Surrealistic Pillow: A Jefferson Airplane Album

The Summer of Love

We all know the story: the west coast lights aflame with counter-cultural revolutions, music becoming the outspoken voice of a generation. Drugs became the new norm for young adults, with mind expansion being toted by various figureheads. It all seemed too good to be true (and, eventually, we would find that to be mostly correct), but no one jumped to stop the train immediately.

Regardless of the politics or the social science behind and surrounding this half-decade, it's without denial we can cite the era as a spark in creativity. Prior to the mid-60's, there was stale rock-n-roll [often in 12-bar blues pattern] and highly censored television. In fact, there doesn't seem to be much [in hindsight] that makes the decade before 1967 look all that glamorous by comparison.

Then enters LSD into the picture. Before the great acid wave, LSD was largely a drug afforded only by the wealthy, and often in the medical field. Some time went by, and it became far more readily accessible to the common man, and thus the wave began. Such recreational drug use spawned many musical acts, including the band featured in this review.

Jefferson Airplane was lesser known prior to their gaining Grace Slick and release of "Surrealistic Pillow." This would soon change. The 1967 album would rocket the band into the forefront of the hippie movement, the psychedelic rock movement, and of course land them a feature at Woodstock some two years later.

Much like their contemporaries at the time--The Beatles, Byrds, Yardbirds, Bob Dylan, etc.-- they leaned left into a style of music that broke many conventions. These conventions were mostly stylistic in the sense of the music and the fashion, but the substance of the material also changed and became a bit more visceral. Humanity was returned to the lyric, and the music was raw and edgy. Never before had the technology behind the instruments been so elaborate, either, with examples of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's" proving to thrust music into new frontiers. The stage, obviously was set for the seventies and the creation of hard rock.

The band

First, allow me to expound a bit on the members of this band, collectively one of the most talented group of musicians, certainly to arise out of the sixties. While they weren't as wildly successful [or innovative, for that matter] as The Beatles (and who was?), they offered a definitive flavor that was distinctly west-coastian.

Second, they featured a variety of instruments that were, and are still, considered less than conventional. Flute, being the most notable, was a welcome addition to the edgier rock and a great compromise on their slower ballads. They also utilized keyboards well enough, though I still feel as if that was a weaker point for them than, say, those who featured it more often.

Third, we see the implementation of female lead vocals in rock music. This was far less common back in that time than I think we today realize, and that Grace Slick was one of the first pioneers. While many who would come afterward would be more popular and renowned, it's arguable that this might not have been as easily accomplished if it weren't for Slick's prominence in the late 60's and early 70's.

Marty Balin and Paul Kantner are fine guitarists and vocalists, and while their consistency over the years can be debated, it's no argument that this is one of their finest moments. Jack Casady is a solid bassist, though the dated recording doesn't highlight this as well as a modern recording would. Still, he's there, and he doesn't drag anything down.

This recording was the first of the band to feature Spencer Dryden on drums, and honestly, while there are far more famous drummers/percussionists out there, his style of playing is very complementary to the style of the band and the recording. I'm not sure he gets as much praise and respect for his role as he deserves here.

Now, Jorma Kaukonen...he's sort of in a league all his own. He's responsible for "Embryonic Journey", their instrumental track that directly precedes "White Rabbit", their anthem. His ability is comparable to the best of the time, and he is still regarded as one of the most formidable acoustic finger-style guitarists [16th on Rolling Stone's list].

Finally, of course, we have Grace Slick, as I've sort of already covered much of the story surrounding her. What she brings to the band is intangible and would set the tone for decades to follow.

The album

"Surrealistic Pillow" was probably more important than some of the "better" albums of the time due to its influence, especially in the United States. Surprisingly apolitical, yet still young and torrential, this project garnered mainstream publicity and placed the band in a position to be instrumental in their time. Much of the temperature surrounding the band, and music in general, would change as the years progressed, but for the time being, things were beautiful.

Perhaps the album's shining moment was the Woodstock festival. Hindsight being 20/20, the festival was a high point in rock and roll history [and continues to be such a mark], and thus cemented the album's hit singles firmly into music lore. "White Rabbit" is still a song of choice for psychedelic users, for instance. Would it be if it weren't for the massive popularity of the acid culture, countless hippie festivals, and overall change in cultural climate? Probably not.

Jefferson Airplane offered something quite unique, actually. They abandoned the happy, pop flavors of bands like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Byrds for more serious, even blues inspired, music undertones. They weren't folky like Bob Dylan, and they weren't quite like the brit band The Yardbirds. Where many acts of the day borrowed from Mr. Dylan, Jefferson Airplane went their own route. Instead of adopting similarities to The Beatles' styles, they defined a look that would be considered succinctly californian.

So while the album itself might not be the musical genius of Jimi Hendrix, or the virtuosity for that matter, it remains a solid entry into the 20th century musical archive. Clocking in at just over thirty minutes, a perfect time table for the focus-addled brains of acid freaks, it presents an ample amount of ups and downs throughout its progression.

Some highlights beyond their two most-famous singles would be "Plastic Fantastic Lover", "Embryonic Journey", and "3/5s of a Mile in 10 seconds."

Truthfully the entire album is gold, and deserves repeated play from start to finish. This is an album that was released when the entire project fit together like a treasure map, and only upon completion of the final track's note do you truly uncover the entirety of the prize.

"Surrealistic Pillow" might lack some of the continuity that "Sgt. Pepper's" has. It certainly isn't as audacious as Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" However, where it might lack in its broad mainstream appeal or its flashiness, it makes up for in character and musical conciseness. There isn't anything unnecessary or excessive about this album, and I do believe that's the point.

Without sounding too much like an informational article straight out of the encyclopedia, this album received many awards and much adoration in its time [and the time since its release]. Reception is almost entirely positive, with majority of critics placing due respect on its influence on the social climate and culture in its day. While the album isn't perfect, the imperfections make it endearing, even timeless. Even the feel and sound of the dated recording adds flavor to the project, and even begs for a listen on classic vinyl now and again.

What the album also succeeds at is presenting the creative aspect of the drug culture in a positive light, much akin to the critical acclaim of The Beatles' work after "Rubber Soul." All of a sudden music was presented with aspects of both art and fashion, and became a pivotal part of popular culture like never before. Much of this is due to this particular album, and the emphasis cannot be overstated [I feel].

Much of today's music scene and temperature is a result of what began back in the summer of love, for better and for worse. Some aspects, such as the ability for a musician to make a living wage while being a full-time performer, are positive aspects that remain such until the perspective is skewed [as it is today]. The negative side is we have acts like Katy Perry, the Jonas Brothers, and that canadian kid everyone won't shut up about.

We have, essentially, placed more emphasis on the fashionable than the artistic. This likely isn't going to change so long as the country slides farther toward fascist capitalism, but one can be hopeful that another band, like Jefferson Airplane, will arise and change the landscape back to where the focus should be: on the music, on the art, and on the expansion of such quintessential human traits in the evolution of our consciousness.

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