This article originally appeared in Issue 6 of
on October 20, 1966.
The San Francisco rock scene is a complex one. It is a plentiful jumble of hard rock, folk-rock, blues-rock, bubblegum, and adult bands that have given the city its title as “the Liverpool of the West” (aptly provided by jazz critic Ralph Gleason).
San Francisco has contributed its fair share of pop stars to the teen market. The ill-fated Beau Brummels and the We Five started in the Bay Area; but the city’s current claim to fame rests in the strength of its performing underground bands. At present, the local rock scene revolves around weekend dance-concerts presented in renovated ballrooms and auditoriums. Few of the groups perform at clubs (the Matrix, a nightclub in San Francisco’s Fillmore district, was the pioneer hip club when it began presenting Jefferson Airplane; and it continues spotlighting local rock acts today). Most activity is connected with the dance-concert performances which were started almost a year ago.
Last November, a group of “concerned” people in San Francisco banded together to form the Family Dog, an organization for the promotion of local hip groups in assorted halls throughout the city. The first Family Dog dances at Longshoreman’s Hall featured the Lovin’ Spoonful (just after they’d come from New York, and just before they’d hit with “Magic”), Jefferson Airplane, the Great Society, and a number of since-disbanded aggregations (the Mystery Trend, the
Family Tree, the Hedds, etc.). These initial productions were quite successful in creating a forum for the expression of the new music, grown-up rock ‘n’ roll.
The Family Dog continued to present their dances, and moved to the more accommodating Fillmore Auditorium, where local groups shared the bill with Love, the Sons of Adam, the Grass Roots (all from Los Angeles), and the Butterfield Blues Band. In January of this year, the new dance-happening scene was advanced even further by Ken Kesey in his first “Trips Festivals” (gatherings attempting to duplicate the psychedelic experience without the use of drugs). Kesey’s first three-day festival utilized liquid light projections, old movies, strobe lights, etc., to the thunderous accompaniment of top underground bands (particularly the Grateful Dead, who can be considered nothing short of fantastic). From here the dance-concert-happening idea was parlayed into an obvious commercial venture, and now covers the entire Bay Area. It is from these early experiments, however, that San Francisco’s current adult rock scene evolved, encompassing most of the following groups:
Jefferson Airplane was the first of San Francisco’s underground bands to attract national attention (even if Koppelman-Rubin had nothing to do with them). The Airplane still remains the area’s most popular group. Their bag is folk-rock, mostly original material handled superbly by leader and male solo Marty Balin, female singer Signe Anderson, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, rhythm Paul Kantner, bass Jack Casady, and drummer Spencer Dryden. The Airplane’s sound is folk-based, with the creative contributions of six truly talented contemporary musicians. Their first single, “It’s No Secret”/”Runnin’ Round This World,” was a flop. It was too good. The bubblegummers wouldn’t buy it. Their second attempt, “Come Up the Years”/”Blues from an Airplane,” though not as original or stimulating as their first, hit big enough locally to signal an album, which should be available nationwide soon, Jefferson Airplane Takes
Off (RCA-Victor LPM-3584). This is perhaps the best rock album ever produced. “Blues from an Airplane” is lightning and thunder, “Let Me ln” (an original) rocks relentlessly. “Run Around” and “Don’t Slip Away”(originals) shine, particularly the guitar-vocal blends and Jorma’s solos. “Chauffeur Blues” shouts as it awakens. “Tobacco Road” is a good song made into a masterpiece by the group. Its sway and vocal backing in the end make it the power machine of the album. There are eleven cuts, each one a great testimony, and collectively a pop prophecy: Jefferson Airplane is a beautiful accomplishment.
The Grateful Dead are rapidly gaining prominence and ascending from their underground status to a position close to the Airplane. Most local dance-concert attendees, when confronted with a question about the Dead, will mention “Midnight Hour.” The Dead’s closing number is usually Wilson Pickett’s blockbuster, and it is transformed into a type of half-hour (sometimes longer) “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” performed by the Dead’s organist, Pig Pen. (A recent concert featured “Midnight Hour” performed by a joint “Grateful-Airplane” with the assistance of Joan Baez and Mimi Fariña.) “Midnight Hour” is not the Dead at their best. They are a hard blues-rock band, a powerhouse unit of organ, drums, and three guitars. Their best accomplishments are Pig Pen’s gutsy version of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” (with fantastic controlled harp work), “The Creeper,” “Empty Heart,” and “Smokestack Lightning” (both now performed only by special request), and an unbelievable grooving piece about “Born in Jackson” (supposedly written by rhythm player Bob Weir).* “Sittin’ on Top of the World” jumps, and “Dancing in the Streets” is a railroad trip. Jerry Garcia’s lead work is exciting, sustained genius. Bill Sommers is the Bay Area’s best drummer. Their repertoire is chiefly city blues, some old folk and early rock, with some strong originals. A single is to be issued shortly. A Grateful Dead album is being re-prepared (a first effort was discarded). The group has a $10,000 sound system. The Grateful Dead figure to be important movers in imparting San Francisco’s message to the world.
