TALKING ROCK [MAY 1967]
The most important recent happening in rock is the national emergence of San Francisco's Jefferson Airplane and to a lesser extent the Grateful Dead. The following two-part report on the Bay area scene is based to a large extent on comments by Friscan Larry White, editor of Innisfree and personal friend of several of the Airplane.
Jefferson Airplane has had two albums and five singles on RCA. They have been big in SF for somewhat over a year but only their most recent single 'Somebody to Love' and album 'Surrealistic Pillow' have given them the national prominence they deserve. Both are 44 and rising rapidly on their respective Billboard charts, but this doesn't begin to measure their Boston popularity, with 'Pillow' one of the Coops' best selling albums and their fabulous two-week Unicorn sellout.
'Surrealistic Pillow' has the same basic sound as their first album, 'Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,' a folk-based sound with a message of love and beautifully interwoven patterns of guitar runs. However, 'Pillow' is a better album for two reasons. First, the production is much better. On the first album at many points, the instruments don't blend together as they do in person and the vocals at many points seem watered-down. Compare 'White Rabbit' on 'Pillow' with any of the cuts on 'Takes Off' and the difference is apparent. The producers are different on the albums, Matthew Katz and Tommy Oliver on the first, Rick Jarrard on the second. Apparently RCA realized that the Airplane required more than run-of-the-mill producers. Dave Hassinger is the engineer on both; he has also engineered such Stones' material as 'Satisfaction.'
The second reason for improvement is personnel changes. The group is composed of a male and female singer switching lead, two guitars, bass, and drums. Between albums female singer and drummer were switched, both for the better. Signe Anderson, original vocalist, dropped out of the group after she discovered she was giving her husband their second child. Grace Slick became the new female vocalist after being with the Great Society, a now-disbanded, but then excellent, Frisco group. Even before she joined the Airplane, 'Crawdaddy' had described her as "the single most talented woman in San Francisco's performing rock scene." Her soprano solos on 'White Rabbit' and 'Somebody to Love' are fantastic; when seeing her perform them you realize how she gets the sound she does - she really feels the music. She wrote 'White Rabbit' and brought 'Somebody to Love' over from the Great Society where her brother Darby had written it. The Great Society, the rest of whom are now studying music in India, recorded 'Somebody to Love' first.
The original drummer was Skip Spence. He was really a guitar player, not a drummer, but Marty Balin, the lead singer and writer of most of the material, liked his looks and overall musical ability. The Airplane is practically a personal project of Marty's; he also handpicked Paul Kantner, rhythm guitar and backup vocalist. Anyhow Skip became tired of playing drums so he quit the group and formed Moby Grape, now one of Frisco's top five bands. Spence Dryden became the new drummer and is a real drummer.
The two members not mentioned yet are Jack Casady, bass, and Jorma Kaukonen, lead guitar. They have been friends since childhood and were in with Marty in the forming of the group. Casady's bass is the most imaginative in rock'n'roll. Listen to 'Let Me In' on the first album for runs which seem like they're never going to stop. When you listen to any Airplane material turn the whole thing up loud, but turn the bass up a little louder than you normally would. You'll see just what Casady does that was lacking in earlier rock. Jorma's lead guitar is equally brilliant; it intermingles beautifully with the vocals, sometimes highlighting them, sometimes mimicking them, sometimes performing very appropriate runs. "Jefferson Airplane" was Jorma's nickname before it became the group's name.
Jefferson Airplane was formed nearly two years ago by former folk singer Marty Balin, who had long been interested in rock. He more or less handpicked the members and then began long hours of practice. Marty wrote love music - he injected real love into his words and music. It may lack the sheer poetry of Paul Simon's lyrics, but his words are far above those of standard rock 'n' roll, in maturity and in feeling.
