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(Warning: This Album Can Cause Severe Flashbacks. Listen To Only If Feeling Secure)

Review: Jefferson Starship–Blows Against The Empire & Red Octopus

Do the words Haight-Ashbury have a deeper significance than street names to you? Do sugar cubes make you think of something besides tea? Does tripping signify something other than falling over your feet? If you can answer yes to any of the above, Sony BMG Legacy has a treat in store for you.

As part of their countdown to the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the founding of “Jefferson Airplane” they have re-issued two classic albums for their respective thirtieth and thirty-fifth birthdays. Blows Against The Empire was released in 1970, and Red Octopus in 1975.

In 1970 “Jefferson Airplane” had crashed and it didn’t look like they would be getting off the ground any time soon. It had been a long flight, with lots of turbulence between the two front men, Marty Balin and Paul Kantner, and they all needed time away from each other to pursue other interests. With Jorma Kauonen (guitar) and Jack Cassidy (bass) perusing their own thing in the band “Hot Tuna”, Grace Slick and Paul Kantner had time on their hands.

Paul Kantner had always had a fascination with Science Fiction and he took this time to work on a long dreamed of project: creating a Science Fiction rock and roll album. He and Grace Slick holed up in the newly opened Wally Heider recording studios in San Francisco.

“Everybody from the Grateful Dead to Santana to Quicksilver Messenger Service would be playing down the hall at Wally Heider’s…there’s a lot of hurry up and wait in recording…we’d wander into each other’s studios…and do things.” Paul Kantner, liner notes Blows Against The Empire

Which is how Blows Against The Empire came to be a who’s who of the West Coast Music scene. With David Crosby writing and singing, Jerry Garcia playing his new pedal steel guitar, and along for the ride fellow Dead members Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman. By the end of the trip Graham Nash had joined in, and Airplane drummer Joey Covington was there for the whole ride.

Blows Against The Empire is the sixties dream of dropping out of the mainstream taken to its furthest extreme. Instead of just “Going Up The Country” to escape the horrors of Richard Nixon and Vietnam, they head off to find new colonies in the stars. Highjack a star ship and leave Earth behind.

Naïve? Certainly, but so was everything else in those heady days. Imaginative? Most definitely. It was a flight of fancy that only could have been fueled by those who dreamt of a better world. In fact it was so well conceived that it became the first, and to this date the only, rock album ever nominated for a literary prize: Science Fiction’s Hugo Award.

Musically the album’s first cut, “Mau Mau (Amerikon) carries with it the anger of the later period of Jefferson Airplane. The grinding guitars and angrily voiced lyrics that called people out into the streets to “Volunteer” for the Revolution still cry the same warning. By the third song “Let’s Go Together” they have begun to step away from traditional rock, and further into the psychedelic feel of their Crown of Creation.

Swirling guitars, primitive synthesiser notes, and the soaring vocals of Grace Slick, David Crosby and Graham Nash combine to create a wash of sound that transports far beyond what rock music of that time should have been able to do. Without the pretensions of any of the so-called art bands of the seventies, they created a unique sound that captured the essence of their concept of space travel.

(Warning: This Album Can Cause Severe Flashbacks. Listen Only If Feeling Secure.)

If you ever wondered why people rave about the vocal prowess of Grace Slick, all you need do is listen to this album. Her power and range are displayed to their fullest extent on songs like “Sunrise”, while her abilities as a harmonist are on continual display. Subtle when needed, but able to cut through the squeal of guitar feedback, her voice is still without equal.

Officially this was a solo Paul Kantner album. But as almost a joke he tacked on the label Jefferson Starship, more in reference to the starship needed to carry everyone away from the world to their new home than anything else. But as things turned out it was a portent of things to come.

Out of the wreck of the Airplane was born a new band: Jefferson Starship. The first album by the new group, Dragonfly in 1974, marked a new direction for the old band. With Marty Balin contributing one song, and the holdover members from the last incarnation of Airplane rejoining they were ready to fly again.

With the release of Red Octopus in 1975 it was if they were ready to start afresh ten years after their initial gig in 1965. Not only did Mary Balin return full time to the band but he brought them the song that would return them to the charts. A truncated version of “Miracles” (cut from nearly seven minutes on the album to the standard 3:20 for a single) rose to number three on the charts, and the album stayed on Billboard for 87 weeks, including a four-week run at number one.

Although traces of their psychedelic past can be spotted throughout this album, it marks a turn towards a more conventional blues based rock sound. In fact it’s only the unique talents of Grace Slick, Marty Balin, and Paul Kantner that save Red Octopus from being just another generic mid seventies rock album.

But that has always been what’s separated this band from the rest of the pack. So many of the other psychedelic bands of the sixties vanished with barely a ripple to show their passing. I doubt if I could name one song by Quicksilver Messenger Service, let alone any of the other bands that sprang out of the Bay area.

In the hands of another group a song like “Miracles” would have been so much sentimental crap. Only singers with the integrity of Marty Balin and Grace Slick could give that song the sincerity needed to rescue it from being too saccharine to stomach.

The addition of violinist Pappa John Creech to the Starship line up was an act of inspiration. Along with Joey Covington, John Barbata, and David Frieberg Papa John was a holdover from the last incarnation of the Airplane. While his violin playing is along the standard blues/jazz lines, his ability to integrate with the band distinguished him from the slew of subsequent rock violinists. He was never a novelty item, hauled out for an occasional number; he was part of the band.

While Jefferson Starship may have charted a more conventional flight path on Red Octopus than the Airplane, their strength was always not in what had, but what they did. How many times are you going to hear a vocalist harmonizing with a violin as Grace Slick does with Papa John, in a straight ahead rock and roll band?

With the wilder edges sanded off, Jefferson Airplane was converted to a band of the seventies, instead of a band from the sixties. Jefferson Starship and Red Octopus was a sign of the times. Rock music had become a business which had a framework within which bands had to fit. There wasn’t any room left for sugar cube-sweetened music.

Blows Against The Empire and Red Octopus were released five years apart and represent two vastly different eras of popular music as seen through the eyes of one creative engine. When one flew on the Airplane is was by the seat of the pants, plenty of detours and visits to unexpected places. The Starship plotted a more direct course, going from A to B with only minor hiccups along the way.

While musically both incarnations are strong and technically sound, there’s little doubt in my mind with whom I’d rather have flown. Give me a turbulent ride on the Airplane any day of the week.

Both Blows Against The Empire and Red Octopus anniversary re-issues will be in stores on September 16th. Each CD features previously unreleased bonus tracks. On Red Octopus there is the single version of “Miracles” plus three live recordings of the band playing songs from the album recorded at a gig at Winterland in 1975.

The extra tracks on Blows Against The Empire feature a couple of nice acoustic demos, a nifty little session of Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart fooling around, and a live version of the song “Starship” from 1970. Hidden right at the end are two really goofy radio spots advertising the album.

If you were thinking that the skies were safe, well think again. The Starship is still flying around North America and Europe on the “Jefferson Starship Saves The World Tour 2005” You can watch their flight pattern here

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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