Jefferson Airplane’s second album was the first one to feature Grace Slick, after Signe Toly Anderson left the band to raise a family with her husband, Jerry Anderson, (he had been one of Ken Kesey’s “Merry Pranksters”). Signe Anderson died on 28th January, 2016, aged 74, a few hours after Paul Kantner.
“Surrealistic Pillow” was also the first album to include drummer Spencer Dryden who replaced Skip Spence after he was sacked from the band following a no-show at a gig, caused by his spontaneous holiday in Mexico. Skip Spence went on to join Moby Grape and, during the recording of their second album, attempted to smash down the hotel door of band mate, Jerry Miller, with an axe. He was hospitalised and diagnosed with schizophrenia. The combination of poor mental health, drug addiction and alcoholism led to extended hospital stays and homelessness. He died on 16th April, 1999, aged 52.
Jefferson Airplane was founded by Marty Balin (guitar, vocals) and Paul Kantner (guitar, vocals). They recruited lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, who had been nicknamed “Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane” by a friend who knew his obsession with Blind Lemon Jefferson. Jack Cassady (bass) was a friend of Jorma Kaukonen’s. By the time that “Surrealistic Pillow” was released, the classic lineup of the band was established. They would release five albums before Spencer Dryden left after the Altamont Festival in 1970, when Marty Balin was knocked unconscious by members of the Hell’s Angels.
“Surrealistic Pillow” was recorded in Hollywood, even though Jefferson Airplane were a San Francisco band. Jerry Garcia was invited to accompany the band for the 11 day recording because the staff producer, Rick Jarrard was not trusted. When asked what he thought of the music, he replied that it sounded as surrealistic as a pillow.
The two hit singles on the album were “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit”. “Somebody To Love” was written by Grace Slick’s brother-in-law, Darby Slick, who had been in her former band, The Great Society. His intention was to write a song about giving, rather than receiving, love. “White Rabbit” was written by Grace Slick and was performed by The Great Society, in early 1966. She discussed how, as well as being influenced by “Alice In Wonderland”, she used the long crescendo of Ravel’s “Bolero” as an inspiration. Grace Slick explained that the song was written as a “slap” to parents, who read fairy tales to children and then wondered why they later took drugs. As a single, it made the Top Ten in the USA but was not released as a single in the U.K. until 1987, when it only scraped into the Top 100.
Jefferson Airplane developed their sound after 1966, so that by the time that “Volunteers” was released in 1970, they could legitimately be described as an alternative psychedelic rock band who espoused strong anti-war and pro-anarch views. By contrast, “Surrealistic Pillow” is a folk-rock album with influences including The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Byrds. “My Best Friend” is heavily influenced by the latter and was written by Skip Spence. Lyrics such as “I’ll follow you wherever time will take me to, forever I’ll be one with you” contrast sharply with “Up against the wall, motherfuckers”, from “We Can Be Together”, four years later. Jefferson Airplane were representatives of the increasingly belligerent alternative hippy attitudes that developed on the West Coast, culminating in the violence at Altamont. Bearing in mind the desperately sad way that Skip Spence’s life turned out, these words are unbearably poignant.
One of my favourite aspects of this outstanding album is the combination of two sad, slow, serene and superb Marty Balin songs. The conventional approach would be to have one such song on each side but “Today” and “Comin’ Back To Me” follow each other at the end of Side One.
“Today” was co-written by Marty Balin and Paul Kantner. Tony Bennett was recording an album in an adjacent studio and Marty Balin had always admired him so he wrote a deeply felt emotional love song, hoping (unsuccessfully) that his hero would record it, while Paul Kantner wrote the melody. Lyrics such as “To be any more than all I am would be a lie. I’m so full of love I could burst apart and start to cry” are a forerunner to his masterpiece, “Caroline”, which appeared on 1974’s “Dragonfly” and contained “Lights from your eyes hypnotise me like the gaze of a mantis. Even Atlantis sank beneath the waves in a day and a night Oh, but in a day and a night, I could write you a symphony”. Lyrics don’t come better than that. Anyway, “Today” is a slow, largely acoustic, song and contains some of Marty Balin’s best vocals.
“Comin’ Back To Me” is even better. Paul Butterfield supplied Marty Balin with some high grade dope which inspired him to write the song in one continuous stream of consciousness after which he hurried to the studio and recorded the song immediately, with Jerry Garcia playing lead acoustic guitar. The lyrics were equally vivid and the first verse is “The summer had inhaled and held its breath too long. The winter looked the same, as if it never had gone. And through an open window where no curtain hung, I saw you coming back to me”. Rickie Lee Jones included an awe-inspiringly intimate version of this song on her 1991 album, “Pop Pop”.
“How Do You Feel” starts with a flute melody which Manfred Mann copied for “Ha Ha Said The Clown”. The song was written by Tom Mastin, a friend of Paul Kantner. This is the only song not written by a member of the band, apart from “Somebody To Love”, written by Grace Slick’s brother-in-law. “D.C.B.A.-25” was titled after a combination of the chord progression of the song and the preferred variation of their favourite drug, LSD-25. “Embryonic Journey” is a Jorma Kaukonen composed instrumental that was used in a TV commercial for Norwich Union. “Plastic Fantastic Lover” was written about TV addiction. The mathematics behind the title of “3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds” has no physical significance, simply being the combination of two phrases that Marty Balin saw on one page of a newspaper. It’s equivalent to 216 miles per hour, in case anyone is interested.
The opening song on the album is “She Has Funny Cars”, a co-write between Marty Balin and Jorma Kaukonen. Every aspect of the classic Jefferson Airplane sound is present: a melodic bass line from Jack Casady, stinging lead guitar from Jorma Kaukonen, a stirring lead vocal by Marty Balin, ominous drumming from Spencer Dryden and aggressive harmonies from Paul Kantner and Grace Slick. “Some have it nice. Fat and round. Flash! Paradise!” Psychedelia, San Francisco style.
Grace Slick and Spencer Dryden were in a relationship for two years, but when it finished, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick started living together in 1969 as what “Rolling Stone” called “the psychedelic John and Yoko”. At around the same time, they started a musical side project which they called Jefferson Starship. Two brilliant albums, “Dragon Fly” and “Red Octopus” were followed by more AOR styled albums and hit singles, including the ghastly “We Built This City On Rock’n’Roll” which at least had the benefit of inspiring Half Man Half Biscuit’s “We Built This Village On A Trad Arr. Tune” from “Achtung Bono”.
Paul Kantner died in 2016, aged 74, from a heart attack. Marty Balin died in 2018, aged 76, two years after open heart surgery. Spencer Dryden died in 2005, aged 66, from cancer of the colon. Grace Slick (aged 82), Jack Casady (aged 78) and Jorma Kaukonen (aged 81) are still alive.
2 thoughts on “Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane”
Wonderful album, haven’t listened to it in years. At a risk of being a buzzkill, is it just me or does She Has Funny Cars sound like the opening of Last Train to Clarksville?
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