Jefferson Airplane - Surrealistic Pillow (1967)
(You'll find a short vocabulary list at the bottom of this article. If there are any other words you don't understand, don't hesitate to ask).
Let’s immerse ourselves in a showcase of the psychedelic 60s. Psychedelia describes the effect on the body and mind of taking drugs like marijuana and LSD. A lot of music was heavily influenced at the time by these drugs leading to masterpieces such as Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane, an underrated American band. Together we’ll look deeper into the songs and also submerge ourselves in the cultural effects the album had at the time by listening to a few of the songs. So, turn your stereo systems up a little, sit back and relax as I tell you a story about this album.
Welcome to psychedelia
The album starts with ‘She Has Funny Cars’, we are promised something ridiculously out-of-this-world and are given it with the lyrics: ‘Your mind's guaranteed / It's all you'll ever need / So what do you want with me?’ We’re allowed to think of anything and everything, something or nothing!
In order to make this a real Airplane album it needs a heavy dose of psychedelia, which comes in the second song ‘Somebody To Love’. Here, we have a song that promotes a free-loving society, which characterised the hippie illusion of the mid 60s. Free love demonstrated the power of the individual and that they were in control of their bodies and minds. It was also a rebellion against previous generations’ family and sexual norms suggesting that one could only love a single person in life. Lyrics such as ‘Tears are running up and down your breast / And your friends’ they treat you like a guest’, push a message of being an outsider despite being well known. Grace Slick’s voice reverberating around the song makes it edgy, helped by the Finnish guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s frantic lead guitar and Spencer Dryden’s drums. We have already looked at protest music (link to previous article).
Being on a high
This is mixed with several songs such as ‘My Best Friend’ that fit because they feel like the band are on a high – and perhaps a homage to Slick. We hear her echoing voice mocking that of the male singer, possibly Marty Balin or Paul Kantner. Balin’s song ‘Today’, a song written to an idol of his, who played with Frank Sinatra: Tony Bennett. A simple, yet catchy, riff played by Grateful Dead lead guitarist Jerry Garcia keeps our minds focused on the simplicity of the backing track.
Side two of the album starts, naturally, with an edgy, frantic, full-on track: ‘3/5 Mile In 10 Seconds’. Lyrics such as ‘Do away with things that come on obscene / like hot rods and real clean, real fine nicotine’ – push us to think out of the box. Some say this is a reference to marijuana, probably true, a regular pastime for many Americans then and now especially since partial legalisation.
Saturated with references to other drugs such as we pick up in ‘D.C.B.A - 25’ – apparently a reference to LSD, a drug that many took to explore a different dimension. This particular song pulls our minds into weird and wild experiences, even if we are not using drugs. The simplicity of the chord patterns – D major, C major, B major and A major – make the song easy to play and easy to keep in your head despite its 2:39 length.
Journey to the beginning?
We are taken on an ‘Embryonic Journey’ by Kaukonen, an acoustic instrumental, which somehow feels out of place because it’s neither psychedelic, nor rock. Perhaps out of the entire album, this is the only song, which feels like an odd one out.
Different but the same
But, as with all of Airplane’s albums, we need to finish the album with psychedelic effects. We are not let down. First, Slick’s ‘White Rabbit’ gives her centre stage for a story of how some pills make you smaller and bigger. The song is based on Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’. It also mentions chasing rabbits, the white knight ‘talking backwards’ and the red queen being ‘off her head’. Slick would later say this was criticising parents for reading fairy tales and other stories, which would later alter reality. She believed that parents have double standards when it comes to changing the reality in which we live in, perhaps another challenge to established patterns of authority.
The final track on Surrealistic Pillow is ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover’ written by Balin and it leaves us to work out or imagine what it might be about. It is actually to do with a new stereo system Balin bought, which was brand new at the time of recording this song. Lyrics such as ‘Your rattlin' cough never shuts off’ and ‘The electrical dust is starting to rust’ alluding to how the stereo system might have sounded when it kicked into action and how the static produced from the stereo system sounded.
I really enjoy listening to this album as it forces us to think out of the conventional box. Despite it being over 50 years old, there are lots of things that contemporary listeners could take from it: some of the counterculture messages in ‘White Rabbit’ in particular. But whether these messages I interpreted actually mean anything because of being written and played under drug influences, no one can tell. The different styles found on this album mean there is something for everyone: psychedelia, rock, acoustic and finally, the fact that a female singer, Grace Slick, takes centre stage is something that enabled other women singers to follow in her footsteps by taking prominent positions in rock music. We’ll examine powerful women in the music industry at a later time.
If you liked this post, please comment below and also share with your friends this review of this legendary album.