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Jefferson Airplane formed in San Francisco, Calif., in 1965 by Marty Balin (vocalist; born January 30, 1943, in Cincinnati, Ohio) and Paul Kantner (guitar; born March 19, 1941, in San Francisco, Calif.); other original members included Signe Anderson (vocals), Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar; born December 23, 1940, in Washington, D.C.), Jack Casady (bass; born April 13, 1944, in Washington, D.C.), and (Alexander) Skip Spence (drums). Spence left band in 1966 and was replaced by Spencer Dryden (drums; born April 7, 1943, in New York, N.Y.); Anderson left the band in 1967 and was replaced by Grace Slick (vocals; born October 30, 1943, in Chicago, Ill.; married to band member Kantner c. 1970-78); Balin and Dryden left band in 1971. Slick, Kantner, Balin, and David Freiberg (keyboards, bass; born August 24, 1938, in Boston, Mass.), Pete Sears (keyboards, bass; born May 27, 1948, in England), Papa John Creach (violin; born May, 1917) Craig Chaquico (lead guitar; born September 26, 1954, in Sacramento, Calif.), and John Barbata (drums) formed Jefferson Starship in 1974; Balin and Slick left band in 1978, were replaced by Mickey Thomas (lead vocals; born in Cairo, Ga.); band also added Aynsley Dunbar (drums); Slick rejoined band in 1981. Starship was formed in 1984 when Freiberg, Kantner, and Sears left band and were replaced by Donny Baldwin. In 1989 Kantner, Balin, Slick, Casady, and Kaukonen renited for a reunion album.
The Charlatans may have been the first band to emerge from the San Francisco drug culture in the mid-1960s, but it was the Jefferson Airplane, who formed almost immediately after, that came to be the voice of the hippie generation. Singer Marty Balin organized the Airplane in 1965 and their first exposure was at his nightclub, the Matrix. They signed a healthy contract with RCA that set off a tidal wave of music industry executives flocking to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco to sign anyone that looked like they could play an instrument. The band sent out a musical call-to-arms with their debut LP, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off!, a folk-rock collection that marked the beginning of a recording history that has lasted well over twenty years and numerous personnel changes.
The first major move came with their second LP, Surrealistic Pillow, as one of the original vocalists, Signe Anderson (Balin shared microphone duties also), was replaced by Grace Slick. The soprano came from the band the Great Society and brought along with her two songs that threw her into the spotlight while unintentionally pushing Balin to the side, "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love."
Guitarist/songwriter Paul Kantner began to steer the group towards outer space with his science-fiction visions on their next two LPs. As The Rolling Stone Record Guide described After Bathing At Baxters, "the density of the album's production was truly staggering, but it was an attempt doomed to ultimate, even if heroic, failure. You can't record an LSD trip, so the album ends up sounding like a bizarre indulgence." While Kantner's weaving guitar lines have always been the glue that holds the group together, his futuristic lyrics, as on 1968's Crown of Creation, have also played a major role in defining the Airplane's direction.
The other side of the coin became their political rantings, as on Volunteers, which followed the live Bless It's Pointed Little Head LP. "We Can Be Together," "Wooden Ships," and the title track, "Volunteers," were all anthems for a generation that was struggling to deal with the social changes that the Vietnam War era brought about. Their righteous stance also had another side, according to Charles Perry in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, "Jefferson Airplane loved you, but they gave themselves plenty of room for psychic self-defense."
The Airplane's acid-rock light show extravaganza began to wear thin on bassist Jack Casady and lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen by 1970 as the two started their own part-time, back-to-the-blues roots band, Hot Tuna, which began recording on Kantner's newly formed Grunt label. Balin was also beginning to feel unappreciated and was feuding with Casady and Kaukonen as the future of the Airplane was up in the air. Kantner meanwhile produced Blows Against The Empire under the moniker Paul Kantner and The Jefferson Starship, described by the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock as a "'space opera' of soap-opera standards, a mish-mash of hippie mysticism and platitudes which, whatever its intentions, represented a retreat from the outfront approach of Volunteers."
