Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Jefferson Airplane

  • Surrealistic Pillow [RCA Victor, 1967] B+
  • Volunteers [RCA Victor, 1969] B
  • The Worst of Jefferson Airplane [RCA Victor, 1970] B+
  • Bark [Grunt, 1971] C+
  • Long John Silver [Grunt, 1972] C+
  • Early Flight [Grunt, 1974] B
  • The Essential Jefferson Airplane [RCA/Legacy, 2005]
  • Sweeping Up the Spotlight: Jefferson Airplane Live at the Fillmore East 1969 [RCA/Legacy, 2007] Dud

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Surrealistic Pillow [RCA Victor, 1967]
I dismissed this as "amplified Peter, Paul & Mary" in the first piece of rock criticism I ever wrote; later, under the influence of "Somebody to Love," a few powerful Jorma Kaukonen riffs, my ex-folkie girlfriend, and the prevalent cultural vibes, I recanted--in print, yet. Now I think I was closer the first time. There's good stuff here, but Spencer Dryden plays the drums as if trying out for the Riders of the Purple Sage, the sarcasm is as vapid as the optimism, and the folk-pretty melodies simply do not carry lyrics like "When I see a girl like that/It brightens up my day." B+

Volunteers [RCA Victor, 1969]
A puzzler: I've listened many times and cannot make contact. Every time Grace lilts out "Up against the wall, motherfuckers" ( a phrase which has long since lost its currency and dubious usefulness) I want to laugh, and I don't find the instrumental cuts very inspired. Everybody else seems to dig it a lot, and of course it's far from bad, but everybody may be wrong. B

The Worst of Jefferson Airplane [RCA Victor, 1970]
For someone who enjoys their albums, like me, this factitious compilation--fifteen cuts is a lot, but though it includes all (two) of their AM smashes it doesn't even pretend to be a singles anthology--is a waste. But for someone who finds their albums wanting, like me, it has its uses, especially as overview. These folks are literate both verbally and musically. Their chops don't quite equal their tastes--"White Rabbit," with its bolero build and librarian's-eye view of lysergic acid, is perfect, but "Chushingura" is almost as sloppy in the picking as "Today" is in the sentiment. They were hippies when becoming a hippie took beatnik initiative and psychedelic imagination. And when they're good they make the for-better-or-worse evolution of rock and roll into rock seem both appropriate and inevitable. B+

Bark [Grunt, 1971]
This isn't as bad as the faithless claim (a lot better than Bite, for instance), but it's definitely a collection of weirdnesses rather than an album: duh boys in duh band sing a cappella, Grace sings German, Grace defies cop, Hot Tuna outtake, fiddle feature, and so forth. And so on. C+

Long John Silver [Grunt, 1972]
Easily the most coherent album to come from Airplane Associates since Volunteers--the music is muscular, the hole left by Marty Balin finally covered over. But the printed lyrics are catchier than the tunes. Grace sings like she's facing Mecca, and Paul sings like an automatic pilot. Which suggests that maybe a hole is still there. C+

Early Flight [Grunt, 1974]
Artists are always claiming embarrassment at the unauthorized release of their early work, but this group owns the company, so I guess they know no shame. They ought to--not about these nine cuts, six recorded in 1965-66 and three in 1970, but at how played out the band has become. The two originals with Signe Anderson are early Airplane at their folkie-trippy worst, although "High Flying Bird" is fine, but even the six-minute blues jams, one with Jorma and one with Marty, sound more alive than all their space operas. The 1970 single "Mexico," about Nixon's dope crackdown, is their finest recording of the decade. And "Have You Seen the Saucers," the B side, sounds more alive than all their space operas too. B

The Essential Jefferson Airplane [RCA/Legacy, 2005]
Jefferson Airplane was a San Francisco folk-rock band that in its hit-making phase comprised two clandestinely showbiz vocalists (Grace Slick and Marty Balin), a snazzy enough lead guitarist who never did anything else with his life (Paul Kantner), a clunky drummer on a scene rife with them, and Hot Tuna. Rock and Roll Hall of Famers still busy symbolizing the Summer of Love almost four decades later, they released this two-CD compilation in honor of the BMG-Sony merger, and it's not bad. The Airplane wrote some good tunes even if they oversang and overarranged them. And while they could get pretty ridiculous--anyone for "Have You Seen the Saucers?"--they adapted better than many competing ex-folkies to the psychedelic space jam that was the Haight-Ashbury ballrooms' enduring footnote to musical history. [Blender: 3]

Sweeping Up the Spotlight: Jefferson Airplane Live at the Fillmore East 1969 [RCA/Legacy, 2007] Dud

Further Notes:

Meltdown [1980s]

See Also