Mar 31, 2015

February 1968: Jefferson Airplane

Group Follows Beatles Lead: Run Own Show

The Jefferson Airplane have "divorced" themselves from the personal management of Fillmore Auditorium manager Bill Graham on February 6, following the lead of the Beatles, Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Each of these groups has taken its business affairs into its own hands on a strictly cooperative basis.
Bill Thompson, long the Airplane's road manager and now their spokesman (like Rock Scully and Danny Rifkin of the Dead, he is an integral part of the group and not an autonomous individual with his own, possibly conflicting, interests) was reticent about discussing the break with Graham but definite about the band's independence. "We might get other management," he said, "then again, the Earth might split open."
Like the other two San Francisco outfits, the first venture to interest Jefferson Airplane has been, naturally, a rock and roll show. The Great Northwest Tour undertaken by the Dead, Quicksilver, and Jerry Abram's Headlights - it was actually organized and promoted by Rifkin, Scully, Ron Rakow, and attorney Brian Rohan - was a huge success, not so much financially, although it did end up in the black, as in showing that an independent group-based operation could do everything the show business professionals could do, do it (musically) better, and have a good time doing it.
Even Rock Scully, who blithely remarked, "We knew along along we could do it...only before we were too busy scuffling and recording," was amazed at the way the tour, with the aid of a few well-placed posters and a phone call to the editor of a local and/or college newspaper, could create as much excitement in a Washington or Oregon college town as they would have caused by riding through its streets in the back of a circus wagon, plugged into a mobile generator and playing at full amplification.
"We walk into an empty hall," he said, "at 3:30 - the show's at 8 - by the time it starts we've transformed that place into a scene that would rival the Fillmore or the Avalon at their very best. They (the audience) were running into the place."
What struck everyone connected with the tour was the fact that the shows came off better - music, lights, communication between performers and audience - than similar productions with the identical musicians produced by outsiders. "There were 30 of us making a creative effort. After all, it was our thing," Rock said.
This is the atmosphere that Jefferson Airplane also hopes to capture in its future efforts. "The Airplane wants to change the concept of the rock and roll show," Thompson stated. "The San Francisco groups got into the business to have a good time and give a good show. But because of the conditions we ran into on our tour, we weren't able to give a lot of audiences the shows they should have been receiving."
The conditions he referred to are familiar to all traveling salesmen, professional athletes, high fashion models, and musicians, especially musicians: get off the plane, spend an hour or three in an uncomfortable motel room, go somewhere you've never seen before and do whatever it is you do for people who've never seen you before and get on the plane again to do it over again.
Jefferson Airplane is a big-time act (in fact it gets more money - up to $7500 a performance - than any other American band) and its members do not have to put up with the changes that many less successful performers do, but a grind is a grind, dull is dull, and tired is tired.
It was not specified whether the continuous live performances were a factor in the parting-of-the-ways with Graham, who not only arranged them, but expected the group to come up with fresh material on the road. However, the Airplane has resolved never again to undertake such a punishing schedule of appearances.
Among the new ideas the Airplane is considering is the possibility of traveling with the Doors, hardly unknowns themselves, with the bands exchanging material. This would give the audiences a chance to hear Jim Morrison soar into "Somebody to Love," followed by Marty Balin and Grace Slick singing "Light My Fire." The Airplane is also seriously considering a tour of Europe, accompanied by Headlights. If they make the trip they plan to set up some joint performances with the Grateful Dead, already booked for Continental appearances in April and May thanks to the efforts of the Dead's managers.
Setting its sights still further Eastward, Jefferson Airplane also hopes to become the first American band to play behind the Iron Curtain and is especially interested in performing in Russia. Thompson admits that he is still waiting to hear from Kosygin.
The Airplane's business ambitions do not stop at tours and concerts. They have set up a publishing company called Ice Bag Corp. Already in the works are two songbooks - for Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxter's, the group's two latest albums - which are being compiled and produced by Gary Blackman, an Airplane associate and erstwhile publicity man.
Then there are what Bill Thompson calls "visuals." Conrad Rooks, the young movie producer-director, held a private, Airplane-only screening of his Chappaqua, then met with the group and found them quite interested in his plans for a feature-length film featuring them. (He didn't mention that when he first announced plans for a rock-and-roll-oriented movie it was supposed to have starred the Beatles and been shot in Nepal.) John Urea, a Los Angeles film maker who has already produced several shorts on musical subjects, has also broached plans for a film, and no decision has been reached on which (or both or neither) project the Airplane will engage in. But some sort of film definitely is in the works.
In another, more familiar medium, recorded music, the band finds itself anxious to record some new songs but is at loggerheads with its label, RCA Victor. The issue is again freedom and the hassle is centered in two areas: promotion and the actual conditions of cutting tapes.
After Bathing at Baxter's was terribly mishandled and underpromoted by RCA, according to Thompson, who suggests that the apparent incompetence may have been purposive on the part of the company, which wanted another Surrealistic Pillow and was further put out by the Ron Cobb cover design which the Airplane insisted on using., "Every record cover, every advertisement is going to be associated with the Jefferson Airplane and we have a right to the final say" is the group's position on the matter. They also want the record company to guarantee that a definite amount of money will be spent for promoting each album and single - said money to be turned over to the Airplane and its public relations firm to be used as they think most effective. RCA, it hardly need be said, is not rushing forward with wheelbarrows full of greenback dollar bills to meet this demand, but insists that the records are its products to be sold as it sees fit.
As for the actual recording, the Airplane musicians, especially Jorma Kaukonen, are notoriously unhappy with the RCA Los Angeles studios. They want to be able to name their own engineers and production people, choose their own studios to record in - in San Francisco, if they like, which, according to Thompson, RCA now forbids - and even start their own studios.
In essence, the Airplane wants to present the label with the finished tapes for a record and say, "Here." Thompson says that several members of the group refuse to set foot in a studio until these conditions are met. The group's contract is in fact being renegotiated following the departure of Graham, but if RCA gives away promotion money or allows the total control the Airplane wants, it will be a first in the history of the relationships between recording companies and artists.
A rock group going into business for itself may not be as simple as it seems. However, on the local scene, Ron Polte and the Quicksilver Messenger Service have just finished presenting a series of shows at the New Committee Theater in North Beach that featured performers as diverse as Charles Lloyd and the Ace of Cups, an all-lady rock band. The Grateful Dead/Country Joe and the Fish St. Valentine's Dance at the Carousel Ballroom on Market Street (which will be broadcast live by KMPX-FM just like Symphony Sid used to broadcast live from Birdland twenty years ago - "that was in another city") was immensely successful, as was the dance they held a month earlier at the same location.
While the Dead have no use for the "rock Establishment" here - such Establishment as it may be - and say, "The promoters have just been putting out pap. That's why we haven't played the (Avalon and Fillmore) ballrooms in the last 8 months," the Airplane thinks it will appear at the Fillmore again, perhaps soon, and Bill Graham, playing to the hilt the amicable ex-husband of his own metaphor, agrees. "Unless," he adds, "they become too big - like the Beatles." 
And the Beatles, it will be remembered, formed their own cooperative business agency, Apple Ltd., soon after the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, and so started, like so many other things, all this.

