Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Jefferson Airplane

In 1965, Marty Balin, a San Francisco pop singer, courted investors to help him convert a pizzaria at 3138 Fillmore Street in San Francisco into a nightclub, later called the Matrix. While investing no money of his own, Balin held 25% of revenues. His next venture was to find competent musicians in order to form a new folk-rock outfit, essentially the club's house band. Eventually he enlisted Paul Kantner (rhythm guitarist), Jorma Kaukonen (lead singer/guitarist), Signe Toly (singer), Bob Harvey (bass) and Jerry Peloquin (drums). The new band was christened Jefferson Airplane.

The band made their first official appearance at the Matrix in August 1965. Folk rock was dominating the charts at the time, and it was no surprise that a fledgling band under Balin's direction received positive attention from the press. Peloquin and Harvey were fired after only a month and replaced by drummer/guitarist Skip Spence and new bassist Jack Casady. Around the same time, Toly married Jerry Anderson, one of the members of Ken Kesey's "Merry Pranksters," who managed the lighting at the Matrix. This lineup of Anderson, Casady, Balin, Kantner, Kaukonen and Spence signed their first contract with RCA Victor (the first San Francisco band to sign with a major label), and late in '65 The Jefferson Airplane had their first recording session in Los Angeles. Their debut singles (all self-composed tracks) such as "It’s No Secret," and "Bringing Me Down," failed to chart. Their debut album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966) peaked at No. 128 on the Billboard 200.

J.A. at the Matrix
As the band evolved, Spence was replaced by new drummer Spencer Dryden, while Anderson, gave birth to a daughter. Anderson's commitment to raising her family caused her to leave the band. Fortunately, The Airplane found a strong replacement in Grace Slick, the lead singer of San Francisco band The Great Society, who were on the verge of splitting up.

Grace Slick would play a prominent role from then on, and the band released their second LP Surrealistic Pillow in 1967 with both Slick and Balin taking the lead. The album began its ascent up the charts with "Somebody to Love" (penned by Slick's brother-in-law, Darby Slick) Jefferson Airplane's first top ten hit, reaching No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. "White Rabbit," meanwhile, using references from Alice in Wonderland while examining the effects of psychedelic drugs, peaked at #8 in mid-1967. Surrealistic Pillow reached #3 on the Billboard 200. It eventually went gold.

By that time, Jefferson Airplane realized the success they'd wanted. They performed at Monterey Pop, famed for its introduction of rock legends Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. They would go on to become the only band to play all three major rock festivals, rounding out the dacade with Woodstock and finally the ill-fated Altamont Free Concert. Their exposure was further augmented by TV appearances on such shows as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Ed Sullivan Show. On the heels of the success of Surrealistic Pillow, the band decided to take a change of direction, like many other psychedelic bands. They adopted a more adventurous, heavier sound, as evident in their third LP, After Bathing at Baxter’s at the end of 1967. Baxter's remains a stellar achievement from the early rock era.