Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Surrealistic Pillow Revisited - AM10 - i.e. I changed My Mind

Plenty will argue the validity of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Dark Side of the Moon, Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds and Led Zeppelin IV are beyond reproach, yet there’s no doubt that certain LPs don’t get a fair shake (The Cure’s Disintegration in the 300s, beat out by Sleater-Kinney's Beat Me Out? Really?). There are those who debate the top 20, but no one will doubt the arguability of each. What's interesting, though, is that what truly sets the bar is longevity. The top 20 have proven their value over time; new generations have discovered these LPs and each sounds as if it could have been released yesterday. LPs from the 60s have the distinct disadvantage that early film faces, mostly in a lack of recording quality. The Mamas and the Papas suffer based on antiquated recording techniques (or prohibitive costs) that often hamper John Philips complex arrangements.  Abbey Road falters a bit in its sophomoric use of early synths (Sgt. Pepper and Revolver do not).  All this in mind, Dark Side and Blood on the Tracks will be debated years to come, and by far younger critics than me.

What's forgotten often is the impact of a recording in its time period, an oversight that AM hoped to address in its year to year reviews from a few months back. With that kind of impetus, for this writer, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow is AM's choice for album of the decade (rated by RS as the 146th Greatest Album of all time. Indeed, not The Beatles, not Pet Sounds, not Dylan. Surrealistic Pillow, more than any other title, is the 60s).  The group's hippie ethos was omnipresent, the very core of its sociomusical importance. Thus it is that the Airplane's most celebrated LP sounds a lot more dated now than many other classic records from 1967. Yet, as even a cursory listen proves, the flower children had a lot more to offer than free love and cheap acid.

Right from the heavily reverberated drums opening "She Has Funny Cars," Pillow is a powerfully expansive and entertaining experience, and its overt sense of its own time and place does nothing to weaken it. The hard-rocking "Somebody to Love" is still a rousing blend of psychedelic swagger and pop accessibility, "D.C.B.A. 25" a lovely folk-rock gem which can wring a nostalgia for the Summer of Love even from one who wasn't there. It's a pair of beautiful ballads, however - "Today" and the magnificent "Comin' Back to Me" - that are the album's highlights. Singer Marty Balin's lovely, emotive tenor has never quite gotten the credit it deserves; but his performances on these two songs make clear that it was he, rather than Grace Slick, who truly was the voice of Jefferson Airplane. Not that Slick doesn't do excellent work of her own, on flute and keyboards as well as at the mic, particularly with the aforementioned "Somebody to Love" and the LP's incredible psychedelic closer, "White Rabbit." The instrumental "Embrionic Journey" is to the 60s what "The Clap" and "Mood for a Day" were to every guitar player in the 70s, so there's another layer. Hippie or not, dated or not, you're sure to find something you like here, as people have been doing for fifty years.

Reverb and fuzz-guitar aside, even the lyrics point at Pillow's psychedelic iconicism:

Plastic Fantastic Lover

Her neon mouth with the bligitaw * smile
Is nothing but a 'lectric sign
You could say she has an individual style
She's a part of the carnival time.

Super-seal-a-ted * chrome-colored clothes
You wear 'cause you have no other
But I suppose no one knows
You're my plastic fantastic lover

Your rattlin' cough never shuts off
Is nothin' but a used machine
Your aluminum finish, slightly diminished,
Is the best I ever have seen

Cosmeta-gated *plugged into me
And never ever find another
And I realize no one's wise
To my plastic fantastic lover

The electrical dust is starting to rust
Her trapezoid thermometer taste
All the red tape is mechanical rape
Of the TV program waste

Data control and IBM
Science is mankind's brother
But all I see is drainin' me
On my plastic fantastic lover

1 Bligitaw - hit in the mouth with a sledge hammer
2- Super-seal-a-ted - a Marty Balin made up word past tense of super sealed
3 Cosmeta-gated - another made up word - combination of cosmetic and gated - gated as a plug and also logic circuit, and-gates, or-gates used in computers of the time

"Plastic Fantastic Lover" is just what it sounds like: science fiction from 1967, a futuristic precursor to Roxy Music's "In Every Dreamhome a Heartache."