are quite beautiful and 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body' in particular is often hailed as one of the key songs of the San Franciscan songwriter era (after all it has hallucinatory lyrics, feedback, pedal steel and harmonies: what's not to love?) As for David, his lovely but less immediate songs get a little overshadowed but he deserves his co-billing, acting as a supportive 'number two' throughout. The shame is that instead of a 'stepping stone' to a greater role in the Jefferson family in Starship this is one of only two real albums where he gets a chance to shine (the other is 'Dragonfly'). David's songs on that album are better, but all of them suggest an overlooked talent.

This final part of the trilogy is a little more 'normal' compared to the other two (well, normal in the sense that we only leave our bodies and go to China on this album, rather than a million miles and a million years into the future as per 'Blows' or back on board the 'Titanic' watching disaster after disaster unfold as on the latter). It's more what a 'normal' Jefferson Airplane or Starship album would have sounded like with half the group missing rather than a 'themed' album as per the others. For the same reasons many would say it's not as good - and it's true that there aren't quite as many un-missable songs as per the earlier two albums. 'Baron Von Tollbooth' and his partners always seem to get short shrift from fans for some reason, perhaps because its surrounded by the final days of the Airplane on the one hand (the very final record, a live one - 'Thirty Seconds To Winterland'  - came out pretty much simultaneously with this record and also features Freiberg as special guest) and overshadowed y 'Dragonfly', the Starship's first, on the other. Many reviewers dismiss it as featuring merely the leftovers from this 'interim' period that weren't good enough to be used on a 'band' record. However that would do this fine, comparatively understated record a huge disservice: the band may be dancing slower, with slightly less fire and rage, but in doing so we can see them dance so much better.

I use the term 'dancing' because that and the idea of being in and out of step with the world around us is the closest this album comes to a 'theme'. 'Fishman' has the passionate chorus that 'we both dance laying down' (Grace admits in her autobiography 'Someone To Love?' that she and Paul were both awkward on their feet but discovered by 'chance' that they're actually pretty good when they're not having to support the top half of their bodies; of course this being a Grace Slick song its probably also about sex). Throughout this album people are trying to get 'in synch' with either other people or their planet, desperately trying to get in step only to find that the others (or maybe a goal they wanted) is now out of reach. 'Chrome Nun' is the latest Grace song to attack the Christian church (following on from her barbs on the Airplane's 'Long John Silver') for being ever more out of touch with the real world, mainly because people aren't taught what to think anymore. 'Fat' is about people who go too far down on route in life, getting 'fat' from too much of something (although Grace was always careful to point out that she didn't just mean food). The singers' latest Jack Traylor cover (an old friend from their early days) 'Flowers Of The Night' tells a historical tale of a down-trodden mass of peasants rising against their cruel ruler against all the odds - clearly someone else out of synch with the mood of his people. 'Walkin' is about a slower form of dancing, saluting all the lovely people met 'on the road to glory' - the one song on this album where everything seems to be working. 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body' is a meditation-with-feedback about trying to get mind and body back together once again, with Kantner's spirit floating somewhere 'over the polar ice cap' without getting cold. 'Across The Board' contains that great opening line 'Someone aimed you when you were young - but no one ever fired', with a song about taking the wrong turning literally having the person in the song in the wrong place (although, again, Grace is also singing about sex). 'Harp Tree Lament' is a rare collaboration between Freiberg and Jerry Garcia's usual writing partner Bob Hunter and is about small acorns from the past growing to big trees in the present. 'White Boy (Transcaucasian Airmahcine Blues') wonders where the white man came from and why traditionally he became so aggressive to others from different races (is it because he had no home of his own? Or is he just 'out of step' with everyone else?) Finally 'Sketches Of China' is a vision of a future based on the past repeating itself (very like The Who on 'Rael' on 'The Who Sellout'),  exploring Paul and Grace's fascination with the country that in 1973 seemed to be the one best placed to take over America's crown as the world's leader (they named their daughter 'Chynna' in part in case the United States were ever 'taken over' in the future 'and they'd assume she was one of theirs'). Why do certain countries rule in different eras? (The Greeks, The Romans, the British Empire, etc). Is it just that it was meant to be or that one particular place is suited to answering the needs of the world most at that point in time?

A quick word now about the guest stars. 'Tollbooth' has less than Empire, certainly, but a lot more than 'Sunfighter'. David Crosby didn't just come up with the title but sings harmonies on the first and last tracks during what was, by CSN standards, rather a 'nothing' year. Jerry Garcia appears too, often and variedly, playing 'normal' guitar, banjo and pedal steel. His fellow Dead member Mickey Hart plays 'gong' on 'Sketches Of China' and 'water phones' on 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body'. This time there's no other Dead musicians and no Graham Nash, but in many ways this is the last hurrah for the 'Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra' (the ad hoc collection of players from the Jefferson, CSNY and Dead families who play on each other's albums repeatedly between 1970 and 1973). From hereon in each band will go their separate ways - to the detriment of all of them, quite honestly. There's also some bass work from Chris Etheridge, at the time a member of Byrds spin-off 'The Flying Burrito Brothers'. As well as the 'past' though this album also features the 'future', with a fourth future member of Jefferson Starship - Craig Chaquico - now all of 17 years old after his first appearance on 'Sunfighter' and playing some of the solos of his life on 'Chrome Nun' 'Flowers' and especially 'Fishman'. There's also drummer Johnny Barbata (who joined in the dying days of the Airplane and will go on to cruise in the Starship until 1976) and violinist Papa John Creach (actually a member of Airplane spin-off band Hot Tuna first but a 'full' member for their last two albums and a 'Starshipper' until 1975). The only members of Starship not here yet are singer Marty Balin (still on his sabbatical from the Jefferson family) and bassist/keyboardist Pete Sears. Both will be in place by the time of the Starship's big launch the following year on 'Dragonfly'.

In all, then, 'Tollbooth' isn't a 'great' album in the same way that both 'Blows' and 'Sunfighter' and for that matter 'Dragonfly' is. The overall 'message' we've come to expect from the Jeffersons isn't as fully formed and there's a lot of filler alongside the major album highlights ('Walkin' is cute but it's hardly a prime cut; 'Fishman' is a one-note in-joke with good production skills; 'White Boy' is Kantner on auto-pilot; 'Harp Tree Lament' is lovely but deeply out of touch with the Jefferson sound). In short, you can see why this album got 'forgotten' compared to those around it and it's comparatively poor chart performance (#120) for an era when the band were relatively hot suggests that utopian San Franciscan solo releases were - to hark back to what we were saying earlier - out of synch. Because of all the above I really didn't expect much from this album when I came to it fairly late on in my record collecting journey by Airplane and Starship - and yet I was pleasantly surprised. 'Chrome Nun' and 'Fat' have a lyrical barb that only Grace can pull off, 'Flowers Of The Night' continues the strand of fine Jack Traylor ecological protest covers, 'Harp Tree Lament' might sound odd but Bob Hunter's poetry and David Frieberg's folk lilt melody makes for a fine match and 'Sketches Of China'  has more interesting ideas packed into it than most whole albums from the same era. Best of all, both 'Across The Board' and 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body' are prime Slick and Kantner respectively, as taut as a whip or as relaxed as a beach holiday; both of them masterpieces that are the equal of anything the writers had done or will gone to do. There is much to love about 'Tollbooth' and even if ultimately it isn't quite up to the standard of the other albums around it, the record still scores a very creditable A- with a highly pleasing mix of nurturing, faith and discipline. The Baron, The Nun and the Gardener should all feel very proud.

