The Jefferson Airplane
Reviewed on this page:
Takes Off - Surrealistic Pillow - After Bathing At Baxter's - Crown Of Creation - Bless Its Pointed Little Head - Volunteers - Early Flight - Hot Tuna - Blows Against The Empire -
First Pull Up, Then Pull Down -
Historic - Sunfighter - Long John Silver - Burgers -
The Phosphorescent Rat - Dragon Fly- Red Octopus -
Yellow Fever -
Hoppkorv - Freedom At Point Zero -
KBC Band - Jefferson Airplane
Mention 60s rock, and many people will immediately think, "oh yeah, like the Haight Ashbury scene." I used to think that way myself. But after 15 years of research, I've had to conclude that those ten zillion San Francisco hippies generated precious little good music - apart from the Airplane, almost all of the great California bands were from L.A. (the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, Love, and of course Frank Zappa). To put things in perspective, the Airplane's strongest local competition was the short-lived Janis Joplin, on the one hand, and the Grateful Dead, on the other.
A fascinating and enduring cultural artifact, the Dead weren't much of a rock band, and even at their later, 1970s peak were never even vaguely as commercially successful as the Airplane had been.
The remaining San Francisco bands either had no national success (Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service); went far beyond the hippy-dippy "San Francisco sound" (Sly Stone, Santana); or were shallow and gimmicky (Steve Miller; Country Joe and the Fish).
Nonetheless, the Airplane is still a key 60s act you really should get to know. If nothing else, at least they summarize a movement in American rock that left a permanent imprint on our sorry excuse for a pop culture. Apart from Zappa and occasional excursions by other acts, most 60s rock was relentlessly commercial and surprisingly apolitical. The Airplane and compadres, in contrast, put all their energy into extolling their hallucinogenic world view, complete with loveably paranoid left-wing political values. Fortunately (and ironically), the band maintained some semblance of commercial sense for several years, making their early records still quite accessible a quarter-century on. Unfortunately, the Airplane steadily fell from its stratospheric Surrealistic Pillow cruising altitude all through the late 60s, eventually dissolving in 1972 after putting out several half-baked last-gasp records that are legendarily lousy (but some fans love 'em, of course).
At this point I can't do full justice to the long string of 70s and 80s records released by highly modified Airplane lineups, and by the two acts that rose from the band's ashes (Hot Tuna and the Jefferson Starship). It's confusing, and I'm a ways from hearing all those records. However, my Hot Tuna collection gets better all the time, I've listed everything except odds and ends like Jorma Kaukonen solo records, and I'll add reviews as I go along.
My impression so far is that the Starship's utter insincerity renders their commercial triumphs irrelevant, whereas Hot Tuna's art-for-art's-sake approach to the blues makes up for their lack of vocal talent and tendency to obsess with oldies - much more so than the Starship, Hot Tuna carried on the Airplane's true spirit.
You may also note that my ratings here are quite stingy. True fans who haven't yet burned out on the Airplane should just add a star to each rating as they read along.
The Airplane's mailing list maintains a totally groovy web site, dude. In fact, the conscientious site manager took the time to write me a detailed rebuttal of nearly all the many unfounded rumors on this page. (JA)
The Jefferson Airplane (formed 1965): Signe Anderson (vocals); Marty Balin (vocals, rhythm guitar); Jack Casady (bass); Paul Kantner (rhythm guitar, vocals); Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar, some vocals); Skip Spence (drums). Anderson and Spence quit, mid-1966, replaced by Grace Slick (vocals, piano, recorder) and Spencer Dryden (drums). Spence went on to form Moby Grape. Balin quit, Dryden quit to join New Riders of the Purple Sage, replaced by Joey Covington, 1970. Papa John Creach (violin) added, 1970. Covington replaced by Johnny Barbata, 1972. David Freiberg (vocals) added for the group's final tour, 1972.
Hot Tuna (formed 1968): Jack Casady (bass), Jorma Kaukonen (guitar, vocals), Will Scarlett (harmonica), Joey Covington (drums). Covington dropped before the band's first recordings, 1970. Papa John Creach (violin) and Sammy Piazza (drums) added, 1971. Scarlett dropped, 1972. Creach dropped, about 1973. Piazza replaced by Bob Steeler, 1974. Band broke up, 1979, reformed, 1990.
