Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow (1967)
Welcome back to YDCS! I hope you enjoyed Led Zeppelin Month last month, but this week we are back to our regularly scheduled, eclectic mix of rock and roll music. There was no post last week because work got in the way, and I didn’t want to rush a post that was going to be subpar. The result is that this one had to wait a week. Apologies for that, but we’re back at it! After listening to the hard rock of Led Zeppelin for the past month, I felt like I needed a break. This week I decided to throw on one of the most influential acts in the psychedelic rock subgenre, Jefferson Airplane, and their second release Surrealistic Pillow. Jefferson Airplane was a group that was born in San Francisco and came to light during the height of the counterculture movement of the late 1960s. The band performed at the “Big 3” festivals of the late 60s; Altamont, Woodstock, and Monterey and didn’t see much success outside of their most popular releases; Surrealistic Pillow in 1967and Volunteers in 1969. Jefferson Airplane went on to produce a handful of albums in the early 70s to little acclaim before dissolving in 1974. At that point, some members of Jefferson Airplane broke away to form the band Jefferson Starship, which saw more commercial success through the 1970s until 1984 with hits like “Jane” and “Count On Me.” In 1984, the band changed their name one last time to Starship, released what is often considered the worst song of all time, “We Built This City,” and went on to perform as Starship into the 2000s. We can just pass over that last fact…
Surrealistic Pillow was one of the biggest hits of the psychedelic rock genre and some of the songs on it became an integral part of the soundtrack to the Summer of Love. I’m particularly fond of Jefferson Airplane, and this release in particular, because of how it differentiates itself from the other heavyweight of the genre like the Grateful Dead. While other groups focused on the folk roots of the genre, Jefferson Airplane was more balanced between the folk and psychedelic sounds, tending to lean more towards psychedelia than folk. This album has got a little bit of everything for everyone; amazing vocal harmonies that take you to another planet (no drugs needed), beautiful ballads, and hard rocking tracks! I hope you enjoy the album!
Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown
She Has Funny Cars: For many people, Jefferson Airplane might be a name that they’re not familiar with. They were certainly influential in the 1960s, but never had the same mass appeal or staying power of the Who or the Grateful Dead. “She Has Funny Cars” is one of the band’s more popular entries and is stereotypical of the band’s catalog at this time, if slightly toned back on the psychedelia. Never a group to shy away from making a statement, the song is highly critical of consumerist culture, but the instrumentation actually carries stronger than the lyrics. In most cases, songs meld perfectly together, blending guitar, bass, and drums, but I find that on “She Has Funny Cars,” all of the instruments are very forward and easily discernable, and making it interesting to listen to in a different way than normal. Dad’s Rating 8/10
Somebody To Love: I love “Somebody To Love!” Grace Slick’s vocals are some of the best of her time, rivaled maybe only by Janis Joplin and Carole King. This is one rocking track! The vocals aren’t the only thing to love either; the guitar riffs are so stereotypically 1960s that the song transports you to a different time. They really don’t make rock tracks like this anymore! Dad’s Rating 9/10
My Best Friend: The psychedelic rock may not have been overly apparent on the first two tracks, but it certainly starts to come out on this song if you haven’t noticed it yet! “My Best Friend” is a much more mellowed out song than “She Has Funny Cars” or “Somebody to Love,” and pulls heavier on the folk genre than most of the album, making it a bit of an outlier in the band’s catalog. There was a lot of crossover between Folk Rock and Psychedelic Rock (read early Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead albums), so the lines often blur between the two during the late 1960s. Airplane was more firmly embedded on the psychedelic side of that line, while I consider Grateful Dead to be closer to the folk side of the line, generally speaking. “My Best Friend” is interesting because it blends those two genres really well, leaning more on the folk during the verses and the harder rock during the chorus. This is an interesting song that is worth listening to to better see how those two genres play out together. Dad’s Rating 7/10