'The Ballad Of The Chrome Nun' is a one-off collaboration between Grace (lyrics) and David (music) and it's a shame they didn't write more songs together because they clearly have a 'feel' for each other's week. Grace's lyrics mocking religion are as strident and merciless as any on Airplane album 'Long John Silver', but David's more upbeat music softens the blow without taking out any of the bite away. Grace's latest character is being made to feel guilty, seeing the devil when they look in the mirror and Grace's 'now hold it!' interruption (that you are indeed odd looking but not as 'odd' as the 'God' whose making you feel guilty) is hilarious for anyone who doesn't necessarily believe in every word in the Christian church. Grace's latest sentiment is that religion doesn't need to exist anymore: that she feels the same 'community' service once restricted to church every time she laughs with her friends and associates and ends with her character 'falling flat on her face' as she tries to fall to her knees and prey. While religion is kind of easy pickings now in song, it was still a relatively rare subject to tackle in 1973 and anyone (me included) whose been through the brainwashing Christian education system will be cheering 'right on!' somewhere around the chorus. Grace's take has always been that people's responsibility have only ever been to themselves and others, not powerful institutions and by concentrating on the individual rather than the system (as she did on her earlier 'Easter') she comes up with easily the most successful of her series of songs attacking religion. While few church-goers probably agree with the lightly blasphemous  line 'cross my forehead, cross my knees' this song's message of each person being responsible for their own actions would probably find even a church-goers nodding their heads anyway. David Freiberg's restless, urgent melody is a good one too keeping the song bouncy and light on its feet and inspiring some lovely 'ba ba be dah's from a guesting David Crosby, turning this song into more of a celebration of the character's 'release' from the guilt of the Christian church rather than a song about its oppressive tentacles.

Grace's 'Fat' is a much quieter, reflective song that will become the template for much of her 'Starship' songs to come: a mid-paced piano ballad mixed strangely so that we rather strain to hear what she's singing. That's a shame because it's the lyrics rather than the tune on this one that stick in the memory, apparently a song about a character so fat they can't fit through doors anymore and who keeps rolling out of bed. Grace has always been keen to point out that this song is about so much more than just 'body fat' however: it's really a song about excess in all forms, of people who have had so much of the things they love in life that it's beginning to interfere with their daily life. You wonder what inspired Grace to write this song, which is noticeably much kinder that most of her songs (Grace, of course, who so often writes about herself is stick thin even now). Perhaps she's actually talking about the fading 'hippie dream' and the fact that six years on from the summer of love most hippies were caring more about feeling good than making the world feel good: that would fit with this album's general tones of shoulder-shrugging and the sudden unexpected appearance of The Pointer Sisters (fresh from releasing their first album in 1972) does make this one sound like some sort of communal song. Alas while most of Grace's songs are so crystal clear you can understand every sentence, this one is a bit vague and the melody tends to gently twitch a bit from time to time instead of being beautiful or rounded.

Band friend Jack Traylor sings lead on his own song 'Flowers Of The Night' , a sequel of sorts to 'Earth Mother' from 'Sunfighter'. Like a lot of this album this follow-up isn't quite as special or well thought out but it's still a good song and very Jeffersony, reflecting on how change may seem slow but will come and that 'seeds' planted by one generation often don't sporut till the next (Paul and Grace may have been thinking of now-toddler Chynna when they picked this song). 'After all, it's happened before' is the message of this song, with references to 'Paine' (Presumably Thomas Paine, a key writer in the early days of the American Revolution), 'Pierce' (possibly the Governor of Oregon who in 1925 fought a decision to force compulsory religion on every child at school in his state, oblivious of background), 'Robespierre' (definitely the French Revolution figure who gave an often illiterate mob a 'voice'), 'Juarez' (the former president of Mexico who booted out the French), 'Danton' (another key French Revolutionary who pushed to overthrow an outdated monarchy), Luther King (civil rights leader and legend, assassinated in 1968) and most interestingly of all, Patrick 'Lumumba', the first democratically elected leader of the Congo who was executed in 1961). The rest of the lyric then goes onto jumble up time and see all revolutions as one and the same, overthrowing pockets of the same strict authoritarians who don't have the lives of their people at heart, arguing that even if the rebels were put down heavily in full view there's still no stopping truth and right: that 'plants that cannot bloom by day must flower in the night'. A fittingly turbulent and angular melody makes this song seems like a struggle, punctuated by moments of pure magic and hope (Paul and Grace's often wordless harmonies simply rise up to the sun at the end of every verse). The musical backing is interesting too, with an exotic mellotron part unusual for the Jeffersons fleetingly passing through the song like the 'winds of change' flying in the face of the rather bass-heavy backing track and an exquisite guitar solo from young Craig Chaquico that's one of his best and positively electrifying. Only the lack of a chorus drops this song a couple of points compared to Traylor's 'Earth Mother', but it's still a fine song wonderfully performed.

'Walkin' is a bit ordinary, though, by Jefferson standards with Slick's lyrics and Kantner's music surprisingly awkward bedfellows. The pair have gone off for a 'walk' through their neighbourhood, which serves as a metaphor for the 'long road to freedom' for the San Franciscan community. There's a slightly strained chorus that warns of danger ('I'm going down and if I don't come back, tie all my dope on a wire wheel track') but the overall feeling is one of happiness and joy - with the feeling that while the hippie philosophy hasn't quite haven't quite worked out as quickly as they'd planned, 'the dance' is still the best place in the world to be! Fittingly for a song about community spirit there's a real mix of friends old and new on the backing track, with Jerry Garcia making a rare appearance on banjo, Papa John Creach soaring away on his fiddle and new boy Johnny Barbata at last getting a chance to show off his laidback rock shuffle drum style. The result is fun, but lacks the depth of the other songs on this album with a 'wo-wah-a-a-oh' chorus more like something Harry Belafonte would write and seems very out of keeping with Paul and Grace's usual style.

'Your Mind Has Left Your Body' is either everything that's right or everything that's wrong about the Jefferson sound. It's slow to the point of putting you asleep, has lyrics best described as 'of their time' talking about astral projection and a backing track made up from the unique combination of feedback (Jorma), pedal steel (Jerry) and drums (Johnny). While this sound is in danger of making the rest of the album seem rather passionless, simply drifting away on a sea of production values, it works well on this track; perhaps Katner's ultimate hippie song taking in everything from the afterlife to multi-layered consciousness to mankind's creation. In the right mood this Paul Kantner epic shimmers with a real beauty, slowly unfolding through a memorable melody that in the hands of another writer would have been speeded up five-fold and turned into a top ten hit. The lyrics aren't just about going on a bit of a journey without your body too but what this ability implies: that time is a structure that works outside the way mankind experiences it, that 'if you can fasten on that moment and expand through the afterglow, you can reverse your mind in time and travel back to where the Earth was formed. Considering that this song is so slow and contains such few words it covers an awful lot of ground, with the implication that there's yet more to find 'another day, beyond you'. One of the closest musical experiences you can have to a real drug trip, 'Body' is an extraordinary track, one that defies most logical song constructions to work to an internal logic all of its own.

'Across The Board' is the album's other brilliant song, a spiky piercing Grace Slick rocker that finds the narrator haranguing some poor person (possibly Grace herself) for not doing enough and being helpless. The first two verses are all about that American dream again, that after 'pointing in the right direction' no one ever lit the fuse to let the 'gun' go off and now the movement (or at least this member of it) is getting 'old and tired'. Somewhere along the way, though, this second verse changes gears and ends up as a feminist anthem, bemoaning the old 'can't live with them, can't live without them' adage. Even by the standards of Grace's earlier risque 'Milk Train' this is pretty daring stuff for the day ('You can't cock yourself woman!...Man's only got one finger, he don't need anymore') and together with Grace's piercing full-throated war cry sounds deeply threatening. Throughout the song comes the metaphor of being 'across the board' from where the action's happening, both sexual and political, with Grace lonely on the other side trying to nag, cajole and force 'him' towards her: her scream on the words 'all the way' at the end of every verse, navigating what's really quite a difficult middle section full of twists and turns, is brilliantly exciting and Grace is rarely in better voice (although in a couple of places she stops short and messes up her words, suggesting this is a 'rehearsal' take the musicians built around, figuring it too good to waste). The song has a real swing in its step which really makes it stand out in the context of what is quite a sleepy album and keeps jumping from simple to compound time and back again, making it sound ever more dramatic and thrilling as Grace hits louder and louder notes. Reduced to the bare bones of Grace's piano, David's mellotron, Chris' bass and Johnny's drums plus a simple Jerry Garcia guitar solo near the end (Paul is absent yet again on this session) the ad hoc backing band cope very well with what sounds like a live take and  leads into a terrifically fiery jamming session at the end of the song (Etheridge rounding the song off with a fun 'comedy' riff as the song slowly falls apart). Easily the album highlight and one of Grace's greatest songs of all, 'Across The Board' was incredibly brave for 1973 and still sounds remarkable now, but has a great song behind all that shock value too.

