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Music / Jefferson Airplane

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The classic lineup of Jefferson Airplane. Clockwise from bottom-left: Jorma Kaukonen, Spencer Dryden, Jack Casady, Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, and Grace Slick.

"Don't you want somebody to love?"

Jefferson Airplane was an American rock band from San Francisco, originally active from 1965 to 1972.

According to Jorma Kaukonen, the name came from a friend of his, Steve Talbot, who jokingly dubbed him "Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane" as a parody of the sort of nicknames Blues singers frequently adopted (possibly with Blind Lemon Jefferson in mind). When no one else could think of a good band name, Kaukonen remembered Talbot's joke and shortened it appropriately. (This didn't stop fan rumors that the name actually referred to an impromptu method of holding a too-short marijuana joint.)

Jefferson Airplane started out as a Folk Rock band with a sound similar to The Byrds and The Lovin' Spoonful. Their original lineup consisted of Marty Balin and Signe Anderson on lead vocals, Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner on guitar, Bob Harvey on bass, and Jerry Peloquin on drums, although Harvey and Peloquin didn't last long and were quickly replaced by Jack Casady and Alexander "Skip" Spence on bass and drums respectively. Airplane would release one album (Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, 1966) with that lineup before Spence moved on to form Moby Grape (and subsequently suffered from mental illness, dying in 1999), and Anderson left to raise a family.

They were replaced by Spencer Dryden (nephew of Charlie Chaplin) and iconic front-woman Grace Slick, the latter having just left another group called the Great Society which had opened for Airplane at some gigs. Now the classic lineup was set, and with the release of their 1967 album, Surrealistic Pillow, Jefferson Airplane established themselves as leading proponents of a hard-and-heavy offshoot of the Psychedelic Rock genre known as "acid rock". They enjoyed Top 10 hit singles in America with "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit", became the only band to play at all three of the most famous rock festivals of The '60s (Monterey, Woodstock, and Altamont), and headlined the inaugural Isle of Wight Festival. Unfortunately, Airplane seemed to run out of steam with the onset of The '70s; Dryden was fired in early 1970 (replaced first by Joey Covington and then by former Turtles drummer John Barbata) due to his mounting cynicism over the San Francisco counterculture scene, and Balin, disillusioned with the psychedelic scene after both the death of his close friend Janis Joplin and an incident at the 1969 Altamont Free Concert (in which he was assaulted by a group of Hell's Angels bikers after leaping from the stage to aid a victim of crowd violence) increasingly withdrew from the group creatively; he would ultimately quit in 1970. Kaukonen and Casady, meanwhile, formed the blues jam band Hot Tuna as a side project shortly prior to Dryden and Balin's departure, which would become an increasingly successful live act by 1971, depriving the duo of much of their former creative investment in the Airplane. Lacking Balin's mediating influence, the remaining members increasingly descended into factionalism and conflict, rendering their albums increasingly less cohesive, albeit while retaining the explorative and socially-commentative tone of their previous work. After continuing with a series of revolving members (including violinist Papa John Creach and, for their final concert, vocalist David Freiberg), Jefferson Airplane finally and unceremoniously called it a day in 1972. Kaukonen and Casady subsequently committed to Hot Tuna full-time and furthered their reputation as a cult staple before their dissolution in 1977, while the remaining members (Kantner, Slick, Barbata, Freiberg and Creach), alongside several new personnel, collaborated on a number of albums (generally released under Kantner and Slick's names) and eventually reformed in 1974 as Jefferson Starship.

The classic lineup of Jefferson Airplane (save for Dryden, who was excluded as Kantner still held a grudge against him for his role in firing one of their managers in 1968) reunited for one last album in 1989, contemporaneously with the final days of its distant successor Starship's lifespan. The album was not very well-received, but the tour supporting it was a big success. By then at the age of 50, Slick chose to retire from the music industry, saying that 'All rock-and-rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire'. Papa John Creach died from heart failure in 1994, and the Airplane reunited once more in 1996 for the induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; this time Dryden participated while Slick was absent. Skip Spence died from lung cancer in 1999, Spencer Dryden died in 2005 from colon cancer, and Joey Covington died in a tragic car accident in 2013. In 2016, Paul Kantner died from multiple organ failure and septic shock following a heart attack, and Signe Anderson died from COPD on the same day as Kantner. Marty Balin passed in 2018.

