Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow

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Part I: The Background

Jefferson Airplane’s second album is a significant departure from their first. The album introduced a brand new line up. Singer Signe Toly Anderson was replaced by Grace Slick from The Great Society. Drummer Skip Spence, who would later join Moby Grape, also left the band, although one of his song writing contributions still wound up on the album. Grace Slick brought with her a new and exciting sound, and thus the band transformed from a folk rock outfit into one of the leading psychedelic acts of the era. There’s a bit of contention as to whether or not Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead was involved in the recording of the album (the album cover credits him as “musical and spiritual advisor”), but what does seem to be agreed upon is that the album name was derived from a comment of his, wherein he described the music as “surrealistic as a pillow”. The album reportedly doesn’t quite capture the energy of the band’s live performances, which were even wilder and more out there, and many of the songs were reined in so that they’d fit the traditional 3-minute pop song template. This isn’t necessarily to the album’s detriment. After all, psychedelia is known for its excesses. And while the polished nature of this album flies in the face of all that, it does make for a more consistent listen.

Part II: The Music

She Has Funny Cars: Marty Balin’s the first to take the lead, his vocals reminiscent of The Byrds (after all, the band was still a folk band to an extent). Right from the get-go, it’s evident that this isn’t going to be just another folk album: the grooving drum evokes a tribal dance while a descending guitar riff has a distinct edge to it. After a few bars, the song simmers down as Grace and Marty engage in a call-and-response vocal that gradually crescendos until both voices explode forth in psychedelic harmony: “And I know / Your mind’s guaranteed / It’s all you’ll ever need.” Oh, and in case you’re wondering (I was), a funny car is a drag racing car. But while the title may evoke early 60s hot rod rock, the lyrics are decidedly psychedelic, and the chaotic whir of a guitar solo that concludes the track really drives it home that this is a new band for a new era. RATING: 9/10

Somebody to Love: This song’s technically a cover—emphasis on the technically. It was written by Darby Slick, Grace’s brother-in-law, and she originally recorded it with her former band, The Great Society (don’t bother checking out the original—Grace’s vocal is nowhere near as powerful and the song’s got this lazy, laid-back vibe to it; it just pales in comparison to the better-known version). There’s a daunting edge to Grace’s thunderous vocals here—this is the dark side of psychedelia rearing its head. It’s shocking how fierce this song is—there’s a reason psychedelic rock was one of the precursors to heavy metal. The guitar solo here is more lucid than on the previous track, though the effects and tone evoke a state of delirium. I’d say this is the ultimate psychedelic song, but that’s still to come. RATING: 10/10

My Best Friend: The first single off the album delivers on the other extreme: cheery, flowery psychedelia. This is the aforementioned Skip Spence contribution. While it starts out as a bubbly, sentimental pop tune, after the chorus it breaks down into a rocking jam. With its gentle harmonies and strong melody, it’s definitely one of the album’s stand-out tracks. RATING: 9/10

Today: This Balin-Kantner composition treads closer into Byrds territory with its delicate and dreamy acoustic sound. It’s a beautiful song that lingers on the border between folk and psychedelia. The ballad’s display of vulnerability starkly contrasts the aggressive psychedelic anthems, but its every bit as great a song. RATING: 8/10

Comin’ Back to Me: Another dreamy acoustic ballad. The fingerpicked guitar is breathtakingly sombre. According to the liner notes, the song was marijuana-inspired. The singer describes a fleeting vision of his lover returning to him which turns out to be an illusion—“a transparent dream beneath an occasional sigh”. This realization leaves the singer disillusioned as he questions “Whatever happened to wishes wished on a star? / Was it just something that I made up for fun?” It’s a heartbreaking ballad that, along with the song preceding it, is a marked (yet not a jarring) departure from the sound of the rest of the album. RATING: 9/10

