- Marty Balin
- Jack Cassady
- Spencer Dryden
- Paul Kantner
- Jorma Kaukonen
- Grace Slick
Their psychedelic music and freewheeling lifestyle made them the poster children of Sixties San Francisco.
Jefferson Airplane produced acid rock topped with lofty vocals. As experimental revolutionaries, Jefferson Airplane’s career was one of hits punctuated by controversy, both from internal conflict and their own wild political views.
In terms of music and lifestyle, the Jefferson Airplane epitomized the San Francisco scene of the mid-to-late Sixties. Their heady psychedelia, combustible group dynamic and adventuresome live shows made them one of the defining bands of the era. Much like their contemporaries on the San Francisco scene—Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company principal among them—the Airplane evolved from roots in folk and blues to become a psychedelic powerhouse and a cornerstone of the San Francisco sound. They were the first band on that scene to play a dance concert, sign a major-label record contract (with RCA) and tour the U.S. and Europe. In addition they espoused boldly anarchistic political views and served as a force for social change, challenging the prevailing conservative mind set in “White Rabbit” and issuing a call to arms in “Volunteers.” In a sense, San Francisco became the American Liverpool in the latter half of the Sixties, and Jefferson Airplane were its Beatles.
Looking for a band to play at a new San Francisco club, the Matrix, of which he was part owner, Marty Balin founded Jefferson Airplane in 1965. The lineup that released Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966) a year later consisted of singers Balin and Signe Toly Anderson, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner, bassist Jack Casady and drummer Skip Spence. When Anderson left to raise a family, she was replaced by the charismatic Grace Slick. Slick had been a member of The Great Society and brought with her a pair of songs—“White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”—that would become rock classics in the Airplane’s hands. Drummer Spencer Dryden replaced Spence, who went on to become one of Moby Grape’s three guitarists.
The adventurous Airplane took unprecedented liberties on record and in concert. Kantner came from a folk background, Kaukonen was a blues aficionado, Casady grew up playing R&B and Dryden boasted a background in jazz training. Balin was a pop crooner, and Slick’s tastes were literary and offbeat. These various strands, brought together in the heady, experimental cauldron of San Francisco in the mid-Sixties, made for an electrifying union that moved rock music a few giant steps forward. The five Jefferson Airplane albums released from 1967 to 1969—Surrealistic Pillow (1967), After Bathing at Baxter’s (1967), Crown of Creation (1968), Bless Its Pointed Little Head (1969) and Volunteers (1969)—rank among the worthiest bodies of work of that or any decade.
Surrealistic Pillow (1967) yielded the Top Ten hits “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” making the Airplane the most commercially successful band on the underground-oriented San Francisco scene. The album stayed on the charts for over a year and peaked at Number Three. At the same time, the group behaved unconventionally by anyone’s standards. Surrealistic Pillow included surreal psychedelic raves with titles like “3/5 Mile in Ten Seconds," “She Has Funny Cars” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover.” It closed with a stark, lengthy, unrehearsed and chorus-free ballad, “Comin’ Back to Me,” which featured “spiritual advisor” Jerry Garcia (of the Grateful Dead) on guitar.
Appearing in late 1967, after the bloom was off the flower power-themed Summer of Love, After Bathing at Baxter’s caught the Airplane at a creative zenith. An uncompromising psychedelic manifesto, its songs were clustered into five “suites” that ran for up to twelve minutes. The inspired songwriting, most of it by Paul Kantner, captured the agitated yet utopian sensibility of San Francisco in the late Sixties, best expressed in this line from “Wild Tyme”: “I’m doing things that haven’t got a name yet.” The group worked on the album from June through October of 1967, defying record company demands and deadlines. In so doing, they helped trigger a shift in sensibility that placed creative control in the hands of musicians.
Crown of Creation, which appeared in 1968, displayed an increasingly political streak and further tightened up their sound. Bless Its Pointed Little Head served as a live document, affirming Balin’s later contention that “the stage performance...was the whole point of the band.” In 1969 the Airplane performed at both the Woodstock and Altamont rock festivals and released their most overtly political album, Volunteers. Thereafter, the group gradually frayed under the weight of diverging viewpoints. Kaukonen and Casady paid increasing attention to their blues-based side project, Hot Tuna, while Kantner premiered the name Jefferson Starship on a 1970 side project entitled Blows Against the Empire. In 1971 the still-intact Airplane launched a custom label, Grunt, which released records by the band, its offshoots and friends. Several more Airplane albums followed, including Bark (1971) and Long John Silver (1972). In true contrarian spirit, they entitled their best-of album The Worst of Jefferson Airplane. Despite some bright spots, the group was never as vital in the Seventies as they had been in the Sixties—a not-uncommon fate for bands of their vintage.
Jefferson Airplane formally evolved into Jefferson Starship in 1974, achieving considerably more commercial success in the Seventies than the Airplane had known in the previous decade. Built around Airplane originals Kantner, Slick and Balin, the radio-minded Starship racked up fifteen Top Forty hits, including the Balin-sung “Miracles” (Number Three). Jefferson Starship actually outlasted Jefferson Airplane, though the latter group did reassemble in 1989 for a reunion album and tour. However, the Starship rubric remained the chief post-Sixties port of call for Kantner and Balin, while Kaukonen kept Hot Tuna alive and Casady bounced between both of these Airplane offshoots. In 1999 Jefferson Starship released a CD, recorded live at the Fillmore in San Francisco, that included many Airplane classics and brought the story full circle.
Inductees: Marty Balin (vocals; born January 30, 1943), Jack Casady (bass; born April 13, 1944), Spencer Dryden (drums; born April 7, 1938, died January 11, 2005), Paul Kantner (vocals, guitar; March 17, 1941, died January 28, 2016), Jorma Kaukonen (guitar, vocals; born December 23, 1940), Grace Slick (vocals, keyboards, flute, recorder; born October 30, 1939).