Thursday, February 01, 2007

Jefferson Airplane: my embryonic journey

Forty years ago this month, RCA Victor Records released Surrealistic Pillow. I was just 12 and still puzzling over the lyrics to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” so I didn’t pay much attention to Jefferson Airplane until that summer. That’s when I saw the band on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. After watching Grace Slick belt out “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” my yearlong woody for Diana Rigg had a new target of infatuation. Ample whining got me the cash to buy Surrealistic Pillow, and a lifetime love for anything Grace and Airplane was born.

Some notes on Pillow:

* The LP’s cover was designed by the band’s founder and lead singer Marty Balin — in blue. The suits at RCA, more “hip” than Marty to the likes and dislikes of the blossoming flower generation, changed the color to bubblegum pink.

* The first single from the album was Skip Spence’s “My Best Friend,” with “How Do You Feel” on the B-side. Another RCA idea. It peaked at 103 on the singles chart. A month after its release, Pillow had reached only 137 on Billboard’s Top LPs chart.

* “Somebody to Love,” backed with “She Has Funny Cars,” was the album’s second single, released in April. It entered at 88. By June, it had peaked at 5.

* Following “Somebody to Love” and the singles release of “White Rabbit” in August, Surrealistic Pillow galloped up the Billboard chart to number 3, stuck behind Sgt. Peppers and the Monkees’ Headquarters. Not shabby.

Finally, the Pillow LP plays prominently in one of my favorite moments from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

“Music!” he snarled. “Turn it up. Put that tape on.”

“what tape?”

“The new one. It’s right there.”

I picked up the radio and noticed that it was also a tape recorder — one of those things with a cassette-unit built in. And the tape, Surrealistic Pillow, needed only to be flipped over. He had already gone through side one — at a volume that must have been audible in every room within a radius of one hundred yards, walls and all.

“ ‘White Rabbit,’ ” he said. “I want a rising sound.”

“You’re doomed,” I said. “I’m leaving here in two hours — and then they’re going to come up here and beat the mortal shit out of you with big saps. Right there in the tub.”

“I dig my own graves,” he said. “Green water and the White Rabbit...put it on; don’t make me use this.” His arm lashed out of the water, the hunting knife gripped in his fist.

“Jesus,” I muttered. And at that point I figured he was beyond help — lying there in the tub with a head full of acid and the sharpest knife I’ve ever seen, totally incapable of reason, demanding the White Rabbit. This is it, I thought. I’ve gone as far as I can with this waterhead. This time it’s a suicide trip. This time he wants it. He’s ready. ...”


At 4:33 PM, Blogger Warren Bluhm said...

OK kids, all together now:

"What's a B-side, Uncle Wally???"

I don't know if the RCA execs were morons because they didn't recognize what a great tune "Somebody to Love" was right from the start, or if they were geniuses because they realized "Somebody to Love" was a perfect spring/summer song so they waited until April to release it.

All I know is now I can't get that song out of my head. Thanks a lot!!! (No, seriously, thanks a lot - it's a great tune!)


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