David Freiberg and Bob Hunter's pretty 'Harp Tree Lament' is a soothing balm and while it doesn't fit in with the rest of the album it's still an enjoyable track. As any Grateful Dead fans will know, Bob Hunter's natural tendency as a lyric writer is to turn to the Bible or some older work and try to show the similarities between then and now. That should be highly fitting for an album all about the 'seeds' of an era blossoming later, but a combination of David's unorthodox lead vocals (he has a voice with a similar pitch to Paul's but quite a different 'feel') and the highly lyrical tone of the song (like many a Hunter song there's an awful lot of words, which works on albums full of songs with lots of words but not as a one-off) makes it seem rather off on its own. The general tone, that 'there is time to deliver' also seems to fly in the face of the urgency of a song like 'Across The Board', but is part of a typically clever and engaging Hunter lyric about mankind overcoming all obstacles despite the odds and would have fitted well on the Dead album of 1973 'Wake Of The Flood' ('Raise up your bottles and drink up the blood, you planted the vine here in spite of the flood'). Later verses have the land of 'Harp Trees' as a magical land halfway between life and death ('His time is not ready but he's still turning old'), watching the 'seeds' planted earlier springing up from a distance. The song ends by paraphrasing nursery rhyme 'Oranges and Lemons', another song of revolution (the French this time) and the mixture of 'lights' showing the way and threats to the perpetrators of injustice: 'Here's one for the candle that lights you to bed, and one for the sword that hangs over your head'. Hunter's songs have such a strong internal rhythm they must be hell to set music to (I don't know how Jerry Garcia did it!) and while Freiberg's music is fitting, with a particularly nice chorus, you get the sense that this tune would be forgettable without the lyric to sing along to. Still, it's a shame the pair never wrote together again because they're certainly sympathetic to each other. Hunter seems rather proud of the song too, adding the lyric to his compendium 'Box Of Rain' and reflecting that 'this song appeared on a fine but overlooked pre-Starship album' and that 'the title is taken from a piobaireachd for Highland Pipe' (i.e. a Scottish song composed for bagpipes, not that there are any on this performance). So now you know.

'White Boy (Transcaucasian Airmachine Blues)' is a second slow-burning Kantner epic trying to trace back the journey of his white ancestors to the beginnings of time. The strange thing is, nobody really knows where the 'white' men lived: every other 'tribe' can be traced back somewhere (America, India, Africa, Australia) but Europeans just kind of appeared in the 'Caucasian mountains of Russia'. Surprisingly given Kantner's known love of sci-fi (see 'Blows') and the rise of writers like Erich Von Danikyn in the early 1970s Paul never actually comes out and says what we're all thinking (aliens who don't belong on the Earth and tried to colonise it for those reasons) which might have made for a more interesting song. Instead we get a short history lesson from then to now which, in true Kantner form, comes out in the form of a list rather than a lyric ('You made mountains for the Incas, built pyramid for Pharoah man'), but does contain a few nuggets that sum up mankind's precarious existence since tribes began to discover each other ('You build and you burn, create then destroy'). The music is excellent though, made up of more mellotron and Jack Casady's ever fat and full bass and unwinding so slowly it's as if we're hearing several millennia of human civilisation unfold in real time. The song also ends ominously with the white people finally being 'sent away' (is this where the start of 'Blows' kicks in?!) - another brave statement to make in 1973 in the context of race riots and freedom, with Kantner basically saying his own 'race' is in the wrong. Like many Jefferson songs, fans will love it and outsiders will shake their heads and wonder at how the band got away with a song that doesn't really have a melody and such controversial lyrics. We all know better though don't we?!

'Fishman' is a short and peculiar Grace Slick in-joke, based around her 'discovery' that while she and Paul felt un-cordinated and clumsy on their feet they were both pretty good at 'dancing lying down'. As for the 'Fishman', it seems as if this song is yet more wordplay based around the idea of mankind being 'in' or 'out' of synch with his surroundings: that, going back to the last song (and again referring to past history) man and water were 'at one' and the hybrid fish-man we evolved was mega-coordinated and could really shake some moves; however the further we get away from our ancestor on the evolutionary scale the more 'out of synch' with nature we become. This being Grace of the early 70s there's also yet more risque references, that 'I was making love to a fishman, swim over my body with the sea in his hands' (put something in your tea, Grace, or take a cold shower!) before the declaration 'fishman, I love you'. Whilst the backing is slightly more 'normal' than usual (drums, piano, bass, several guitars) the sheer weirdness of the lyrics still make this one of the stranger songs on the album, even if the mesh of guitars do a good job at making the second half of the song sound as if its slowly sinking under water.

The album then closes with 'Sketches Of China', a final epic Kantner song (with some lyrics from Slick) that is once again set in the dim and distant past. In keeping with the lyrics of 'White Boy' the saviour is born, not a European as is so usually the case but in China, 'carrying strife and harmony to all the people on the mainland'. He's then joined by a warlord (boo!) and a pretty lady (yay!) before the lyrics become more and more surreal (were there a few verses cut from the final version?) and everyone ends 'drunk in a beautiful garden celebration'. You wonder quite what Kantner meant by this pretty but pretty strange song: is this another song about ancient lands rising again in the present day (China was quickly catching America up as a world power in the 70s - hence, partly, baby Chynna's name)? Is this a tale of war and conquest that proves man are the same all over at all times and needs to change now? Is the mysterious 'oriental lady' who stops a war through a night of sex with a war lord proof that love can conquer war? And what of that oft-repeated chorus ('It ain't what you want, it's what you need', a kind of American reinvention of the Rolling Stones' 'You Can't Always Get What You Want'): is greed simply a substitute for love? Usually Jefferson-family songs excel by offering up questions and not answers, but like the similar 'Rael' by The Who (a rock opera about Israel in the past and future cut down to six minutes and turned intelligible along the way) this seems like a trailer for a later full album that never came rather than a song in it's own right.

Overall, then, 'Baron Von Tollbooth' and his family are hard people to get to know. Sure the album is clearly about a time now over 40 years in the past and many of the references here were made for an audience that would 'know' a lot of this stuff without having to look it up (when revolution is in the air, revolutionaries' names are often dropped  in conversation) but I'm used to putting myself back a little in the past to hear Jefferson-family albums; there's something more than that going on with this album, which seems like a concept album about the past turning into the future and building on the seeds of before that keeps getting 'distracted' with songs about sex, religion and greed. I've played this album many times down the years and yet I've never felt like I've ever really got to 'know' it the same way I did with predecessors 'Blows' and 'Sunfighter'. However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't spend time with the baron, the nun and the gardener: even by the Jefferson's high standards in this era this is a fine LP, full of nuances, big questions and some great ensemble performance pieces that make it one of the most undeservedly overlooked albums in their canon. And to some extent much of its promise came true: it's fitting, somehow, that an album about seeds today becoming trees tomorrow should be the album that seems to be the 'birth' of Jefferson Starship (with only Chris Etheridge going back to his old band in favour of Pete Sears), a band which - at first anyway - build on the best of this album and go even further, with debut record 'Dragonfly' featuring all the grace and beauty of this album but with the knowledge that Starship are once again 'in synch' with their audience and country. Even out of step, however, 'Tollbooth' and friends and mighty fine company.