3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds: The persistent drum beat and dual-voiced guitar riff bring us back into the realm of psychedelia. This hard-rocking tune denounces the rigidity of society (“Do away with people wasting my precious time”) and embraces a free-spirited lifestyle (“Take me to a circus tent / Where I can easily pay my rent / And all the other freaks can share my care”). It’s the type of song that’s probably more fun live than on an album. RATING: 6/10

D.C.B.A.–25: Well-crafted melodies over a folksy backdrop. Once again, there’s interplay between Marty’s and Grace’s vocals. By the way, the chords are right there in the title in case you want to play along (and if you’re wondering what the “25” is, it’s an LCD reference). Just goes to show you how well-crafted this album is—the song’s unusually strong for an album track. RATING: 7/10

How Do You Feel: A recorder adds a renaissance feel to this acoustic number, sung in harmony. Like most of the album’s compositions, it features two distinct sections in favour of a verse-chorus structure, the second of which has a Lennon-esque melody. RATING: 6/10

Embryonic Journey: Shaking things up again, we get an acoustic instrumental with some nice guitar work. There’s a bit of a looseness to the composition that saves it from feeling too stiff for the rest of the album—it serves as a nice interlude before the album’s centerpiece. RATING: 6.5/10

White Rabbit: A contender for the title of all-time greatest psychedelic song. This Alice In Wonderland–inspired piece captures the aesthetic of psychedelia: it’s childish imagination with the sinister undertone of a bad hallucination. The song starts off quiet and then embarks on a steady crescendo which reaches a thundering climax at the end of the song as Grace shouts: “Feed your head!” The twisted, imaginative nature of the classic tale perfectly lends itself to this psychedelic anthem. The drug references are very thinly veiled, if it all; the times were changing, after all. RATING: 10/10

Plastic Fantastic Lover: Probably the album’s only misstep. Not the song—it’s great. Marty rhythmically rattles off the vocals over a steady, bopping beat. I get a real Simon & Garfunkel vibe from this one. But it’s not as strong an album closer as White Rabbit would have been, is it? RATING: 8/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: I get that the psychedelic era was just beginning, but come on. One of the defining albums of the genre… and that’s the cover? I’m just going to go ahead and say it: the cover is awful. It features a nice black-and-white photo of the band, but this is overlaid with a pink banner featuring a stylized album title—this looks like it was thrown together in two seconds. The back is a little more interesting, featuring torn up images of the band. The title, however, is perfect. Not much to say about the production. This is a late-sixties album; it doesn’t really get any better than this. SCORE: 4/5

Artistic Merit: All of the songs are well-crafted with a keen sense of melody. The band pushes the envelope here, helping to pioneer that psychedelic sound. This is, after all, one of the defining albums of the era. SCORE: 5/5

Flow: Am I going to be petty and deduct points because White Rabbit isn’t the album closer? Yeah—I have to keep the scores in check somehow. But this album is a solid listen start to finish. It might’ve been nice for the ballads to be more spread out, but that’s about it as far as my criticism goes. SCORE: 8/10

CLOSING REMARKS: Jefferson Airplane isn’t one of the most iconic bands of the sixties when we look back at them today—if you’re familiar with them, it’s most likely for “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”. But the rest of this classic album is just as worthy of your attention; don’t pass it up. Feed your head.

FINAL SCORE: 81

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2 thoughts on “Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow

  1. Been browsing the many Surrealistic Pillow re-visits on WordPress. Interested to read your take. I think I may be a trifle more positive than you on a couple of songs and definitely on the cover. The title and typeface and the bright pink surround have a timeless charm that (to me) does capture something of the innocence of those early psychedelic days/daze. Enjoyed a different take. Thanks.

    https://vinylconnection.com.au/2017/02/03/feed-your-head/

    Like

    1. Glad you enjoyed the read. And yeah, the bright pink certainly is a redeeming factor of the cover; it kind of captures that playful innocence that so many psychedelic songs seem to have until you realize their true meanings. I’ve just read your review too–I’ll comment over on your site.

      Liked by 1 person

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