Jefferson Airplane - Surrealistic Pillow

by Rob Taylor Rating:10 Release Date:1967-02-01
Jefferson Airplane - Surrealistic Pillow
Jefferson Airplane - Surrealistic Pillow

Summers of love and summers of discontent, and at the intersection of these socially dichotomous times came Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, itself straddling musical boundaries - the idylls of folk rock and the ominous darker chords of psychedelia.  Reflective of racial and political uncertainty, and the realities of social disruption which arose from the opening of social consciousness.

Although the two most popular singles lifted from the album, ‘Somebody to Love’ and ‘White Rabbit’ lack musical symmetry, the gentle folk/pop strains on ‘Somebody to Love’ belie its more cynical outlook. The downside to the free love movement was jealousy and detachment. The original version of the song, which Slick sang in the group, The Great Society with songwriting brother-in-law, Darby, was subdued next to the version on Surrealistic Pillow. Beefed up and anthemic. Slick implores us that only true love will prevail through the[se] tough times.

Grace Slick was however no shrinking violet. In fact she was, and remains, a woman of formidable smarts. Back then, she was also given to provocative gestures. Chicago Auditorium 1973 and Jefferson Airplane are about to play a set. Slick is exchanging banter with audience members. “I’m getting ready to sing. Some guy in the audience shouts “Hey, Gracie. Take off your chastity belt!” I look directly at him and say “Hey I don’t even wear underpants” …. “I pull up my skirt for a beaver shot, and the audience explodes with laughter

As for the music on Surrealistic Pillow, there's not a duff track, although some, like rock ballad, ‘Today’ are a little temperate in retrospect. This, however, underscores the changing of the times. The band are churlishly waving goodbye to an uncritical utopia, and confronting a future where young people can drive social change. I’m pretty sure I have a bootleg called ‘San Franciscan Nights’ somewhere (must find that) that begins with a one minute speech by [then] Governor Ronald Reagan warning of the dangers of the music [appearing thereafter] entering the minds of uni students. Really funny now, but scary social engineering that refused to fade out since McCarthyist times. How the ruling class wanted to suppress agile young minds.   

Anti-Vietnam sentiment was beginning to creep into the lyrics of 60s music, none more cryptically than ‘White Rabbit’ with its adulterated Spanish bolero, Lewis Carroll metaphors and spaced-out lyrics. Breaking it down though, this brilliant song was replete with clever allegories. ‘One pill makes you larger and one pill make you small’ reflecting the decision to enlist or to protest; the ‘hookah-smoking caterpillar giving you the call’ the emphatic call by the government to join up, and a reference to the great monster of artillery, the tank. The men on the chessboard are your military masters telling you where to go, and the only way out is to take drugs and get your mind 'moving low'. The futility of the cause is exemplified by the lyric “when logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead’ and your saviour, the white knight is talking backwards, so he’s no help.

Slick says “I wrote that song after taking LSD and listening to Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain for 24 hours..” so all told it deserves its place at the pantheon of psychedelic rock.

Elsewhere, the influence of mind bending drugs looms over songs like ‘Comin’ Back to Me’ a plaintive tune with flute caressing over acoustic guitar, written exactly at the time when Marty Balin was indulging in some ‘primo-grade’ marijuana with Paul Butterfield; and ‘3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds’ where anyone can travel at 216 miles an hour if they’re prepared to pay the $67 a kilo for high quality 1967 dope. Seems cheap now.

‘D.C.B.A.- 25’ refers to Sandoz purple acid in the lyric “purple-pleasure fields in the sun”. The 25 refers to LSD-25. In some respects, this is the best song on the album. Less strident than ‘White Rabbit’ and more substance than ‘Somebody to Love’, its psych-pop woven of the finest cloth. The male-female harmonising, the call & response, the jangly feel, a great lead break and some really crisp drumming auger a new era, leaving behind the simple platitudes of the early 1960s for uncertain but exciting possibilities.

Is ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover’ about television stupefying the general public, an oblique reference to a favourite sex toy, an amalgam, or something else entirely ? One of the hallmark of Surrealistic Pillow is that its message is as mangled as the band’s cognitive wiring.

After Forever Changes by Love, the go-to album of the progressive 60s.       

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