Jefferson Airplane were the best-known and most commercially successful of the groups to come out of the San Francisco hippy movement of the late 1960s. They formed in 1965 and began as a folk-rock group, with some of the members (notably singer Marty Balin and singer-guitarist Paul Kantner) having backgrounds in the Bay Area folk scene. They performed regularly around San Francisco, signed with RCA Records and in 1966 released their first LP,Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, which sold well and consolidated their growing reputation. But it was in 1967 that they achieved large-scale success; they were joined by a new lead singer, Grace Slick, whose looks (she had worked as a model), powerful voice and strong stage presence added to their appeal as a live act. Their music was developing into a more electric and "psychedelic" style, captured on the 1967 LP Surrealistic Pillow, which sold a million copies, remaining in the US album chart for a full year. Two singles taken from the LP, "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit", also made the US charts and the Airplane's appearances on TV and at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival made them pop stars.
Yet there were no more hit singles; the band saw themselves as part of the hippy movement and their music reflected this, moving away from conventional songs towards longer and more complex pieces with unusual vocal harmonies and instrumental passages on the albums After Bathing At Baxters and Crown of Creation (both 1968). A live LP, Bless Its Pointed Little Head, captured their style at this period, as did film of their performances at Woodstock and the disastrous Altamont Festival in the same year. Volunteers (1969) saw them endorsing the idea of a hedonistic "revolution", then in vogue among some US students and hippies, but after this the Airplane began to fragment, with line-up changes and solo projects exacerbating tensions in what had always been a band of strong personalities. The folk-blues duo Hot Tuna, formed by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, issued a successful LP and continued gigging during Grace Slick's pregnancy, eventually becoming a full-time band in its own right. Founder member Marty Balin left; Slick's relationship with Paul Kantner became close professionally as well as personally, with them collaborating on the LP Blows Against The Empire, a concept album with a science-fiction theme, accompanied by "friends", including members of the Grateful Dead and the Airplane itself. Further Jefferson Airplane albums followed - Bark (1971), Long John Silver (1972) - but these were sometimes overshadowed by band members' solo projects, and the Airplane, although still popular with US audiences, split up in 1973.
They were succeeded by Jefferson Starship (the name originally used by Paul Kantner on Blows Against The Empire), who had great commercial success in the US during the 1970s and 1980s but were a more mainstream rock band, less popular with critics than with audiences. A full account of the Airplane's career can be found at Wikipedia.*
Links to Peel
John Peel first encountered the Jefferson Airplane during his time at the radio station KMEN in San Bernardino, California. He attended some of the recording sessions for the LP Surrealistic Pillow, although the exact date of his presence is not known; the sessions ran from 31 October to 22 November 1966 at RCA's studios in Hollywood. He was later to recall that he did not warm to the group (....ref...) but it did not prevent him developing a strong liking for their music and playing it often on his Radio London Perfumed Garden programmes. He regarded them as one of the most important groups of 1967 and expressed his frustration that RCA in the UK had not released the Surrealistic Pillow LP. At this time, British record companies were nervous about issuing "psychedelic" LPs, fearing that this would be seen as encouraging the drug culture; the LP was issued later in the year but differed from the US release, being a mixture of tracks from the original LP and "Jefferson Airplane Takes Off". The single "White Rabbit" had a particular fascination for him, as he nicknamed his first wife Shirley "the White Rabbit" - although this, like the Airplane's song, might equally have come from Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland, a favourite book of the hippy era. He also referred to it on air as a "magical" record, in one of the more psychedelic-sounding links from the final Perfumed Garden.
Peel continued to play records by the Airplane and their spin-off projects throughout the Top Gear era, and compered at least two of their major appearances in the UK; at the first Isle of Wight Festival in 1968, and at the Roundhouse in November of that year, when they shared the bill with The Doors. He did not pay much attention to the post-1974 Jefferson Starship, however, and later in his career seldom revisited the early Airplane LPs, apart from occasional plays of "White Rabbit" and "Somebody To Love".
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