The 1960s: The Jefferson Airplane At Its Peak
Takes Off (1966)
A well-crafted debut record, but it's terribly derivative. The group was still under the thumb of founder and then-chief songwriter Marty Balin, who is credited on all the original tunes. His master plan was to rip off the Byrds' smiley-faced folk rock sound. But the group fell just short of Roger McGuinn's exciting electric 12-string guitar and David Crosby's seamless tenor harmonies (see Love for an even more obvious rip-off effort).
And they're tight but tepid when they're covering blues and folk standards like "Chauffeur Blues" and "Tobacco Road" - by contrast, Eric Burdon and War burned the house down with the latter song. Nonetheless, there are some strong tracks here that point to the mature hippy pop formula the Airplane perfected only a half-year later, like Balin's great love song "It's No Secret." Everyone's solid, especially Kaukonen; Spence shows flashes of songwriting brilliance on "Don't Slip Away" and especially the "Eight Miles High"-like "Blues From An Airplane"; and Casady's trademark rumbling bass lifts some pedestrian material like "Run Around."
The new CD re-release includes a version of "Runnin' 'Round This World" with edited lyrics, which the record company kept off the original LP anyway. The complete track surfaced on Early Flight. (JA)
Surrealistic Pillow (1967)
About a half-dozen great records came out almost at once right before Sgt. Pepper's, and this was one of them. Having sucked up Grace Slick from a rival San Francisco band called the Great Society, the Airplane was suddenly packed with competent pop-rock songwriters - and they were also primed to jump on the nascent flower-power movement, having stoked themselves to the gills on every substance they could get their hands on, and then moved en masse to a Haight-Ashbury mansion. At this point, however, they were still cautious and commercially-oriented enough to stick with the classic three-minute pop song format.
Jangly, occasionally folky guitarwork (some of it courtesy of Jerry Garcia), Casady's thunderous bass, and blurry group harmonies define the sound, and it works, over and over again. Slick's classic "White Rabbit" (inspired by Lewis Carroll, among other things) and "Somebody To Love" (written by her ex-husband's brother, Great Society leader Darby Slick) are just the best examples among many, including Skip Spence's left-over "My Best Friend" (it's a shame the group lost him), and Balin's "3/5 Mile In 10 Seconds" and "Plastic Fantastic Lover." All of it sounds dated, though; the Airplane's folk roots were still strongly evident, and they hadn't mastered any of the studio trickery they later would employ to such ridiculous extremes. (JA)
After Bathing At Baxter's (1967)
An intentional disaster. The Airplane went for the loosest, most spaced-out and effect-laden production they could approximate on their otherwise-routine pop songs, added some dreadful jams and sound collages, and segued all the tracks together, hoping to spew forth an American Sgt. Pepper's. Sound effects, weird percussion, incoherently poetic lyrics, and blazingly psychedelic guitars crop up everywhere, and not always to good effect. But the record's salvaged by three things: some catchy songwriting, mostly courtesy of Kantner ("Young Girl Sunday Blues"; "Wild Thyme"; "Won't You Try"); a few interesting, freakily aimless piano-driven experiments by Slick ("rejoyce"); and historical relevance - no one else up to this point had demonstrated quite so much acid-induced gall. The emergence of Kantner's songwriting turned out to be a pivotal event for the group, as he continued to dominate their records until the Airplane broke up five years later. (JA)
Crown Of Creation (1968)
Despite endless studio tricks - there are sound effects, distorted, screeching guitars, and layered overdubs on almost every song - Crown Of is just a rehash of After Bathing, with Casady again proving himself to be the only genuine instrumental virtuoso in the band (title track, and everywhere). It's much more carefully produced than its predecessor, with long jams being sacrificed completely to make room for an even greater slew of catchy pop tunes dressed up as freaky peace-and-love anthems (the 3/4-time "Lather," one of Slick's best psychedelic tunes; "If You Feel"; "Ice Cream Phoenix").
The ominous title track says it all: screamingly apocalyptic, like the album cover, it was clearly intended for the Top 40 charts anyway. And then there's the famous cover version of "Triad," the song that precipitated David Crosby's departure from the Byrds; although Slick is forced here to really sing for once, she can't capture any of the tension and creepy, soaring melody of Crosby's original, long-unreleased version.