The Great Society is one of the city’s strongest, most original, groups, but has remained underground for some time, and recording company recognition has been much too slow. The Great Society is carried by Grace Slick, the single most talented woman in San Francisco’s performing rock scene. She sings lead, plays electric organ, flute, alternates on bass at times. Darby Slick plays an effective lead guitar, Gerry Slick is a strong drummer, and Peter Van Gelder is a heavy bassist. Van Gelder also uses an alto sax on a few jazz numbers whose effect can be described as nothing less than spectacular. The group shows a strong Indian influence and has for some time (re their North Beach single, no longer available, “Someone to Love”/”Free Advice”). Their material is penned by Grace and Darby. Particularly impressive are “Someone to Love,” “Sally Go Round the Roses,” and the few Dylan numbers (“Black Crow Blues” is great). The Great Society is reportedly planning a new single and an album, probably on Warner Brothers.
Koppelman-Rubin’s big find in San Francisco was the Charlatans. The Charlatans are hard rock, specializing in John Hammond blues and original country & western numbers. They also utilize some real traditional frontier tunes as well. They have great strength in their ragtime piano with pickups, and their rhythm section is adequate. Lead is handled well, too. George Hunter is leader and sings (occasionally) and plays percussion and autoharp. Drummer Dan Hicks pens the original stuff; his big claim “How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?” The group’s best numbers are “Backdoor Man,” “Sweet Lorraine,” “Wabash Cannonball,” and “Codeine” (which the group was dismayed at Kama Sutra for refusing to release as a single). While the disenchantment with Kama Sutra lingers, an album is in the works.
Other local groups deserve mention for their contributions as well as the aforementioned pop heroes. These people are all adults, and seriously intent on perfecting good rock as an art. Another of the more established units is Quicksilver Messenger Service. They are a good dance band. No recorded efforts have appeared yet, perhaps as the group has until recently been void of any substantial number of original compositions. Their best numbers are “Codeine,” Hamilton Camp’s “Pride of Man,” “Mona,” and “Smokestack Lightning.” The Sopwith Camel are another Koppelman-Rubin development, a strictly goodtime band patterned after John and Zal and the boys. Their blues numbers are ineffective, but on ragtime and happy stuff they excel. “Little Orphan Annie” is great. A single is to be released soon on Kama Sutra; they recently embarked for New York. Country Joe & the Fish gained underground prominence with their version of psychedelic, new-mown grass music. Delicate interweaving of harp and organ over a solid rhythm line give them the correct emphasis…their music is lulling. A Rag Baby EP is available in Berkeley for $1.00 (Country Joe & the Fish, Box 2233, Berkeley, California).
Big Brother and the Holding Company do good hard blues and revised country music. They were supposed to have been signed with Mercury, but no records have appeared yet. The Wildflower are a powerful band when they are on. They have bad nights. Their lyrics are from poet Michael McClure, and their music is Byrds. They are loud. A Mainstream single is being readied. The Blue Light Basement has appeared a few times. They rock fairly well, but all their harp rings of “Mojo.” A female vocalist is quite good. R. H. Phactor and the Jug Band are as they sound, an electric country band which has interesting moments. Current underground attention is being given Freedom Highway, a supposedly unique group with fancy lead work. They have not appeared extensively as yet.
The San Francisco rock scene continues, churning out new sounds, capturing experiences and setting up new expression. The audiences have plenty of room to delight at the marvels at the Avalon Ballroom, the Fillmore, Straight Theatre, F. W. Kuh, the Matrix. Most of the bigger bands are now at the point where they have found their bags and it is just a matter of time before they will be given exposure and a chance at national recognition. In the meantime, countless new units are forming, analyzing, experimenting, perfecting their own sounds. “The City” continues to provide an open, receptive and progressive testing ground to assimilate and perpetuate the good new thing, Rock.
[Postscript: Since this article was written, one of the better groups described above, the Great Society, has disbanded. Big Brother and the Holding Company have just returned from Chicago (where they found a lousy scene) and are really tight now. The Final Solution have returned from Virginia City, Nevada, with a good new sound. The Grass Roots are now the Unquenchable Thirst and are in a brand new bag, getting closer to the S.F. Sound. —G.S.]