(from Rolling Stone, 9 March 1968)

See also: (from the same issue) and (some Rohan/Scully publicity for the Great Northwest Tour) (Airplane interview excerpts)


  1. Ostensibly an article about Jefferson Airplane's plans, there's actually quite a lot of info here about their interaction with the Dead, and some quotes about the Dead's recent Northwest tour. (In fact, the article starts off with the Airplane but quickly detours into several paragraphs on the Dead/Quicksilver tour.)

    There's a glowing report of the tour - the Dead's management had organized & promoted it (instead of having another promoter or booking agency do it, as customary), and they're surprised it went so well. Scully mentions that he'd made calls to local college papers to build some buzz about the bands, and a couple of those calls are quoted in my posts on the tour announcements.
    What's surprising is that the Dead, Quicksilver & the Airplane had just formed "Headstone Productions" in order to run their own shows at the Carousel Ballroom, yet it's not mentioned here. The article says that the Dead's Carousel shows on 1/17 and 2/14/68 were "immensely successful," but maybe it was written a little too early to mention the bands' preparations for their own ballroom. That experiment only lasted about three months, and was not so successful. (I think the Airplane only played two runs at the Carousel with the Dead, since they were often off on their own tours; and Quicksilver only appeared there a couple times, though playing a run at the Fillmore while the Carousel was on its last legs.)
    The idea was to free themselves from the other promoters in town, the "establishment" - Chet Helms & especially Bill Graham. (Remember what the Dead sang in 'Alligator': "Burn down the Fillmore, gas the Avalon.") Here Scully says that "the promoters have just been putting out pap" and proudly says the Dead haven't played those places in months - which was true; the Dead had avoided the Avalon & Fillmore since spring '67.
    This particular bid for independence was short-lived; the Dead would start playing the Avalon & Graham's Fillmore West again in August '68. (They also joined Graham's booking agency, and he even briefly became their manager at the end of the year - only to find, as with the Airplane, that they were unmanageable.)
    Jefferson Airplane would play at the Fillmore West in October '68.