Principal Members (Founding members in bold):

  • Signe Toly Anderson - backing and lead vocals, percussion (1965–66; died 2016)
  • Marty Balin - lead vocals, guitar, bass, percussion (1965–71, 1989, 1996; died 2018)
  • John Barbata - drums, tambourine, percussion (1972)
  • Jack Casady - bass, guitar (1965–72, 1989, 1996)
  • Joey Covington - drums, percussion, backing and lead vocals, congas, tambourine (1970–72; died 2013)
  • Papa John Creach - violin, vocals (1970–72; died 1994)
  • Spencer Dryden - drums, percussion, piano, organ, steel balls, vocals (1966–70, 1996; died 2005)
  • David Freiberg - vocals, tambourine, guitar (1972)
  • Bob Harvey - bass (1965)
  • Paul Kantner - guitar, backing and lead vocals (1965–72, 1989, 1996; died 2016)
  • Jorma Kaukonen - guitar, backing and lead vocals, sitar (1965–72, 1989, 1996)
  • Jerry Peloquin - drums (1965)
  • Grace Slick - lead vocals, piano, organ, recorder, keyboard (1966–72, 1989)
  • Alexander "Skip" Spence - drums (1965–66; died 1999)

Studio Discography:

Live Discography:

  • 1969 - Bless Its Pointed Little Head
  • 1973 - Thirty Seconds Over Winterland
  • 1991 - Live at the Monterey Festival
  • 1996 - Feed Your Head: Live '67–'69
  • 1998 - Live at the Fillmore East
  • 1999 - Through the Looking Glass
  • 2006 - At Golden Gate Park
  • 2007 - Last Flight
  • 2007 - Sweeping Up the Spotlight: Live at the Fillmore East 1969
  • 2007 - At the Family Dog Ballroom
  • 2009 - The Woodstock Experience note 
  • 2010 - Live at the Fillmore Auditorium 10/15/66: Late Show: Signe's Farewell
  • 2010 - Live at the Fillmore Auditorium 10/16/66: Early & Late Shows: Grace's Debut
  • 2010 - Live at the Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66: We Have Ignition
  • 2010 - Return to the Matrix 2/1/68

Non-album singles:

  • 1966 - "It's No Secret" note  / "Runnin' Round This World"
  • 1970 - "Mexico" / "Have You Seen the Saucers?"

Concert film appearances:

"Feed your tropes!":