Paul Kantner & Grace Slick - 1971 - Sunfighter

Paul Kantner & Grace Slick

01. Silver Spoon 5:40
02. Diana 0:52
03. Sunfighter 3:50
04. Titanic 2:25
05. Look at the Wood 2:08
06. When I Was a Boy I Watched the Wolves 4:59
07. Million 4:02
08. China 3:17
09. Earth Mother 3:16
10. Diana 2 1:01
11. Universal Copernican Mumbles 2:06
12. Holding Together 7:40

Paul Kantner – vocals, rhythm guitar
Grace Slick – vocals, piano
Jack Traylor – guitar and vocals on Earth Mother
Jerry Garcia – guitar on When I Was a Boy I Watched the Wolves, Million and Holding Together
Papa John Creach – electric violin on Silver Spoon and Earth Mother
Craig Chaquico – lead guitar on Earth Mother
Bill Laudner – vocals on Million
Jack Casady – bass on Silver Spoon and China
Spencer Dryden – drums on Earth Mother
David Crosby – vocals on Look at the Wood, When I Was a Boy I Watched the Wolves and Diana 2, tambourine on Look at the Wood
Jorma Kaukonen – lead guitar on Look at the Wood
Graham Nash – Arp on Look at the Wood, vocals on When I Was a Boy I Watched the Wolves and Diana 2
Chris Wing – drums on China
Pat Gleeson – moog and piano on Universal Copernican Mumbles
John Vierra – synthesizer and keyboards on Universal Copernican Mumbles
Phill Sawyer – sound effects on Titanic
Peter Kaukonen – guitar on Sunfighter, mandolin on When I Was a Boy I Watched the Wolves
Shelley Silverman – drums on When I Was a Boy I Watched the Wolves
Joey Covington – drums on Silver Spoon, Sunfighter, China and Holding Together
The Edwin Hawkins Singers – vocals on Sunfighter
Steven Schuster – flute on Silver Spoon and Sunfighter, saxophone on Sunfighter and China, horn arrangements on Sunfighter and China
Tower of Power (Greg Adams, Mic Gillette) – horns on Sunfighter and China

“Throw down all your silver spoons, eat all of the raw meat with your hands, pick it up piece by piece, where are the bodies for dinner? I want more food!” “So long all day sucker, your candy has come and gone and left you with your mouth wide open, humming cannibal songs” “How do you feel to shoot down your brother now? And bury us in cages of cement and steel? What do you see when you look at one another now? What do you see? Tell me, what do you feel?” “Sing a song for the children that are gone, sing a song for Diana, huntress of the moon and lady of the Earth, weather woman Diana” “We found a place on the land where we can lay down and watch the ocean roll, and we walk in the sand my lady and me, and we watch and see the child grow” “Sub carbon oscillation, sunshine blurring fascination, pulsar craft moving fast, gonna take me past the hand of man to you” “Look at the wood and the way he carved it, must have taken him years, I asked him the price and he said it was free, I couldn’t believe my ears!” “No eyes shine on the mind protected, no light shines on the fang neglected, run with the wolfpack! Get down,! Be bright! Go back! Run with the wolfpack!” “When I was young and low out here in San Francisco I could count on the fire of my friends, now I can carry a few and I do when I can, we get by however we can” “I suppose you could yell at your dog, make him bark in his face right back at you, imagine you calling yourself big fang, observing you run with the pack” “Can you remember how to dance? And get along with all of us for all of our lives?” “I hope she sees some things that’ll make her life happy, it all comes in so fast, it all comes in” “I see in her new face a clear beginning, she knows who she is without looking, she says it out happy when the feeling is there, she’s an all new person who says just what she feels, she’s a fat faced goddess of nowhere” “Once the Earth was a garden, it gave us all we need, then it grew so barren, all because of greed” “Your children are your salvation, they see your life as your own, they recognize no nation, they dance around your throne” “I am night, I am day, and we’ll help you find the way, if you help us find the way to your heart, shining citadel, parallel in time, we can find the way to you, to your heart”
Paul Kantner and Grace Slick “Sunfighter” (1971)

Having a family can do funny things to musicians! That sudden need for stability – so different to the usual rock and roll rollercoaster circus, the ability to see life afresh through new eyes, the idea that your child is in some way ‘re-living’ your life and fear of what the future might bring for your offspring. Imagined what it must be like if both of you are musicians – and that both of you are in the same band. Grace Slick started off her career in Jefferson Airplane by sleeping with everyone but the lead singer, but she always had a special bond with rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner and the pair were inevitably going to fall for each other big time. Outspoken and committed to the counter-culture, both seemed to be coming to the destination of peace and counter-culture dynamism via completely different journeys (Kantner from the idea of a universal brotherhood, Slick from the idea of the goodness hidden deep in the individual). The baby this pair spawned was going to be one hell of a child with those genes, perhaps the saviour of mankind and deliverer of justice to a crumbling capitalist nation (Kantner imagines just that on his 1980s epics ‘Nuclear Furniture’ and ‘The Empire Blows Back). Slick’s sense of humour didn’t ease the establishment’s fears when she jokingly told a music reporter her baby would be called ‘god’ (‘With a small ‘G’ so she doesn’t get big headed’). This album is about that baby, what she was, what she might grow into and how the world might look when she came of age and there she is proudly held aloft on the cover into the sunlight, her mother’s (left) and father’s (right) hands proudly holding her up but submerging under the great tidal wave of life to come.

I could write a whole review on that album cover (don’t worry – I’ll just stick to a paragraph, honest!) which just shrieks of hippy symbolism. Is the sun rising or setting? Is this the scene of great ecological destruction that has caused the world to be submerged by water, with the baby’s parents desperately trying to hold their baby aloft and out of harm’s way as they plunge to the icy depths below? Or is this a new birth, a baptism of a new generation born into a changing world built not from old tired corruption but from the 1960s belief in peace, freedom and equality? And what of those clouds, a photo-shopped halfway point between stormy and sunny – are they wafting in to cast long heavy shadows over the baby’s progress or are they battles already fought, heading off in the distance? Is this baby being born up to the sun as a sacrifice, or so that nature recognises her and other babies born into this generation as part of the new evolution of mankind, the (to quote the TV series begun 18 months later when this idea is still on everybody’s minds) ‘Tomorrow People’?
It helps that China (the baby was named for both the pretty crockery and the pair’s belief that China, not America, would be the dominant political force in the future and would treat the baby as ‘one of their own’, something they got half right; this is a long-running Airplane gag that was even turned into song with Marty Balin’s ‘If You Feel’ on ‘Crown Of Creation’) was born in January 1971. Had she been born in the 1960s I doubt any of the above paragraphs would have occurred to mother or father, but the changing of the decade of the 1970s was a big thing with the world (not just the music world but the whole world) holding its breath to see what would come next – and still holding it when punk came along circa 1976. The 1960s were such a time of turmoil and change, for better or worse, that it seemed certain that something would happen in the following decade, whether building on the progress made or something new altogether. All the groups on this site around in 1970 suffer this to some extent (The Who’s ‘Lifehouse’ and Cat Stevens’ pair of 1970 LPs ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ and ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ in particular) but the Airplane were always among the most socially aware bands who always pushed for change in their work. After all, Kantner and Slick had spent 1970 tearing down the existing societal systems on the band album ‘Volunteers’ (Gotta revolution!) and on their own joint LP ‘Blows Against The Empire’ working out what would come in their place (tired of Earthlife a bunch of hippies hi-jack a spaceship meant to colonise other planets and make money, instead spreading vibes of peace and equality throughout the universe – one of many wonderful reasons that puts this glorious masterpiece in my all time top three). The timing is too right, something is in the air and the date is as good a reason as any to think about the future.

‘Sunfighter’ is an album torn almost neatly in two by optimism at what life will be like for the new-born and pessimism that the 60s generation still have battles to fight. If ‘Blows’ is a utopian album, whose only obstacles for the hippies come early in side one and are easily swept aside, then ‘Sunfighter’ is a much more ‘earthly’ album in more ways than simply being set on Earth. Sacrifices made aren’t always for the right reasons (hence this album’s theme song ‘Diana’ – not written for the Princess of Wales who’d be about 10 at the time but a revolutionary in the hippie ‘Weathermen’ movement who gave her life in vain), the Earth grows under the weight of population (‘Sunfighter’ and ‘Million’) and in the final battle between hippies and squares its unclear who wins, just as its the winners in war always end up losers in some way too (‘Holding Together’). When mother Grace sings to her baby ‘I hope she’ll see some things that will make her life happy’ she speaks not only as a parent but as an intrigued onlooker, desperately hoping her generation have done enough to disrupt the world to make her successors safe. Hence also the fact that we get to see lovely childhood pictures of both Paul and Grace on the album’s inside cover, as if passing on childhood and dreams to the next generation. Incidentally note the lives both singers left behind: Paul is dressed in his smart cadets uniform, already being groomed for war and confrontation; Grace is dressed in a posh skirt practising hard for a piano competition she’s clearly not enjoying. The message is clear: things can change for all of us, not just our children.

