The Jefferson Starship Enterprise
Jefferson Airplane’s departure from its psychedelic roots was not a charted course.
Jefferson Airplane’s musical prominence in the psychedelic sixties is perhaps best epitomized by the song “White Rabbit,” off their 1967 break-out album Surrealistic Pillow.
The album was the Airplane’s ticket to join the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin’s Big Brother & the Holding Company in establishing a new, exciting psychedelic “San Francisco sound.”
The Airplane’s founders, Marty Balin and Paul Kantner, had just hired a new singer. Grace Slick’s voice was rich, powerful, elastic and expressive. Her stunning beauty certainly didn’t hurt.
Slick told an interviewer that “White Rabbit” was inspired by both the Alice in Wonderland tale and by listening to Mile Davis’s Sketches of Spain while high on LSD.
Grace also alluded to Ravel’s “Bolero,” with its insistent, almost militaristic rhythm as the song reaches its thundering peak, with Slick imploring, “Remember what the doormouse said, Feed your head, feed your head!”
Here is a “White Rabbit” performed at Woodstock, under three minutes long, published LPRoad2revolution by via YouTube:
Up Against the Wall
For two glorious years between 1967 and 1969, the Jefferson Airplane released a triad of albums that propelled them to the top of the rock world: the aforementioned Pillow, Crown of Creation (listen to Slick’s artful rendering of “Greasy Heart”) and Volunteers, in which the song “We Can Be Together” let loose the lyric, “Up against the wall, motherfucker,” thereby confirming the Airplane’s hard-fought artistic freedom.
And then it unraveled.
Booze, Drugs, Chaos
We’ll skip the details of the substance abuse and personal conflicts that followed the Airplane’s sixties triumph. A fault line developed in the band: in one corner, Kantner and Slick, Slick pregnant with child that she and Kantner would name China. Concurrently, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady formed Hot Tuna (the record company wouldn’t clear the original name, Hot Shit) which became a viable enterprise.
In February 1974, Kantner and Slick formed the Jefferson Starship that featured an Airplane alumnus Papa John Creach on violin. Marty Balin joined his Airplane comrades the next year and the band released the album Red Octopus that featured a Balin ballad, “Miracles” that actually went to #3 on the Billboard Charts.
It was a dramatic departure from the band’s psychedelic days, but, hey, the times they were-a changin’! More hits followed even as Grace Slick took time off to deal with her alcoholism.
It was Kantner who started to publicly question the band’s “singles-driven” focus. Kantner told a rock biographer: “I think we should all be terrible failures by trying to write pop songs all the time…the band became more mundane…and not quite as much of a thing to be proud of.”
Paul Kantner put his money where his mouth was. Before he quit, he reached an out-of-court settlement with other band members to take the ‘Jefferson’ out of the name. The band was to be called Starship.
“We Built This City”
In 1985, Starship, the successor to the psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane, released a song titled “We Built this City” (…on rock ‘n’ roll). With a still spry Grace Slick fronting the band and the great Bernie Taupin of Elton John fame co-writing the lyrics, MTV assumed the song was destined for success and put it on heavy rotation.
Somehow, the song gained a hideous reputation. The magazine Blender and then Rolling Stone named “We Built This City” the worst song of the eighties. Significantly, Rolling Stone reported that the song’s “winning” margin was so high that it “could be the biggest blow-out victory in the history of Rolling Stone readers polls.”
Grace Slick (in 2002): “The Starship, I hated. Our big hit single, “We Built This City,” was awful…I though I’d throw up on the front row, but I smiled and did it anyway.
“The show must go on.”