  • After the End: "Wooden Ships" (written by SF Fan Paul Kantner, in collaboration with members of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and a hit for both groups) depicts ocean-dwelling survivors of an unspecified apocalyptic event.
  • Alice Allusion: All over the place in "White Rabbit". It's intended as a Take That! to parents who read their kids stories like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in which Alice herself uses several drug-like substances to change various aspects of her being, and then wonder why those kids go on to use drugs. The song is so ubiquitous in popular culture that it may qualify as the Trope Codifier.
  • Anarchy Is Chaos: Zig-Zagged. Paul Kantner was an anarchist, and this showed up in several cases in the band's lyrics, most notably on Volunteers, where America, under the auspices of the Nixon government, is depicted as chaotic. However, anarchy itself isn't depicted as any less chaotic; "We Can Be Together" states: "We are forces of chaos and anarchy/Everything they say we are, we are." (It should be noted that overall most anarchists do not advocate chaos, but this may have been meant to mock the common perception.)
  • Boléro Effect: "White Rabbit" starts off spare then gets more intense as it goes, and Grace Slick has said that Boléro itself was a major inspiration for the song's structure.
  • Cover Version: David Crosby's polyamory-themed "Triad" is covered on Crown of Creation. Notably, Crosby brought the song to the band after it was originally rejected by The Byrds, but The Byrds later changed their mind and recorded a version as well (though it sat on the shelf for several decades).
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: The first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off is basically a straight-ahead folk-rock album with little hint of the tripped-out weirdness that would follow. It's also worth noting that there is quite a bit more straight-ahead folk-rock on Surrealistic Pillow than a lot of people seem to remember there being. In one of his first album reviews, legendary rock critic Robert Christgau even called it "amplified Peter, Paul and Mary". But the group's penchant for chemical experimentation definitely affected even the folk-rock songs on that album.
  • Friendly Rivalry: With The Grateful Dead, since they all knew each other from their earlier Folk Music days, and were easily the top two attractions on the San Francisco rock scene. Jerry Garcia was famously credited as "musical and spiritual adviser" on Surrealistic Pillow.
  • Greatest Hits Album: Sarcastically titled The Worst of Jefferson Airplane.
  • Green Aesop: Several songs, such as "Eskimo Blue Day", which depicts how the concerns of humanity are ephemeral and trivial in comparison to the grandeur of nature.
    Snow cuts loose from the frozen
    Until it joins with the African sea
    In moving, it changes its cold and its name
    The reason I come and go is the same
    Animal game for me
    You call it rain
    But the human name
    Doesn't mean shit to a tree
  • I Am the Band: Marty Balin started the band as a vehicle for his career, but Grace Slick and Paul Kantner eventually took over.
  • Lyrical Cold Open: "Somebody to Love".
  • Mushroom Samba: "White Rabbit".
  • Non-Appearing Title: "White Rabbit", "Third Week in the Chelsea".
  • Oppressive States of America: In "Volunteers", this is the basis for the call for revolution.
  • Packaged as Other Medium:
    • Bark is done up as a grocery bag, with a "JA" logo patterned after the old A&P grocery logo, plus an inner sleeve meant to evoke a fish wrapped in butcher paper.
    • Long John Silver is done up as a cigar box, with faux wood paneling on the front cover. The original vinyl issue also had a special foldout interior, with a row of cigars printed on the inner paper sleeve, and, on the cardboard underneath it, a picture of a marijuana stash (which ties in to the print on the front cover touting "9 fine blends of fragrant weed"—the album has 9 songs on it).
  • Polyamory: The subject of "Triad".
  • Precision F-Strike: "Up against the wall, motherfucker!" and "In order to survive, we steal/Cheat, lie, forge, fuck, hide, and deal" in "We Can Be Together". On the same album, "You call it rain/But the human name/Doesn't mean shit to a tree" on "Eskimo Blue Day". The record company objected to the F-bomb until Paul Kantner pointed out that they had already released the soundtrack to Hair, which featured the same word. (The printed lyrics nonetheless had the word censored as "fred".) A performance of "We Can Be Together" on The Dick Cavett Show also marked the first time the word "fuck" was broadcast on American television.
  • Psychedelic Rock: One of the most influential groups in the genre, the 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow is one of several albums that helped to define the sound of the Summer of Love.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Villified: "Volunteers" paints a rosy picture of armed rebellion.
  • Rockumentary: Jefferson Airplane was one of the acts at the infamous Altamont Free Concert, documented in the film Gimme Shelter (1970). Lead singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious by a club-wielding Hells Angel biker.
  • Rooftop Concert: In New York, for an aborted Jean-Luc Godard film, about seven weeks before The Beatles did their more famous concert.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here:
    • Marty Balin quit Jefferson Airplane in 1971 after realising he was the odd one out.
    • Grace Slick did so as soon as the reunion was over, deciding that she was getting too old for this.
  • Sexbot: Marty Balin claims that "Plastic Fantastic Lover" was a paean to his new stereo system (or maybe TV—the story varies), but the description of it as a lover with "chrome-colored clothes", and the references to "Data Control and IBM" make it clear that he was trying to imply a little more—possibly influenced by some of Kantner's SF collection.
  • Shout-Out: Paul Kantner was a science fiction fan, and several of his songs contain references to SF works:
    • The lyrics of the eponymous title track of the album Crown of Creation were taken (with permission) entirely from the novel The Chrysalids by British SF author John Wyndham.
    • "White Rabbit" is devoted to making Alice's Adventures in Wonderland even trippier.
      • "Rejoyce" on After Bathing At Baxter's is basically "White Rabbit 2.0", this time based on James Joyce's Ulysses (plus some additional 1967-vintage political commentary).
    • "Triad" contains a couple of references to Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, but it was actually written by David Crosby.
    • "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil" opens and closes with lyrics directly quoted from an A. A. Milne poem (and there's an additional allusion to Milne elsewhere in the lyrics). Also, "Pooneil" from the song's Non-Appearing Title is a Portmanteau of the names of Winnie the Pooh and Folk Music singer-songwriter Fred Neil (best-known as the writer of "Everybody's Talkin'").
      • "The House at Pooneil Corners" is also full of allusions to Milne. Even the song title qualifies, and not merely because of the reappearance of Pooneil — the second Winnie-the-Pooh book was titled The House at Pooh Corner.
    • The album Volunteers had the Working Title of Volunteers of Amerika, partly in reference to the organisation Volunteers of America and partially in reference to both German fascism (as a Take That!) and to Franz Kafka's novel Amerika (as a Shout-Out). When the real Volunteers of America objected, however, the title of the album was shortened.
    • "Up against the wall, motherfucker!" from "We Can Be Together" is a reference to an anarchist affinity group in New York City that protested the Vietnam War. They in turn had taken their name from the poem "Black People!" by Amiri Baraka. Many of the lyrics to the song were taken from a leaflet written by Motherfucker John Sundstrom for the East Village Other.
  • The '60s: Odds are good that, if you're watching a program about or set in the Sixties, you'll hear a Jefferson Airplane song on the soundtrack. Even if it's the very early Sixties. "Somebody to Love" got so much of this usage that Darby Slick, Grace's ex-brother-in-law who wrote the song, was able to retire early and comfortably on his royalty money from just that song.
  • Spell My Name with a "The": Is it "Jefferson Airplane" or "The Jefferson Airplane"? Averted by the band's successors.
  • Stage Name: When he signed as a solo artist with Challenge Records in 1962, the label changed his name from Marty Buchwald to Marty Balin (perhaps thinking of actress Ina Balin, who was popular around that time), and he stuck with it for the rest of his career.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Fuck" was replaced in the printed lyrics of Volunteers with "fred".
  • Vocal Tag Team
  • What Have I Become?: Grace Slick left Starship because she felt they sold out, and had gone a direction that was contradictory to Jefferson Airplane's roots. She left the Jefferson Airplane revival band because she felt she had become a cover artist, and was simply too old to continue in music.


Video Example(s):


White Rabbit

The Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit" was intended as a Take That to parents who read their kids stories like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in which Alice herself uses several drug-like substances throughout her whimsical adventure, only to wonder why those same kids would go on to use drugs.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / AliceAllusion

Media sources: