Soundchecks Music Reviews

Volunteers by Jefferson Airplane

BMG 2004 edition

Jefferson Airplane

review by Andrew Darlington

When I ask Grace Slick why she's now living in seclusion and no longer performing she tells me "I think - it'd feel sappy!, at my age, singing 'up against the wall mother-fuckers!' It's stoooo-pid." It seems odd that the Starship who were once high-charting through the 1980s with hits like the appallingly bland We Built This City should have evolved by torturous routes from the same Haight-Ashbury acid-rockers here proclaiming "we are forces of chaos and anarchy." Yet between 1965 and 1970 Jefferson Airplane flew so high, narcotically and artistically, that few could touch them. They were a band synonymous, simultaneously, with chemical surrealism and politico-weirdness. The only serious rivals to The Doors as the thinking heads of the 'revolutionary' Amerikan underground, and Volunteers was the final seismic peak to that creative/commercial flight.

Originally issued in November 1969 - although its release was delayed by the label's more timidly censorial instincts, it was proclaimed the band's most overtly political work by the hippie press. It reached #13 on the US album chart, and crept as high as #34 in the UK, the following February. To LSD-cultist survivors of the 'Operation Julie' drug-busts this stuff was holy writ. Even The Damned, by recording White Rabbit - or Patti Smith doing her own version of that same song on her 2007 covers-album Twelve, were giving a nod to Grace Slick's daunting vocal and lyrical pyrotechnics. She was - and is the Chrome Nun, the Ice Queen, a Siouxie Sioux for the flower-punk generation. When she sings "up against the wall mother-fuckers" either on this album's fade-in groove, or on Woodstock's live stage-boards, her voice cuts diamond hard, clear as a tightly-focused SDI laser in clinical-cold deep space.

Even when softened by interaction with Marty Balin's more beat-romantic vision on the post-apocalypse epic Wooden Ships she betrays a flexibility that's just as remarkable (written in collaboration with David Crosby, Airplane's Wooden Ships came just five months after CS&N's own version on their debut album). Grace and Marty Balin's voices work amazingly well either separately or - here for the last time, together. While, discounting the LSD tab required for achieving the correct mental 'set', Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonon's needle-point twin-guitar whine provides the third vital Airplane ingredient, either up against folk-stark acoustics or in occasionally overindulgent freefall electric improvisations via the 8:31-minute Hey Frederick. Jorma seldom played better than he does here. And he gels perfectly with Kantner, and Jack Cassady's bass. And while drummer Spencer Dryden plays just as sharply on this - his final Airplane album, it's never less than a group project. Kantner contributes the opening track We Can Be Together - sweet harmonies matched to hard riffs, with Grace's Eskimo Blue Day anticipating their next joint project together - Blows Against The Empire, Jorma etches out his keening guitar arrangement of the trad. Good Shepherd, plus his close-harmony original Turn My Life Down.

Then there's the 1:04-minute Meadowlands, a strange swelling organ instrumental. Previous Airplane albums had similarly brief experimental interludes, so this is part of a group-continuity. Dryden is responsible for the shambling country-rock A Song For All Seasons, before Balin and Kantner's title-song closes the album by reprising the chords and signature riff from track one. But Volunteers catches the band at their ] last full-strength phase, with the 'Frisco scene already long decayed into the planet-hopping celebrity of counter-culture deification, and the 'heavy friends' guest-list reading like a roll-call of trendy pot-heads and career alternative-media icons, from Steve Stills and Jerry Garcia (pedal-steel on The Farm) to session pianist Nicky Hopkins (whose contribution shouldn't be underestimated), and on.

Of course, it couldn't last. Ahead of this, Airplane lies only fragmentation into solo albums, Grootna, Papa John Creach, Jack and Jorma spinning-off into Hot Tuna, and the shamefully mainstream platinum 1980s' Starship. And if it sounds inconsistent in today's post-indie environs to hear Grace proclaiming her "we are all outlaws in the eyes of America" routine while they were simultaneously doing megabuck-sales for capitalist multinational RCA, at the time everyone was probably too stoned to notice such a contradiction. Whatever - this album was once seen as hippiedom's clearest statement of political intent. And its incandescence still shimmers decades on.

Now Grace confides to me "I don't like old people doing rock 'n' roll. I think it's kind-of pathetic. If I were to write an album of songs talking about the way I feel and am right now, it would be rude to an audience, because they want to hear - understandably, 'why don't you play White Rabbit, why don't you play dada-dada-dada.' I don't want to do that. And you can't do that to an audience - you can't go out and say 'I'm not gonna sing that...' (in bratty little girl voice). Well then - don't sing. So I don't..."

Hence this re-mastered, generously expanded CD edition is the only opportunity you're ever going to get to hear this stuff.

Edited by Tony Lee
for PIGASUS Press