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Rock & Roll Feature: Jefferson Airplane and the Summer of Love on their Surrealistic Pillow
This is the eighth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
As any good music fan is probably aware by this time, the summer of 2007 is the 40th anniversary of the infamous "Summer of Love" that would forever change the world, and especially music. There were so many seminal albums from that period, a sort of musical explosion of creativity, but if I had to pick one band that best fit with the psychedelic feel of the late 60s it wouldn't be Jimi Hendrix or Cream (although they would be good choices too)... it'd be Jefferson Airplane... And of course the album of those time would have to be Surrealistic Pillow.
Although it was released in months before the Summer of Love, some people claim that this was the album that really kicked off everything with psychedlia. I don't know if I'd agree with that statement or not because I wasn't around when it debuted, didn't really start listening to the Airplane until after I'd already been listening to much of classic rock and have not really researched everything about the psychedelic movement to make a good call. In fact, listening to the album now though having also heard everything that followed, including Jefferson Airplane's own After Bathing at Baxter's that would be released at the end of the same year, it actually sounds a little tame in terms of psychedelic and sonic experimentation. Still, I do hear a lot of influence from this album in just about everything from that era, but also think it and remains a great album in its own right.
Starting off pretty simply, "She has Funny Cars" is a great subdued rocker that hints at something deeper in it's lyrical content and has a bit of a primal feel at time in its drum and guitar work. Then erupts one of the best rock and roll songs of all time "Somebody to Love", a song I've always felt just hits everything right from it's subtle cryptic lyrics to it's straight ahead pounding rock feel and slightly mystic flavored lead guitar work. It's just a heavy song with great haunting but soulful vocals and an energy that a lot of heavier bands seemed to always be grasping for, but never quite reaching. A few even covered this song directly and still didn't quite hit it quite as right as this original version. "My Best Friend" is an upbeat, slightly bluesy and folksy song that builds into a bit of a folk blues stomp in the middle and the end giving it a great feel and some depth. Things really get interesting with the trippy but beautiful mysticism of "Today". This is one of my favorite songs off this album for it's great lyrical lines that seem to just hang above a very minimal musical backing. I'm especially fond of the back beat tambourine beats as there is something very visceral in that hypnotic pulse. It recalls another band and song that had just come onto the scene as well: the Doors and "The End" from the Doors self titled release, (this is kind of interesting because I believe that Doors release was in Jan '67, while Surrealistic Pillow released in Feb '67, but I don't know if there was direct influence there or not).
The album seems to get deeper and darker as it progresses into the next song "Coming Back to Me". It's another slow burning mystic and folk flavored ballad, but seems far murkier than "Today" with far darker lyrics and style that only briefly break for the chorus. "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" is almost a complete reversal from the previous two songs as it's an upbeat, pretty straight up rocker, but still good. "D.C.B.A. -25" is a return to the psychedelic feel, this time in a upbeat rock song with great harmonized vocals and a swaying chorus. This song also has a great subtlety progressive guitar lead that gives it a deeper feel than it might otherwise. Both this song and "How Do You Feel" have that great happy and melodic, but slightly haunting feel that a lot of the bands had at the time, with "How Do You Feel" more folksy than the psychedelic "D.C.B.A. -25". In fact this feel carries through most of the album as this is a very upbeat album overall.
Of course the folk guitar instrumental work out "Embryonic Journey" is an album highlight with it's sublime earthy, but extremely melodic feel. Oh and then there is this little song called "White Rabbit" on this album as well... One of the all time anthems for the psychedelic era, "White Rabbit" is a surrealist acid trip in musical form with great lyrics inspired by Lewis Carroll and a building feel that pulses and pushes towards it's ultimate climax. What really makes this song for me though is Grace Slick's fantastic vocal work. It's hypnotic and trance-like, with surges that can absolutely send shivers down the spine, especially when she belts out the poetic imagery of the song's psychedelic conclusion. The album closes with the rock, blues and folk stomp "Fantastic Plastic Lover" that has some more great lyrical lines and guitar work that puts it firmly in the psychedelic and hints at the rougher, harder edged places Jefferson Airplane would go on their next album.
"White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" are really enough reason to listen to this album as both are stellar songs and probably the most well known songs the band ever did, but they surely are not the only standouts on this album. Personally, I might pick After Bathing at Baxter's as a more accurate representation of the Jefferson Airplane psychedelic ideas, despite being a far more difficult album to listen to, (these songs do seem to a little constrained in the short, radio friendly format), but I wouldn't make that choice by much though as I like both albums a lot.
There is some really great music throughout Surrealistic Pillow and some truly great lyrical lines as well with hints of social comments, humor and sarcasm all laced with deeper thought that work together to make a great album.
I also think this album really stands out for me because I see so many of the roots of the great things to come, as well as where the music scene had already been, musically, lyrically and sonorously in it's songs. That's probably why some people see it as the album that really kicked off the mainstream psychedelic movement. I'm not a music historian so I won't try to cite direct influence or trace the lineage of psychedelia, but I think it's pretty easy to see this album as, at the very least, a turning point in the music of Jefferson Airplane, if not the popular music scene of the 1960s as a whole. That definitely puts us in the realm of "must listen to" albums and even if you don't want to look at it as that influential, it's still a great album to listen to with great music.
If you're coming to Jefferson Airplane rather late like I did, (late meaning long after their heyday) then Surrealistic Pillow might be a good place to start, while if you're a fan then you already know about this great album.
Either way, I think during this 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, Surrealistic Pillow is definitely one of the albums we need to be playing for it's historical significance and influence... And maybe on a regular basis as well just because it has some great music.
You can purchase this album directly from Amazon here: Surrealistic Pillow