They moved first to the local discotheques and dance halls. They became firmly enmeshed with the psychedelic scene and then moved on to Fillmore Auditorium, SF's top dance place, managed by Bill Graham, founder of the kind of printing you read at two words per minute. Their first single was 'It's No Secret' and it didn't even make it in Frisco. It wasn't the record's fault - it was one of their best efforts - they just weren't well enough known and the people weren't ready for it. Their second, third, and fourth singles all made it into SF's top five but didn't do much elsewhere. These were 'Come Up the Years,' 'Bringin' Me Down,' and 'My Best Friend.' By this spring word was beginning to spread, enlightened disc jockeys were playing their records, and they were touring the East at places like Cafe au Go Go and the Unicorn. Then both 'Somebody to Love' and 'Surrealistic Pillow' caught on...
Good possibilities for their next single include 'White Rabbit,' a solo by Grace which builds all the way with clever words interpreting "Alice in Wonderland" as a drug story, and 'Today,' a beautiful song sung by Marty in a soft style somewhat reminiscent of Gene Pitney with thundering echoing percussion and a compelling rhythm.
San Francisco has spawned many great groups because of its position as center for migration of potentially-great-musician hippies and because the audiences require more musical sophistication than in other markets. The Grateful Dead is another band which has been around SF for 5 years (originally as the Warlocks). Their album is beginning to sell well at the Coop but has not yet cracked Billboard's charts. They are more closely connected with the hippie scene than is the Airplane and have received much magazine publicity in this respect. Despite their hair (the longest I've seen - especially pop heroes PigPen, organist, and lead guitarist Jerry "Captain Trips" Garcia) they are no joke; they have a fantastic blues-oriented sound.
Their album does not do them justice; most of their 10-15 minute (when live) songs are cut down to 2 1/2 minutes and they don't have time to develop. Some of these shortened tunes are reminiscent of Love, Butterfield Blues Band, or the Blues Project. However, once one listens to 'Morning Dew' or 'Viola Lee Blues,' he forgets the mediocrity of the rest. The former is a beautiful 5-minute electric rendition of the folk-blues classic, while the latter, 10 minutes long, is the Dead at their best, twice building from a slow blues vocal to a wild instrumental climax.
Eleven top Frisco groups are good friends and often work together. Jerry Garcia of the Dead played with the Plane on some of 'Surrealistic Pillow.' The Airplane, Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, an excellent Frisco band that hasn't yet recorded, performed together at a gala New Year's Eve party at Fillmore Auditorium. Moby Grape was formed by the Airplane's original drummer and is now probably number 3 in SF - in six months, too.
The Sopwith Camel, of 'Hello Hello' fame, is San Francisco's good time band and they are good in this bag. Because they aren't so closely connected with psychedelic sound as the others, I do not connect them with the Bay Area so much, but they are a bona fide SF group. The Chocolate Watchband is a good but still local group who will soon have a part in a movie about what's going on in San Fran. Country Joe and the Fish is a good blues band who have a very worthwhile extended play record available at the Coop. The 13th Floor Elevator had a great hard rock single 'You're Gonna Miss Me' that made it in many areas of the East last summer.
All considered, there are many bands which would be great anywhere else though they are only 'just another drop' in Frisco. The Airplane's phenomenal growth spells promise for the rest even though they are not quite up to the Airplane's level of greatness.
(by Don Davis, from the MIT Tech, May 2 & May 5 1967)
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TALKING ROCK [OCTOBER 1967]
The following letter was received from Jim Stone '69, in San Jose, California on a co-op course!
You asked for some news of the Bay Area scene, so here it is.
Top local groups
Big Brother and the Holding Company are the biggest group around SF now, but supposedly they're not long for this world. I talked to Peter Pan, the sound man at the Avalon Ballroom. He says that Janis Joplin, the group's powerhouse singer, is on an ego trip and the group is pretty unsettled.
Another big group is the Steve Miller Blues Band - acid-rock blues. They were a feature at the Avalon quite often this summer. The Avalon, run by the Family Dog, is a better place than the Fillmore.
Bill Graham, who runs the Fillmore, is far from being a hippie, so the old-timers go to the Avalon, leaving the Fillmore more for teeny-boppers and tourists. The Fillmore, however, generally has bigger name acts.
One group from SF, the Blue Cheer, has three members and divides 11 (that's eleven) amplifiers between two of them. They aren't as musical as some of the other groups, but they have quite a powerful effect.
