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Jefferson Airplane – Volunteers

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Volunteers is my favorite Airplane album.

The Airplane were THE archetypal Summer of Love band, with the motto “Jefferson Airplane loves you,” trippy “feed-your-head” lyrics, a communal Haight-Ashbury lifestyle, and a musical style cobbled together from folk-rock (singer Marty Balin, guitarist/singer Paul Kantner), blues and roots-rock (legendary guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, who went on to form Hot Tuna), all doused liberally with psychedelics. When provocative, strident, ex-fashion model Grace Slick replaced a pregnant Signe Anderson on female lead vocals in late-’66, the group’s classic lineup was complete.

Al Schmitt produced four albums for the Airplane, starting with their third, ’67’s After Bathing at Baxter’s. Crown Of Creation followed in ’68, the exceptional live album Bless its Pointed Little Head came in ’69, as did the group’s last great album, Volunteers.

Balin and Kantner’s title track for Volunteers is band’s best rocker ever. Kantner’s “We Can Be Together” is a wistful last rallying cry for the disappearing ideals of the ’60s. Slick’s “Hey Frederick” begins quietly before building into an 8-minute jam highlighted by Kaukonen’s guitar rampage, and the Airplane’s fine version of “Wooden Ships” is more organic and evocative than CSN’s.

Schmitt took the Airplane’s craziness in stride. “That was my first experience with doing complicated multitrack recording, with songs taking a week to record instead of a few hours. On top of that the band was bringing motorcycles and a tank of nitrous oxide into the studio. It was a little bit frustrating because I was used to people being prepared, on time, and in the right frame of mind, but I also learned an awful lot from them about spontaneity,” he said.

“We would start at 8pm and go all night. I’d go home, get a few hours sleep, and then go back to the studio to record Eddie Fisher in the morning.

“One night I got a call from Jack at 8, and he asked if we were working that night. I said, ‘Yes, right now.’ He said, ‘We’ll be right down.’ He was calling from San Francisco, we were recording in L.A. – we started at 11,” Schmitt laughed.

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    yea…and it’s out on 180g vinyl…and i just crazy enough to do it.

  • Taloran

    “Good Shepherd” is in my opinion the signature piece of the album. It’s my favorite album by the Airplane, and one of my 3 or 4 favorite albums of the San Francisco psychedelic era.

    If you buy the album “The Worst of Jefferson Airplane,” take it home, put it on, and enjoy it, should you take it back to the music store and demand a refund? (I think that’s a George Carlin line)

  • Eric Olsen

    Interesting Tal, will check that one out again. And the Worst shouldn’t be good should it?

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    you guys ever get a chance to see Hot Tuna?

    i saw them back in the early 90’s as openers for the post-Robertson The Band.

    i knew nothing about them except that Jorma was supposed to be this hot guitarist.

    yea, he was pretty fine.

    what i really wasn’t prepared for was the drunken biker contingent.

    before the show started, every couple of minutes, a different big, fat & hairy guy would stand up and shout “HOT FUCKIN’ TUNA!!!”

    weird….but fun.

  • Taloran

    I saw Jorma solo about ten times in the early to mid 80s, jammed with him at Larry Blake’s Rathskeller in Berkeley and the Mile High Club in Oakland, and saw Tuna warm up for Little Feat in the early eighties.

  • http://fando.blogs.com Natalie Davis

    Hot Tuna… Jorma and Jack. Love ‘em with big, big love. Every time I saw them play, there was some character (not the same guy each time) screaming, “Hot Fuckin’ Tuna!” I usually joined in, as did most of my crowd. Kaukonen is something. I need to see him play again soon. Wish I could see the Airplane. Grace is godlike, IMO. I hear she has given up singing. Is that true? God, I love her.

    Thanks, Eric, for putting me in the mood to listen to some old Airplane — going to grab Surrealistic Pillow right now. Keep up the good work and remember what the dormouse said.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Nat and Mark, jamming with Jorma is very cool Tal. I saw Tuna only once, in Columbus in the late-’70s, with Papa John Creach on violin.

    A good friend of mine here in Cleveland brings Jorma in to town for instructional seminars and hangs out with him down at his ranch. He is acoustic-only now doing his Rev Gary Davis thing.

    Just before I moved to Ohio (again) in ’90, I spent a day with Jack in and around the grounds of the Rancho Palos Verdes jail, sharing in their “pay to sweep floors and wash police cars in lieu of jail-time for drunk driving” program. He was on his laptop most of the time and pretty embarrassed to be there. I think it was a five-day program, but of course you were only there for eight hours a day and then went home.

    Jack’s last day was my first, and then this other guy came in who was a riot, and we just chatted like sorority girls for the next four days. The cops liked us so much they let us shoot guns in the basement firing range on my last day, BUT DO NOT TELL ANYONE.

  • Taloran

    Jamming with Jorma was more akin to a clinic than a jam session. He just blew me away. Amazing fingers.

