Two things happened in 1969 that caught my attention. In November the Jefferson Airplane issued their strongest political statement at the height of the Vietnam War. Secondly and more important at the time was that in December my birthday was selected number three in the first draft lottery.
For any reader who is not familiar with the draft lottery of 1969, winning was not a good thing. It was amazing at how much my college grades improved from that date. While the draft lottery is now a relic of the past, Volunteers remains a powerful anti-war statement clocked in some of the best rock ‘n’ roll of the era.
Volunteers was different from many of the anti-war and protest albums of the sixties. There was no despair or condescension but rather it was an angry and scathing commentary about what was wrong with society and our nation. Listening to such songs as the title track and “We Can Be Together” forty years later may find them a little dated, but the passion of the lyrics and the power of the music remain.
The opening notes of the first track, “We Can Be Together,” announce a strong political statement featuring the harmonies of Slick, Balin and Kantner. It may be a tad idealistic today but as the sixties drew to a close it was a meaningful anthem. “Volunteers,” which closes the album, was a call to a generation. It was both anti-establishment and unifying, and served as a vehicle for the group to preach their political message. The music demands your attention.
I have always been attracted to the Airplane's presentation of “Wooden Ships.” The popular version may remain that of Crosby Stills and Nash, but this rock interpretation of the apocalypse, cold war, and nuclear holocaust seems more true to the song’s lyrical intent. The Kaukonen guitar solo is brilliant.
There are certainly a number of other highlights. “Eskimo Blue Day” finds a tough Grace Slick fronting a song that would look ahead to Blows Against The Empire while “Hey Fredrick” features another of her great vocals. Jorma Kaukonen would continue his creative guitar explorations on the traditional “Good Shepherd” and his own composition, “Turn My Life Down” which would look ahead to his work with Jack Casady in Hot Tuna.
Two final comments seem in order. Marty Balin was only the co-writer of one song and his time with the Airplane as a regular member was coming to a close. He always had more pop sensibilities than the other members, and as a counterpoint he would be missed. On the other hand the great Nicky Hopkins contributed his virtuoso piano playing to four of the tracks which added an interesting sound to their usual mix.
Volunteers was the last great Jefferson Airplane release. Today the album stands the test of time well. Some of the lyrical nuances may be lost on the modern listener but it remains an essential statement four decades after its release. Historically, it is an important echo from an era, especially for people with a draft number of three.