Today: “Today” is one of my favorite songs on the album and is such a great deep dive song. That’s what this blog is about, listening to music in complete album form and finding the hidden gems. I really like how stripped back and peaceful this song is. The guitar line, combined with the tambourine actually gives me a bit of a “Wild West” sensation. Where most of the band’s work combines complex vocal harmonies, I think this song would have actually been hurt by that and they made the right decision keeping it simple and crooning. Dad’s Rating 8/10
Comin’ Back to Me: “Comin’ Back to Me” is beautifully simple, but in the same vein, painfully boring. I’m convinced that this was one of the songs that the band wrote while they were high, listened back to while they were high, and said “This is great, put it on the record!” I’ll try to find something to like in every song though, and the soft flute in the background is very pleasant. You can skip this one, you’re not missing anything. Dad’s Rating 4/10
3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds: This is more the 1960’s rock sound that I’m looking for! The song is lyrically pretty weak, comprised mostly of marijuana references and proposing ridding oneself of excess. I would add that 3/5 of a mile in 10 seconds works out to be 216 mph. I’m not sure what it has to do with the song, but the story goes that the band saw the number in a newspaper and decided to write a song about it. That sounds about right… Musically, it’s not a complex song nor was it ever going to be a big hit, but it’s a fun little hidden gem, particularly for those who enjoy the harder rock psychedelic pieces or the late 1960s rock sound. Dad’s Rating 6/10
D.C.B.A.-25: There’s a neat little fact about the title of this song; the “D.C.B.A” refers to the chord progression of the song and the “-25” refers to LSD 25. Of course, by that, I mean the drug LSD. Did you expect anything else?! This song is an acid trip. I can’t make out the lyrics so if you can, then please let me know what it’s about. Because of that I’m judging it completely on the music which is pretty solid! The instrumentation is right up there with what you expect from some of the best psychedelic rock acts of the 1960s. It has a nice strumming feeling that keeps you grounded to something while the lyrics float around and into outer space. Dad’s Rating 6/10
How Do You Feel: “How Do You Feel” is a slight return to the folk rock influence of the band’s early years. The psychedelia is still lacquered on in the vocal harmonies, but the folksy guitar contrasts nicely from them. This song is a nice change of pace from some of the heavier songs on the album. Good placement on the album, but not a spectacular song. This track isn’t bad, just forgettable. Dad’s Rating 5/10
Embryonic Journey: “Embryonic Journey” is one of the highlights of the album and the band’s career. This is a beautiful acoustic piece that shows how skilled the band were as musicians. Oftentimes I think that people forget that Jefferson Airplane WERE amazing musicians. They were certainly good enough to stay around in some form for 20 years, and this shows it. There’s more to this group than acid trips and free love. Take a listen to “Embryonic Journey” and see for yourself. Dad’s Rating 8/10
White Rabbit: “White Rabbit” is one of the band’s best-known songs, and I don’t even think it’s their best work. It’s good alright, but it doesn’t show the same level of musical talent that “Embryonic Journey” or “Somebody to Love” does. I think that what draws people to this song is how stereotypical it is of psychedelic rock in general. Yes, it’s a drug song. Yes, Slick’s vocals wail and warble for the whole song. Yes, it’s steady enough that even someone who is stoned out of their mind can follow along. And yes, it references Alice in Wonderland (Which was its own drug journey), but we’ve shown that Jefferson Airplane was so much more than this song. They were musicians, they were lyricists, and they were artists. “White Rabbit” is a good song, and I love the Alice reference. That’s fantastic songwriting for me. Make sure you don’t skip this one because it is such an important part of the band’s discography, but please don’t form an opinion on them based exclusively on this song. Dad’s Rating 7/10
Plastic Fantastic Lover: Can you say “double entendre?” Jefferson Airplane was one of the best at using double entendre to make their songs stand out, and they ended up with some humorous results. This song, for example, isn’t about what you think it is. It’s about Marty Balin’s new sound system! Musically, it’s not particularly interesting, but it’s a funny song to listen to and see how the dual meaning plays out. Dad’s Rating 5/10
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