  • Taloran

    re Natalie’s #6:
    I’m misquoting here, but Grace said something like “There’s nothing more unpalatable than a woman in her 60s dancing around on stage like a teenager” during her retirement speech. She had gotten together with Jorma, Jack and Paul to do a sit-down-on-the-stool, acoustic show with an MC for MTV’s Face the Music (or maybe it was Where Are They Now). She said at the time that was her last public performance.
    Details of the above may be somewhat fuzzy – that’s how I remember it. I may have the cast of characters a bit off, and I know I’m not directly quoting her, but I think I’ve captured the essentials.

  • Taloran

    It’s quite amazing that the members of the Airplane had SOO much fun at that time, but they’re all still with us.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    How well I remember my ninth-grade intro to Jefferson Airplane, when a kid who needed dope money sold me a cassette of The Worst for my lunch money. I feel sure I got a better deal than he did.

  • Eric Olsen

    Grace was the Courtney Love of the SF scene: the dangerous, volatile glamour girl who everone wanted to nail. She and Kantner hooked up as did Courtney and Kurt. things turned out a little better for Grace and Kantner, though, even though they have long been divorced. they were able to work together al la Buckingham and Nicks.

  • http://fando.blogs.com Natalie Davis

    Tal, I think I do remember hearing about Grace saying something along those lines. A girl can dream, though… I’m happy if she sits while she sings.

  • Kathleen

    Am I the only one who’s depressed to hear Volunteers of America as a TV jingle for Tommy Hilfiger?

  • Bikehigh

    I just saw that commercial last night, and it depressed the hell out of me. The Airplane were my heros growing up a little too late to be a flower child, a Hot Tuna were the fuel for many buzzed out and tripped out days and nights. I can accept the fact that the Stones and even Cream are being used to sell everythng under the sun these days, but The Airplane? That just sucks.

  • phil

    “look whats happening out in the streets,
    got a revolution…got a revolution”
    Damn that was the good old days

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    A lot of the Airplane’s politics have been out of style for a long time. But in recent years, they’ve become more relevant than they’ve been since the 60’s.

    I vote their 60’s lyrics outshined the Dead’s 60’s lyrics. (Although the Dead beat 70’s Jefferson Airship hands down.)

  • phil

    I saw Grace Slick, close up, get out of a limosine one night in Georgetown(DC) She was one hot looking chick..who cared about the lyrics

  • phil

    Surrealistic Pillow, by Jefferson Airplane, Break on Through, by the Doors, and Sgt Peppers, by the Beatles changed the world. 1967 was the year.

  • Vern Halen

    Nice article. I liked Volunteers, but for my money the greatest Airplane album is Baxter’s.

  • godoggo

    I once heard a recording of a commercial they did during their heyday: “strrrrrretch…jeans…strrrrrretch…jeans…the world would be a [psychedelic babble that I don’t remember] without stretch jeans.”

  • Helena

    I was at a 1969 newyears show at Winterland (BillGraham) and the Airplane were probably headlining. It was the year of the Volunteers album and Jorma & Jack did an instrumental jam in the middle of one song—-wow, best of the best. The Airplane had great engines. What song was that? Does anyone remember? Jack, Jorma, Chick?

  • Eric Olsen

    must have been great Helena – I met Jack outside the Palos Verdes jail – long story

  • http://www.suntimes.com/output/roeper/cst-nws-roep26.html Michael

    #14 and #15 Kathleen and Bikehigh, I agree that the Hilfiger ads repulsed and floored me for awhile. I actually took great comfort in your commiseration over the sadness of this sell-out. Possibly, I took too much comfort in the community of writers, including Richard Roeper’s 26 Sept. article in the Sun-Times about the molasses-thick irony here < http://www.suntimes.com/output/roeper/cst-nws-roep26.html >.

    Now, I find I’m laughing at the subversive nature of such a non-conformist song being used for fashion consumerism as juxtaposed to the Airplane’s lyrics and anti-war intentions. Yes, the pretty boys and girls are prancing around as mindless “Volunteers” for American fashion, but maybe one or two of them will ask dad, mom, a teacher or somebody, “You mean you know that song?”

    Of course, the reply I’d dream such a child would then hear would be, “Oh, yes, my dearie. Lather, hop up in your grandfather’s lap, and I’ll tell you all about the Fillmore East and West, of magical Factories and Farms, of Woodstock and people fighting an industrial-military complex to see the true justice of American principles and the true blood of American soldiers were not compromised to material greed and cultural ignorance.”

    Oh, well, it was nice to see that some people had noticed how ridiculously fucked that Tommy Hilfiger ad is. However, the sell-out from Airplane to Starship to Starship was, in retrospect, just as astounding. This album was when the group’s music mattered.

  • Eric Olsen

    “selling out” is something of a continuum, but by the time Starship was just “Starship” it was surely another universe entirely from the original Airplane. But Starship had three number 1 singles, while Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship had none, so “selling out” can have its rewards