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Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane

Fact Sheet

Country  USA
Jefferson Airplane was an American rock band from San Francisco, a pioneer of the LSD-influenced psychedelic rock movement. Various successor incarnations of the band have performed under different names, reflecting changing times and performer lineups, known as Jefferson Starship, and later simply Starship.

Jefferson Airplane was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

The term Jefferson airplane is also slang for a used match bent to hold a marijuana cigarette that has been smoked too short to hold without burning the hands. This may have been the origin for the band's name, though another theory holds that the band was named for blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Jefferson Airplane

This rock group formed on the west coast of the USA during the summer of 1965 in what was called the San Francisco Bay folk boom. Singer Marty Balin recruited another folk musician, Paul Kantner, and two schoolfriends, blues guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady. They drew inspiration from groups such as The Beatles, The Byrds, and the Lovin' Spoonful, and built a local following at the Matrix Club.

Later in 1965, they signed to Record Corporation of America and recorded an album for release the following year called Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, with Skip Spence on drums and female vocalist Signe Toly Anderson. Soon afterwards, these two newcomers left and were replaced by jazz drummer Spencer Dryden and singer Grace Slick, formerly of another San Francisco group, The Great Society. Grace who pulled the band clear of the softer folk scene and towards a more adventurous and experimental style in which jazz, blues and rock traditions all played a part. Amongst their fans, the group's name was further shortened to "the Airplane".

Membership remained stable until 1970, when no fewer than five albums were recorded. The first of these Surrealistic Pillow (1967) included two classic tracks White Rabbit (inspired by the hallucinogenic drug LSD, then extremely popular in San Francisco, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland) and the rousing anthem Somebody to Love, as well as a reminder of their earlier folk incarncation, in Kaukonen's acoustic Embryonic Journey. The album reached number 6 in the US album charts.

After Bathing At Baxters (1967), a concept album based around an LSD experience, further showed their proficiency in psychedelic rock. Crown Of Creation (1968) was a transitionary record, less overblown than ...Baxters, whereas Bless Its Little Pointed Head (1969) captured their live sound, recorded at concerts at the Fillmore and the Fillmore East. In the aftermath of the demise of the San Francisco scene, the band released Volunteers (1969), their most political venture. Balin and Dryden left shortly thereafter. Two albums were released on the band's own label, Grunt, Bark and Long John Silver, after which Casady and Kaukonen also left. The live album 30 Seconds Over Winterland (1973) is now best remembered for its cover art, featuring a squadron of flying toasters.

Jefferson Starship

During the transitional period of the early 1970s, Paul Kantner recorded the album Blows Against The Empire with an ad-hoc group of musicians whom he dubbed the Jefferson Starship, marking the first-ever use of that name. The Starship (such as it was) included David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), Jerry Garcia (of The Grateful Dead), and even former members of Jefferson Airplane. It was while that album was made that Kantner sealed his love affair with Grace Slick, and their daughter China Kantner was born shortly after.

In 1974, the Airplane was formally reborn as Jefferson Starship, with Kantner, Slick, and Balin as charter members. This led to several hit singles such as "Miracles" (from 1975's Red Octopus), and "Count On Me" (from 1978's Earth). Following a disastrous tour in Germany, Slick left the band. After recording Light The Sky On Fire for "The Star Wars Holiday Special", Balin too left the group, leaving Kantner and company to find a new lead singer in Mickey Thomas (who sang lead on Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around And Fell In Love").

After the 1979 release of Freedom At Point Zero (which spawned the hit single "Jane"), Grace Slick suddenly returned to the band for their next album, Modern Times. Two more albums followed after that.


In 1984, Kantner (one of two founding members of the original Jefferson Airplane) left the group, but not before taking legal action against his former bandmate Grace Slick over the Jefferson name (Grace and the rest of the band wanted to continue as Jefferson Starship). Kantner won his suit, and the group name was reduced to simply Starship, marking the third incarnation of the band.

Starship (now with Slick and Thomas at the helm) had their biggest hits in 1985 with Knee Deep in the Hoopla. That album produced two number one hits: "Sara" and "We Built This City", the latter of which was not about San Francisco as the lyrics may suggest, but about Los Angeles. Years later, "We Built This City" was named by Blender magazine as the Worst Song Ever, "the truly horrible sound of a band taking the corporate dollar while sneering at those who take the corporate dollar." As one contributor noted, " 'We Built This City'-- taken in isolation, it's a typical piece of 80s pop fluff. What makes it particularly galling, however, is that it comes from the lingering threads of a band that actually mattered in the 60s. It'd be like Lennon and McCartney resurfacing to put out an N'Sync-type song now and getting mounds of airplay on pop radio, selling scores of albums to teenyboppers who'd be surprised to hear that they used to be in a band before this one." (contributor's emphasis)

They also had the hit "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now", used in the soundtrack for the film Mannequin.

Slick quit the band in 1988, leaving Mickey Thomas and his remaining bandmates to continue by themselves for four more years.

Reunion and remnants

Solo careers and the attractions of other bands beckoned throughout. But in 1989, during a solo San Francisco gig, Paul Kantner found himself joined by former bandmate (and lover) Grace Slick and two other ex-Airplane members for a cameo appearance. This led to a formal reunion of the original Jefferson Airplane (featuring nearly all the main members, including co-founder Marty Balin, but without Spencer Dryden, who had been kicked out of the band years earlier). A self-titled album was released by Columbia Broadcasting System, but was not a success. The accompanying tour was, but it too was short-lived, and thus Jefferson Airplane was officially disbanded for good.

Today, there are two versions of Jefferson Starship one officially billed as Mickey Thomas' Starship (with Thomas at the forefront), and the revived Jefferson Starship (often called Jefferson Starship: The Next Generation), with Kantner and Balin as leaders, and Diana Mangano replacing Grace Slick as female singer (although Slick did do guest vocals on Jefferson Starship's 1999 album Windows Of Heaven).


But the original Jefferson Airplane, along with the Byrds, The Doors, the Grateful Dead, the Lovin' Spoonful, The Mamas and the Papas, Tommy James and the Shondells and to some degree Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young will always be associated with the more melodic end of the north American rock spectrum and in due course other groups - such as Steely Dan, and The Eagles continued to blend elements of folk, jazz and rock and bring the results to a global audience. Of all these bands, Jefferson Airplane excelled in the psychedelic domain and in their penchant for pretentious track titles, which came to characterise the 1965-75 era.

British bands apparently influenced by the mellow lyricism of the west coast sound included Barclay James Harvest, David Bowie, Curved Air, Family, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, the Moody Blues, the Small Faces, Pentangle and Yes. The Beatles have always stressed the influence that the Beach Boys had on their musical development (especially Pet Sounds) but it seems likely that other music from the west coast also spread eastwards and played a key part in making pop music more symphonic and less predictable than it had been before 1965. The era of trans-Atlantic jet travel ushered in a decade earlier and the ability to send TV broadcasts by satellite also facilitated a faster interplay of musical influences across the Atlantic.

The role of the American Forces Network (AFN) with powerful medium wave radio transmitters situated in West Germany and "pirate radio" ships in the North Sea bringing US hits to the ears of European youth should also be recognised as a force that extended the global reach of West Coast music in the 1964-1972 period.

Record producers who worked with the original band included Greg Edward, Rick Jarrard, Matthew Katz, Ron Nevison, Tommy Oliver and Al Schmitt.