Despite all of my catty comments, I have to admit that the album is a good solid listen and better than what the band was later able to produce. (JA)
Bless Its Pointed Little Head (1969)
This is the only easily accessible documentation of the Airplane's famous live jamming, if you like that kind of stuff - their other recorded performances are either unenlightening, thanks to their relentless early-era professionalism (Monterey), or hard to find (none of the official Woodstock records really gives the band its full due). Many of the selections are tedious, like the 11-minute jam "Bear Melt," complete with improvised lyrics. But there are a couple of interesting, if again overlong oddities - the traditional blues "Rock Me Baby," with Kaukonen's vocal and guitar (it pales in comparison to Hendrix's earlier Monterey version), and Donovan's "Fat Angel."
And there are a bunch of stronger tunes, mostly from Surrealistic Pillow, that are performed somewhat faithfully, but with enthusiastic embellishments ("Somebody To Love"; "Plastic Fantastic Lover"). And finally there's the longish version of Fred Neil's "Other Side Of This Life," some good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll fun with Casady charging along like a herd of elephants. The studio version of this concert staple was an A-side, but I don't think it appeared on an LP. (JA)
Something of a departure from the band's earlier sound, which might not have been a good idea. There are a couple of hummable, but by-now obligatory Kantner pop songs with an increasingly political bent, like the listless "We Can Be Together" and the brief, fairly exciting, rabble-rousing title track. But the rest of the record is all over the place: a straight-faced traditional acoustic folk song ("Good Sheperd"); an embarassing country-western sendup ("A Song For All Seasons"); yet more plodding, melodically inscrutable Grace Slick lunacy ("Hey Frederick"); a creepy organ segue ("Meadowlands"). And then there's the infamous cover of CSN's "Wooden Ships," so sloppy and lethargic that it's even more of a let-down than the earlier "Triad." The band was still solidly commercial at this point, but they were already far past their creative peak, and they lost it entirely on the next several records. (JA)
Early Flight (rec. 1966 - 1970, rel. 1974)
Not a "real" Airplane record, this is a compilation out-takes and single-only tracks. Still, it's kind of fun. The three Takes Off-era songs have that professional, but starry-eyed Byrds-like quality so many fans like. Then there's a very routine, but pleasant six-minute blues jam with Kaukonen on vocals, Jerry Garcia on guitar, and John Hammond on harmonica ("In The Morning").
But the real high points are two other Surrealistic Pillow rejects: the fine, and very characteristic pop song "J.P.P. McStep B. Blues," and the high-energy rock song "Go To Her," which is one of the best things the band ever did - from the roaring group vocals to the sinister lead guitar to the driving rhythm section. Meanwhile, the low points are three unimpressive tracks from 1970: a disorganized quasi-blues ("Up Or Down"), and both sides of a flop single that's mercifully brief, but musically aimless and loaded with extraordinarily bitter political lyrics ("Mexico/Have You Seen The Saucers"). (JA)
The Early 70s: Late Airplane, Solo Work, And Early Hot Tuna
Hot Tuna (Hot Tuna: 1970)
The band's debut is an entertaining live album with Jorma on acoustic and vocals, Jack on relatively mellow electric bass, and Will Scarlett adding some harmonica parts. That's it, no drums, no electric guitar, no messin' around: traditional acoustic blues from start to finish. Almost all the material consists of Delta numbers that go way, way back, including several by Jelly Roll Morton and the Rev. Gary Davis. Only the last two songs are Jorma originals, including "Mann's Fate," with Casady surprisingly presaging Jaco Pastorius. Although the performances are really solid and the record has a nicely soothing effect, it's monotonous, and I would recommend it only for blues/Kaukonen/Casady fans who are curious to hear the band shorn of its amplification - those who are looking for acid rock should look elsewhere. (JA)
Blows Against The Empire (Kantner/Jefferson Starship: 1970)
Although it's billed as a "Starship" record, this features a lineup that has almost nothing to do with the later band. Instead, the "Starship" refers to the record's unifying escape-to-the-stars theme, and the band is the Kantner-Crosby-Garcia-etc. "Planet Earth Rock & Roll Orchestra," here also including Graham Nash; Dave Freiberg on bass; and Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann.
The other important "Planet Earth" product was David Crosby's first solo album, but here Kantner and Slick dominate. The deeply strange track selection is full of aimless jams, sound-effect link tracks, and rant-a-thons like the sloppy groove "Mau Mau (Amerikon)"; the dopey, paranoid epic "A Child Is Coming," with Crosby harmonizing brilliantly on the ominous fade; and the exhausting and aimless "Hijack" and "Starship."
