I had a friend at Royal Holloway College who blagged his way onto the group of people who ran “Chateau”, the College magazine. He was studying English and so they accepted him into their group, despite his lack of social skills or ability to relate to anybody. He was asked what he would like to do for the magazine and he muttered that he would like to write some album reviews. He may not have been able to engage with anyone but he was very clever and he realised that, if was granted this role, he would get lots of free records. I’m very glad he did that because he introduced me to the wonderful and infinitely intriguing “Dragon Fly” by Jefferson Starship. Listening to this album transports me instantly to afternoons of sitting in a room, talking rubbish and listening to this record, with my sullen friend sitting silently and morosely in the corner of the room, only getting up to put on the other side of this record. These were the days when we were free, we had nothing to worry us, we were sponging off our parents and the taxpayer and life was simple. Apart, that is, from imminent exams, failed relationships, Ted Heath’s policies and an uncertain future in which we might actually have to work for a living.
It’s unusual but not not unheard of for a group to slightly modify their name. Tyrannosaurus Rex changed their name to T. Rex. Chicago Transit Authority changed their name to Chicago. The Silver Beetles changed their name to The Beatles. Obviously, plenty of bands changed their name completely: The Golliwogs wisely changed their name to Creedence Clearwater Revival. But to modify a name from, for example The Count Bishops to The Bishops, is unusual. Normally, the reason to change a name is to court more success. This wasn’t the case with Jefferson Airplane who were one of the biggest bands on the West Coast music scene of the late Sixties. Their single, “White Rabbit”, reached Number 8 on the Billboard Charts (although it only just scraped into the U.K. Top 100). However, Jefferson Starship had significant personnel changes and albums such as “Dragon Fly”, “Red Octopus” and “Spitfire” were more mainstream than “After Bathing At Baxters”, “Crown Of Creation” or “Volunteers”.
The personnel changes that resulted in Jefferson Airplane transforming into Jefferson Starship are highly complex. Suffice to say that Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin were in both bands. From the classic Jefferson Airplane lineup, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden were replaced by Craig Chaquico, Papa John Creach, David Freiberg, Pete Sears and John Barbata. Pete Sears had been a member of the magnificent U.K. band, Les Fleur de Lys and David Freiberg had played with Quicksilver Messenger Service. Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady went on to form Hot Tuna. After Jefferson Starship disbanded in 1985, they reformed as Starship, having huge AOR hits with “We Built This City” and “Nothing’s Going To Stop Us Now”. Luckily, “Dragon Fly” is superior in every way to all Jefferson Airplane and Starship albums.
Marty Balin had founded Jefferson Airplane in 1965, when he started a club called The Matrix on Fillmore Street in San Francisco and he formed a house band. When Jefferson Airplane played at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969, he was knocked unconscious by members of the Hells Angels. Janis Joplin’s death hit him hard and he swore off all drugs. Finding himself at odds with the rest of the band, he quit Jefferson Airplane in 1970 but when Paul Kantner formed Jefferson Starship in 1973, he asked Marty Balin to contribute to the album. The result was “Caroline”, one of my all time favourite songs.
Marty Balin’s voice is one of the most soulful of all the West Coast rock groups of the late Sixties. “Surrealistic Pillow”, generally considered to be a classic Jefferson Airplane album from 1967 contains two remarkable ballads written and sung by Marty Balin, sequenced at the end of Side One. “Today” was written for (and rejected by) Tony Bennett. It’s a haunting other worldly performance with a spooky guitar hook. “Comin’ Back To Me” was written and recorded very quickly; it was superbly covered by Rickie Lee Jones on her otherwise disappointing 1991 album of covers, “Pop Pop”; it has been used in seven films: “Flashback”, “The Indian Runner”, “Without Limits”, “Girl, Interrupted”, “Moonlight Mile”, “A Serious Man”, and “The Age of Adaline”. The quality, intensity and emotional impact of his voice is remarkable.
“Caroline” is the only song on “Dragon Fly” that features Marty Balin. Within the first minute the contrast between his great voice and the guitar of Craig Chaquico elevates the song to another plane of enjoyment. When Craig Chaquico was 12 years old, he was in his father’s car when it was in a collision with a drunk driver. He suffered two broken arms, a broken leg, ankle, foot, wrist and thumb. Whilst in recovery, his father told him about Les Paul, the great guitarist, who had also been in a car accident. His father promised to buy him a guitar when he got better and this led to Craig Chaquico becoming an excellent guitarist whose skills are prominently displayed on this track. Craig Chaquico now supports “Guitars In The Classroom” which “trains and equips classroom teachers to integrate singing and playing guitar into the daily school experience“.
Lyrically, “Caroline” is a strange song. It appears to be a straightforward love song although the first two lines are “What can I tell you now, Caroline. Should I hurt your feelings or keep on lyin’?” There is some sadness and it’s not clear whether or not his feelings are being reciprocated. Although she fills his heart with wonder, and his soul with love, and his lips with kisses, she also fills his eyes with tears. There is some beautiful imagery such as this: “Nothin’ is real but my feelings and desires for you and everything looks like some sort of scenery stored in an empty theatre with stars on the ground – fences in the sky and tears in the curtain of time.” Later on he manages to rhyme Atlantis with mantis: “I get so hypnotized in the lights just like the gaze of a mantis. Why even Atlantis sank beneath the waves in a day and a night. Oh, in a day and a night I could write you a symphony. It would be just like a bird and carry my love over the mountains.”
The rest of the album is excellent, if not quite as remarkable. Grace Slick’s voice can be a little strident at times but the hard rocking sound of the band is augmented by Papa John Creach’s fiddle, which softens the sound. Many of the songs start quietly and build to a climax at which point, the harmonies of Paul Kantner and Grace Slick push me to a parallel world. An exception is “Ride The Tiger”, the opening song on the album which is hard hitting and explosive throughout.
The last track, “Hyperdrive” is full of profound/pretentious lyrics such as “I never thought there were corners in time until I was told to stand in one“.
I think I’ll go and stand in one of those corners of time right now.