55 Years Later: Revisiting Jefferson Airplane’s Counterculture Rock Statement “The Surreal Pillow”

With the resounding crash of Spencer Dryden’s drums at the very beginning of Surreal pillow, “She has funny cars” announces the arrival of a new Jefferson aircraft. However, the general public would not know of this change until months later, when the two songs brought to the group by singer Grace Slick, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”, became hit singles. The Airplane would thus come to represent the countercultural movement centered in San Francisco, at least for mainstream America, while the enlistment of these two new members would act as a catalyst for the group’s growth as an instrumental powerhouse and vocal.

Replacing drummer Skip Spence – who left to join Moby Grape in 1966 – Dryden brought both jazz influences and power to his ties with bassist Jack Casady and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, facilitating their natural inclinations for the improvisation. And Slick contributed to this freewheeling ethos too, the dynamic strength of his voice allowing him to sing the aforementioned hits as well as sing melodies and counterpoint harmonies alongside founding member Marty Balin as well as guitarist/songwriter Paul Kanner.

Grace became the focal point of the band as she emigrated from a band that had the audacity to call itself “The Great Society” (and whose members included her then-husband Jerry on drums and her brother Darby on guitar.). Joining the Plane after the departure of its first distaff vocalist Signe Toly Anderson, Finch College attendee and future former model originals, as well as Kantner’s, would come to dominate the band’s subsequent albums as After bathing at Baxterbut on this second JA release, Balin was the main contributor (prefiguring his major re-engagement for Jefferson Starship in 1975, when his temperate, soulful tune “Miracles” became an LP hit red octopus).

Surrealistic Pillow (released 01/02/67) is therefore the last album where Balin’s contributions dominate the artistic process.. And though the highlights here are overshadowed by the commercially popular numbers, the ballads, “Comin’ Back to Me” and “Today” (a collaboration with Paul Kantner) are works of musical and lyrical poetry, made all the more stunning by the haunting (and haunted) Balin’s soulful singing. Juxtaposed in the sequence of tracks, these two tracks stand out all the more from their surroundings, even the polished, soft and harmonious “My Best Friend” which recalls the beginnings of JA take off.

Marty also paved the way for a new direction for Jefferson Airplane, though a heavier rock approach somewhat contradicted his original, somewhat pop vision. Like the aforementioned raucous opener (unsurprisingly co-written with Jorma), “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover” are tough rockers, rightly groaned by their songwriter as he offered observations on contemporary culture as scathing. as instrumental support for Casady, Kaukonen and Dryden. While the man’s natural high tenor voice would become almost unrecognizable in his attempts to rise above the din of the trio on later live recordings, such as the 1969 concert album Bless her little pointy headhis presence went a long way to galvanizing Jefferson Airplane’s expansive stage presence.

Its whimsical title comes courtesy of Jerry Garcia – the titular leader of the Grateful Dead is credited as “spiritual advisor” for the recording –surreal pillow became the first hit psychedelic album by a band from San Francisco. The subsequent exposure of the Airplane’s countercultural position(s) became overtly political, a shift in which Marty Balin participated to some extent: he was Paul’s co-composer on “Volunteers” for their 1969 album of the same name.

But the rise of Kantner and Slick as studio songwriters and stage focal points undoubtedly accelerated his departure in 1970. Also around this time, material contributions from former guitar teacher Kaukonen were more regular – although not all in the form of his acoustic guitar magic here as “Embryonic Journey”. And his regression from the band otherwise became crucial when Airplane’s touring slowed: he formed Hot Tuna with bassist Jack Casady to continue playing regularly and often. None of these repercussions, of course, lessens the seismic impact of a disc that has not dated appreciably in the meantime. On the contrary, with the wise hindsight of half a century, surreal pillow has become memorable for more than the obvious reasons, its durability rightly increasing over this long period of time.