The few real songs are half-formed at best (Kantner/Crosby's "Have You Seen The Stars Tonight," with Garcia [?] on pedal steel). The only point where Kantner really gets his usual clever pop song shtick together is the idealistic, piano-driven anthem "Let's Go Together." Diehard 60s rock fans will love it all; beginners should start elsewhere. It's nice to know that there once was a time when experiments like this could get put out on major record labels - and Blows was even nominated for a Hugo award, thanks to its loose, escapist sci-fi plotline. (JA)
I've heard that this is unlistenably bad. I've also heard that it's great, and sold a zillion copies to boot. I suppose it all depends on whether you go in for the band's late-period sound... by now Balin had quit the group, and although Kaukonen stepped up to fill the gap, Kantner remained the group's dominant songwriter. Violinist Papa John Creach had just signed up, and he stuck with Kantner and Slick through the first two Starship records while moonlighting with Hot Tuna. Bark has been released on CD, and I'm looking for it. (JA)
First Pull Up, Then Pull Down (Hot Tuna: 1971)
Another live record, and another set of ancient blues numbers. The main difference from the group's debut album is the addition of two players - Papa John Creach and drummer Sammy Piazza - and Kaukonen's use of electric guitar instead of acoustic, all of which gives them a pretty conventional electric blues-rock sound.
Worse, they just don't have a lot of songwriting ideas. Kaukonen's sources here include Lightnin' Hopkins (a really long "Come Back Baby"), and 1920's blues players like ragtime-blues whiz Arthur "Blind" Blake and, once again, the Rev. Gary Davis. So half the record ends up with that loose, good-timey nostalgia sound Tuna never got away from. Everything is served up with sludgy monotony, the tape's sound quality being terrible, and there are only two originals - Creach's fleet-fingered showcase jam "John's Other," and Jorma's "Been So Long," a first-rate rock ballad in classic late-period Jefferson Airplane style that makes everything else here seem like filler.
Hot Tuna had a lot to offer, but this isn't the best example of their schtick. (JA)
Historic (Hot Tuna: rec. 1971, rel. 1985)
Despite getting a belated release on minor-league label Relix Records, this is a good introduction to the band's live sound at its mellower extreme.
The first side is a brief acoustic set recorded for radio broadcast.
Piazza (using a stripped-down drum kit) and Casady are both mixed way down, and Kaukonen holds the tempo to a bare minimum.
That puts all the focus on his dextrous acoustic guitar picking and world-weary vocals, plus Creach's mellow, non-stop soloing.
None of the material is too surprising, but it's tuneful ("New Song (For The Morning)"; "True Religion").
The rest is a trio of down-tempo electrified tunes from the Fillmore West's last concert in the summer of '71.
It's a thin selection, one of the tracks being yet another unremarkable 1920's Delta number ("Want You To Know").
But Bill Graham's intro is amusing, and eight-minute takes on "Rock Me Baby" and the slightly funky "Come Back Baby," both delivered at a tension-building snail's pace, tell you all you need to know about Hot Tuna's approach to the electric blues.
Not exactly a historical goldmine, it's still entertaining and varied enough to be a good buy for fans.
I understand that a 1997 rerelease of the set has been expanded into two full discs - one acoustic, one electric - and retitled Classic Hot Tuna. (JA)
Sunfighter (Kantner and Slick: 1971)
This marked something of a comeback for what amounted to an extended, informal Airplane lineup.
Both Kantner and Slick try much harder, with careful songwriting, production, and performances.
Their harmonies are often drab and monotonous, and many of the tunes have the aimless, shambling sound of the late-period Airplane (e.g., the long, sleepy jam "Holding Together"). But there are also some decent efforts: Grace's "Silver Spoon" is an entertaining ode to cannibalism; "Diana" has a bombastic orchestral arrangement that sets it totally apart from Kantner's earlier work; "Look At The Wood" is a respectable hippy hoe-down number with some Steve Stills-like acoustic guitar; "When I Was A Boy I Watched The Wolves" is a solid late 60s Airplane-style rock tune; "Million" is the best of several piano ballads; and the Aretha Franklin-like "China" gets an elaborate horn arrangement.
Not one tune is truly memorable, but at least the record isn't as offensively lousy as almost everything else Slick and Kantner were involved in during this decade.