Above it all, nature is bigger than all of us on this album. Passing on life to a new generation perhaps made Slick and Kantner think about how life was passed to them – and how the human cycle has been passing on life, hoping for a better future, since he existed (often futilely). Nature is huge on this album, not in a sweet look-at-the-bunny-rabbits way but in a giveth-life-and-taketh-it-away way. Along with Paul McCartney and Wings’ album ‘Wildlife’ this is one of the world’s earliest ecologically aware LPs, with lines about how this really is the very last chance to put things right. Both ‘Earth Mother’ and ‘Look At The Wood’ are songs about mankind’s role as a plague on the Earth, distorting her protective care to their own money making ends; the eerie ‘Universal Copernican Mumbles’ and the devastating ‘Titanic’ the sound of the Earth disintegrating when he gets it wrong. With every generation that passes the chances of them making it to old age without ecological disaster gets less and less likely and in retrospect its fascinating to hear the ‘youth’ generation (Slick is one of the older stars and even she’s about to turn just 31 at this point) moving on from their own contemporary battles to tackle problems that have been around as long as man (or the Industrial Revolution at least, which is where my blame lies for the unforgivable inequality and twisted priorities that still run today). The title track of the album, among other things, bids the human race to make ‘peace’ with their sun, just like the human race did in prehistoric times, asking her forgiveness for wrongs past and hoping against hope she doesn’t zap us all with ultra-violet light (which brings on an interesting point; I’m still convinced that , in CSNY’s words, ‘we have all been before’ and the human race has reached our technological peak once before and then lost it in some great catastrophe – there’s simply too much evidence that mankind has been around a lot longer and used to be much cleverer than we now think. If true then we really have to beware what we do in the future or we’ll end up back where we were in the past, splintered, adrift and helpless. Hence, possibly, our belief in a ‘sun-god’ as legends were passed on by word of mouth that sunlight breaking through the ozone layer nearly caused our death).

Talking of CSNY, guest stars are key to this album, just as they had been on ‘Blows’ (this is the last of a terrific run of West Coast albums in the early 70s that various members of the Dead, the Airplane and CSNY all contributed to, giving their services for free and for the spirit of the ‘music’). Crosby actually sings on more songs on this album than he did on CSNY’s ‘Deja Vu’ album in 1970 and his sweet harmony is a good counterpart to Paul’s growly bass and Grace’s stinging soprano lead. Graham Nash too crops up on a couple of tracks although he’s harder to hear than Crosby (that’s his harmonica work on ‘Look At The Wood’). Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia plays some great guitar on three of the album’s tracks, including a powerful solo on ‘Wolves’ that ranks amongst his best. And lots of Airplane-Starship bandmates past and present come out to play, including guitarist Jorma Kaukanen, bassist Jack Casady, drummer Joey Covington, violinist Papa John Creach and the first appearance of a 15 year old guitarist called Craig Chaquico on ‘Earth Mother’ some three years before he becomes a full time member of Jefferson Starship. Best of all the usually straight-laced Edwin Hawkins Singers, who provided the memorable ‘oompah oompah stick it up yer jumper’ refrain on The Beatles’ ‘I Am The Walrus’ make their appearance on this album’s title track. Even more than ‘Blows’ its these little guest spots that help give ‘Sunfighter’ its wide palette of sounds and enables it to leap from one extreme to the other without making it hard on the ears.

Sadly this is probably the last time the various members loosely dubbed ‘The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra’ by Kantner ever played together with any regularity (there’s an attempt at a revival in 1983 on ‘Blows’ sequel ‘The Empire Blows Back’, but Crosby is ill from drug abuse and about to go to prison for it, while Garcia is still recovering from a coma, so it’s never quite the same). This is because of both esoteric reasons (after 1971 the belief that love would save the world expressed by all three bands is a memory, not a mission statement) and for practical ones. Many of the stars of San Francisco had moved out by 1971, either to find ‘peace and quiet’ aware from the glares of photographers or in the wake of the Charles Manson massacre of Sharon Tate and his spoken hatred of rich millionaire pop stars that left many afraid, long after the wannabe-pop star was put away. Grace and Paul were two of the last to move out, ending up in a commune in Bolinas, Marin County for much of the time this album was being made. While the pair never fully settled into that way of life (Grace, especially, got annoyed at being told off for wearing make-up and fought back at her neighbour’s holier-than-thou attitude and even Paul admitted later he despaired at how serious everyone took everything) it did influence the writing of several songs on this album. The Weathermen, the most extreme band of revolutionaries of the day who were into blowing up buildings to destroy Western Capitalism were big heroes in the commune – except to Paul, who thought that killing random innocent people was a tragedy (see both parts of ‘Diana’).

‘Silver Spoon’, meanwhile, came directly from the pressure the commune members placed on Grace to turn vegetarian (ironically she went a stage further in the 1980s and turned vegan, but at the time she was incensed at being told what to do – a common theme in her work). The nature songs on this album, both original and covers, seem to chime in with the idea of a self-sustaining commune where no one works except to grow crops and keep livestock, while ‘Wolves’ is a song about societal interdependence that makes even more sense when you realise its author had been eyeing people struggling to get along in a small confined area first-hand. The pair realised the setting wasn’t right and moved out of Bolinas shortly after release, but the things they learnt there about the un-practical and darker side of hippie life does imprint many times on this work. Peace, love and prosperity is still possible, but it’s a harder battle to win than on any Jefferson-era work until the ‘new wave’ quartet from 1979-84 when Kantner’s songs in particular all but admit that ‘his’ generation didn’t go far enough in their war against civilisation.

Talking of civilisation, much of this album may have been inspired by and certainly comes across as an extended version of Grace’s 90 second howl of pain ‘Sunrise’ from ‘Blows Against The Empire’. That song is one of the Airplane family’s nastiest and most militaristic songs yet, condemning ‘2000 years of your God-damn glory!’ and the way so many have suffered at the hands of the rich and powerful to a marvellously intoxicating sound of guttural feedback breaking down all barriers. It was an impressively heady mixture in 1970 when the world was still relatively prosperous – it sounds like nothing less than a call to arms against bankers today. Clearly the song is too short to study such a big idea properly, but ‘Sunfighter’ (note the similar name) is up for the challenge, with an opening track questioning what it really means to be civilised (and accompanied by the same eerie mixture of reckless wild feedback and passionate rolling piano) and several songs about how things could – and should – be completely different than this. ‘Million’ and ‘Wolves’, especially, sound like the propaganda machine for the hippie movement about the alternatives to living under Western capitalist rule, although the angrier, more scared responses in ‘Diana’ ‘Titanic’ and the title track are open enough to suggest the hippies might not have it all their own way.

While not as consistently drop-dead gorgeous as that first joint album ‘Blows Against The Empire’, there’s so much about ‘Sunfighter’ to admire, from some of the most moving songs about having a family ever written (the song simply titled ‘China’) to some of the pair’s greatest and most atmospheric songs about human interaction and responsibility (‘When I Was A Boy I Watched The Wolves’ is a remarkable and revealing song, one of my eight Desert Island Discs). Little bits here and there still knock me out despite knowing the album really well: the bare murky nasty production on ‘Silver Spoon’ that out-punks punk, David Crosby’s guest harmony on ‘Look At The Wood’, the outrageous three minute sound effect of the Earth dying that’s labelled ‘Titanic’, the wondrous droning Eastern production on ‘Million’, the sheer innocence and optimism of ‘China’. If I was forced to grab a record from the wreckage of my collection to keep me company in the aftermath of some great disaster I could do worse than this record: teacher, friend, entertainer and prophet.

That said, there are several moments where this record’s aim definitely outdoes its abilities. The ‘Diana’ sections are too brief to work as a song, the ‘Titanic’ piece too obscure for repeated listening and the closing ten minutes of the record (‘Mumbles’ and ‘Holding Together’) is one of the hardest to sit through on any Jefferson family album. The used of so many outside songs by other writers is worrying (the fact that Grace and Paul manage to get three songs each onto that year’s Airplane record ‘Bark’ might be why they were hard pushed for material). The story, for what it is, is also much harder to follow than on ‘Blows Against The Empire’, although there clearly is one (the third and final Kantner-Slick album, the memorably named ‘Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun’ from the following year, is merely a collection of songs without a theme).