For the next few years the Jefferson Airplane continued to release albums while various members worked on other projects. The Airplane recruited ex-Turtles and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young member John Barbata on drums and violinist Papa John Creach for 1971's Bark . By that time Balin had decided he could do better on his own and left the group. After Long John Silver in 1972 and the disappointing live effort Thirty Seconds Over Winterland a year later, the original Jefferson Airplane was officially gone.
Slick and Kantner had collaborated on Sunfighter in 1971 and Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun in 1973, which also included David Freiberg, former bassist/keyboardist with Quicksilver Messenger Service. In 1974 Slick also released a solo effort titled Manhole as Kantner reorganized a new unit that featured a blistering young guitarist who had played on the latter three albums, Craig Chaquico. The Jefferson Starship released its official debut, Dragon Fly, in 1974 with the hit song "Caroline," written and sung by Balin, an unofficial member at the time. Behind the steady dual bass/keyboard work of Freiberg and studio ace Pete Sears, and the fine fretwork of Chaquico on cuts like "Ride the Tiger," the Jefferson Starship began to soar up the charts.
In 1974 they followed with Red Octopus, one of only four LPs in history to reach the Number 1 spot on Billboard 's charts four separate times. Anyone who thought that the band was just a rehash of the Airplane was in for a big surprise. "Nostalgia, that's how they first started to sell us," Balin stated in Rolling Stone. "But we were a little better than just nostalgia. We were musical and something new, with lots of energy." Balin contributed a ballad with "Miracles" but still had not committed to the group and refused to sign any contracts. The Jefferson Starship stuck with the softer material on their next two LPs. Balin's "With Your Love" appeared on Spitfire, which Stephen Holden described in Rolling Stone: "While the music no longer has the explosive urgency of youth, it combines a rare stylistic breadth with awesomely controlled power."
Although the next album, Earth, went platinum, its use of strings and the willowy "Count on Me" caused Freiberg to refer to it as "the wimpy end of the stick," in Guitar Player. "I think it's a real good album for the times we're in," Kantner told Rolling Stone. "We're just passing out of the Seventies, which is like a big sleep after the Sixties. It's a light time, and the album feels real good to me on a light level--not the same way, but the good aspects, if you will, of disco. Just the feel ... the bubbling level. I don't think every album has to be serious and heavy."
Earth also signalled the departure of Balin from the group. "This formula that everybody thinks is so successful is death to me. I think it's death to the band. That's why it doesn't interest me," Balin told Rolling Stone. "The Starship is too limiting for me. There are eight million stories in this city. The Starship's only one of them."
Another story was Grace Slick's alcohol problem. After a riot in Germany's Lorelei Festival on June 17, 1978, destroyed most of the band's equipment and their spirit, she left the group, parting with Kantner, her husband of eight years, and hooking up with Starship roadie Skip Johnson. "No one would come out and say 'You're acting like a jerk.' So I had to fire myself," she told College Papers.
The band hired former Journey drummer Aynsley Dunbar and replaced both Slick and Balin with an unlikely choice, Mickey Thomas: a soulful singer from Elvin Bishop's band whom Kantner told College Papers, "could stand against the past." Chaquico took control of the band and turned up the heavy metal crunch for Freedom At Point Zero. "Without Grace Slick or Marty Balin, the Jefferson Starship is a hulk of a band, desperately in need of worthwhile material and marching inexorably toward oblivion," wrote Al Sperone in Rolling Stone.
Half the problem was solved in 1981 when Slick rejoined the band for Modern Times but it was just the end of another phase as Kantner split in 1984 and Freiberg and Sears followed suit thereafter. Chaquico, Slick, and Thomas brought in Donny Baldwin (also formerly of the Elvin Bishop band) and sought the help of outside writers. The commercial appeal of Knee Deep In The Hoopla and No Protection brought a considerable amount of bad press from critics, but the group, now just named Starship, had three Number 1 hits in just eighteen months. "We Built This City," "Sara," and "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" were guitar-driven vehicles that had the Starship ruling the charts once again.
