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Jefferson Airplane

The Worst of Jefferson Airplane

(Legacy; US: 6 Jun 2006; UK: 12 Jun 2006)

Taking a Trip Aboard Jefferson Airplane

The Worst of Jefferson Airplane is the first stop along an “embryonic journey” for Jefferson Airplane virgins. Originally released in 1970, this repackaged edition by RCA/Legacy boasts 17 remastered tracks culled from the six albums Jefferson Airplane recorded between 1966 and 1969. For those keeping score, six of those tracks hit the Billboard Top Pop Singles chart, though the Airplane’s elaborate musical sensibilities did not often equate three-minute Top 40 singles. Wisely, the producers of this edition keep the disc’s running time under 60 minutes and don’t weigh it down with too many additional cuts that, while certainly of artistic merit, would disrupt the flow of the original song sequence selected by the Airplane (two bonus cuts are included, nestled between what were “Side A” and “Side B” on the LP). Fans of the band will surely have personal favorites that are not represented, but The Worst of Jefferson Airplane remains a superb introduction to a seminal band whose reach extended far beyond the storied 1960s Haight-Ashbury music scene.


How does the music of Jefferson Airplane play in 2006? Inevitably, some of their songs smack of psychedelic rock clichés—sitars, distortion, lengthy guitar solos—but the lyrics resonate more than ever. Of the San Francisco Bay Area bands, Jefferson Airplane took the pulse of the late 1960s countercultural revolution and fashioned the collective angst of their audience into subversive three-minute diatribes. Imagine, for a moment, that RCA/Legacy had more than commercial interests at heart when planning this re-release. The 2006 issue of The Worst of Jefferson Airplane just so happens to coincide with a particularly volatile moment in western culture that is reminiscent of the late 1960s socio-cultural landscape. Depending on your political persuasion, there is much to raise your hand about in solidarity with vocalists Marty Balin, Grace Slick, and Paul Kantner.


“When the truth is found/ To be lies” opens the Airplane’s 1967 hit, “Somebody to Love”. The incessant beat of Spencer Dryden’s drum may set the body in motion, but the lyrics stimulate a different type of movement—one of the mind. Rarely, if ever before, had the opening line to a song on AM radio so boldly challenged the political hegemony. Of course, this is one of a few possible interpretations. Here’s an exercise to try after you’ve bought your copy of this CD: transcribe the lyrics to “Somebody to Love” and see what additional meanings you can derive.


Christening themselves “volunteers of America” two years later on the title track to Volunteers (1969), Jefferson Airplane was steadfast in raising the consciousness of their audience and invoking listeners to take action in the name of peace and civil rights. Much to RCA Records’ reticence, the band embedded contumacious sentiments in their lyrics to “We Can Be Together” on the Volunteers album. Sung in a deceptively sunny three-part harmony, this rallying call issued a bold command: “Up against the wall motherfuckers”.  Arguments ensued between RCA and the Airplane about this objectionable lyric but history proves which party prevailed…


If lyrics were bold dabs on the Airplane’s palette, then music was the expansive canvas onto which they painted a kaleidoscope of colors. Look no further than Kantner’s “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil” from After Bathing at Baxter’s (1967) to hear the Airplane orchestrate a number of musical ideas within a four-and-a-half-minute song.  A wave of guitar distortion gives way to a sprightly four-chord rhythm. Voices wrap around each other like intertwining vines.  Drum cymbals are smashed about with abandon. Balin and Kantner sing in unison as Slick’s voice sneaks up from behind to form a crescendo of otherworldly vibratos.  Yet Jefferson Airplane was also capable of crafting irresistible, straightforward melodic hooks. Just press play after loading The Worst of Jefferson Airplane into your stereo and you’ll hear a danceable piece of folk-rock on “It’s No Secret”, a cut from their debut album featuring an impassioned vocal by Balin.


The group’s stunning second release, Surrealistic Pillow (1967), provides evidence of how Jefferson Airplane explored a variety of musical styles on one album.  Producer Rick Jarrad’s brilliant nod to the Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” gives sonic depth to the Balin-Kantner composition “Today”, guitarist Jorman Kaukonen’s crystalline acoustic guitar work illuminates “Embryonic Journey”, and Slick’s wondrous ode to peyote, “White Rabbit”, appropriates the story of Alice in Wonderland with a bolero rhythm set to marching drum. Once you’ve absorbed the 17 tracks on The Worst of Jefferson Airplane, procure RCA’s reissue of Surrealistic Pillow. By then, you will have completely lost your Airplane virginity.


According to a press release by RCA/Legacy, The Worst of Jefferson Airplane originally served to encapsulate the story of Jefferson Airplane before the band members branched out into other projects (namely, Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship).  Nearly 40 years later, the story of Jefferson Airplane is still being told as this collection will—and should—find its way into the hands of a new generation of listeners.


Jefferson Airplane - White Rabbit


Rating:

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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