No other studio record summed up the San Francisco rock aesthetic of the late Sixties better than the Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow. Half-live records like Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails and the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun came close to capturing the city’s ballroom experience on vinyl. But it was Surrealistic Pillow, the Airplane’s second LP, with its artful compound of modal folk minstrelsy and electric acid beat, that spread the Bay Area message of peace, love and dance throughout the land. In Grace Slick’s sirenlike wail on “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” a generation heard the voice of a new Utopia and raced excitedly to its source. As Airplane singer-guitarist Paul Kantner says fondly, “She was everybody’s dream for one good summer — in fact, for a good many summers after that.”
Surrealistic Pillow’s social and commercial impact belies the circumstances of its making. According to Kantner, the album was recorded on four-track in only two weeks. Most of the rhythm tracks were cut live in the studio with relatively few takes, since soaring Airplane rockers like “She Has Funny Cars” and “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” were already staples of the band’s live set, as were the two Slick showcases (which she had carried over from her former band, the Great Society). “Everything we did was based on the live experience,” Kantner says, “and then taking it to the edge.”
Unfortunately producer Rick Jarrard was, in Kantner’s words, “an obnoxious ass in the true Hollywood tradition,” with a fondness for drenching everything in heavy Phil Spector-like echo. So the Airplane brought in compadre Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, billed as “musical and spiritual adviser” on the back cover, to act as de facto producer for most of the record. According to Kantner, Garcia lent “his particular Grateful madness to the whole project.” Garcia also played acoustic guitar, uncredited, on “Plastic Fantastic Lover” and singer Marty Balin’s delicate ballad “Comin’ Back to Me.”
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The Airplane’s own droll humor nicely complemented Garcia’s “Grateful madness.” The letters in the rather cryptic title of Kantner’s “D.C.B.A.-25” are nothing more than the chords in the song. The number, Kantner says, “is a reference to LSD-25. It’s basically an LSD-inspired romp through consciousness. I can’t even remember the words at this point.”
In addition to highlighting the Airplane’s advanced songwriting gifts, Surrealistic Pillow (the title was Marty Balin’s idea) also revealed the band’s unique musical strengths, particularly the triple-decker vocal-harmony sandwich of Slick, Balin and Kantner. At that time, Kantner was actually scoring the vocal parts, basing the layered effect of “two relative drones on the bottom and top with a moving thing in the middle” on the pre-Beatles folk singing of the Weavers and Peter, Paul and Mary. And when Grace replaced the Airplane’s original female singer, Signe Anderson, in August 1966, she “added all the Moorish weirdness, the chants, the wailing lead-guitar-like stuff.” The effect on power-rock trips like “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” was, Kantner says, “this sonic jetlike attack of Grace and Marty plus Jorma [Kaukonen, the lead guitarist] flying through his Fender Twin Reverb amp.”
Nobody was more surprised than the members of the Airplane when “Somebody to Love,” the second single from the LP (it followed Skip Spence’s country charmer “My Best Friend”), rocketed into the Top Ten and subsequently became the anthem of that brief but memorable summer of ’67. But Great Society guitarist Darby Slick, Grace’s brother-in-law at the time and the writer of the song, says the song’s lasting impression has a lot to do with its somewhat misconstrued message. “It’s sort of a searcher’s song,” says Slick, who has devoted much of the past twenty years to studying and playing Indian music. “The verses are disillusionment, and the chorus is looking for an answer. That feeling was a lot more common in those days than the media seemed to realize. That scene was about trying to throw off the Fifties. People forget how depressing and repressed it was, how negative it made us feel about society.
“The world was poised, wanting a hit out of San Francisco,” Slick continues. “It just happened that ‘Somebody to Love’ was there. The Airplane was ready, and the song was ready.”