Jefferson Airplane No. 1 is actually all but undocumented. This is the very first lineup of the Airplane, in 1965, the group that Marty Balin put together to play his new nightclub, the Matrix: Balin and Signe Toly Anderson on vocals, Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen on guitars, Bob Harvey on bass, and Jerry Peloquin on drums. Biographers insist that this lineup recorded a demo for Columbia Records, consisting of "The Other Side Of This Life." I've searched the web over and thought I found true love, but I've never found this demo. I'd love to hear it: this Fred Neil cover was the Airplane's true anthem, not "White Rabbit." It best summed up what they were all about, and it was in their repertoire from the very beginning, but they never released a record of it until 1968.
Since JA1 is effectively a matter of legend, we'll just call it JA0, or maybe JA0.5, and let JA1 be the first Airplane for which we have any aural evidence. This is the lineup that consisted of Balin, Anderson, Kantner, and Kaukonen, plus (well wouldja lookit that) Skip Spence on drums and (fanfare, please) Jack Casady on bass.
The original, and just possibly my favorite, Airplane. I know they wouldn't really take off, as it were, until Grace Slick joined the band. But as essential as their next few records would be, they don't sound as much like the organic product of a band as did their first record, the one recorded with Anderson. The factionalization and musical schizophrenia that would eventually destroy the Airplane was there from the moment Slick joined the band (not that she caused it); but it's not apparent on that first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off.
That first album, released in September of 1966, is a masterpiece of something. Not quite of psychedelic San Francisco rock. Of folk-rock, if anything. Truth be told, it's the work of a band much infatuated with the Byrds.
This infatuation is even more apparent on the few fragments we have that predate that album. Let's run them down.
Wolfgang's Vault has a three-song set dating from November 6, 1965: a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe at the Calliope Warehouse. It's the earliest circulating Airplane, and the first show in SF promoted by Bill Graham - for some intents and purposes, the SF scene starts here. Sound quality is a bit iffy, but historical value is unmatched, and musically it's eminently decent. It shows a rough-and-ready band of folk rockers, ethereal harmonies backed by muscular musicianship. Some pitch problems, but that's more than made up for by a sureness of vision. Signe in particular is shown off to good effect in these three songs; in the studio she tended to be buried in the mix, at least compared to the way she was miked live. I might as well 'fess up here and now: I'm unbounded in my admiration for Grace Slick, but I loooove Signe Anderson. All contemporary photos show this cute Oregon girl in pigtails, but then she opens her mouth and she's just a belter. When she and Balin harmonized it was yin and yang, but she was the yang - that was the dynamic, and it's only intermittently in evidence on their album. This live rendition of "Runnin' 'Round This World," for example, is rougher but ballsier than the studio version, and the song benefits from it.
The next thing we have is the session for their first RCA single: December 16 & 18, 1965. The session produced the studio version of "Runnin' 'Round This World," the classic "It's No Secret," "High Flying Bird," and "It's Alright." The first two were released as a single; the second was also released on the first album; the last two were released on the 1974 odds'n'sods collection Early Flight. They're all available on the 2003 reissue of Takes Off, which does what a reissue should, and brings together the album and all the related studio tracks. There was room for more - it could have been better - but it could have been worse, too. ...This is a very auspicious debut. "It's No Secret" is a great first single, tremendously accomplished: a dicey love song in what would become the Airplane tradition, delivered by Balin in his trademark shudderingly beautiful style, and backed by the well-oiled Airplane machinery. It soars. They would soar higher before very long, but it's still a good start. The other side of the single (dropped from the album for pushing the limits of what you could sing about in 1965) is just as good. Less moody, more poppy, more of an accent on folk-rock harmonies, but again with a solidity that sets them apart. This is not just electrified folk, which is what the Byrds were for most of their career; this is rock.
That Byrds comparison. What do I mean by it? Well, the harmonies, sure: Balin, Kantner, Kaukonen, Anderson had all come out of the Bay Area folk scene, and their band from the very start was all about harmonies. And the Byrds had been the first to figure out how to bring complex, shifting folk harmonies into rock. The Airplane have learned from them. But that's not all they learned. Paul Kantner, like Jim McGuinn, is playing electric 12-string throughout the Airplane's early sides, lending an unmistakably Byrdsy vibe to the proceedings. And Casady, while very much his own man from the start, does sound a bit like Chris Hillman at times in these early days - when he plays way up on the neck, four beats to the measure, he adds the kind of march-like power that Hillman displayed on "Lay Down Your Weary Tune," for example.
But they're not Byrds clones. As I say, they're rock. Take Paul's guitar work. As much as it puts you in mind of the Byrds, he's not going for the kind of chiming effect that was McGuinn's stock in trade; instead he plays in a more impressionistic style, pinching the chords and slashing at the rhythms. And again I have to come back to the harmonies: Byrds harmonies were always all about innocence and joy, about bringing Dylan's lyrical image of "starry-eyed and laughing" to musical fruition. There was something churchy in them, no surprise given McGuinn's love of Bach. The Airplane were always darker, more sinister, more jaundiced: the tragic or Satanic side of romantic, and it was right there in their harmonies. In Signe's belting, and Marty's crooning, with its frank admission that he was after more than a peck on the cheek.
The folk-rock roots of the Airplane can best be glimpsed on the only other stretch of live Airplane that seems to be circulating, a tape from January 14-16, 1966, at the Kitsilano Theatre in Vancouver, BC. It's not a great performance, really, but it has a lot of things they either would never record, or wouldn't record with this lineup. They actually cover the Byrds: "Feel A Whole Lot Better." They cover Dylan (a song the Byrds also did): "Lay Down Your Weary Tune." Neither song comes off very well, and you can see why they dropped them, but still they're perfectly illustrative of where the band was coming from. Illustrative of where it was going are covers of "The Other Side Of This Life," already an anthem, "Let's Get Together," and "High Flying Bird." I really wish this last had made the album - it's one of Signe's best moments. ...The tape also includes a couple of r&b covers: "Baby What You Want Me To Do" and "In The Midnight Hour." I'm generally unconverted to Hot Tuna - when they played pop songs they were great, but as a blues interlude in Airplane shows, they were a drag. Jorma has to have been the least convincing blues singer in the entire SF scene.
Shortly afterward, in February and March of 1966, came the sessions for the debut album. What's there for me to say about it? I just love it. From the first, ominous rattle of bass and 12-string to the last sigh of Marty's angst, it's something different, despite all the obvious antecedents.
My take on the Airplane is that they were the inventors, in this country at least, of the idea of rock as art. They weren't the band-for-all-seasons that the Dead were, the life of the party, the band of the people; they were the most determinedly serious band on the scene. The downside of that is the raging ego-trips that ripped the band apart far too soon. The upside is that from the very beginning they had an ambition that most of their peers simply didn't have. For a while, through to the end of the '60s, that was enough.
Favorite moments: the descending bass runs (stolen from Bill Wyman and brilliantly repurposed) in "Let Me In." The impossibly taut upwards modulation in the refrain of "Don't Slip Away." The haunted, forbidden-fruit ecstasy of "Come Up The Years." Signe asserting (not screaming) bloody murder on "Chauffeur Blues."