Two founding members of the Jefferson Airplane—Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson—died hours apart of separate illnesses on January 28, 2016, just weeks after the audiophile record label Mobile Fidelity reissued a remastered edition of the band’s landmark 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow (RCA). In this interview, Kantner reflects on the band, the album, and the times:
“You know, I sort of revolt at the use of that term ‘psychedelic’ because it limits everything so much, and it’s really not what the ’60s was all about,” says Paul Kantner, co-founder of the Jefferson Airplane, sounding mildly peeved during a phone interview from his San Francisco home. “It’s like the focus on drugs by the government and other facilities of those times making such a big deal out of it. In reality, drugs and psychedelia were a very small part of those times, sort of like a very tasty dessert at a great dinner. It was just part of the process, and the drugs were often simply a flag to wave in the establishment’s face.
“In fact, there was a newness and a passion for that newness that really signified those times.”
Kantner, who learned to question authority early in life as a kid at a Catholic military boarding school, had no trouble taking up the banner for the then-emerging counterculture. And his rallying cry resonated first on Surrealistic Pillow (RCA), the Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 acid-rock masterpiece released at the height of the Summer of Love.
The album has deep folk roots.
Jerry Garcia plays on several tracks.
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab recently reissued that masterwork on 180-gram audiophile vinyl. Cut from the original master tapes, the limited-edition mono release is on a pair of 45RPM LPs. The results are striking, especially on guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s classic instrumental “Embryonic Journey.”
It’s worth recalling the significance of the 1967 Jefferson Airplane—guitarists Kantner and Kaukonen, vocalists Marty Balin and Grace Slick, bassist Jack Casady, and drummer Spencer Dryden—and the fact that their psychedelic landmark, Surrealistic Pillow, holds up amazingly well after all these years. “The band boasted a lineup none of its peers could match . . . ; it was the fertile exchange of diverse styles and ideas among the members that produced a vision darker and deeper than any other in acid rock,” wrote music critic Paul Evans in The Rolling Stone Album Guide.
Slick, then newly recruited to take over for the pregnant Signe Anderson, was responsible for a large part of that success. Indeed, her commanding presence on “White Rabbit,” in which she chillingly instructs the listener to “feed your head,” exhibits an icy Wagnerian force unparalleled in ’60s rock. It was a powerful performance that landed her a spread in Life magazine.
“Her singing made [Slick] the counterpart of San Francisco’s other reigning diva, Janis Joplin,” Evans notes. “Where Janis was raw blues urgency, her persona combining the toughness of a biker’s mama with the pathos of a strayed waif, Slick was queenly, stentorian, her voice an instrument of almost operatic authority and her beauty dark, mysterious, and remote.”
As a teen, Kantner had fashioned himself after protest singer Pete Seeger. He met Balin in early 1965 at the Drinking Gourd, a San Francisco folk club. Kaukonen had learned fingerstyle in college and admired the music of Reverend Gary Davis. In San Francisco, he played local coffee houses and even back a then-unknown Janis Joplin. But the band’s journey began in earnest on Aug. 13, 1965, when the Airplane took flight at the Matrix in San Francisco, a Fillmore Street nightclub co-founded by singer and bandleader Balin. At the time, the band’s volatile lineup included Balin, Anderson, guitarists Kantner and Kaukonen, bassist Bob Harvey and drummer Jerry Peloquin.
It wasn’t long before the band’s trademark psychedelic folk-rock caught the attention of the burgeoning San Francisco music scene. Within a year, Slick had replaced Anderson, and Jack Casady and Skip Spence (who would leave the band a year later to found Moby Grape and make way for Spencer Dryden) had supplanted Harvey and Peloquin, respectively.
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On the strength of Slick’s singing, Surrealistic Pillow—which spawned the Top 10 singles “Somebody to Love” and the anthemic “White Rabbit,” and sold more than a half million copies—became responsible for cracking open Top 40 AM radio, allowing acid rock to flow into the cultural mainstream.
The brocade British folk-rock artist Donovan bolstered their credibility that same year when he name-checked the band in his drug paean “Fat Angel” (“Fly Jefferson Airplane, get you there on time”).
The band had hit its stride. American music would never be the same.
“We were just going into the studio and playing some music,” Kantner says of the album’s fruitful recording sessions. “You don’t really have any sense of that when you’re doing it. There was no plan or thought or realization that anything special was really going on.”
Watch an Acoustic Guitar Session in which Jorma Kaukonen offers advice on playing “Embryonic Journey.”