In 1989 Kantner, Balin, Slick, Casady, and Kaukonen set aside their differences for a reunion LP, Jefferson Airplane, on Epic Records. "We visited Grace," Casady told down beat. "I said, 'If there's a possibility of us playing together again, you're going to be on stage playing piano like you used to. Paul's going to play his guitar; there'll be no surrounding instruments to cover up anything or to make it grander.... [We're] going to put our butts on the line.' That's what the original Airplane stood for."
by Calen D. Stone
Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship's Career
Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship's Awards
Rolling Stone Music Award for album of the year, 1975, for Red Octopus , 1975.
- Jefferson Airplane
- Jefferson Airplane Takes Off RCA, 1966.
- Surrealistic Pillow RCA, 1967.
- After Bathing at Baxters RCA, 1967.
- Crown of Creation RCA, 1968.
- Bless It's Pointed Little Head RCA, 1969.
- Volunteers RCA, 1969.
- Worst of Jefferson Airplane RCA, 1970.
- Bark Grunt, 1971.
- Long John Silver Grunt, 1972.
- Thirty Seconds Over Winterland Grunt, 1973.
- Early Flight Grunt/RCA, 1974.
- Jefferson Airplane's Flight Log, 1966-1976 Grunt, 1977.
- 2400 Fulton Street--An Anthology RCA, 1987.
- Jefferson Airplane Epic, 1989.
- Jefferson Starship
- Dragon Fly Grunt, 1974.
- Red Octopus Grunt, 1975.
- Spitfire Grunt, 1976.
- Earth Grunt, 1978.
- Gold Grunt, 1979 Freedom at Point Zero Grunt, 1979.
- Modern Times Grunt, 1981.
- Knee Deep in the Hoopla Grunt, 1985.
- No Protection Grunt, 1987.
- Love Among the Cannibals RCA, 1989.
- (Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship) Blows Against the Empire RCA, 1970.
- (Grace Slick and Paul Kantner) Sunfighter Grunt, 1971.
- (Kantner, Slick, and Freiberg) Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun Grunt, 1973.
August 3, 2004: Band member Mickey Thomas released the solo album, Over the Edge. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_5/index.jsp, August 6, 2004.
January 11, 2005: Band member Spencer Dryden died on January 11, 2005, at his home in Petaluma, California, of colon cancer. He was 66. Source: San Francisco Chronicle, www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/news/archive/2005/01/13/obituary1034EST0038.DTL, January 13, 2005; Jefferson Airplane: The Official Website, www.jeffersonairplane.com, January 21, 2005.
January 10, 2005: Band member Spencer Dryden died on January 10, 2005, at his home in Petaluma, California, of colon cancer. He was 66. Source: San Francisco Chronicle, www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/news/archive/2005/01/13/obituary1034EST0038.DTL, January 13, 2005; Jefferson Airplane: The Official Website, www.jeffersonairplane.com, January 21, 2005.
- Christgau, Robert, Christgau's Record Guide, Ticknor & Fields, 1981.
- Dalton, David, and Lenny Kaye, Rock 100, Grosset & Dunlap, 1977.
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden, Harmony, 1977.
- The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1976.
- The Rolling Stone Interviews, 1967-1980, by the editors of Rolling Stone, Martin's Press/Rolling Stone Press, 1981.
- The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh with John Swenson, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
- down beat, June 1989.
- Guitar Player, March 1976; June 1976; June 1977; October 1980; January 1982; June 1987; November 1989.
- Guitar World, December 1987.
- Rolling Stone, January 1, 1976; February 12, 1976; August 26, 1976; September 9, 1976; May 4, 1978; May 18, 1978; October 19, 1978; February 7, 1980; April 17, 1980; September 24, 1987.
- Rolling Stone's College Papers, May-June 1980.
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