I didn’t grow up in the Baby Boomer Generation. No, I am from that apathetic corner of history known as Gen X. Man, that tag sounds as lame now as all of us who are a part of it do. I only half-jest there. I’m not one of those people who subscribes to the notion that all the late ‘60s music that came before my time was the best, most groundbreaking stuff ever. But then again, I don’t pray at the altar of Kurt Cobain, either. Every generation has its musical flaws. Granted, mine has had New Kids on the Block and Oasis, but what can you do?
Besides, time is not always kind to music. And time has certainly not been kind to a lot of the psychedelic stuff that was coming out of the Haight-Ashbury scene of ‘67. Do we blame the Beatles or the Grateful Dead? Hell, I don’t know. I do think that Sgt. Pepper was a floodgate for an awful lot of crap, and that the Dead never did anything worthwhile (subsequently making me feel just as sour for that whole jam band lineage). But hey, what about Jefferson Airplane? They did some pretty mind-expanding stuff, no?
The Essential Jefferson Airplane
US: 26 Apr 2005
UK: 25 Apr 2005
I think the quick answer to that question is no. To me, a lot of the Airplane’s mind expansion was in the band members’ own minds. I can’t tell you how sick I am of seeing Paul Kantner, aging beyond belief now, still yammering away about playing on stage while tripping on acid back in the good old glory days. And Grace Slick trying to impress the new generations with how “White Rabbit” was inspired by Alice in Wonderland and how that fantastic book was nothing but one big allusion to psychedelic drugs. Get over it already, guys. Your days are over.
Except they’re not. As long as music historians continue to drool over the late ‘60s rock revolutions, the Jefferson Airplane will always have their place. Even if it wasn’t for the writers, that damn “White Rabbit” would have solidified their place in rock history just as well. And really, it’s not even that good a song once you’ve heard it five times. Slick’s other biggie from the vastly overrated Surrealistic Pillow, “Somebody to Love”, is far groovier, but even it got noshed down to twaddle during extended live versions.
And yet I own a fair share of early Airplane albums. As a music fan and collector, I do feel it’s always good to go down avenues that others have found Important and try the shoes on for myself. I think the Airplane has had some good songs, usually the ones that weren’t the big hits, but overall I don’t feel that their place in rock history has as much to do with good music as it does the time and place from whence they came. Hell, everybody was getting lucky back then.
Besides, Marty Balin was always a little folkie at heart, always trying to expand those parameters past the band’s debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. Perhaps he could have succeeded more if original female member Signe Anderson hadn’t left. But what the hell do you do when someone as polarizing as Grace Slick enters the picture? It’s like when Nico was part of the Velvet Underground’s entourage. The guys in the band just tailed behind with their tongues hanging out. But truth be told, Balin’s semi-folk-meets-Sinatra musings on Pillow have always sounded, well, outdated—even for ‘67—next to Slick’s acid and peace and love odes.
So of course these egos helped destroy the original band. Egos and drugs, that is, natch. Gracie getting on stage boozed up and stumbling through songs wait, am I getting ahead to the Jefferson Starship years? Ah hell, she stuck around long enough for the god-awful “We Built This City” and “Sara”, so it all remains the same no matter what version of the group. But for its original incarnation, the band did some interesting, if failed, things, such as the alienating After Bathing at Baxter’s album that completely squashed all those Surrealistic fans. Then, of course, there was the truly trippy “Lather” and Kantner’s sci-fi freakout obsessions on Crown of Creation, the tired rally calls on Volunteers that still sported the weird grooves of “Hey Frederick”, and so on.
So in honor of the band’s 40th anniversary formation in Frisco, the record label gods have seen fit to throw the Airplane into Sony Legacy’s popular Essentials collection. Funny how bands like this always survive on compilation fumes. Hell, the Airplane was first compiled during its original tenure on The Worst of Jefferson Airplane, and continued to be on and on, resulting in what should have been the exhaustive 2400 Fulton Street, but money has to be made and new converts converted!
The Essential Jefferson Airplane covers the band’s years from 1965 through 1973, when they were the Airplane. No Jefferson Starship or Starship crud here. Just pure Airplane. That said, this collection re-compiles much of the stuff that had been compiled in the first, erm, compilation. But of course, this time we’re treated to glorious remastered sound and live versions in a ploy to reel in the fans who need to get everything one more time (let it be known, however, that The Worst of Jefferson Airplane, which is just as good a compilation to start with, was already “gloriously remastered” not too long ago).
This means you’ll be able to groove to not only “White Rabbit”, “Somebody to Love”, and “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil” for the millionth time, but also hear a few of those debut album tracks that often get looked over, like “Blues from an Airplane”. You also get the “mono single version” of “Martha” and “Share a Little Joke”, which, by the way, have been available already on the last remasters of Baxter’s and Crown of Creation, respectively.
I’m not sure if Jefferson Airplane ever had a great official live album, and the live cuts here, including “3/5’s of a Mile in Ten Seconds”, “Plastic Fantastic Lover”, and “Feel So Good” further that feeling for me. The studio really did help this band out quite a bit to get all their acid-infused ideas into shape, and on stage these things just don’t seem to translate as well. Look no further than Bless Its Pointed Little Head for further proof.
It’s funny, but the Airplane wasn’t even a band like the Stones, where they’d crank out great, reliable singles. Listening to their albums now, each seems like a bit of a hodgepodge, and hopelessly dated. You’ll have to pardon perhaps the jaded Gen X attitude in me, but it’s not very hard to not be impressed by “Have You Seen the Saucers?” and “Long John Silver”.
Still, the band does have its place in rock history, and they made the occasional solid tune, but I do think their legacy is a bit overstated. Again, it seems like the place and time are more important to remember than a lot of these grooves. But for those who were there originally, I’m sure a lot of these sounds hold some deep resonance. And The Essential Jefferson Airplane is just as good as any other mostly-inclusive compilation the band has put out, although some things have been left out, such as “Triad”, and I wouldn’t have minded hearing “My Best Friend” on here, which I always felt was actually spooky with Slick’s vocals doing something a bit different.
So off to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame they went in 1996, and here’s this shiny new reminder of just why. However, I can’t help but feel that more and more, to the up and coming generations, the Airplane will be more of a footnote thanks to that white rabbit. Hell, they may have already been that for me when I was a teen. Yet I’m sure this collection will offer the goods to those who are curious about putting their foot in the band’s door. Or, you could do what I did and just start with After Bathing at Baxter’s and see what some of the fuss was all about.