Time Capsule: Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, we’re looking at Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 sophomore album, a project that launched the voice of Grace Slick into the stratosphere and cemented the band as one of the great counterculture acts of its generation.

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Time Capsule: Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow

After Jefferson Airplane took flight on their debut, they followed it up with a sophomore effort in 1967 that evolved their sound while adding a career-defining voice. Surrealistic Pillow built incredibly on the folk-rock elements that piloted their debut, all while bringing a psych-rock edge with Grace Slick’s siren wail. A definitive “summer of love” release, Surrealistic Pillow is a triumph of San Francisco psychedelia that characterized an era of music with its magnetic quality and acidic influence.

Before recording their folk-centric debut, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, the band had already garnered attention from practically every label near their home venue: The Matrix in San Francisco. With the support of the city’s music community, including a glowing review from Ralph J. Gleason in the San Francisco Chronicle, the band went on to make a record with founding members Marty Balin and Paul Kantner, who recruited Signe Toly Anderson, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady and Alex “Skip” Spence for the record. Soon after recording finished, Spence and Anderson took off pursuing other projects—beginning the band’s cyclical nature and ushering in the famous Jefferson Airplane sound featured on their second LP, Surrealistic Pillow.

In the fall of 1966, after Grace Slick and Spencer Dryden were added to the band, the acid rockers got to work on their new sound. The recording process took only two weeks, but it was no doubt a snapshot of an era defined by unbound creativity and free spirit. Another one of these nomads of originality joined them in the recording process—the powerhouse group brought in Jerry Garcia as a “spiritual advisor,” a collaboration that added a certain electric quality to the solid instrumental foundation of the group. Surrealistic Pillow was not just an album; it was a vessel that brought the magic of the vibrant San Francisco psych-rock scene into a studio recording. Slick’s vivacity and Marty Balin’s softer folk offerings were particularly crucial in driving the soul of the album, while the combined musicality of Jack Casady, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen painted the corners.

Jefferson Airplane eases you into its new era with an infectious folky romp that pairs Balin’s melodic croon with Slick’s mesmerizing, harmonic cries. Staying true to their debut, “She Has Funny Cars” rocks with a toe-tapping beat—letting the jazz-inspired percussion ground the track and highlight Kaukonen’s riffage. The third track proves that Surrealistic Pillow truly was a collaborative effort, with their past bleeding into their future. Departed member Skip Spence’s final contribution to the band was “My Best Friend,” a love number rooted in the acoustic energy of their debut, lacking the kaleidoscopic depth of the rest of the album’s production while still being sweetly infectious.

Along with her remarkable lead vocal, Slick brought two of what would become Jefferson Airplane’s biggest hits—“Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit”—from her past in The Great Society. The former was written by Darby Slick and recorded by Grace’s former band before it became a monstrous hit for Jefferson Airplane, and “Somebody To Love”—originally titled “Someone to Love”—is an explosion of Grace’s vocal savvy packaged in a track about searching for monogamous love in the trend of free-flowing polyamory in the mid-’60s. Kaukonen’s guitar solo at the arrangement’s end matches the high-strung emotion displayed by Grace—in a frenzied declaration of being desperate to give your overabundance of love to someone following a break-up. The opening lines, “When the truth is found to be lies / And all the joy within you dies / Don’t you want somebody to love,” are especially a gut punch emphasized by Slick’s dynamic howls.

The narrative brilliance of “White Rabbit” is what got me into Jefferson Airplane, thanks to my tween obsession with all things Alice in Wonderland. The track features prominent characters and imagery from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and Grace Slick’s writing also draws inspiration from the rise of LSD in counterculture and the hippie community in which psychedelic rock received its namesake in the first place. The track follows a marching drum beat layered with Kaukonen’s subdued guitar-playing, slowly building to an eruption of Slick’s contralto urging us “When logic and proportion / Have fallen sloppy dead / And the White Knight is talking backwards / And the Red Queen’s off with her head / Remember what the dormouse said / Feed your head.” A lovely reminder to drop another tab.

Jerry Garcia stepped out of the metaphysical realm as a spiritual guide to lend his incredible guitar abilities to three tracks: “Today,” “Comin’ Back to Me” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover.” He combined his Grateful Dead madness with the deadly blues-folk combo of Kaukonen and Casady, and “Today” is a misty romantic ballad that brings a spacey feel to the grounded, earthy energy of his dreamy acoustics. Balin and Slick’s vocals intertwine in a gorgeously longing harmony. “Comin’ Back to Me” slows down even further with just a soft guitar melody paired with a breezy recorder, letting Balin draw us in with a plea to a lost lover as he sings, “Strolling the hills overlooking the shore / I realized I’ve been there before / The shadow in the mist could have been anyone / I saw you / Comin’ back to me.” Garcia rounds out his lead guitar contributions with some head-bopping psych-pop on “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” and Dryden’s drums keep a steadfast beat for Garica to wail on between Balin’s rhythmic anti-establishment cry: “Of the TV program waste / Data control and IBM / Science is mankind’s brother / But all I see is drainin’ me.”

Kaukonen’s equally prolific guitar leads on “How Do You Feel” and “Embryonic Journey” stand alone, and the two jangly acoustic tracks drip with that free-spirited “summer of love” attitude—and a delectable tambourine to boot. The combined arrangement of tambourine, recorder and guitar brings an airy jaunt to “How Do You Feel,” and Kaukonen also goes to town on the acoustic, picking on the wordless interlude “Embryonic Journey,” transporting me to a grassy stretch filled with long-haired barefoot music lovers swaying in slow motion.

Jefferson Airplane revived their humorous spirit with a gust of mystical energy to kick off the album’s B-side. “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” is essentially a critique of the rising prices of pot over a dancey pop beat, with Balin declaring that “sometimes the price is sixty-five dollars / Prices like that make a grown man holler.” It’s a pretty catchy track for whining about dealer prices. “D. C. B. A.-25” is titled after the chords being played in the track—a display of the band’s droll humor and Kaukonen’s slick bluesy licks presented as a poetic break-up song that is merely a guise for an LSD-fueled frolic through Marty Balin’s consciousness.

This lineup of Jefferson Airplane present on Surrealistic Pillow is often—and rightfully—touted as the Jefferson Airplane for a reason. Each member brought something different to the table, helping them create their unique, multifaceted second album and propelling them to psychedelic royalty. The subsequent masterpieces of Jefferson Airplane don’t exist or flourish without this period of experimentation and transition—along with some help from Jerry Garcia. The band remained faithful to the sound they established on Surrealistic Pillow until the 1980s, when they ditched the “Airplane” and adopted a “Starship”—but the creativity and self-awareness they built into stylistic, obscure tracks in 1967 are now hidden gems shadowed by successes of “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”

Olivia Abercrombie is Paste‘s Associate Music Editor, reporting from Austin, Texas. To hear her chat more about her favorite music, gush about old horror films, or rant about Survivor, you can follow her on Twitter @o_abercrombie.

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