The players include Casady, Covington, Creach; both Jorma and his brother Peter; a very young Craig Chaquico; Garcia, Crosby and Nash; and the Tower of Power horn section. (JA)
Long John Silver (1972)
The last stutterings of the original Jefferson Airplane, and it sold relatively poorly. I can hear why: the gloomy procession of Kantner and Slick songs is disorganized and virtually tuneless, so sloppy that it often sounds like a studio rehearsal. Unlike earlier Airplane records, there's no attempt at stylistic variety or experimentation with recording techniques - just the same over-loud, acid rock-plus-fiddle groove on track after track. And the tenth-rate lyrics run from high-sounding nonsense ("Twilight Double Header") to noxious smuttiness ("Milk Train") to childish mysticism ("Alexander The Medium") to clumsy, self-righteous political bomb throwing, here mostly aimed at Christianity ("The Son Of Jesus" and "Easter?").
Casady and Kaukonen had already cut a couple of live Hot Tuna records at this point, and Jorma's lack of interest is expressed by his minimal songwriting contribution - his "Trial By Fire" sounds just like Hot Tuna, and it's the only really good song on the album (he also collaborated with Slick on the overamplified hot rod anthem "Eat Starch Mom"). The only fans who will want this are the ones who are completely wowed by the Airplane's late-period idiosyncrasies. (JA)
Burgers (Hot Tuna: 1972)
Jorma's no Frank Sinatra, but by now the band - stripped down to just him, Casady, Creach, and Piazza - had become tight, melodic, and sincere. You can see why they finally felt confident enough to attempt a studio album. Mostly they do go back to playing the kind of semi-acoustic blues numbers you'll find on their earlier records. But fortunately, Creach's fiddling gives them an authentic air, and the infectious enthusiasm usually keeps it from getting tedious, as does the occasional louder electric blues number like "Ode For Billy Dean."
The catchy traditional blues "Keep On Truckin'" may be familiar to you, because it got some serious airplay on AOR stations - but most of the other tunes are Kaukonen originals. He shines the most on his instrumental showcase "Water Song," but really he's in top form on every track. If you can't cope with old-timey blues numbers or don't appreciate Casady and Kaukonen in the first place, you won't get much out of this; your loss. The most notable guest is David Crosby, who harmonizes inaudibly on "Highway Song." (JA)
Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun (Kantner-Slick: 1972)
Yet another early 70s record that fans are divided on, like the preceding ones. "Sketches Of China" is said to be one of Kantner's better compositions. (JA)
Thirty Seconds Over Winterland (1973)
A second live Airplane record, this was recorded very close to the end of the original group's run in 1972, and features Papa John Creach. The track selection is based on Bark and Long John Silver, with the exception of "Crown Of Creation" and the single "Have You Seen The Saucers?" Balin being long gone and Hot Tuna having already gone into high gear, most of the tunes are by Kantner or Kaukonen. (JA)
The Phosphorescent Rat (Hot Tuna: 1973)
I can't help thinking that this was Jorma's one big stab at making a conventional, commercial rock record.
Papa John was out of the band, so the sound is surely less idiosyncratic whatever else you might say.
And clearly, Kaukonen took a lot of time to write and record, adding overdubbed guitars on the rock tunes and stately, soaring string arrangements on a couple of the breezier mid-tempo numbers (they use steel drums on "Living Just For You").
It more or less works: the strings are a little sappy but interesting ("Corners Without Exits"; "Soliloquy For 2" is dull to start with); they put across some good examples of their slightly folky acid rock (the trippy, cheerful "I See The Light"; "Easy Now," with a thunderous bass line); the blues numbers are so rockified that they never slow things down ("Day To Day Out The Window Blues"); and Jorma's solos are loose and lyrical throughout.
But it's not much of an advance on the last record, even though it once again captures the musical integrity (if not the quirky personality) that made the early Airplane records so great.
Produced by the band; Kaukonen wrote everything except the one obligatory 1920's solo acoustic blues number (Davis' "Sally, Where'd You Get Your Liquor From?"). (JA)
Manhole (Slick: 1973)
"Manhole"?? Gimme a break, Grace. (JA)
The Late 70s And Beyond: Jefferson Starship And Late-Period Hot Tuna
Dragon Fly (Jefferson Starship: 1974)
Make no mistake, this is not the Airplane. Hot Tuna's departure already had put an end to the original band, and this was the first effort by the new lineup of Kantner, Slick, Papa John Creach, ex-Rod Stewart session man Pete Sears on piano, ex-Quicksilver Messenger Dave Freiberg on anonymous, un-Casady-esque bass playing, and the still youthful Craig Chaquico on rapid-fire, professionalized lead guitar.