And yet for all its faults there’s something hypnotic about this album. It’s grown up and occasionally dark and edgy in a way that the other Airplane and related albums are often childish or least woefully optimistic. The world painted on this album is one of disasters as well as freedom, one of acute sadness as well as joy and the world is delicately balanced, as likely to collapse under the weight of human expectations as it is to springboard mankind to greater achievements in space in the future. Like all things Grace and Paul worked on, I learned lots from this album which has been a much worn and much discussed album in the 20 years I’ve owned it: why the way they tell you behave at school and at church isn’t necessary the best way for you, your friends and family or your planet and why at the end of the day peace really is the only solution. Like all teachers, this album occasionally gets it wrong, some of the arguments are flabby and ‘borrowed’ from other sources and the amount of ‘homework’ you have to do on your own makes you wonder whether you should bother at all. But like all good teachers, there’s a patience and an encouragement at the heart of this album that makes me think that both Paul and Grace must have good role-model parents to their newborn baby, even with the pair’s much discussed break-up in the late 1970s and their descent into alcoholism and drug use.

As for China, she became an actress and MTV’s youngest DJ in the 1980s at the tender age of 16 before fading out from the public view and declining all interviews whenever she’s asked. After being seemingly created as a leader of the counter-culture with so much resting on her shoulders and all but greeted as the messiah by celebrating Jefferson fans she simply went back to being a human being, living life the way ordinary human beings do. You sense that despite this album’s talk of Paul and Grace wanting to give their baby a better world, one of more opportunities and freedom, with more chances for her to be herself and not be pushed around by a mad mad world, they’d be pretty happy back in 1971 to know that would be the outcome. At times on this planet the world hasn’t got long to survive and the grip of the powers-that-be is all too great; the future didn’t turn out the way anyone planned it in 1971, least of all the counter-culture, but it survived and the powers-that-be have weakened in some ways, even if they don’t seem to have realised it yet.

Any fears that having children will make Slick and Kantner ‘soft’ is immediately dispelled by the opening track ‘Silver Spoon’, one of the most outrageous and threatening songs written by Grace, whose raison d’aitre was to shock her audience in every way she knew how. On the surface it’s about cannibalism (‘Where are the bodies for dinner? I want more food!’), most likely inspired by the commune in Bolinas nagging the pair to become vegetarians. There’s a verse where Grace’s angry narrator plunges straight into really dark territory and acknowledges that in the future, if there’s a fast, she’s be prepared to give her life to keep her cannibal friends going. This line is clearly intended to prove to Grace’s commune neighbours how strongly she feels about the right to eat meat, but it’s an uncomfortable line in the context of the deliberately tuneless music and suggests that, already, she’s thinking about changing to being a vegetarian. Then again, like many of Grace’s period songs sex is never far from the surface and there’s hints that Grace is singing about oral sex too (‘You think that I will come to your mouth looking for a home?’ is a line that’s running the line towards censorship circa 1971, the sort of line where the fans know exactly what Grace means but will leave the censors scratching their heads in puzzlement). Many fans have guessed at these two ideas but in my eyes (or ears) there’s a third and another favourite Jefferson family theme, one of equality. The opening lines about spitting out ‘silver spoons’ are clearly about how man should be as equal as he can, and that if one of us can’t afford cutlery and has to eat with his hands then the others should too. All three themes mingle and roll together in this piece about ‘singing cannibal songs’ on a really edgy track that deals with the darker, nastier side of life, a sort of rejection of civilisation and culture and possessing the idea that beneath our finery we are all primitive mammals.

All of these ideas spill over into one fascinating outburst of aggression and fury that’s an exhilarating ride to listen to and a perfect depiction of that animal aggression referred to in the lyrics. Airplaner Jack Casady’s always warm, loud bass tones are here exaggerated to breaking point, frequently curling into round fiery balls of aggressive feedback, while Grace’s unique piano playing using block chords rather than individual notes) rolls forward back and forth throughout the song. The result is one of the nastiest, angriest songs in my album collection, one that’s compelling in its sheer un-comfortableness, as for almost the last time the Jeffersons push their natural sound to its absolute limit. Somehow it makes sense that future Airplane/Starship member Papa John Creach makes his debut on this track, the septegenarian violinist’s angry squeals far more suitable on a track like this one than the band’s later more MOR recordings. Grace’s vocal is the icing on the cake – piercing, shrill, taunting, deadly serious and somehow deeply sexy even though she’s singing about death and raw unsophisticated primitive essence; of all her great vocals down the years this may well be her best even if it is a tad low in the album mix. Hearing something this raw and aggressive in 1971 must have been quite an eye opener, especially from a woman – full kudos to Grace for managing to pull it off. Interestingly Kantner seems to be missing entirely from this opening song on only his second solo/joint album! One of the highlights of the album, although you’ll be pleased to learn the rest of the album isn’t as aggressive and raw as this!

The first of the two ‘Diana’ fragments comes from Paul Kantner’s mixed beliefs in the 1970s counterculture. It’s something of a surprise to hear one of the chief architects of the societal ‘revolution’ having doubts after such songs as ‘Volunteers’ but having a child has clearly had an effect on Paul’s political beliefs. The ‘Diana’ in the song is Diana Oughton, a member of rebel outlaw group The Weathermen (aka The Weather Underground) who were either terrorists (in the mainstream’s eyes) or folk heroes (in the eyes of the counter-culture) who delighted in bombing buildings of major capitalist symbols like banks and Government embassies (I must confess my first thought on seeing 9/11 was that the Weathermen were at it again, given how many leading capitalists worked in the twin towers). Their most famous activities were helping and abetting the Chicago Seven in 1971 (seven men who were – probably – illegally jailed on murder charges because the cops had been trying to pin something on them for years; its also the inspiration behind Graham Nash’s live favourite ‘Chicago’ from ‘Songs For Beginners’) and the jailbreak of hippie guru Timothy Leary. The peace and love hippie movement never quite knew what to think about fellow hippies using explosions and weapons to make a point (there are several parallels here with the civil rights movement and about whether Malcolm X’s more aggressive tactics were better or worse than Martin Luther King’s philosophy of peace). Kantner sounds less sure than most, using harsh imagery in this song like the dead bodies ‘buried in cages of cement and steel’ that condemn the acts and on the other hand treats Diana as a mythical hero as ethereal and godlike as her namesake, a ‘Huntress of the moon and lady of the Earth’. The tune for this song is lovely, a mixture of the ‘Volunteers’ type crusading and a requiem for the dead all together, although alas the song is too much of a fragment even if you hear parts one and two of this song back to back. In the excellent sleeve-notes for the CD re-issue Paul recounts how the idea for the song came to him in one great rush while in Fillmore East manager Bill Graham’s office discussing concert terms when a message about the latest Weathermen attack came through on the radio. It’s a shame he didn’t get to a pen and pencil quicker as the song is clearly inspired but too short to get to grips with.

The title track of the album continues this confusion, effectively summing up mankind’s civilisation and culture to date and demanding that something, somewhere, has to change. The first verse is personal, Kantner and his family finding a safe place ‘where we can watch and see our child grow’. The second is about the band, with a ‘rambler man’ inspiring local San Franciscans disenfranchised with their lives to rally to a new cause – some commentators have put this figure as Timothy Leary (again); others – me included – think its probably Airplane founder Marty Balin who had just quit the band when this song was written (the song is dedicated to Marty which is a bit of a giveaway). The idea is that this ‘movement’ (Paul never actually mentions a ‘rock group’ as such) is going to convert everybody to peace, that we’re ‘gonna try to move your minds together, gonna try to pull you through’ adds a nice bit of audience participation to the song (something Kantner was always good, especially the booklet for ‘Blows’ that calls on us fans to be ready to come away on the starship when the hippies steal it away; I’m amazed that he still isn’t on twitter) and a suitably rabble rousing chorus and production. However the key theme of the song is about how human beings have ‘messed up the land’ and how we have ‘maybe just one more chance to leave it be’. As we’ve already said, ecological concern was still new in 1971 (the nearest competitor I can find is Wings in 1972 – 60s folk classic ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ as covered by The Searchers deserves a mention but that song’s really about the aftermath of war than manmade chemical poisons). The chorus is a magnificent double meaning; ‘Ain’t no room for this planet to grow’ relates both to the population explosion and the thought that man simply isn’t learning from his mistakes quickly enough. The song then ends with a return to the science-fiction of ‘Blows’, relating our sorry future to us if we don’t change course with the wonderful sub-Dr Who gobbledegook ‘Sub carbon oscillation, sunshine blurring fascination, pulsar craft moving fast...’ The song then ends with a curious reference that if God exists he should be destroying those who destroy his creations – the only time Kantner ever half-admits to Christianity in song (although many of his later songs feature biblical parallels whilst being supposedly set in our future). While we’re on about the lyrics listen out too for the use of the ‘f’ word - ‘No time to fuck around like we did before’ – close on the heels of the Airplane’s own ‘We Should Be Together’ from the year before, a song generally agreed to be the first to use the ‘f’ word in song (the other accepted candidate, John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ , actually dates from three months or so later) and still shocking to most casual fans. Lyrically ‘Sunfighter’ is fascinating and its clearly groomed as the epic focal point of the album, complete with the bombastic Eddie Hawkins Singers choir (last heard singing ‘oompah, oompah stick it up yer joomper’ on The Beatles’ ‘I Am The Walrus’) and a pretty nifty brass arrangement that gives this song a real weight and heavy, world-weary quality. Unfortunately the tune isn’t quite up to the job of the lyrics and simply marches along ponderously, getting louder and quieter with each passing verse. The ‘true’ chorus (ie there’s several in this song but this is the one heard in the middle and makes up the title) is also quite weak by Jefferson standards (‘Sunfighter, gunfighter, mount the Earth and learn to ride her’) which is a pity.There's also the cobntradiction that Paul and Grace are moaning about the population explosion on an album that features a front cover picture of their new-born child! Still, this is a song so ambitious that it still manages to impress, even if it’s only partly successful.