The Airplane has gone national and commercial, but they still put in an appearance when they're around.
The Grateful Dead got busted about two weeks ago - a pound of grass and some hash in their place on Haight Street - so they're out for a while.
Incidentally, the last time the Doors played the Fillmore this summer, their lead singer was so stoned he just lay down on the stage and refused to sing. The fans voiced their disapproval so he threw his microphone into the crowd. They probably won't play the Fillmore much now.
Butterfield's new band is missing something without Bloomfield, but they're still one of the best blues groups around. When I saw them, they had a trumpet and a sax player, along with the usual sidemen.
Mark Naftalin stays in the background most of the time, leaving the spotlight to Butterfield himself, but when he comes on with a keyboard solo, he really works out. Rumor has it that Bloomfield's Electric Flag was busted while they were in LA for a gig.
Groups outside SF
A group to watch with a lot of talent is Canned Heat. Also from LA is Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. Their 'Safe as Milk' album should be good.
Captain Beefheart puts out some groovy acid music - he really has a strange voice. I saw them and the Buddy Guy Blues Band at the Avalon last Saturday. Buddy Guy is groovy blues, Chicago style - all spades.
A New York group that's been popular here is the Vanilla Fudge. Their style is unique, and if they ever do an album of original songs, it should be great.
Also watch another British group called the Pink Floyd. Charlie Musselwhite's Sound System is a good blues group to watch. Musselwhite used to get sideman billing with Barry Goldberg's old band. I guess you know that Goldberg is with the Electric Flag these days.
Happenings outside SF
Moving south to Santa Clara county, the big club is the Continental Ballroom, and the big groups are the Chocolate Watchband and Mother Flower's Medicine Wagon. Moby Grape is number one in Marin county, but that's a long way from here. Country Joe is big in Berkeley.
I'm involved in starting a club in Fresno, and will let you know about it.
Tonight I'm going to the Avalon to see Van Morrison (lead singer with the late, great Them) and the Daily Flash (whose drummer quit to join the Byrds and whose lead guitarist Doug Hastings is now with the Buffalo Springfield in Neil Young's place). Last weekend the Noth American Ibis Alchemical Company Light Show put on its last performance at the Avalon - and it was fantastic.
P.S.: I spent some time with the Yardbirds when they were here - they remembered me.
(from Steve Grant's column in the MIT Tech, October 27 1967)
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AIRPLANE TAKES OFF, KEEPS ON FLYING [DECEMBER 1967]
“Fly Jefferson Airplane – get you there on time” – so sang the Jefferson Airplane about themselves, the first group of the current acid-rock genre. Last Saturday night the Airplane really flew – to unprecedented heights – in two sets at Back Bay Theatre.
Adhering to their well-known songs in the first set, the group rocked on their hit singles “Somebody to Love,” “White Rabbit,” and their recent “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil,” a definitive statement by lead guitarist Jorma Ludwik Kaukonen on what can be done with feedback. This ten-minute rendition was rather different from their single recording of the song, and much more experimental and improvised.
Although vocalist Grace Slick has gained considerable acclaim for her writing and singing, her performance was disappointing. On both performances of her “White Rabbit” she seemed bored with the song, as though she felt obliged to sing it only because it was a hit single. Marty Balin, the group’s leader, also seemed forced on “Today” in both sets.
The outstanding performer was easily guitarist Kaukonen. In past performances he has had a smooth, powerful style of soloing which he enlarged upon Saturday night with his new feedback techniques. The highlights of the evening were easily “Rock Me, Baby,” a slow blues piece which Kaukonen also sang, and the two renditions of “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil,” which is probably the first rock song with a solo on electric bass. Jack Casady handled this superbly. These two performers form the basis for the most exciting instrumental sound in rock today.
Except for the few mind freaks, the audience seemed a bit baffled by the lack of familiar songs, especially during the second set. This reaction was unfortunate. The Airplane, as a growing group of musicians, have deserted their popular straight style for something they consider better. Hopefully they will continue to progress musically, and the results should remain some of the most worthwhile in pop music.
(by Steve Grant, from the MIT Tech, December 5 1967)