Together they had a consistent, updated sound, but the moaning vocals and spacey songwriting were still dominated by Kantner and Slick; "Be Young You" sounds just like any of several meandering Slick-Airplane tunes, and her unimpressive "Devil's Den" has plenty of wild-eyed 60s political overtones. And at least on this record the Starship continued the Airplane's tradition of experimentation and lengthy jamming (the dull-a-thon ballad "Hyperdrive") - or at least longwindedness, as with the syrupy Kantner-Balin hit "Caroline," which features Balin in a guest appearance. Although it's never unpleasant, Dragon Fly also never really rises to a creative peak; even the big hit "Ride The Tiger" is formulaic, powered by a listless, repetitive AOR guitar riff. (JA)
America's Choice (Hot Tuna: 1973)
A studio record. (JA)
Red Octopus (Jefferson Starship: 1975)
A #1 hit record, although it looks like the following two albums actually sold more heavily. Balin's back as a full member of the group, although there are no other personnel changes (yet). He's involved in much of the songwriting, which again is dominated by Slick and Kantner. His "Miracles" was a major hit, although it's a sappy ballad in the style of Tony Bennett or Perry Como - until hearing it on this disc, I didn't even realize that it was a nominal "rock" song. The good news is that "Miracles" is the only track that goes over five minutes.
The even worse news is that the band had gone Soft Rock, slathering on some soaring string sections, love-song lyrics, and nauseatingly sweet harmonies ("Sweeter Than Honey" indeed!). It's tedious and thoroughly uninspiring, despite a few tuneful gems ("There Will Be Love"; Slick's "Play On Love"); some loud quasi-metal guitar parts ("I Want To See Another World"); and an unusual 7/4 time experiment (Sears' "Sandalphon"). This was Papa John's last appearance with any of the Jefferson family until some live performances with Kantner's "Next Generation" in 1994, shortly before he died. (JA)
Splashdown (Hot Tuna: 1974)
And yet another live record. An expanded version of this has been released under the name Splashdown II. (JA)
Yellow Fever (Hot Tuna: 1975)
By now Kaukonen had settled into a comfortable hard rock/blues formula, salting a batch of originals with a few old blues covers - "Baby What You Want Me To Do" (by Jimmy Reed) gets a really loud electric guitar arrangement that's reminiscent of Hendrix's similar efforts, whereas "Hot Jelly Roll Blues" is another up-beat, 20's-style number, this one livened a bit with a slide guitar solo.
Kaukonen seems totally in control, with his mellow baritone sounding better than ever ("Free Rein").
He does recycle his songwriting in places ("Bar Room Crystal Ball"), and the amplification is more ear-splitting than before, but that's not necessarily a bad thing: "Song For The Fire Maiden" is an effective slab of metal, and "Half/Time Saturation" veers towards corporate rock but redeems itself with some authentic grunginess.
And the album closer is a treat: a riffy instrumental with Kaukonen's guitar distorted to sound like the sitar from hell ("Surphase Tension"). It's the cleverest mid-70s use of the chorus effect that I've ever heard.
Nothing too brilliant here, but it's a respectable outing.
Co-produced by Mallory Earl, who'd engineered on earlier Tuna records. John Sherman holds down the rhythm guitar on "Baby What You Want Me To Do," and Nick Buck plays synth on "Bar Room Crystal Ball." (JA)
Spitfire (Jefferson Starship: 1976)
A platinum album that reached #3, an impressive performance no matter how you look at it. "With Your Love" was a solid Top 40 hit. (JA)
Hoppkorv (Hot Tuna: 1976)
The last Tuna studio album for a long time.
Produced by Harry Maslin, Kaukonen rides his already-stale chorus-plus-overdrive guitar sound right through every track, reducing the entire record to a mass of undifferentiated sludge.
Steeler's heavy metal drumming is occasionally excessive, and the better original tunes all retread the band's last couple of albums (guest keyboard player Nick Buck's "Drivin' Around"; "Extrication Love Song," another modestly amusing metalfest).
Worse, there's a series of ill-considered 50's-era blues and rock covers - Billy Boy Arnold's "I Wish You Would," Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied" (with boogie-woogie electric piano), Chuck Berry's "Talking 'Bout You," etc. - that all get the same leaden hard rock treatment.