    As reported in the accompanying article, the Dead had announced that they would be touring Europe in April/May '68. This article claims that the shows there were "already booked" and that the Airplane might go too - and Ralph Gleason also reported in March '68 that "it is hoped to organize a European tour later this year with some of the San Francisco groups" (using the Carousel owner's European ballrooms). But of course, the tour never happened.
    The 12/14/67 issue of Rolling Stone had anticipated an even earlier Dead appearance in Europe: "the Grateful Dead may appear at a 'Christmas On Earth' rock bash at London's huge Olympia Stadium December 22... It will be the first time that a San Francisco rock group has appeared in Europe. The Dead will be in New York recording in early December and will have time only to make a one-night trip." (As it happened, the Dead didn't go - Country Joe & the Fish went instead, playing at the Roundhouse.)
    The Dead would try again in October '68 (plans got far enough that ads were printed for London Roundhouse shows in October), but again canceled the trip:
    By then, the Airplane did get to tour Europe with the Doors in September '68 - though I don't think the two groups ever swapped songs as suggested here!

  2. That idea was in the air with the Airplane, though, particularly when it came to the Dead, since the two bands played together so often. Spencer Dryden said around that time, "We'd like to mix it up a little bit: you know, let's play some of the Dead's material; let's have the Dead play some of ours; let's have Grace sing with them; let's have Pigpen sing with us. Let's have some fun! It doesn't have to be that rigid format."
    And Paul Kantner said, "We're thinking about getting with the Doors and the Grateful Dead and Big Brother, or some combination of those four...and doing a grand theatrical concert with everybody on stage at the same time... Like a three-ring circus, sort of. Where, like a group will do a song, and then maybe two people from this group come out and do something with two people in that group, while somebody else sings. There's just endless possibilities of variations you could do."
    They'd done something like that with 'Midnight Hour' on 7/16/66, and there had been the big Winterland multi-band jam on 12/31/67 (not involving the Dead), and the Dead had also jammed with the Airplane in Toronto in August '67. When the Dead ran the Carousel in spring '68, they made room for "Tuesday night jams" in which multiple bands could interact like this (Garcia playing on 'Good Shepherd' and so on), though probably trading songs was still a very rare event.

    There are some other parallels between the Dead & the Airplane here too. The Airplane have just started their own publishing company (Ice Bag), printing songbooks. Ralph Gleason said in March '68 that the Dead were also to form their own publishing group. As far as I know, Ice Nine wasn't formed til late 1970 (or at least, it was pretty inactive), though by '72 the Dead started printing their own songbooks. The resemblance in name seems to be coincidental - Ice Bag referred to a strong brand of pot, Ice Nine to a Kurt Vonnegut book.

  3. The Airplane had been arguing with RCA executives and unhappy with their producers ever since their first album, and the Dead took note. The Airplane took several months to record After Bathing at Baxter's - by now they wanted total control over the studio process. As the article notes, they "are notoriously unhappy with the RCA Los Angeles studios...want to be able to name their own engineers and production people, choose their own studios to record in - in San Francisco, if they like...and even start their own studios."
    The Dead started working on Anthem of the Sun just as the Airplane were finishing Baxter's, and became even more indulgent - abandoning the Warners studio in LA, going through several studios across the country, dismissing their producer, and in the end producing it themselves over a period of 8 months or so. The ability to start their own studio, though, wouldn't be possible for years to come; til then, some new studios were starting in the Bay Area that both bands could make use of, independent of the RCA and Warners facilities.

    Here the Airplane complain that their albums are "terribly mishandled and underpromoted by RCA," and that the record label is incompetent - exactly what Garcia would say of Warners in later years. Both bands felt they could sell their albums better themselves than leaving it to the hands of the 'straights' - so here we find the Airplane wanting to spend their promotional budget themselves.
    At this point, the idea of starting their own independent record label isn't even a fantasy. Jefferson Airplane were first, forming Grunt in 1971; however it was still a subsidiary of RCA - Garcia pointed out in '71, "Grunt Records is still's not truly independent. And our fantasy is to be completely independent if we can do it." The Dead formed their own label in 1973, which collapsed in three years. (Grunt lasted 16 years, but then it had much more successful albums, as well as the protection & distribution of RCA.)

    In short, the two bands took somewhat parallel paths, with the Dead learning from the Airplane's challenges and trying to avoid the same mistakes.

  4. Rakow apparently organized the Quick and the Dead tour. Rhoney Stanley's book talks about the conception of the Carousel idea happening the night of the 2/14/68 show.

    1. Rakow was one of the organizers of the tour, and he was in charge of running the Carousel (insofar as anyone was "in charge," and also somewhat by default as the other Dead managers let him take over that task). At this point, though, Scully was still the "public face" of the Dead, the one giving quotes to papers.

      Rhoney may be right that they didn't get the idea to lease the Carousel on a permanent basis til their second show there on 2/14 - Blair Jackson suggests that Headstone Productions had already been formed by that show.

      Incidentally, here's a page where poster artist Rick Shubb writes about his relations with Rakow & Headstone Productions: