Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Great Society: Born To Be Burned, Collector's Item

So A Serious Man caught me in the midst of a Jefferson Airplane phase. Been listening to a lot of them recently, and that includes their all-important feeder group, the Great Society. They existed in 1965 and 1966, for about a year, and centered around the sometime menage-a-trois of Grace Slick, her husband Jerry, and his brother Darby. The group broke up when Grace joined Jefferson Airplane as a replacement for their original girl singer, Signe Toly Anderson.

Which means, of course, that the Great Society are primarily remembered today for what they contributed to the Airplane: Grace, of course, plus the Airplane's only two real hits, Darby's "Somebody To Love" and Grace's "White Rabbit." Without the Great Society, the Airplane maybe goes nowhere; without the Airplane, though, does Great Society make it?

Doubtful. Great Society's version of "Somebody To Love" is excellent in its own way - that's the single version of it; the live version is better. But it doesn't have the virtues the Airplane's version does: the pop savvy, the breakneck force of the speed. It doesn't have Jorma. Great Society would never have had a hit with it.

And "White Rabbit"? Well, Great Society's version is eminently worth savoring. It's so different from the Airplane's as to be virtually another song; and I don't think it's actually worse. The soprano-sax-led jam the Great Society append as a prologue really goes places, and the more conventional rock arrangement of the song portion (not the bolero of the Airplane's arrangement) cooks nicely, too. But again, this could never have been a hit.

I say that with the conviction that it matters. I'm enough of a poptimist to appreciate that the discipline and craft involved in making a good pop record can actually improve a song, focus its musical energy. That's certainly what happened with these two songs, transforming them from typically shaggy early San Francisco jams into anthems.

That said, I also like shaggy early San Francisco jams, and I love the Great Society for their own, very considerable virtues.

Let's observe, before we go any farther, that much like the Airplane itself, the short-lived Great Society had personnel continuity issues. Their first lineup was Slick, Slick, and Slick, plus bassist Bard Dupont and guitarist/vocalist David Miner. They recorded almost an album's worth of demos in 1965, and released one single that year: "Somebody To Love" (as "Someone To Love") and "Free Advice." All these can now be found on the 1995 archival release Born To Be Burned. "Free Advice" is now more famous than the studio version of "Someone To Love," because it showed up on the Airplane's 1992 box set, and the Rhino Summer of Love box Love Is The Song We Sing. I love this song: everything about it, from the Cossack march of the rhythm section to Grace's wordless improv, is sui generis, and very effective.

Dupont was replaced by Peter Vandergelder, who played sax as well as bass, and this lineup was captured on tape live at the Matrix; two albums were released in 1968, and combined into one in 1971; they're now available on CD as Collector's Item From The San Francisco Scene.

Aside from "Free Advice," the studio disc isn't very interesting. The live disc, however, is a classic. Aside from the numbers already linked to above it includes a wealth of intriguing jams. The Slicks were all pretty good on guitar by this point, and were sounding, by the way, very typically San Francisco in their tone and attack. Peter brought, as we've already heard, some jazzy saxophone into the mix, while on stage Grace was allowed to play some Doorsy organ and also recorder. (Even in the Airplane Grace was always underrated as a musician. Her beauty, and her vocal charisma, tended to obscure the fact that she was in many ways the most talented member of the scene.)

Check out, for example, their moody breakdown of the girl group classic (the Jaynetts) "Sally Go Round The Roses." Or their brave take on the standard "Nature Boy." Or this sultry original, "Grimly Forming." (Now that one mighta coulda been a hit. Great underwater guitar work, great bass/drums figure.)

They were a serious band, and at least as accomplished as the Airplane or the Dead were at this point.

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