The low point is a generic retread of Buddy Holly's "It's So Easy," blandified by Karen Tobin's backing vocals and Jorma's non-stop pentatonic spewing.
Somehow it's no surprise that Linda Ronstadt promply rerecorded it and walked off with a Top 10 pop hit.
At least Jorma slathers "Santa Claus Retreat" with a fun phased guitar lead, gets across two fine semi-acoustic acid blues ballads that recall Burgers ("Watch The North Wind Rise"; "Song From The Stainless Cymbal"), and sometimes edges close to funk ("Bowlegged Woman, Knock Kneed Man"; "Wish You Would").
And hey, man, like, the album cover is way cool.
The title isn't Finnish as you might expect, and I've gotten letters from Swedish readers alternately denying and affirming that it means "jump sausage" in Swedish; go figure. (JA)
Double Dose (Hot Tuna: 1977)
And another live record, the band's last new recording until 1990s Pair A Dice Found. (JA)
Earth (Jefferson Starship: 1978)
"Count On Me" was a Top Ten hit, and the album quickly went platinum like the last two. "Runaway" was the follow-up single. This was the last Jefferson-anything record to feature Balin until the recent reunion album. (JA)
Freedom At Point Zero (Jefferson Starship: 1979)
Both Slick and Balin had gone solo, so
the remaining members drafted singer Mickey Thomas and British session drummer Aynsley Dunbar (Mayall, Zappa, Bowie, you name it), and
Kantner, Chaquico and particularly Sears all stepped up fill the songwriting void.
They ended up with a respectable, but utterly bubble-headed arena rock record, with Thomas' outrageous falsetto fully compensating for Slick's absence (the "uplifting" anthem "Fading Lady Night").
The huge hit single "Jane" is an AOR classic; screeching lead vocal and guitar, propulsive piano riffs, crunching chords, and a laughable faux reggae middle.
They also score with the gratingly good-timey sing-along number "Rock Music," complete with Steve Miller-style power chords and unselfconsciously nostalgic lyrics, and a punchy, vaguely Who-ish mid-tempo rocker ("Just The Same").
Kantner's stuff is as aimless and sentimental as ever, but mostly fun ("Lightning Rose"; the thudding "Things To Come," catchy despite its god-awful synth and sax parts; the stomping, elaborately produced riff tune title track).
Kantner even takes a weak stab at Cars-style New Wave ("Girl With The Hungry Eyes"), and Sears almost pulls off a bombastic eight-minute power ballad ("Awakening") - synth strings, operatic vocals, mix-and-match segments, the works.
A crass, empty record that still has value as a quintessential example of late 70s AOR.
Produced by Ron Nevison. (JA)
Balin (Balin: 1980)
This was a Top 40 album (barely), and the single "Hearts" broke the Top 10. (JA)
Dreams (Slick: 1980)
This also hit the Top 40. (JA)
Modern Times (Jefferson Starship: 1981)
At this point the Starship started to plummet from its commercial heights - the album went gold like all of the earlier ones, but didn't climb very high in the charts. It did feature a moderate hit single with an annoyingly unforgettable refrain: "Find Your Way Back." (JA)
Winds Of Change (Jefferson Starship: 1982)
Aynsley Dunbar quit after this record, the group's first ever not to go gold. The title track and "Be My Lady" were both middling Top 40 hits. (JA)
Planet Earth Rock & Roll Orchestra (Kantner: 1983)
Slick also appears on this record. (JA)
Nuclear Furniture (Jefferson Starship: 1984)
Cool title, dudes. A modest commercial resurgence this time, with "No Way Out" becoming their biggest single in four years, and the album selling about as well as Modern Times. After this, Kantner quit the band, taking the name with him. Freiberg also quit, but Slick continued. (JA)
Knee Deep In The Hoopla (Starship: 1985)
This was the Starship's greatest moment (I suppose): they broke the Top Ten for the first (and last) time since Earth, and put across a monster single with lyrics courtesy of Bernie Taupin ("We Built This City") - their first ever to top the charts. The followup "Sarah" also was a solid #1 hit. However, diehard Jefferson fans won't find much of interest here, as Grace was the only Airplane veteran to participate. Pete Sears quit afterwards, and the group became a vehicle for Chaquico and Thomas. (JA)
KBC Band (Kantner/Balin/Casady: 1986)
With Hot Tuna in remission and the Starship now a Jefferson-free zone, Kantner, Balin, and Casady got back together to tour and record. The project eventually led to the short-lived Airplane reunion. At this point, though, the veterans didn't have much up their sleeves: Kantner and Balin collaborated on just three tunes, assembling the rest from outsider contributions and covers. Their own stuff is pompously political ("Mariel"; "America"), whereas the donated songs focus on generic love themes ("No More Heartaches").