‘Titanic’ is one of the strangest moments of any record I own, right up there with The Monkees’ ‘Zilch’ and 10cc’s ‘Une Nuite En Paris’. In fact its potentially even stranger, not a song as such but an atmospheric re-construction of what might have happened the night the ship went down in 1912 (it was the 60th anniversary coming up so it was in the news quite a bit back then, just as it is now in 2012 on the hundredth anniversary). Chances are Slick and Kantner have nothing to do with the track, which has really been compiled by engineer and soundscape artist Phil Sawyer from sound effects of emergency sirens, crashed waves and a strange, pulsating heartbeat that might have inspired the one on Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ in production at the time this album was released. Strangely we never actually hear the ship go down, although there was still much debate back then (only some of it resolved now) about what exactly happened when the ship went down. The effect in this context is to hear mankind’s arrogance and that his belief that he has ‘conquered’ nature with his technology and civilisation is a fallacy. The hint is that if we don’t start trying to save ‘Mother Earth’ soon the whole world could end like this, with one sorry mistake after another. Or in Kantner’s words in the sleevenotes ‘that you’re not quite as strong as you think you are’. It’s a moment to meditate on the themes of the album – or skip to the next track, depending on how much patience you have for sound effect filled instrumentals!

‘Look At The Wood’ is the folkiest song any of the Jeffersons had written for some time and another song about the destruction of nature by man. It’s one of the few songs on the album that Paul and Grace sing together, their very different vocal styles held firmly together by the glue of a guesting David Crosby, singing a tone or so higher than usual. I still can’t quite tell if this song is tongue-in-cheek or deadly serious (‘He’ll be dining on toads and moles’ and the various ad libs from Grace and David on the idea) – if the former then it’s odd that the band are poking fun at an idea they clearly believe in given the other songs on the same subject on the album; if the latter then its among the most Christian songs on anything in my collection, full of praise for the ‘architect’ of life giving the Earth ‘for free’ from a band renowned for their atheist views. Like the similarly tongue-in-cheek-but-might-be-serious Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’ by The Small Faces the song deals with a wise hermit (un-named in this song, ‘Mad John’ in the Faces’ vision) who is ‘20 years short of a century’ –alarmingly Grace is only 28 years short of hers as I write – took a new wife every five years and is forever doomed to re-incarnation. It’s nice to hear a near-acoustic song in the band’s repertoire for a change and the harmonies are excellent, as is Jorma’s sterling electric guitar work accompanying Kantner’s acoustic. However the lyrics are simply too strange and the mood too confused for the song to work as well as it should – had the band used these lyrics on another song and ‘spoofed’ their folky background with a song they really could do tongue-in-cheek the result would have been much stronger. Although it doesn’t say on the label I’ve read that the words are Grace’s and the music Paul’s – if true perhaps the pair aren’t as natural a match as we’ve always assumed.

There’s no such qualms about ‘When I Was A Boy I Watched The Wolves’, however. This is simply one of the best songs in my collection, a gorgeous Kantner song with a characteristic rolling melody and a dynamic arrangement that strings several disjointed parts together to sound like a wonderful whole. Despite the lines about being a wolf together in a pride, it’s not really about wolves at all but human societies and the way they interact, all pulling in their separate directions but coming together at times of need and strife. It’s really about being in a ‘gang’, of the wolf cubs longing to join what seems like fun, spending time with near peers rather than tiresome family, before somehow finding themselves cut off from everyone else and with a ‘gang mentality’ that will always pick on the weakest in the pack (with a literal kick the dog syndrome – ‘I imagine yourself calling yourself ‘Big Fang’, observing you run with the pack’). Such an idea is clearly anathema to Kantner and his hippie ideal about protection and equality, but he sure makes this track sound like fun, with lots of fast-paced rhymes that sound exciting and fun (‘Laser bright feel the lunar light coming down on me’). The pack is also not an entirely negative thing: the lines about ‘no eyes shine on the mind protected, no light shines on the fang neglected’ is as good a couplet as you’ll find, all about how being in a pack offers ‘protection’ and ensures everyone gets fed even when food is hard to find. By the end though when the stakes are at their highest the gang has dropped all idea of being a democracy, Kantner Slick and Crosby yelling as oif to their own pet dogs ‘Get down, go back, run with the wolfpack’. Grace’s last held note falling off the cliff of sound when the track suddenly stops is heartbreaking, leaving the wolf we’ve been following for five minutes as isolated within the pack as he was without. If you haven’t heard it I can’t possibly describe how perfect this song is, built from its stunning piano riff and its angry discordant electric guitar, with some of the best vocals on the album and a tune that veers from beautiful to choppily angular and discordant at a moment’s notice. ‘Wolves’ is an exhilarating ride that poignantly sums up the need of humans to belong to something and the responsibility that goes with it and is perfectly placed on this album at the end of the album’s first side, summing up the themes of ecology and animals, family and doubts as to whether to overthrow the system or leave it as it is that have dominated the album. Not only the highlight of the album but of music as a whole, educational, exciting and emotional like the best music should be. Everyone involved should take a bow for this one.

‘Million’ opens the album’s second side with another strong song, one that builds on the ‘gang’ theme of ‘Wolves’ but this time by looking at a hippie commune filled with ‘millions’ of people wanting peace. The song deals with the aftermath of a great catastrophe (and may well have started off as a song for ‘Blows’ after the Empire takes control – this song shares the same dreamlike state and whole-hearted optimism unusual for this more realistic, troubled album) and features the plaintive cry that we’ve ‘maybe one more chance to get along with us for the rest of our lives’. The song takes us back all the way to the beginning of civilisation, reminding us that ‘in the beginning we all were one’ living in the same place with the same herd-like instinct for protection and none of the prejudice our supposedly more civilised offspring came up with. The one area that survives Armageddon? Naturally enough given who appears on this album its San Francisco, with Kantner even adding a line presumably for Slick that ‘I bow down to my San Francisco lady’. This song would also have fitted nicely onto Kantner’s ‘farewell’ Jefferson album ‘Nuclear Furniture’ in 1984, an album that – on Paul’s songs at least – the cold war has wiped out most of the planet and left just a handful of survivors, led by the charismatic Rose. The music to this song is really lovely, more of a hymn than a song, with Grace’s piano and some wonderfully sprightly guitar from Jerry Garcia centre-stage on a song about redemption and rebirth and ends with a wonderful double-back on itself that’s very Merseybeat, as if harking back to a time when the ‘hippie dream’ properly began.

