In November 1965, Jefferson Airplane received a $20,000 advance from RCA Records – the largest advance ever paid to any rock band at that time. Their career went on to document the 1960s adventure from naive optimism through excited experiment to messianic self-indulgence.
Following their folk-rock debut, Takes Off (1966), the arrival of former model Grace Slick (pictured) brought a new musical – and sexual – excitement. The resultant Surrealistic Pillow (1967) was psychedelia at its best, practically inventing the idea of San Francisco.
Songs such as Today, Somebody To Love and White Rabbit – a heady rock bolero written by Slick, reportedly after taking LSD and listening to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain – said and did more in two and a half minutes than the same year’s After Bathing At Baxters would manage in endless formless jams.
With Jerry Garcia credited on the album cover as “spiritual advisor” and Grace Slick’s repeated instruction on White Rabbit to “feed your head”, this album soundtracked San Francisco’s summer of cosmic love and piloted acid-rock on an improbable trip into the unsuspecting mainstream of American prime-time.
The Airplane played at Monterey, Woodstock and Altamont, but their huge hit singles meant that they also got to appear on prime time TV shows like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and The Perry Como Show.
Drummer Spencer Dryden (who had an intense on-off affair with Grace Slick) left the band in 1970 and played with the New Riders Of The Purple Sage and, in the 80s, Californian supergroup, The Dinosaurs. He was replaced by Joey Covington.
In September 1972, the band played their final gig and divided into two bands: Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship.
Jefferson Airplane reformed in September 1989, instantly winning Rolling Stone‘s “Most Unwelcome Comeback Award”.
The classic but now wizened line-up of Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady recorded many of the tracks of their new album separately and mailed them to their producer.
Former Sounds journalist Jon Savage wrote “few big names from the late 60s have dated worse than Jefferson Airplane” – reflecting a widely held prejudice that, apart from a couple of spectacular early singles, the group that offered the Yin to The Grateful Dead‘s Yang in San Francisco’s hippie cosmos was ultimately little more than an exercise in bloated ego-tripping and drugged-out self-indulgence.
But for a superb window on a band that flew higher than most, get thee to a copy of the Fly Jefferson Airplane DVD.
Papa John Creach died on 22 February 1994 in hospital in Los Angeles, aged 76, while being treated for heart and respiratory ailments. That same year, Grace Slick was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon after pointing an unloaded gun at a police officer. She alleged that the officer had come onto her property without explanation.
Jefferson Airplane were inducted into the US Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1996.
Following a hip replacement, house fire and heart attack, Spencer Dryden died on 12 January 2005 at his California home after a three-month battle with colon cancer. He was 66.
Drummer Joey Covington died in a car accident in 2013.
Paul Kantner died on 28 January 2016 of multiple organ failure and septic shock after suffering a heart attack a few days earlier. He was 74.
Coincidentally, original vocalist Signe Anderson (who fronted Jefferson Airplane on their 1966 debut before quitting to raise her family) died the same day.
Papa John Creach