One of the few good grooves is a predictable mid-tempo 4/4 rocker by sidekick guitarists Mark Aguilar and Tim Gorman ("Wrecking Crew"). The material isn't the only problem; syrupy harmonies, tinny synths, generic sax flourishes, light metal guitars, and drab electronic drums slow down the already dreary cavalcade of cookie cutter anthems. Casady's barely recognizable in the zillion track mix, and the small thrill of hearing Kantner and Balin harmonize hardly makes up for the rest. Ironically, this unimaginative 80s pop product is a heck of a lot closer to the contemporary Starship than to the original Airplane. I can't recommend it, period - it wasn't worth the $1 Wilson kindly burned on it. (JA)
No Protection (Starship: 1987)
A reasonable chart success, I'm not sure about singles. (JA)
Well, Diane Warren's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" was another #1 hit. (DBW)
Love Among The Cannibals (Starship: 1989)
The last Starship record - even Slick had quit at this point, so the only original member was Chaquico. (JA)
Jefferson Airplane (1989)
I grimaced shelling out money for this one-and-only Airplane reunion record, knowing it would be yet more overproduced Starship-like 80s pop-rock drivel a la KBC - after all, it's merely KBC plus Kaukonen and Slick. Indeed, there are two terrible Balin 60s nostalgia pieces ("Summer Of Love"; his Brecht adaptation "Solidarity"), an overbearingly idealistic lefy Kantner monologue ("The Wheel"), some really clumsy and obvious Grace Slick lyrics ("Panda"), and a lot of faceless studio hack overdubs.
Plus Casady is almost inaudible again, and there's even a really nauseating donated love song by (blech) Toto members David Paich and Steve Porcaro ("True Love"; Mike Porcaro also appears).
But there is some good news: a decent Kantner corporate rocker ("Planes"); some moderately pleasant backing music on two of Slick's four down-tempo ballads ("Freedom"; "Common Market Madrigal"); the loose, good-timey "Madelaine Street"; and Jorma Kaukonen, period.
Alas, you can rarely tell if it's him or chameleon-like sessioneer Mike Landau on guitar, except on Kaukonen's own numbers: the biting, if over-produced "Ice Age," the fine instrumental "Upfront Blues," and the classy, semi-acoustic love song "Too Many Years" (yup). Guests include Peter Kaukonen, Flo and Eddie, and even Nicky Hopkins. (JA)
Pair A Dice Found (Hot Tuna: 1990)
The band's first album in a whopping 14 years. I finally found a cheap copy of this, and my first impression is that it's really not that great. Kaukonen does deliver a bunch of tunes in his usual style, but he also brings in a second guitarist who contributes a couple of terrible compositions, some grating vocals, and an overall middle-aged bar-band feel that's depressing and dull. (JA)
Live At Sweetwater (Hot Tuna: 1992)
Live At Sweetwater Vol.2 (Hot Tuna: 1993)
Deep Space/Virgin Sky (Jefferson Starship: 1995)
This isn't the Mickey Thomas/Craig Chaquico Starship, but instead yet another permutation of the Airplane, this time with Kantner, Balin, and Casady. Papa John joined the new band at first, but passed away early in 1994; he doesn't appear on the record, which in fact is a concert recording cut as a tribute to him. The end product isn't too terrible. The first half often sounds like KBC Volume 2, with some mediocre Kanter and Balin originals and some less-than-mediocre donated tunes.
But the second half, dominated by oldies and featuring a ragged but sincere Grace Slick, is harmless fun; only the ever-nauseating "Miracles" really drags. The "group" is touring actively - we've reviewed a Kantner/Casady show on our concerts page. (JA)
Windows Of Heaven (1999)
A new studio album featuring Kantner, Balin, Casaday, vocalist Diana Mangano, guitarist Slick Aguilar, and drummer Prairie Prince.
Grace Slick also shows up on one track.
Kantner wrote the bulk of the tunes, but Balin also contributed three songs. (JA)
rejoyce, you can get back to the other reviews now.