‘China’ is Grace’s lovely piano ballad on what it means to her becoming a mother for the first time and its the single most gorgeous song free from anger or bitterness she’s written since ‘ReJoyce’ on ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ in 1967. If you didn’t know about the happy birth you’d be mighty confused by the song which starts off with the line ‘She’ll suck on anything you give her’ and seems to be back in ‘Silver Spoon’ territory (some fans were even more confused by the title ‘China’ and assumed it was about the country). Grace’s lyrics are lovely, summing up her amazement at how her baby can be so fragile in some ways and tough in others (‘Her voice cuts overt the sea even when its stormy, but she’s only two feet higher’). Grace’s chorus is lovely and perfectly placed on this troubled album: ‘I hope she’ll see some things that’ll make her life happy’ before adding that parental cry and panic over ‘how fast’ her baby is growing up. The word that keeps cropping up on this song is ‘new’ – China is a baby without the pre-conceived prejudices like adults do, has no societal inhibitions about when to let out her feelings out and that she knows who she is ‘without looking’ i.e. working out her inner personality and working out how to behave. ‘She’s an all new person who says just how she feels’ is a lovely line, especially when followed by Grace’s humour on the line ‘She’s a fat-faced Goddess of nowhere’. The only thing that lets this song down is the muted production that features Grace’s lone piano until late in the song (when a lovely, empathetic brass arrangement by Greg Adams kicks in) and a lack of a clear melody, although in the context its fair enough that Grace should want to handle so much of this track herself. One of the best songs on parenthood, ‘China’ is an affecting song for any listener, whether they themselves have children or whether the closest they’ve come to having children is pictures of babies printed on record covers! (Records are, of course, my babies, as they are for many a collector).

‘Earth Mother’ is back to the urgent ecological protest and should by rights be termed a ‘Steelwind’ song with Paul and Grace guesting (Kantner’s old friend and – according to some sources – guitar tutor Jack Traylor wrote and takes lead vocal on the song and its his band that play apart from Grace’s piano – listen out for the guitar part by a 15 year old Craig Chaquico who’ll be a member of this band by the time he’s of age). Traylor’s gruff vocals don’t make for easy listening (although Airplane fans used to hearing Jorma sing will know what to expect), especially in harmony with Grace’s almost yelled vocals but the tune is a good one. I’m surprised in retrospect that such an anti-hippy song was let through (the children are ‘ripped on coke and candy’) but the lyrics about what successive generations have done to the Earth are spot-on and, again, wonderfully prescient for an age when Green Peace were still young enough to get confused with GreenShield stamps. The song even makes an apology for the generations to come, admitting that ‘it’s not your fault you’re ill now, it’s the men who went before’ – a very forward looking idea for 1970 and the ‘now’ generation. The song then ends with a re-write of sorts on CSNY’s ‘Teach Your Children’, announcing to the 60s and 70s kids now having families of their own that ‘they recognise no nation, they dance around your throne’. A sweet song with an urgent, almost nursery rhyme melody, ‘Earth Mother’ is a memorable ‘cover’ song that works well set against the backdrop of the rest of the album.

‘Diana - Part 2’ is slightly more successful than the first part, albeit even shorter, with less confusion as to what Diana is doing. This second part makes it clear that it regrets what she and her outlaws did, asking them to remember the fallen and asking them ‘what they see’ when they look at one another; are they still mankind’s saviours or simply murderers? Crosby’s harmony vocal is beautiful here, holding the notes in a way we haven’t heard since the Byrds days. The song ends on a confusing note by asking the weathermen to ‘remember what we sang in America, so many years ago’ – the closest thing in the Jefferson canon to all out revolution is ‘Volunteers’ which uses that very word, but the band have only just recorded that. Is Kantner writing here that the rebels shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were, and should only overthrow the corrupt and intrinsically unfair parts of Western civilisation, not the good and traditional ways. Again the song is too short to really get to grips with and is simply a reflective minute calm before the storm of the final two tracks...

‘Universal Copernican Mumbles’ is a fascinating mood piece from Kantner and his writing partners John Vierra and Pat Gleeson and might be the words of the religious figure in the album’s other pieces talking to the ‘young’ generations being born. ‘I will help you find the way if you help us find the way to your heart’ runs the first verse, with a ghostly, vocally treated Kantner urging his offspring and her peers to keep up the hard work of peace and love. The song is accompanied by the same roughly hewed piano lick, some staccato plucked strings and a curious jumble of synthesised electronics that are caught between being too late for psychedelia and too early for prog rock. Again, this is more of a fragment than a song and doesn’t work as well as the longer songs on the album, but at least its big on atmosphere and kind of fits the album’s themes.

Unfortunately the grand finale ‘Holding Together’ is a bit of a wet rag and is easily the weakest song on the album. The song sticks far too rigidly to its riff and simple chords while at the same time trying to sum up the album and life, the universe and everything. There’s a very Pete Townshend style guitar part in the middle from Jerry Garcia which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on ‘Who’s Next’, but that aside the playing here really isn’t very good (even Grace’s usually reliable piano appears to slow down and lose the tempo near the end). The song starts portentously ‘Look for Atlantis – it’s waiting for you’ and rather goes downhill from there, calling on dead Apache Indians and the Vietnam dead onwards into the light and ‘the cavern of the starmaker’, presumably the same deity who keeps cropping up across this album. Most interestingly of all, I’ve only just noticed this song’s throwaway reference to a ‘Rosemary’ – is this the same leader of the future as seen on ‘Lightning Rose’ (from JS’ ‘Freedom At Point Zero’ in 1979 and most of 1984’s ‘Nuclear Furniture’?) There are dozens of allusions here to Airplane/Starship songs, some years old some not released yet, including watching a ‘wolfpack’, ‘riding a tiger’ (see ‘Dragonfly’ 1974) and ‘the empire breaking up below you’ (is this song another outtake from ‘Blows’?!) The central theme of the song is a good one, the idea that those left behind in the late 20th century are merely ‘holding together’ and marking time before a better, brighter generation come along but the rest of the ideas of the song are a mish-mash that don’t quite fit together. The song, too, goes on far too long and actually ends completely once before kicking in again with its wobbly, arthritic riff – you sense that 99% of listeners wish it had ended the first time round. Still, the biggest problem with this song is that it tries to do so much (summing up the album, the Airplane philosophy and goodness knows what else in one go) – lyrically at least this song does a pretty good job at all those things, but ironically it fails badly as a song and would never work at all out of context of the album).

Still, even with the lapse at the end, ‘Sunfighter’ is one hell of an album, managing somehow to be as uplifting and celebratory as other Jefferson family albums despite going into places that are much much darker than normal. Few albums have the breadth of subject matter to take in everything from the birth of a baby to cannibalism and the destruction of the Earth and its to ‘Sunfighter’s credit that, for the most part, the album is real and solid enough to withstand such weighty themes. There are a good four songs here (‘Silver Spoon’ ‘China’ ‘Million’ and the excellent ‘Wolves’) that are among the best the Jefferson family ever released and it’s easy to see why so many fans of the time much preferred this album to the band’s release ‘Bark’ in the same period, simply because of ‘Sunfighter’s scope and how much almost all of these songs mean to their creators (even though I like that album more than most – see the link below for the review). ‘Sunfighter’ isn’t perfect, it doesn’t have the delightful concept of ‘Blows Against The Empire’ (still a record for my all time top three) and the experimentation here is much more hit and miss than on the death defying leaps of my favourite Airplane record ‘After Bathing At Baxters’. But that said there’s much to applaud, from the insightful lyrics to the hummable songs to the breathtaking guest stars and the often superb performances. This album about life and death will also appear somewhere to everyone, whether you like your Airplane soft and woolly (‘China’ ‘Diana’) or angry and abrasive (‘Silver Spoon’). Even if Paul and Grace’s vision of the world wasn’t quite right (the 1970s generation, as a whopping great generalisation, went back to the stability and comfort of the 1950s and left the rebellions to their parents), they did get some things right (the ecological concerns on this album make it sound more modern and contemporary than it should) and some things half right (the cold war is over, but only really because other battles have superceded it). More realistic and gritty than most Airplane albums, there’s still a sweetness and hope at the heart of ‘Sunfighter’ that means it’s still a stirring, uplifting album in the best Airplane tradition. Alas Paul and Grace only released one more album (with David Frieberg) before abandoning their solo careers (forever in Paul’s case, till the 1980s in Grace’s). Much as I love the Starship (and I adore the Airplane) I can’t help feeling that that was a shame. Grace’s more personal songs matched to Paul’s more universal generational epics were an almighty combination and the pair really are at their best here.