Excitingly, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow is a relatively new acquisition to my collection.
Recently I’ve been having a late 60s San Fransisco period, and both White Rabbit and Somebody to Love have been featuring quite heavily on the old Spotify playlist. So I decided to trawl eBay for the vinyl to see if the rest of the album lived up to those songs. I was surprised by the cover – imagining some bright and bold artwork in line with other bands of the time; however this felt like an early 60s “this is the band” cover and gives nothing away, and I mean nothing. Perhaps this simplicity is the key to the album.
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Listening to the album felt like opening a tin of Quality Street and finding all the sweets were Folk, Blues, Rock and Psychedelia. I’m no stranger to psychedelia and it’s interesting to hear one of the earliest examples of it.
For an album that was released in 1967, it still feels very fresh and timeless. I suppose that’s why upon its release Jefferson Airplane were the trailblazers for the blend of folk, psychedelia and the burgeoning San Fransisco counterculture. Grace Slick’s vocals are haunting amongst the instrumentals: forceful and full of energy. Surrealistic Pillow was the start of the Summer of Love; Haight Ashbury was about to become infamous, and things would never be quite the same for San Fran.
Delving into the album, it’s impossible to separate the songs and late 60s culture and history – the songs seem to encapsulate what was going on, and vice versa.
Listening to White Rabbit for example – it was one of the first songs to sneak drug references past the censors. LSD and Mary Jane had emerged as the great social experiment and it was all about expanding the mind, man… You couldn’t have imagined hearing this type of song a couple of years earlier. The music, along with the lyrics create a weird type of sensory distortion; a bit like an LSD trip (or so I’ve been told). Or if you want to believe Ms Slick, we’re listening to a song about Alice in Wonderland, aww sweet (yeah, which isn’t trip AT ALL. People – read the book and tell me that the Right Rev. Duckworth and Mr “Carroll” Dodgson weren’t totally out of their minds).
Somebody to Love instantly stands out on the album (as it should, it was the song that took Jefferson Airplane to the masses). It is lyrically complex and full of emotion – phrased in the second person, and sung in almost wailing desperation by Grace. The song is seeking something, questioning and answering the disillusionment, despair and, well, isolation: Wouldn’t you love somebody to love? It’s one of the longest on the album, and strangely is quite relaxing (perhaps I’m odd?). Like a lot of the songs on the album, the “love” songs are a complete juxtaposition to the drug influenced poppy songs such as She has Funny Cars.
The album feels very polished, both Grace Slick’s and Marty Balin’s vocals are instantly recognisable and draw you in. Whether you’re completely new to psychedelia this is a great entry album, or your tastes are more traditional – there really is something for everyone. I guarantee you’ll be tapping your feet before you know it. I, of course, am up doing the full on 60s dances and probably looking like an idiot.
Give it a go: turn on, tune in and drop out.
(As an aside, I bought an original ’67 UK release of the album, and for an unknown reason White Rabbit is not on the album – so, so annoying. Time to try and find a US release methinks).
Stand out songs:
- D.C.B.A – 25
- White Rabbit
- Somebody to Love
- Plastic Fantastic Lover
The Knitty Gritty:
The album is available on Spotify, Deezer, iTunes and on CD/Vinyl
Other albums to listen to:
Electric Ladyland – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Disraeli Gears – Cream
Fifth Dimension – The Byrds
Magical Mystery Tour – The Beatles