Thursday, October 14, 2010

Jefferson Airplane No. 1.5

Skip Spence the drummer left the Airplane in the late spring of 1966 - well before the first album was released. He was replaced, eventually, by Spencer Dryden. By the time 1968 rolled around Dryden's mastery of the kit was making itself felt, but to be honest I don't notice much difference between his stickwork and Skip's in 1966.

Skip, of course, would go on to better things, if not bigger. He was a big part of Moby Grape, and would later record one solo album, which didn't sell too well but would later turn into one of the Top 5 Fashionable Namechecks in Rock, right up there with Pet Sounds. ...Okay, that's snark. It's a pretty good album. ...Anyway, the point is that Skip Spence's time in the Airplane is basically nothing but a footnote to his career, and to the Airplane's. His biggest contribution to the Airplane, in fact, came after he left, in the form of two songs that he wrote and left in their possession - but that's another story.

So the second lineup of the Airplane for which we have any recorded evidence was Marty Balin and Signe Toly Anderson on vocals, Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen on guitars and vocals, Jack Casady on bass, and Spencer Dryden on drums. We have recorded evidence of them, as I say, but it's mostly been kept under wraps for decades, so we'll call this JA No. 1.5, rather than 2.

They seem to have had one studio session, in July of 1966. Given the timing, I think we can assume that this was an effort to come up with a single to follow up the first album, rather than a beginning on a second album. The session produced one new song, "Go To Her" (which JA No. 1 had been playing live, but hadn't laid down during the sessions for the album), and reworked versions of "Chauffeur Blues" and "And I Like It." The latter was stretched out to eight minutes, reflecting the way the song had developed in concert; the former was still short, and that's why I think it might have been meant for a single, probably with "Go To Her" on the a-side and "Chauffeur Blues" on the b. But then Signe left the band, and this session was left sleeping until 1992, when "Go To Her" was released on the Jefferson Airplane Loves You box set; the other two came out on the 2003 reissue of the debut album.

"Go To Her" is brilliant, one of the best sides the Anderson lineup left us. It's a classic example of the early Airplane firing on all cylinders: Anderson belting, Balin crooning, Kantner droning, with sharp, abrasive counterpoint from Kaukonen and a rhythm section that somehow sounds both agile and muscular.

The main reason, though, why this lineup is worth considering on its own at all is because we have quite a few live tapes of them, all from the fall of 1966 in San Francisco, and all streaming at Wolfgang's Vault. This is the Airplane in its home hangar, if you will, at Winterland and the Fillmore, feeling comfortable and just getting it done.

I lean toward the September 30 show, myself. It has the definitive early rendition of "The Other Side Of This Life" - it really ought to be officially released. It starts with a long developmental jam, great weeping guitar sounds from Kaukonen, and when it finally settles into a nice cruising groove we get those soaring harmonies coming in above it. The more I listen to it the more it becomes one of my favorite JA performances It simply must be heard.

If you sift through all the shows up at the Vault you'll hear renditions of basically everything from the first album sessions. Sometimes the songs have grown - "And I Like It" has turned into a surprisingly deep number, with Marty expertly exploring different permutations of the navel-gazing blues. And sometimes the songs don't quite make it live - "Let Me In" is a bit wobbly, showing that Kantner was having a little trouble actually carrying a tune on stage.

There are also a few new developments evident in these tapes. There are early renditions of "3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds," a key track on their second album. There's the debut of the other key cover that would make Bless Its Pointed Little Head such an important part of the Airplane canon, Donovan's "Fat Angel." I still can't decide if it's a fine courteous gesture or astonishing arrogance for the Airplane to cover this tune, especially since they leave intact the line about "fly Jefferson Airplane." But they do a magnificent job with it, even here, when the song is still young; it's quite mellow, with Kaukonen's folky acoustic guitar driving it and Kaukonen playing hypnotic raga riffs over the top.

Of course the main reason I'm glad we have these tapes is Signe. She left the band in October - her last gig was October 15, to be precise, which we now know because we can hear the band saying goodbye to her onstage on one of these tapes. The very next night would be Grace Slick's first show with the band, and, well, that really made it a very different band. So savor these early-autumn shows, with the band at an early peak, and Signe in perfect form.

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